Ohio native shares experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer

MARIETTA – Granville native Kris Holloway is no doubt among the few Ohioans who could literally say she’s been “from here to Timbuktu.”

On Tuesday night at Marietta College Holloway shared some of her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Mali, West Africa (where the town of Timbuktu is located).

The presentation was part of a series of events taking place during Marietta College’s International Week, which runs through April 1.

“I grew up in Granville – my parents still live there,” she said. “It was the exchange students from Denison University my parents hosted that got me interested in joining the Peace Corps.”

Holloway said interacting with students from foreign lands set the stage for her to study abroad in Paris, France, and to later become involved with the Peace Corps where she served from 1989 to 1991, working with a midwife named Monique in a small village in the southern portion of Mali.

Initially Holloway had intended to work in the field of environmental science during her time in the West African nation.

“But I jettisoned all my environmental service work when I met Monique and began working in health science,” she said. “Mali is part of sub-Saharan Africa, a poor region – one of the 10 poorest in the world.”

Monique, 24, and her husband hosted Holloway, then 22, during her years of service.

“She was the village’s only health care worker,” Holloway said. Unlike many others in her village, Monique had been able to obtain a sixth-grade education and some nursing school.

On one of her first evenings in the village, Monique invited Holloway to witness a 17-year-old who was giving birth.

“I had never seen a birth before,” Holloway said. “But Monique said a woman is always welcome when another woman gives birth. Here I was a 22-year-old single white chick from the corn belt of Ohio … and Monique already had three children, although one of them had died of malnutrition. And she was the only health care worker for 6,000 people. I wasn’t prepared for this situation.”

Holloway said malaria was a major disease in Mali, responsible for far more deaths than the AIDS virus there.

“Two out of five children die before their first birthday in Mali,” she said.

She recalled one mother who brought her child to Monique for medical care, but Monique did not have the medications needed to help the child and told the mother she would have to go to a clinic in another town to obtain the necessary care.

When the woman left with her child, Monique told Holloway that the mother had waited too long and the child would probably not survive.

For two years Holloway worked with Monique and the two became such close friends it was difficult for Holloway to leave Mali when her service time was up.

She later brought Monique to the U.S. where the Mali midwife visited with Holloway in Granville and developed a love for pizza and buttered popcorn.

Holloway met her husband, John Bidwell, during her time in the Peace Corps, and a few years after her service in Mali the couple had two children of their own.

“Monique and I stayed in touch by writing letters over the years,” she said.

Holloway said one day she received a letter that her friend had died giving birth to a fifth child, and the child had also not survived. Monique was 33 years old.

A book grew out of Holloway’s experiences with Monique, titled “Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali.”

A portion of proceeds from her book sales goes to help support a clinic and school for the people of Monique’s village.

Holloway encouraged the crowd of students and community members attending her presentation to reach beyond the boundaries of Ohio and the U.S. to experience life as “local citizens of the world.”

“A woman with a sixth-grade education and a little bit of nursing school really made a difference. And one person with a good heart can make a difference, too,” she said.

Marietta College psychology major Sam Thomas, from Cleveland, was inspired by Holloway’s talk. Thomas said she has already applied to join the Peace Corps, too.

“I’m interested in different cultures, and am president of our International Club,” she said. She’s been able to introduce some of the college’s international students to the local culture.

“We took them kayaking and even made dumplings together,” Thomas said.

As for her ambitions with the Peace Corps, Thomas said she’s not particular about where the corps may send her.

“I’m open to about anyplace,” she said. “I speak French and a little Portuguese and a little Arabic.”

Christy Burke, director of the college’s Education Abroad program, said Holloway’s presentation was the first time the department has sponsored a speaker for the annual International Week.

“Her book is common reading in many schools; she’s very inspiring for students to become involved in the international community,” Burke said. Marietta College has five students studying abroad.

“Two are in China, one in Peru, one in Italy, and one in Belgium,” she said.

Holloway is the director of Institutional Relations at the Center for International Studies in Northampton, Mass.