Wednesday, November 14, 2012

SNRAS welcomes first Peace Corps Fellow

Eric Schacht is welcomed by Associate Professor Susan Todd. They met in Namibia and Schacht came to UAF to become SRNAS's first Peace Corps Fellow.

SNRAS’s first Peace Corps Fellow, Eric Schacht, came to UAF in a roundabout way. Armed with a fish and wildlife degree from the University of Nebraska, Schacht gained experience on ranches in the West, including Fawn Lake Bison Ranch with a herd of 3,000 bison. He also worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Nebraska and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali from 2006 to 2008 and this past year met SNRAS Associate Professor Susan Todd while she was on sabbatical in Namibia.

As Dr. Todd and Schacht worked together on a community-based natural resource management of grasslands project, she mentioned the new opportunity for returned Peace Corps volunteers to earn a master’s degree at UAF. Schacht arrived in Fairbanks for fall semester.

Telling of his time in Mali, Schacht said his neighbors used camels, oxen and donkeys to plow their fields. “The Mali people didn’t know any Americans except for George Bush, Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Schacht said. “It was great for me to see the perceptions change, for them to see that an American is just another person on the planet.”

Mali, the sixth largest country on the continent, is mostly desert but has sub-tropical regions. At least 80 languages are spoken in Mali. “It’s a very diverse place,” Schacht said. He observed that the inequalities between men and women led to a lot of problems in the Mali culture.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Schacht went to Mali with 90 Americans, most going to densely populated places. Schacht’s area was sparsely populated. Over half the people live in poverty and 60 percent do not have clean drinking water. The fertility rate is high and infant mortality is at 20 percent.

Schacht lived with a host family for three months, studying the language and culture. One of the first things he noticed was a sign: “La vie est un combat,” meaning life is a struggle. “Even though there are struggles the people are friendly and welcoming,” he said.

One struggle Schacht faced right away was contracting dengue fever and being hospitalized for six days. After he got back to his host family he learned his host father had died of malaria.

Because Eric was too difficult to pronounce, the Mali people dubbed Schacht Samba. “I was accepted in the Mali culture; people were happy to accept us.”

After the first three months a ceremony was held making the volunteers official. They visited the house of the American Ambassador to Mali and swam in the swimming pool. “I’d just gotten out of the hospital and was happy to be there,” Schacht said.

He was assigned to Debere and asked to help build a community garden. “At first all I could do was greet people in their language,” he said. “Children really helped with the integration into the community and they really helped with the language. They were good teachers.”

One of Schacht’s regrets was that he didn’t take many photos. “If I brought out my camera I was swamped by kids.”

His home was a little hut. “It was so hot I spent most of the time sleeping outside,” Schacht said. The average temperature was 110 but it could get as hot as 125.

As work on the community garden progressed, Schacht applied for a grant that included a fence and well for the one hectare garden. He also organized an association of gardeners, which included men and women, that were to sustainably manage the community project.

Asked if he thought his volunteer service made a difference Schacht said, “Slightly. I feel like my impact there was pretty small but I did make meaningful relationships with people.” He keeps in touch by phone as much as possible.

Peace Corps service changed Schacht’s view of the world. “I had a bitter taste in my mouth when I got done; I felt like a failure. It definitely feels different now. I reflect on the lives I touched and the people who touched me. I feel like I grew more than I gave.”

In fact, it is the people Schacht will remember the most from his time in Mali. “I would wake up at 6 a.m. and people would be yelling at me to get up, then I wouldn’t have a minute to myself all day.”

While Schacht would love to return he will have to wait. Due to a rebellion, the Peace Corps has been removed from Mali for now.

As he studies for his master’s degree Schacht is working with Tanana Chiefs Conference on a project to understand the attitudes of Native Alaskans toward hunting, fishing and ecotourism enterprises. “If we receive positive feedback from villages I want to work with them to develop a management plan.” He is examining successful projects in Namibia, Canada and Arizona.

“I am back with indigenous people,” Schacht said. “I do well with different cultures and I enjoy it.”

No comments: