Jessica Harmon during her Peace Corps trip

MAT Graduate Helps Provide Resources to a Community in Zambia

Peace Corps volunteer leads effort to build library in remote corner of Africa.

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Jessica Harmon With Zambian Villagers
Jessica Harmon With Zambian Villagers

The photos show Zambian laborers using handmade bricks to build a library, the first in a village that is without electricity and where the literacy rate is low.

The photos show a rural, isolated corner of our world that is about to be transformed.

Jessica Harmon (MAT, '17) is a small figure in the photo of workers but it is hard to imagine how this would have been possible without her heart and determination.

Harmon had taught music in Tanzania during summer breaks from college and wanted to go back to Africa. She saw a Peace Corps posting for an English teacher in the northwestern province of Zambia and quickly volunteered.

It is a path many Captains take. In fact, the Peace Corps says Christopher Newport ranks among the top small colleges in the U.S. when it comes to producing volunteers. In addition to Harmon and another Captain in Zambia, current or former Christopher Newport students are volunteering in Morocco, Liberia, Namibia, Swaziland, Rwanda and Malawi.

As with all Peace Corps volunteers, Harmon lives with the people she serves, teaching English in grades five, six and eight in the community school and learning to communicate in Kaonde, a tribal language that less than 400,000 people in the world speak.

"As a music teacher, teaching English was a new skill I had to learn, but I've found that I love teaching anything," Harmon says. "Though, as an American, teaching in a Zambian village has its challenges almost everyday. Language barriers are tough, and my teaching styles are different than what my students have experienced before. However, after almost two years, many of my students are making remarkable differences and adapting to my teaching style, as I am adapting to their learning style."

When the school day ends, Harmon's day isn't close to over. She works with other teachers on developing new teaching methods and co-leads workshops across the region aimed at advancing literacy.

She also works with two groups of children in her village: GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BRAVE (Boys Respecting and Valuing Everyone). They discuss goal setting, healthy relationships, life skills and HIV education.

It was a full and rewarding life but something was gnawing at Harmon and her fellow English teachers. Literacy was low and the only books available were the textbooks used at school. Children couldn't practice their skills. The village needed a library. So the idea of building a library was born.

The community agreed. Parents and other villagers offered to help. First, Harmon and her colleagues had to raise the money: $6,700. They worked with the Peace Corps to solicit donations of cash for building supplies and of books. Donors, including members of the Christopher Newport community and global literacy organizations, pitched in all that was necessary. The villagers provided 25 percent of the funding by making bricks, transporting sand to mold and plaster, and then raising the structure, brick by brick.

Construction started in February 2019 and the library open soon. It will house 1,000 books of all types. The building is wired for electricity so when it comes to the village, they can add computers and give children the technological skills so needed in Zambia.

"It is amazing to see this idea that started over a year ago come to fruition," Harmon says. "The hard work, time, effort and passion that members of my community have put into this project is so encouraging and gives me peace of mind as my Peace Corps service ends (August 2019). The library will be put to good use and it will help increase literacy levels in the community."

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