Fall 2008 Issue
Thirty countries in 30 years
When Jolene Mullins ’78 first stepped off the plane in Liberia as a young Peace Corps volunteer, she had only been out of the country once. After three decades of dodging gunfire and teaching children about the benefits of Vitamin A, she has very few regrets.
By Sarah Schewe
It was a hot afternoon, not long after the 1980 coup in Liberia, and Jolene Mullins was piled into a car with eight other people. Even in her long, blue and green cloth lapa skirt, she was sweating in the West African heat.
“At the checkpoint, we were all told to remove our belongings for the soldier – he was drunk and toying with his M-16,” recalled Mullins. “My bags were stuffed with books and laboratory equipment that I was taking back to our site; they were so wedged into the trunk that I couldn’t get them out by myself, but the soldier insisted. He accused me of being disrespectful, and then he pointed the gun at my head.”
“‘What are you, a missionary?’ ” he asked.
I replied, “No sir. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer.”
The soldier’s face, so cocky, with his drunken smirk, changed, his eyes softened, he looked younger, the gun more awkward in his grasp.
“I had a Peace Corps teacher in the third grade,” he said. “Do you know Mrs. Brown?”
Mullins nodded. “And Mrs. Brown would not be very happy with the way you are treating us.”
The soldier let them go.
“Of course I’d never met Mrs. Brown,” Mullins says smiling and passing around a plate of chocolate chip cookies she’s just baked. They’re strangely flat – it’s hard to find baking soda in rural Tanzania (or brown sugar or butter for that matter) – but they’re delicious. “I just use the unrefined sugar you can get locally and BlueBand – the margarine from hell,” she laughs.
Mullins is clearly a woman who knows how to improvise. In fact, one could say she’s made a career of it. Since her graduation from Barry 30 years ago, Mullins has traveled the world as an international relief worker, attending to the task at hand whether it be keeping staff and volunteers safe from flying bullets or making up songs about how a carrot a day can keep the doctor away.
Today, as the country director for Minnesota International Health Volunteers (MIHV), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the health of women and children around the world, she’s based in Karatu, a rural village in northern Tanzania. Karatu is the kind of place where the 10-minute walk home from the office at the end of the day is often delayed by rush hour traffic, as barefoot boys prod their cattle home with sticks. In the dry season, even a little wind can send dust flying. In the rainy season, you understand why Jolene’s dog is named Matope (Swahili for “mud”).
A life on the move was something Mullins had grown used to from a young age. Even as a child, she rarely stayed put. Her father died when she was very young and her mother worked full time as a secretary. She didn’t have the time or resources to care for her young daughter, and didn’t want her to grow up on the streets of Queens, New York. “It was hard moving from one family to another,” Mullins says, “but I think it also added to my sense of wanderlust. I knew there was a huge world out there, full of great adventure and opportunity.”
The one constant was her Catholic education. “My mother and stepfather always stressed the importance of a good education, and attending Catholic high school and college provided that,” she says. “The strength and confidence that the Sisters gave us as young women really had a positive impact on my self esteem.” While moving from place to place and always being the “new kid” in class was difficult, she remembers that the sisters always encouraged her “to speak out, have strong opinions and feel confident in who we were.”
With a sense of a larger world firmly ingrained in her conscious, Mullins embarked on her “great adventure” just five months after graduating from Barry with a bachelor’s degree in biology. At age 22 – having never been outside of the United States except for one short Mexican vacation – she boarded a plane to Liberia as a newly minted Peace Corps volunteer.
“I was initially slotted to go to Micronesia, but that Peace Corps program was cancelled; I received a call asking me if I would accept a position in Liberia,” Mullins says. “Not even knowing where it was, I said yes without hesitation, and then thought, ‘what did I just do?’ The first thing I did after hanging up the phone was check a world map.”
Armed with little but optimism, Mullins arrived in Sanniquellie, a rural district 200 miles from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. She was assigned to teach health, but found herself teaching all the sciences, as well as American history and literature. “There is such a desire for education in Africa, and not enough classrooms or teachers. I would have classes of 60-70 students, all desperate for an education, all hoping to use what they learned in the classroom to get a better job, have a better life. At different times I would have anywhere from three to five students living in my house,” Mullins recalls. “The house was never empty, and I got to meet people I could never imagine meeting at home, including the (then) president of Liberia, Samuel Doe.”
