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A Conyers Girl in Madagascar
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The Peace Corps trainees observed a unique annual Malagasy funeral celebration tradition, where those who have passed are taken out and celebrated and rewrapped. - photo by Submitted Photo

Some teens only dream of traveling the world. But one local graduate is not only traveling the world, but actually working to make it a better place, it one student at a time, by teaching with the Peace Corps in Africa.

As a teenager, Erica Wherry was an eye-witness to the challenges facing third world countries. Her mother, Monique Wherry, would take her along on humanitarian trips as part of her work in international development. So it’s no surprise that the Heritage grad grew an interest in working on the international stage.

As a high school student, Wherry’s involvement with Heritage‘s Rosetta Society and CARE Corps Teens reinforced her interest in global matters. But it was during a trip to Kenya six years ago with CARE, an organization fighting global poverty, Wherry was inspired to return there to teach English.

Though her dream took a few twists and turns, as dreams are wont to do, the 2006 HHS grad is now just off the coast of Africa in Madagascar teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer. Last fall, as a Spelman College senior, Wherry applied for an education position in Latin America, since she had minored in Spanish as an International Studies major. However, she was initially assigned to West Africa, where French is the more widely shared language. She began cramming with her little sister’s Rosetta Stone French language tape and enrolled in French 101 her final semester. Then, her invitation kit arrived with her destination – Madagascar, a large island off the east coast of Africa.

Shortly after graduating cum laude in May this year, Wherry embarked with the Peace Corps on a 27-month experience of a lifetime.

“I can actually see a waterfall from my bathroom!,” she wrote in her blog. “In my yard there are mango, orange and banana trees. It’s amazing really.” Those are some of the perks. Some of the challenges have been battling parasites and malaria despite bleaching her drinking water. “Meds took care of it quick. No biggie,” Wherry said shrugging off the adversity.

After a nine-week crash course in Malagasy, the language most residents speak other than French, Wherry was thrust into the classroom teaching the equivalent of sixth and tenth-graders with 60-75 students in each class, ranging from age 12 to 20.
The language barrier is the biggest hurdle for her. “It can be very frustrating living in a country where you understand less than half of what any given person ever says to you,” she said. “The greatest reward is when the people in my village correctly greet me with a ‘good morning/ good afternoon/ or good evening, Ms.’ in English. It warms my heart to know that something from my lesson has rubbed off.”

With over 300 names to learn, Wherry developed a game for her students of picking their English names. It was a fun exercise composing the list; she used names of high school and college friends and biblical characters.

An advantage Wherry has in Madagascar is her skin color. Most other Peace Corps volunteers there are Caucasian. “One of the benefits of being black in this country is that I don’t have to deal with babies being scared to death at the sight of me or people staring at me like I have three heads,” she said.

However, she does deal with other issues. “I am still American and sometimes I feel like this fact is forgotten,” she writes. “Whenever I am introduced to anyone new (Malagasy or French), the first thing everyone says is ‘… I thought she was Malagasy!’ The idea that I could be American with no immediate African ancestry is such a foreign concept to some. The Malagasy are intrigued with the fact that I do not speak Malagasy well, nor do I speak a lot of French... Despite how much I may look like the Malagasy, culture then plays a huge role at reminding people that I am actually American. It was such a refreshing experience for someone to actually say to me, ‘… that’s just so American.’ Yes, yes it is and that’s because I am American, believe it or not.”

While Wherry has adapted relatively well to lifestyle changes such as bathing in a bucket, a new diet and other hardships, she does sometimes long for pizza, bread and a truly cold drink. But she’s savoring this time in her life. “I’m actually kind of enjoying living about 100 years in the past. It has a charm to it,” she said.

Wherry has received many local donations of school supplies, but is looking for shipping assistance to get those supplies to her students in the classroom. To find out more about how to help with shipping, contact her Monique Wherry, Director of Philanthropy at Heifer International, at Monique.Wherry@heifer .org. For updates, visit her blog at http://ericainmadagascar.blogspot