RIFLE — Andrea Aibner was not entirely sure what to expect from joining the Peace Corps and being sent to Africa in June 2012, aside from learning more intensively and experientially than she ever had in her life.
But one thing is certain, now that she’s back home she did not expect things to end as they did, in a traumatic event that cut short her work in Kenya and left her slightly unhappy about having to leave so quickly. She is quick to point out, however, that most of her stay in Kenya, an east-African coastal nation sandwiched between Somalia to the north and Tanzania to the south, was an eye-opening, enriching and empowering experience that she would not trade for anything.
A 2006 graduate of the Garden School in New Castle, Aibner, 24, was born in Glenwood Springs and raised in Rifle.
She holds an associate of arts degree in science from Colorado Mountain College, a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Brought up as a Catholic, she once volunteered as a youth minister for the National Evangelization Teams, working in Minnesota. She said she no longer considers herself a Catholic.
Drawn to service
A stint in the Peace Corps, Aibner said, has “always been something I’ve really been drawn to, even in high school.”
Created in 1961 by then President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has been active in more than 139 countries, with its mission “to promote world peace and friendship” and to “tackle challenges that know no borders — such as climate change, pandemic disease, food security and gender equality and empowerment,” according to the organization’s website. The Corps claims to have sent more than 215,000 volunteers out into the world, changing the lives of those who go, and those who receive them.
Even after passing the qualifying tests and procedures to win the right to join the Peace Corps, she stressed, “Going into the Peace Corps, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
She trained for months at a village near the border with Tanzania, called Loitokitok, which has views of Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. There, she lived with a Kenyan host family, got her first crack at learning “Kiswahili,” which many know of as Swahili, the official language of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“You learn how to live like a Kenyan,” she said — cooking over an open flame, taking “bucket baths” to save water, living without electricity some of the time.
Into the mountains
In August 2012, she was sent to Kabernet (with a hard “t” at the end), which involved a trip up into the mountains, starting in flat, dry country but soon climbing through lush terrain that “almost started to look like Hawaii.” Arriving at the village, sitting at 7,000 feet above sea level, she was soon shown to her small hut at the edge of a huge gorge, beyond which she would see a neighboring ridge, catching occasional glimpses of other villages and farms.
She quickly grew tired of the staple food, called Ugali — a form of maize, ground up into flower and mixed with water to make something “like a solid type of grits” served with greens (fried up leaves) and sometimes beans, rice, potatoes and a kind of tortilla called “chapati.”
Meat, she said, was expensive and a rarity, and when it was served it usually was sheep or goat. Chickens were not often eaten, because Kenyans preferred to keep them alive and laying eggs.
Aibner learned that there are more than 40 distinct tribes within Kenya, each with its own dialect of Kiswahili. Even villagers living only 10 or 20 kilometers apart sometimes cannot comprehend each other’s speech.
One critical lesson Aibner learned, she said, was the concept of “Kenyan time.”
“I’m very timely, I think,” she explained, so she typically showed up either exactly on time for an appointment or meeting, or a little early.
But after waiting long periods of time, sometimes hours, before others would show up, she said, “I would force myself to try to get there an hour late. But I often wound up waiting anyway. Time has no meaning for them. I think the Kenyan people are some of the most patient people on Earth.”
Public transportation, she said, usually was in the form of Matatus, privately owned vans and minibuses that run a set route, but not necessarily a set schedule, travel within towns or between towns, and often are overstuffed with people, goods and livestock.
Aibner spoke of friends experiencing “panic attacks” because of the overcrowding, and climbing out a van window to escape.
The weather often was rainy and “really chilly,” she recalled, and “it was very wet most of the time.” Mold would appear overnight in such times.
But when the sun came out, she said, “it was really hot,” almost enough to make one wish for the rain to return.
One day, while sitting at home writing to a friend, she looked up “and there was a monkey, sitting in the window, looking at me.” It was two to three feet tall, white and black in color, and seemed as apprehensive as she felt, she said. As they caught sight of each other, they both were startled and the monkey fled.
She was about a year into her two-year stint, she said, when “everything had really started to fall into place” in terms of getting settled in her new life.
She was instructing the villagers on a variety of subjects, including nutrition, hand-washing discipline and other subjects, and was being asked to other, nearby villages to teach there, too.
She had taken part in a GLOW camp (Girls Leading Our World), an empowerment experience for girls, and felt accepted and more comfortable in her surroundings, looking forward to the second half of her mission.
And that was when it happened.
The incident that terminated her time there was a robbery at gunpoint in June, by two men who came to her house in the village of Kabernet looking for valuables. During the incident she was not physically injured and did not feel particularly threatened, but it nevertheless left her “terrified.”
All they got was her cell phone and a little cash, she said, and she believes the cell phone convinced the robbers they’d made a mistake.
“They saw it and thought, we’ve chosen the wrong person,” Aibner recalled, explaining that the phone was a cheap model she’d obtained for her time in Kenya.
“It was pretty short, maybe, like, five or 10 minutes,” she said of the encounter, and afterward it was not long before friends and neighbors had shown up to offer her aid, shelter and protection. And it was not long after that, she continued, that the Peace Corps whisked her out of the village and put her on the road home.
“I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the people she had come to view as her African family. “I didn’t get closure with them.”
And she said she is uncertain if she will ever again see them, the villagers of whom she noted in her blog (www.ctrl-alt-depart.org), “I still look at it as having gained a family of thirty.”
“My Kabernet friends think they were from out of town,” Aibner remembered nervously, and that the robbers picked her because of her association with the Peace Corps.
“You don’t have all that much money,” she said of the perception held by Kenyans, “but you have the resources to teach them to get the things they want,” which might equate to wealth in the minds of some.
Despite the perceptions, she continued, “I didn’t have anything, but they thought I did.”
The quickness of the incident, the hurried departure from Kabernet and from Kenya, the fear she felt and the disturbing feeling of dislocation at being sent home have left her reluctant to talk about it, other than to say, “I think it’s something that I’ve worked hard to move past.”
But she emphasized that “The Peace Corps was absolutely amazing through the whole thing,” helping her deal with the authorities, offering to send her to another locale to finish her two-year-stint, and then getting her home as quickly as possible when she declined another assignment.
She feels she has completed her second major readjustment in two years — first in going to Africa, now in coming home earlier than expected and feeling she had unfinished business — and proud of her accomplishments.
“I really learned to stick up for myself, to be assertive, to not let people walk all over me,” she said proudly. “You learn who you are when you’re stuck all alone in an African village. At this point, I would feel comfortable traveling alone, going anywhere alone. It definitely made me stronger.”
And, she added, “I’m finally getting to where I’m truly happy to be here,” she said, and she is planning to enter school again, probably to earn her doctorate in physical therapy starting next year.
“There’s a huge need here, but also internationally,” she noted. “Even in Kabernet.”