In 1982, as Mullins completed her time as a Peace Corps volunteer, she was asked to fill a position with CARE, a non-governmental organization carrying out health, education and community development projects in Liberia. “I don’t think I was quite ready to leave Africa, but it was time to start my professional life. My parents were becoming quite concerned…” The decision to accept the position with CARE ended up have a much bigger effect on Mullins’ life then even she could have predicted. It was there that she met Neil Huff who, as the country director for CARE, had hired her to work with the local community to script culturally appropriate health messages to be performed by trained troupes of village dancers and singers.
“Neil taught me so much about international development. His lifetime of working all over the world became the basis of hours of talks on where development had been and where it was going,” she said. “He had so much experience and so much wisdom; I loved to hear his stories and adventures.”
After a year working with CARE, Mullins left Liberia with Huff and headed for East Africa. The great adventure continued in Uganda, where Huff proposed with a handmade wedding ring that he had bartered from the Karamajong warriors of Northern Uganda for a $10 short wave radio and a $20 bicycle. The couple honeymooned in Nairobi in an old colonial hotel where high tea was served in the afternoons. “I felt a bit like Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa,’ ” Mullins said.
In one scene in the 1981 film, Streep’s character, Karen Blixen, comments, “Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”
Mullins certainly could not have anticipated what lay waiting just across the border.
Shortly after their honeymoon, the couple moved to Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. At the time, the country was suffering under the rule of Milton Obote, the dictator who had regained power after being overthrown by Idi Amin and his followers. Obote’s second reign of power in Uganda would prove to be its bloodiest. Anyone who has seen Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin in the 2006 movie “The Last King of Scotland” might be shocked by this, but under Obote, many Ugandans longed for the days of Amin. As friends would tell Mullins, at least there was a method to his madness, they knew who the victims would be and the army was in control. Under Obote, the army did whatever it pleased to whomever it pleased; no one was safe.
An estimated 100,000 people were killed during Obote’s five-year reign from 1980 to 1985.
“While a military revolt was literally fought around our office and residence, Jolene displayed the kind of courage that, had she been a soldier, would have won her a medal,” Huff says. “The battle to oust Obote began on a Saturday. The bullets were soon pinging off our walls and coming in through windows. While I was getting mattresses over the windows, Jolene, with our 1-year-old daughter in her arms, was calming the terrified Ugandan women, leading them to the safer places in the house, and getting them bedded down on the floor. While everyone was screaming and weeping, Jolene was a tower of calm strength.”
Although she may have remained outwardly calm, Mullins says she remembers all too well the tension and chaos that punctuated their lives, the dawn-to-dusk curfews, drunk soldiers with automatic weapons and children who roamed the streets with guns; the vultures, marabou storks, bats and wild dogs that circled around the capital city of Kampala.“Uganda was wonderful and horrible all at the same time. I heard people killed on the streets around our house because they were out after curfew,” she said.
But, Mullins says, her strongest memory of Uganda is being pregnant with her daughter Leah and her first year as a new mother. She had originally planned to have her baby in Uganda, but in the summer of 1984 when she was visiting the States, her obstetrician recommended she remain for her delivery. It was a wise decision. During the birth, Mullins had to have an emergency C-Section, which required a blood transfusion. “By the time I returned in December, Uganda was just beginning to see cases of a new disease which would soon be identified as AIDS,” she says. “The entire blood supply was infected, so if I had delivered in Kampala, there was a good chance I would have become infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. I breast fed Leah for two years, so I could have passed the virus to her as well.”
Leah’s birth might have been the first, but it was far from the last occasion when mother and daughter would benefit from a little luck and an extraordinary sense of timing. In 1998, 14 years later, Jolene was at the consular office at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, getting extra pages added to Leah’s passport. She had not been outside 10 minutes when the building exploded after a terrorist attack.
Carrots and sticks
During the next 20 years, Mullins and her young family traveled the globe; living and working in Somalia, Indonesia and Belize. In northern Pakistan, they worked with Afghan refugees and trained Afghan health workers to fight HIV. Living under the Mujahadeen while the Afghan militia fiercely fought against the Soviet occupation of their country, they were regularly followed by the secret police.
