‘The hardest job you’ll ever love’
Maggie Eisenbeis, 24, of Kasson, is slowly crossing off continent after continent that she has traveled to, but this journey is much more than something to cross off a list.
“She has the continents all marked up on the wall of her childhood room to cross out each continent as she goes there. She is working her way down the list,” said Maggie’s mother Pennie. Maggie’s father is Joe Eisenbeis.
Maggie is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia, in a province called Luapula, which is near the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I live out in the middle of nowhere. I’m definitely very grateful for things I took for granted in the states: running water, refrigerators, washing machines, availability of food, education, emergency services (no 911 here), family, transportation and ice cream,” Maggie said of her living conditions.
Getting into the Peace Corps
Maggie graduated from the University of Wisconsin La-Crosse in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and communication with an emphasis in broadcast and digital media. It was during her sophomore year of college, while studying abroad in Ecuador for a semester, she realized her love of living abroad.
“I had a hard time deciding on a career path because I wanted to do something that really mattered and that made me happy. I also wanted to live abroad for a while,” Maggie said. “Right after college seemed like the perfect time to do that, before I got tied down with a house or a job.”
Maggie applied to the Peace Corps her senior year of college and started the program in June 2015. She will serve for a total of 27 months, and will officially close her service in August 2017.
During the first three months of the program she went through extensive training. After she was officially sworn in as a volunteer she started three months of Community Entry, meaning she lived in the community she would be serving with to establish her daily routine, meet the community members, do need assessments and work to master the language.
“The main goals are to help the people we are serving in development, learn their culture and share our American culture,” she said.
After Community Entry, the volunteers go to the Capital for more training.
Responsibilities of a Peace Corps Volunteer
Maggie is in the Rural Education Development (RED) program, meaning she works in a school teaching English. “I teach at the school and also work on projects to help the community and help improve the teachers’ English teaching methods,” she said.
Maggie teaches around 45 students in grades five and six. In order to help teach the classes and understand the community the volunteers have to learn many languages. During the first three months of training, volunteers have about four to five hours of language from a native speaker and their host families also help them learn the language.
At the end of training, midway through service and at the end of the program the volunteers are required to do a Language Proficiency Interview (LPI.)
“It’s definitely a process. I’ve been here seven months, nearly eight, and I am just starting to get enough comprehension to mostly hold my end of a conversation. I learn a lot from the kids because they are patient and will act things out, or guess when I act things out,” Maggie said.
It is a challenge to learn the languages, because there are 70 languages alone where Maggie is stationed. Of the 30 REDs, each of them has to learn five depending on where their site is.
Maggie is a first generation volunteer at the site, meaning no Peace Corps volunteers have served at that site before her. She lives in a hut made of brick and mud and some concrete. Her hut has a bedroom, sitting room, a small kitchen area and a bathing room (a small room with a PBC pipe cemented in to drain water out. This is new for first volunteers, as usually they have to share with others in the community.)
She also has a tin roof, another new policy for first generation volunteers. The tin roof helps keep some of the critters out, but in turn the hut can get very hot and very noisy during rainy season (right now.)
Since Maggie is in such a rural area, she has to charge her things using solar lamps and has no running water or electricity. She has to boil drinking water and heat water for bathing.
Pennie says during the first few months they were only able to communicate with Maggie about once a week, but now they are able to communicate on a regular basis thanks to WhatsApp. It’s also difficult to communicate with her due to the eight-hour time difference.
“We haven’t heard her voice in a really long time. It has been tough, I can’t say it’s easy,” Pennie said. “It makes the world very small. It has been a real eye-opener of how rural and how tough she does have it, but knowing what a tough girl she is we know that she is just fine and that she is happy and in her element.”
Impact of the experience
“It kind of knocks you on your butt to realize things like having paper at school was a privilege. I told my ninth-grade host brother that in grade school we had computer class and every kid sat at their own computer. He didn’t believe me,” Maggie said. . “For his grade-nine computer exams, a few hundred kids had to take turns using about four laptops. The exam was: type your name, where you live, how old you are.”
Often times, the first time their students see a computer is when taking a test. The experience has also made her more aware of where her food comes from.
“I live in a farming community so if I get produce, it came from my host family or neighbors. I have to buy and kill a chicken if I want meat. I’m basically a vegetarian (very much not by choice,”) she said.
As a volunteer, one of the challenges she has had to face is the lack of education culture in the community. “Many parents don’t value education because the kids don’t need to go to school to work on the farm or herd cattle. Also girls face challenges like early marriage,” she said. “Few kids make it to grade nine and very few go through grade 12. Many adults in my community can’t read or write.”
Maggie recalled an English assessment she gave during Community Entry to the students she is now working with who are ages of 10-15. “Of the 45 kids, over half couldn’t identify letters of the alphabet and about a fourth couldn’t write their own name,” she said. “I am currently working on rallying the teachers into cleaning up an empty classroom to turn into a reading space so we can improve our school’s literacy as a whole, but so far its very slow going.”
Another challenge is transportation. Maggie has to bike 35 kilometers, or around 22 miles, to get to a grocery store and the nearest produce market is around 12 kilometers, or 7.5 miles away. Disease is also a challenge. The rates of Malaria in her area are high, so part of her job is working on prevention and education with the community.
Hopes for the experience and the future
“I’m hoping to really help out my classes and open their eyes to possibilities of life outside of the village, or just dropping out to become a mother. I’m trying to lay the groundwork for the next two generations of volunteers coming after me,” Maggie said. “Personally, I’ll be satisfied knowing I did something to make a difference, and I’m hoping I’ll get an idea of what kind of career I’d like to pursue after Peace Corps.”
After the Peace Corps, Maggie says she might go back to school to further her education, or if she “gets lucky” she might know exactly what type of career she wants to pursue.
“It’s a great resume builder, a chance to live abroad, learn a language, immerse in a culture and learn a lot about yourself. They say ‘its the hardest job you’ll ever love’ and it is so true,” Maggie said. “It’s full of ups and downs, but you know you’re here for a reason.”
Maggie added, “You’ll have so many good stories. Each day is a crazy adventure. You need to be a strong person though, because there are many unique challenges, but you learn and get better through them.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview with Maggie Eisenbeis was conducted through the application WhatsApp. Due to her remote living conditions, she is only able to communicate through text messages on this app. She is unable to make phone calls or do video chats.