A month and a half after returning to the United States from Senegal, Peace Corps volunteer Karin Nordstrom said being back is bittersweet.
The Canal Winchester resident spent the last two years in Senegal working to improve health care for local villagers.
"It's bittersweet to be back. I mean it's nice that things are so easy here, like just getting in the car and going to get things you want," Nordstrom said.
"But I miss the people I worked with, and even when I call them it's not the same. The Malinke language is punctuated by pauses where you just sit in silence with each other, and that's not natural on a phone conversation, because you can't see the other person."
Nordstrom split her time between larger cities such as Dakar and a pair of smaller villages. She also split her communications between three languages: Malinke, French and English, which she said was a "secret" language with the other Peace Corps volunteers since very few Senegalese spoke it.
Nordstrom worked on health-care initiatives while being immersed in the local culture and acting as an example of American values.
"I was a preventative health volunteer trying to increase participation in public health initiatives," Nordstrom said. "The first year, I spent a lot of my time working on an initiative to reduce mercury-related issues. Most people in the villages worked in the artisanal gold mine where they used mercury, not because it was necessary, but because it was the cheapest way of operating the mine. So we taught people how to avoid direct contact with it or breathing it in."
According to Nordstrom, the mining operations present a number of challenges to public health. But despite the long hours and poor working conditions, it is the most profitable work for villagers.
"Another project I worked on was securing funding for six community health workers who are respected members of the community, who live there and are taught how to recognize different types of infections and are a first line of defense," Nordstrom said. "Because they are respected community members, people are more willing to listen to them when they see something that needs to be treated, and are more likely to use the health system."
Through the Peace Corps, Nordstrom sourced funds for these volunteers to provide them with pay during their training, which took them away from their mining jobs.
Other initiatives Nordstrom was involved in included fighting malaria, and gender-equality programming.
Since the Peace Corps began in 1961, more than 200,000 people have volunteered with the service organization. Nearly 300 Ohioans just finished their two years of international service this summer.
Nordstrom said anyone interested in taking on the challenge of volunteering should leave their preconceived notions at home, and relearn the meaning of the word flexibility.
"The Peace Corps stresses flexibility and sense of humor, and one of the first things you figure out is that the sense of humor isn't about being able to laugh at things around you, but being able to be the butt of other people's jokes," Nordstrom said.
"You have to be extremely flexible to things being done in a different way than they might be here, and happening on a different schedule than you might have."
Nordstrom, who graduated from Ohio State University prior to joining the Peace Corps, will return to the school's graduate program in law.
"I have to say, my experience was made by the people I worked with, and it was those people who made these projects successful. I was merely the facilitator," she said.