Although she’s 4,000 miles from home, Bethany Woodson still feels very connected to Wisconsin while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, a small country in West Africa.
“I had some really inspiring professors [at UW-Waukesha], Woodson says. “That’s what made me decide to pursue an economics degree and kind of how I ended working as an economic development volunteer.”
Raised in East Troy, Wisconsin, Woodson is now living in Moussodougou, a communal village in south-western Burkina Faso. Despite speaking French, Jula and Turka every day, certain Burkinabe habits make her feel right at home.
“You can never go to a neighbor’s house without them feeding you. They want to know what you’re doing, how it’s going, and if they can do anything to help you,” Woodson says. “That’s something that definitely translates in Wisconsin. People are always going to make time for you, which is really nice.”
During her two-year program, Woodson is working with the community, focusing on several initiatives based in health, education and economic stability.
“I work with a women’s group to start different income-generating activities like making tofu, peanut butter and sesame oil,” Woodson says. “I’m also doing a whole series of projects based on malaria prevention. Children know what to recite, but it’s still not really in practice.”
Living abroad is never easy, and after 16 months away, the distance is starting to take a toll. The good news is that new technological developments in the area allow Woodson to remain connected to her family.
“Just in the last few years, technology has developed a lot in this region. While there’s not great traditional Internet, the cell phone networks are very strong,” Woodson says. “I’m grateful every single day that WhatsApp works. I can check in with my mom, tell her everything’s fine, and see what‘s going on. It makes it so much easier to be away.”
Whether it’s reaching out to her family regularly, traveling miles by bike or (sometimes unreliable) taxi-bus, or adjusting to a radically different climate and culture, Woodson deals with challenges big and small every day. Despite the struggles, she says her work is starting to pay off in subtle ways.
“It’s not easy, but just seeing how little conversations can change what people believe or help them consider things that they hadn’t ever considered before,” Woodson says. “That makes me stick around even though it’s not easy.”