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Maui woman following in her father’s footsteps of service

In the 1970s, Leebrick Nakama joined the Peace Corps in Africa — now Nicole is doing the same in Botswana

April 21, 2008
By MELISSA TANJI, Staff Writer
MAKAWAO — Former Peace Corps volunteer Leebrick Nakama was “floored” when his 24-year-old daughter, Nicole, said she also had joined the corps and was heading off to Africa.

“I never really said that’s something you really should do. One day she came home for the summer from college and said, ‘Oh, my roommate and I decided to join the Peace Corps. That just floored me,” said the Makawao father.

“At first I was kind of nervous because of all the terrorists and unstable governments and all the diseases now. There wasn’t too much of that when I went in.”

Nakama was in the Peace Corps from 1974 and 1976, teaching at a teacher training college in Ghana.

He had to get 22 medical shots in two days before he left for Africa, but there’s no shot against malaria, which he caught three times during his mission. He said it was all worth it, though, and he loved his experience.

Nevertheless, the father was worried about his daughter’s decision.

His nervousness was eased after he called the Peace Corps office, where he said officials assured him that the corps would look after his daughter while she is in Botswana. She left last week.

“The other thing they said, too, was Botswana is very much a stable government compared to South Africa; there’s others that have been making the news lately.”

“It’s something good to do for herself and volunteer her service. It’s hard to say don’t do this and don’t do that. If she survives, it’s going to turn out good,” he said with a laugh.

Nicole Nakama, a 2002 graduate of Baldwin High School and a 2006 graduate of Southern Oregon University, is on for a two-year assignment in Botswana.

Before she left, she said she was both excited and nervous.

She also worried about how she will adapt to Botswana’s culture. “I”m just reading about it. I’m learning the language,” she said.

Botswana is a predominantly flat, landlocked country in southern Africa, slightly smaller than Texas. Its government is a parliamentary republic.

Botswana was formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland and adopted its new name after becoming an independent nation within the Commonwealth in 1966.

The country’s main export is diamonds. Tourism plays a large role in the Botswana economy, with its national parks and game reserves drawing wildlife enthusiasts from around the world.

The country also has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. According to a 2004 U.N. report, life expectancy in Botswana had dropped from 65 years in 1990-1995 to 39.7 years in 2000-2005, a figure about 28 years lower than it would have been in the absence of AIDS.

In Botswana, Nakama will be volunteering in a youth development program, and one of her tasks will be to work with orphan of AIDS victims.

The Peace Corps is an independent federal agency, that places skilled Americans in volunteer work assignments in 74 countries. There is a 27-month commitment and, volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old.

Volunteers receive living and travel expenses and full medical insurance.

More than 8,000 Americans are now serving as Peace Corps volunteers, 21 of them from Hawaii. The Hawaii total is more than double the 10 volunteers in service in 2007, according to a Peace Corps spokesman. Besides Nakama, three of the 21 from Hawaii are from Maui, officials said. The corps would not reveal their names without getting a privacy waiver.

Nicole Nakama’s introduction to international volunteerism started with two days in Philadelphia to get a briefing and learn about the political climate as well as safety and health issues before heading to Africa.

She will live with a host family for three months and receive training and spend the 24 remaining months working.

The psychology major has already had experience working with disadvantaged people. She volunteered with AmeriCorps, working with disabled young adults at the Triform Community in Hudson, N.Y., where she said the work was challenging.

“It was long hours, but it was worth it. It was an experience.”

AmeriCorps is a national network of hundreds of programs throughout the United States and is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency.

AmeriCorps is often called the “domestic Peace Corps” and offers 75,000 opportunities annually to adults to serve with local and national nonprofit groups.

On a larger scale, Nicole Nakama said she wanted to join the Peace Corps so she could serve another community and see a new part of the world.

“With the many experiences I have had with Triform Community and working as a paraprofessional for autistic children, I have a lot to share. I also have a lot to learn from the people of Botswana,” Nakama said in a release.

“I’m beginning to see how fortunate we are as citizens of the United States of America. We have boundless opportunities to seek the lifestyle we choose and live in a democratic and free society. I feel motivated to help people less fortunate that we are.”

Both father and daughter agree that Leebrick Nakama did not form his daughter’s opinion about the Peace Corps.

“At home we have a picture of myself when I was in the Peace Corps ages ago, and that’s all,” said Leebrick.

The registrar at the Maui Community School for Adults said he was inspired to join the corps after watching the late President John F. Kennedy speak about his program on television.

Leebrick Nakama was only in the 8th grade but said the speech “stuck in my mind for the whole time.”

He said he was in ROTC programs but later couldn’t pass a physical military exam so he decided to join the Peace Corps.

In the past, corps members were left to figure out things for themselves, he said, but “now it’s really well organized.”

Leebrick Nakama spent his time in the rural areas of Ghana, where it was like a “jungle” environment.

Ghana in West Africa is like a real rain forest, compared with Botswana, where the Kalahari Desert takes up more than half the land, although there also are marshes and plains.

“It was like camping out for two years. We had no running water; we had no electricity. To get our water for even drinking or taking a bath, (we had to) walk down to the river,” Leebrick Nakama said. “Maintaining yourself took a whole lot of effort.”

More than 30 years ago, Ghana did have cities, but when one went 10 miles out, there was nothing, he said.

“But it’s real interesting. When they make their own bread, they bake it in an earthen oven. It’s all nature stuff. It was kind of fun. I enjoyed it.”

In those days of snail mail, Leebrick didn’t learn of his grandmother’s death for six weeks. Today, the Nakamas said they can keep in touch through the Internet.

“Nicole is better off. The country she’s going to is much better off than the one I was at. I was hoping more people would do something like this. It’s a real adventure. She’s pretty tough, physically and everything else.

. . . I’m pretty sure she can handle it.”

• Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@maui

Article Photos

Nicole Nakama, 24, will follow in in the footsteps of her father, Leebrick Nakama, when she serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in a youth development program in Botswana. Her father volunteered at a teacher training college in Ghana in West Africa in the 1970s.

The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo



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