Elizabeth Otter ’09: The Heart of Africa

by Meredith Guinness

Elizabeth Otter ’09 was cleaning around her room, when she saw something slithering under a basket.
“I kind of freaked out,” she said of the live snake she had uncovered. “I called my family, but then took matters into my own hands and chopped off its head with a machete.”
Yes, it’s safe to say Otter didn’t return to her childhood home in Chicago after graduation last year. Instead, after a 10-month application process and nine weeks of training, this Peace Corps volunteer now calls a two-room mud brick hut on a wooded plateau in Zambia home.
She has no electricity. She’s four hours from the nearest grocery store. And she’s as happy as can be. “I have so much time to just enjoy being in nature,” the sociology and English major said. “I feel so small here – nature is so beautiful, the stars are insane, the landscapes are explosive.”
“There is a lot of time to reflect and think, and what was once important and stressful somehow feels a bit trivial. I have felt myself grow as a person.”

How’s that for a Jesuit education?

Otter began her life of service during her years at Fairfield, where she taught life skills to low-income women through Bridgeport’s Caroline House, wrote grants for the veteran’s group Homes for the Brave, and volunteered at both Planned Parenthood and the Mid-Fairfield AIDS Project. Having spent a semester abroad in Botswana, she said she enjoys stepping outside her comfort zone and learning about other people and the lives they lead.

“I am so impressed by Elizabeth’s openness to the unknown and unfamiliar,” said Dr. Renée White, professor of sociology, who was one of Otter’s inspirations on campus. “She is a thoughtful, curious, and very courageous person who is truly open to what life has to offer.”

Zambia is certainly providing her with another opportunity. In addition to living in a compound with a family of eight, plus three goats, a slew of chickens, and a pet dog, she works a few days a week at a rural health clinic and serves on neighborhood health committees, which track the well-being of Zambian villagers, some of whom live as far as 35 kilometers from the nearest clinic. She’s also part of the Peace Corps’ World Wide School program, which pairs Zambian schools with those in the United States for letter-writing and exchange, and she teaches a 10th grade food and nutrition class at a local high school. There, she’s started a Permanente garden – one that doesn’t need much space or water – incorporating good eating habits and business and marketing skills into her lessons. She hitchhikes or rides her Peace Corps-issued bike to all her jobs, the market, and anywhere else she has to go.

In between jobs, Otter practices the Bemba language with her Zambian family and those she meets. “Everyone greets each other and asks questions of everyone, everywhere,” she said of the local farmers who often share their harvests of sweet potatoes, nuts, beans, and pumpkins with Peace Corps volunteers. “They love to talk and are very curious about other cultures and places. They are very caring, too. A Zambian will go out of his or her way to help you get where you are going or find what you need.”

Which doesn’t mean Otter isn’t sometimes lonely or homesick. When she feels down she turns to yoga, reading, writing on her blog – she files via cell phone to http://inmusicthepassionsenjoythemselves.blogspot.com – or even singing and dancing around her hut. She’s always enjoyed cooking, which is a lot more challenging now that she has to tote water and build a fire under a brazier.

But the payoffs are fast and furious. The Mkushi district is awash in new sounds, smells, and activities: goats, “which sound like wailing babies,” the ever-crowing roosters, dinner and card games with other volunteers, and the earthy aroma of the start of the rainy season. “When it finally rained for the first time in four months, I was really excited, but shocked the rain didn’t smell the same here!”

Otter will be in Zambia for at least 27 months with the option to stay another year. When she leaves, she’ll likely go to graduate school, but she’s content to stay in the moment now. “The day I knew I was doing the right thing was two days after landing in Zambia,” she said. “I got to a site in Eastern province and was so at home and happy. It was an enlightening moment, but also one of great relief.”