What will my counterpart be like in Peace Corps?

What is a counterpart? A counterpart, or CP, is a Peace Corps term for someone in your community who will help you during your two years to complete your tasks, translate and be the voice for you in your community when yours get lost in cultural barriers and miscommunication.

During my time in Ethiopia, I heard of some really bad CPs – they wanted some type of monetary means, some special credential or were overall nasty to the volunteer, but what they don’t realize – we’re there voluntarily!  We don’t have any money to give because we have to make by on what we make, nor are we there to support them by giving them anything! Instead, we are there to support them through the fruits of our labor and by the sweat on our back (literally).

Any ideas for change – if they are to be sustainable – must come from within the community. It also takes a lot of guts to be that person, someone who is willing to do things differently, take a risk and work with the new “foreigner” while not getting any extra monetary reward. I was lucky enough to have a great CP. Her name was Birhane and she was the one to get me through my tough times. I chose her for various reasons: she was a female, she was a teacher and therefore respected in the community, she had seniority in the high school I worked at, she was well-liked, but most importantly, she was a biology teacher. As someone who is really interested in health, I wanted to work alongside someone who understood my passion to teach and disseminate health topics to young girls. Young girls in rural towns aren’t given exposure; they’re not taught to stand up for themselves, not taught about their reproductive rights, birth control, or even sometimes, how to maintain clean while on your period. Young girls in rural towns, who often miss school because of their period or because of too many chores to do at home – those, were the ones I wanted to focus on and thankfully, Birhane did too.

11737914_10153431256003459_242162712071971376_nI had the pleasure of working with Birhane for a year and a half before she moved up closer to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and onto a better teaching position. I was extremely happy and excited for her, but I was also deeply saddened. This person – this beautiful, wonderful, extraordinary, empowered woman – who had helped me with so many projects with such passion and dedication, will never truly understand just how much her presence helped in the success of my projects.

So how do you pick a counterpart? Peace Corps will provide you with a community liasion when you first go to your site and while mine was great, he was too busy to be consistent and present in the work we needed to do. Tekle was responsible for introducing me and taking me under his wing… and he did. But I needed more and I just saw he had too much on his plate.

Living in your community can be one of the most difficult obstacles a Volunteer faces, so a major role that a counterpart plays is introducing the Volunteer to their new community, including your new friends, neighbors and others who will work with you. Birhane took me to the local market and introduced me to her friends and neighbors. She patiently explained the statistics of young girls in Chiri and one day, as she explained to me why she wanted to work more with girls, I knew I had found my CP.  We danced together at holidays, we cooked, had tea and shared injera together.

Your counterpart, as they live, work and are of the same ethnicity, they can help increase the long-term positive impact of your activities by making sure that they are culturally, politically, and economically appropriate and sustainable. Birhane showed me to young women entrepreneurs who were exceeding in the community and were prime examples to the young girls we mentored at Camp GLOW.

That’s what a counterpart is supposed to do. The good ones do what is required of them. The great ones leave a lasting impact long after they’ve gone or moved. Birhane was my partner in development, my co-teacher, my translator (literally and culturally) and, most of all, my friend. Just as I could not have been a successful Volunteer without Birhane, your counterpart will be valuable in your service too.

Birhane cooking doro wot (spicy chicken stew) when my mom came to visit — while I just played with the chicken.

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