South Shore man switches gears after returning from 2 years in Peace Corps
Two weeks ago, Josh Russell was in Uganda talking to a woman about her aunt dying of AIDS. Next thing he knows, he’s in America, watching a TV show where singer Ashlee Simpson was having a rough day because she couldn’t find her dress.
The South Shore native is fresh off the plane from 2 1Ú2 years in the African country of Lesotho (luh-SOO’-too). Russell volunteered for the Peace Corps in this small highland nation, which is surrounded completely by South Africa. He worked there as a teacher trainer.
Saturday is funeral day in Lesotho, he said.
“I went to four funerals myself. I got invited to a lot more, but after a while I said no,” Russell said. “In a country like that, you are constantly surrounded by death. There are so many orphans.”
He spoke as if there was almost too much to say. His eyes looked away, like it hadn’t hit him that he was no longer there, living in the thatched-roof, round hut he called home, his greatest amenities a two-burner gas stove, a small gas oven and a water filter.
Lesotho has the third or fourth highest rate of AIDS in the world. Although the AIDS rate hovers around 30 percent, the people whose funerals fell on Saturdays did not die of AIDS, according to their relatives. They died of some other disease, a headache or even a hiccup, Russell said.
He pointed out that even in the wealthiest country in Africa – South Africa – the president, Thabo Mbeki, denies the disease exists.
“How do you fight that?” Russell asked rhetorically.
Awareness is growing slowly, but education efforts to fight the spread of AIDS have hit obstacles because of culture, he thinks: No. 1, it is taboo to talk about sex; No. 2, conspiracy theories are widely accepted that condoms have worms, contain AIDS or are the “white man’s way of controlling the black population.”
AIDS and death were a large part of Russell’s experience in the Peace Corps. Nevertheless, he said his years there were incredible and life-changing.
“I really want people in South Shore to know Peace Corps is an option,” he said. “Once I left (South Shore), I realized there’s a whole other world out there.”
Many volunteers go through a stage of readjusting to America’s wealth, said Nathan Arnold, a Peace Corps spokesperson.
“When I came back it was near Christmastime, and to deal with the fact that I have all these presents under the tree, and I’ve just come from another country where people can hardly put food on their plates was difficult,” Arnold said.
A little reverse culture shock has hit Russell as well. People may ask about his stay in Africa, but soon get distracted by topics that are irrelevant to him, such as what movie to see next.
“It’s really hard being back here. The challenge of life is gone. It was just an adventure every single day (in Lesotho),” he said.
A photo from his collection shows a little boy showing off a pink bike. The boy smiles proudly, and the bike has no tires.
Russell plans to return to Africa as soon as he can. He’s got his eyes on a master’s program on HIV and AIDS in Society at the University of Capetown in South Africa.
His advice to those at home is to study up on the world around them.
“Realize there is more going on in the world than you could possibly imagine. Educate yourself. There are a lot of things going on besides what you hear on TV,” he said.
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