Peace Corps Suspended in Kenya

The Peace Corps fully suspended its program in Kenya after weeks of election-related violence. Three volunteers who had to leave the country share their stories.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. American Peace Corps volunteers have worked in Kenya for more than 40 years, but after the brutal violence that followed a disputed presidential election around the first of the year, the Peace Corps is suspending its programs there. More than half the Corps 144 volunteers have been back home for a couple of weeks already.

NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with a few of them.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Twenty-two-year-old Diana Tavares packed a bag for a 10 ten day Christmas vacation to get together with other Peace Corps volunteers in western Kenya. She never got back to her house in the small village where she had been teaching chemistry and biology for four months. By the end of December the disputed election results were announced and parts of the country erupted in violence. The beginnings of which Tavares witnessed in the town of Kakamega.

Ms. DIANA TAVARES (Peace Corps Volunteer): As soon as they announced the electoral results we started hearing gunshots. And the small shop that we had just bought eggs at a few hours before - we walked to the end of the street and saw that it was being burnt to the ground.

KELEMEN: Because, she says, the owner was a supporter of President Mwai Kibaki and this was an opposition stronghold. Now back in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, Tavares was among the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers who left Kenya. Just this week the Peace Corps announced that the remaining 58 volunteers are being brought out now, even from regions that have been relatively stable.

Spokeswoman Amanda Beck says the Peace Corps decided to be cautious, keeping only its Nairobi office staffed.

Ms. AMANDA BECK (Spokeswoman, Peace Corps): It's always something that we're very sad to do, but, of course, we just have to balance that with the safety of the volunteer. And in this situation, unfortunately, there were just so many moving parts and it was hard to predict where the next roadblock would be and if the volunteers in a certain location could just go to the store safely.

KELEMEN: For twenty-five-year-old Joanne Sprague, the abrupt end of her 17 month stay in southwestern Kenya has been tough. She says Peace Corps volunteers feel a part of the community where they're working and take time building up relations with their host families.

Ms. JOANNE SPRAGUE (Peace Corps Volunteer): You know, when you become a part of that community you just don't - you don't think like, oh, thank god I got out of that violent situation. You think about all your friends and family and co-workers who are still there dealing with it. So I think that's the hardest part of this whole situation.

KELEMEN: Now with her parents in California and out of the Peace Corps, Sprague is still trying to get funding for a project she started for a non-governmental organization trying to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Ms. SPRAGUE: So I'm hoping that the project won't die because I left.

KELEMEN: Paige Roberts of Texas hadn't even begun her work teaching deaf students in Kenya before her Peace Corps assignment was cut short. She's now trying to move on, thinking about grad school.

Ms. PAIGE ROBERTS (Peace Corps Volunteer): It's been a roller coaster, and I'm ready to find something that I know is going to be stable for a little while. So maybe after, you know, a couple of years at grad school and things in Kenya have calmed down or there's another Peace Corps deaf education program I'll consider that for sure.

KELEMEN: As for her friend Diana Tavares, she doesn't see herself back in Kenya anytime soon.

Ms. TAVARES: I love Kenya. I would definitely say that my heart is still in Kenya and I would love to go back, but I just know that now is not the time. Kenya right now is not what Kenya was a month ago.

KELEMEN: Peace Corps spokeswoman Amanda Beck says volunteers will return as soon as possible to Kenya, which had been considered one of the more stable countries in Africa and has had a Peace Corps program since 1965.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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