Calista Holman ’19 stood in front of the assembled group of 300 students and shared the bad news with them. She wasn’t there to teach that day, but rather to say goodbye.
Holman, a member of the Peace Corps serving in Tanzania, Africa, had awoken that March morning to an email stating she and other volunteers were being evacuated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the news of their departure the next day reverberated through the assembly in both English and Swahili, many students and fellow teachers started to cry.
“It was so hard to say goodbye to the students,” Holman said. “I start to cry now just thinking about it. But as difficult as it was, it was one of those experiences that made me realize my being there made a difference.”
The evacuation order had come as a huge shock. Everyone was aware of the pandemic, but the threat seemed very distant to Tanzania. She had less than 24 hours to pack and say goodbye before departing her mountain village.
“Students came and carried my stuff and I had a crowd of more than 50 of them waiting with me for the bus,” she said.
Almost two years before that day as a senior biology major at Viterbo, Holman wasn’t sure of the career path she wanted to take following graduation. She had studied abroad in Costa Rica and South Africa during her time at the university, and she relished another opportunity to travel to a different country and immerse herself in its culture while she considered her career options.
The Peace Corps was perfect for her. She registered for a 27-month assignment to teach biology and chemistry in Tanzania, a beautiful country located on the east coast of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean. In addition to the wonderful people, it is home to natural wonders including Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a more than two-year post was shortened to nine months because of COVID-19, but what a nine months it was.
“Serving in the Peace Corps was an amazing experience,” Holman said. “The people in Tanzania have such a rich culture and a different way of life. There was so much history to explore. The best part was the people. Hospitality is huge in Tanzania, and there was a welcoming attitude wherever I went that was really enjoyable.”
Holman boarded a plane bound for Africa on July 7, 2019. The next three months were full of intensive pre-service intercultural, Swahili language, safety and security, health, and technical training. She also would move in with her host family, who lived near the town of Korogwe. Her homestay would prove to be one of the most rewarding aspects of her Peace Corps experience.
“The niece became my best friend,” she said. “Every day when I got home from school or training she would run to me yelling ‘Auntie Calista’ and give me a big hug.”
Holman immediately became a part of the family and immersed herself in the culture by doing, helping to wash clothes by hand, collect and boil water for the day’s use, cleaning, and making meals on a single charcoal jiko (burner). She loved the cuisine, staples of which were rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables. She particularly enjoyed a dish called chipsi mayai, which is homemade potato fries/wedges fried in a scrambled egg pancake.
“That’s it, a potato and egg pancake, and it’s delicious,” she said.
On Aug. 30, she and the other Peace Corps volunteers received their service assignments. Holman would move to the Tanga region of the country, where she would live and work in a mountain village an hour bus ride from the town of Lushoto. The higher elevation provided an escape from the heat of the lowlands, and “it was beautiful, and everywhere you went you saw something different.”
Holman was very busy during her service, teaching biology and chemistry to approximately 250 students in grades 7–10 in five different classes. She lived in a two-room duplex on the school compound. In addition to teaching, she assisted with an important student club and performed other duties at the school.
“I loved it there,” she said. “I was there for seven months, but it was heartbreaking to leave when I felt we were just getting started.”
Holman was able to make an impact on the lives of her students, but she received a great deal in return as well.
“I discovered an incredible amount of independence I didn’t know I had,” she said. “I grew up with a large support system, but here I was on my own and had to figure things out myself. I succeeded, and I developed skills and self confidence that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Following her return to the U.S., Holman was quarantined for 14 days at her parents’ house in Shell Lake.
“Tanzania will always be my second home and I hope to make my way back there again someday,” Holman said.
For complete details and photos from her Peace Corps experience, visit her blog.