Johnston talked with the local women about health issues. Here, she shows how to mix an oral hydration solution for use in treating dehydration.
For Suzannah Johnston, a Peace Corps recruiter for University Career Services and graduate student in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public health, home has always been more about a state of mind than her most recent address.
Performing a skit about HIV, Johnston gets animated.
Johnston wrote and broadcast health-focused radio shows in the local Nigerien language, Hausa.
Almost every afternoon in Niger, Johnston gathered with the same group of friends, who live in the same village.
Home is where the next mission takes her
Suzannah Johnston hesitates when someone asks where she is from. The short answer is Raleigh. But the long answer starts with – and winds its way back to – Africa.
For Johnston, a Peace Corps recruiter for University Career Services (UCS) and graduate student in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public health, home has always been more about a state of mind than her most recent address.
Johnston’s connections to Africa began before she was born. Her parents met in the 1970s as Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa then known as the Republic of Upper Volta. They moved to Senegal by 1984, the year she was born. She moved to Rwanda at 6, Jamaica at 9 and Raleigh at 12.
As a Carolina student, Johnston returned to Africa, spending a summer in Malawi helping with a project to prevent HIV/AIDS. She graduated in 2006 and entered the Peace Corps, returning to West Africa.
This time she was in Niger — twice the size of Texas — where human misery is widespread. The fertility rate and infant mortality rate are among the world’s highest. Much of the population lives in rural villages such as the one Johnston lived in for 27 months, where the struggle for survival occurs without electricity or running water, grocery stores or hospitals.
She spent her first weeks learning the native language of Hausa and making friends among the women. She gained acceptance and began informal health lessons. She taught the importance of prenatal nutrition and breastfeeding during the first six months to prevent babies from drinking contaminated water that could lead to severe diarrhea, and possibly result in death. Johnston did a radio show in Hausa on health topics and participated in community activities.
Weeks after she returned home in fall 2008, her mind was still in Niger.
“For two years, you live in a completely different way,” she says. “You adapt. You make new friends. That is what makes coming back home difficult because you have a home over there that you had to leave.”
By 2009 she was again in West Africa with the Peace Corps Response program, in which returning Peace Corps volunteers take short-term, high-impact assignments. In Liberia she worked with a community health department director to write proposals and organize vaccination campaigns.
She returned to the U.S. in February 2010 to pursue a career in public health and earn a master’s degree in health behavior and health education. She began work at UCS soon thereafter.
“I love talking about the Peace Corps, so this job allows me to do that to a really captive audience,” Johnston says. “It’s great to be able to not only share my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, but help students find a path to their own experiences.”
This summer, Johnston has returned to West Africa. In Senegal she works with the non-governmental organization ChildFund, evaluating community health program and fulfilling a practicum requirement.
“I’m combining the technical skills I learned in my first year of graduate school with my interest and passion for women’s and children’s health in Africa,” Johnston says.
Even now, she thinks about the people she’s met in Africa and the problems they face. In the end, she can’t help but imagine the difference she will make each time she returns.