“Afghan health workers had no idea that HIV/AIDS existed, although there were cases in Pakistan. They thought this was something only Americans could get, and they took minimal precautions with blood and other body fluids,” she says, adding that the strict Islamic beliefs of the Afghans made discussions about a sexually transmitted disease very difficult. “There was a strength and fierceness among the refugees that was daunting. Women were not permitted to speak with foreigners, and there were customs and beliefs about health and hygiene that caused some very serious problems.”
Although overcoming cultural differences could be tricky, Mullins remembers the joy and satisfaction of working with Afghan traditional birth attendants in teaching safe delivery methods. “There is something universal about women and pregnancy, a bond that transcends language and culture. When women are together sharing knowledge about bringing a healthy baby into the world, it doesn’t matter that you are American and non-Muslim. We are all just women.”
Between international projects, Mullins often returned to South Florida where she continued her education and devoted her time to fighting HIV/AIDS, working with the AIDS Program Office of the Broward County Health Department.
“She could be working on three things, add a fourth, and Jolene would respond with her favorite expression ‘give me a half a sec.’ It was never, no,” said Lisa Agate ’87, HIV/AIDS program manager, who worked with Mullins at the Broward County Health Department.
For Mullins, working with the Broward County AIDS program provided her the opportunity to continue doing the work she loved, while allowing her daughter time to get to know friends and family in the States.
However, after earning a Master of Public Health from Florida International University, Mullins felt an urge to return to the field, so in 1995 she took a job in Uganda as the project director of a U.S. government funded Child Survival Project, a program implemented by Minnesota International Health Volunteers. While Huff, retired from international development work, settled into their new home in Northern Georgia, Mullins settled into Ssembabule, a small village without electricity, running water or a school for Leah to attend seventh grade. As usual, she wasted no time getting down to business: solving the water and electricity challenge, hiring staff and setting up and managing a complex, multi-faceted project. She still found time to home school Leah.
Among the attributes that have served Mullins well, according to friends and family, are her “hyper-resourcefulness” combined with creativity and a great sense of fun. For example, Mullins promoted Vitamin A rich foods crucial in developing children’s immune systems and preventing xerophthalamia (night blindness) by choreographing teaching songs with dancing vegetables (Leah and friends dressed as carrots) and using comic books designed by local children to teach good nutrition. She also organized cooking demonstrations in which her team harvested vegetables that local people had never seen or eaten before, such as carrots, beets and orange sweet potatoes.
“An old man had never seen a carrot before, and I saw him walking away from one of our cooking demonstrations with a carrot stuck in his jacket, like a boutonniere,” Mullins says.
Living in rural Uganda, Leah says, brought her and her mother very close, and she remembers the years they spent there fondly. “I love my mother’s sense of humor. She’s always laughing and it’s infectious…She also makes up songs, short songs about anything. She would break into song about how stubborn I am. She's surprisingly good at this.”
Not many regrets
Mullins and Leah eventually returned to Florida, where Leah finished high school and Mullins picked up her work with the Broward County Health Department.
“I was ready to be back for a while, back with friends. My mother had passed away in 1999; it was time to come home.”
But she didn’t stay put for long. In 2006, at home in Pembroke Pines, Mullins learned that a grant she’d started working on nearly 10 years earlier while living in Uganda was finally approved for funding in Tanzania. She had been home for six years, and as good as it was to be home Mullins says she knew she’d regret it if she didn’t take the chance to continue the work that she loved. “Unfortunately, I knew this time I had to do it alone,” she said. “Leah was in college and Neil and I were no longer together.”
So 30 years after she first stepped off the plane in Liberia, Mullins has returned to Africa with Minnesota International Health Volunteers as the country director of their Tanzania Child Survival Project. “It’s estimated that one woman dies every 30 minutes in Tanzania, and half of the women who have a baby deliver alone or with an untrained birth attendant,” she explains. To quote Tanzanian health professional Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla, “Women are not dying because of diseases we could not treat. They are dying because society has yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”
In its first year, the project trained 140 traditional birth attendants, trained 250 community members in the integrated management of childhood illnesses, and set up a pregnancy monitoring system with a registrar at the village level to monitor each woman’s pregnancy. The project also sponsored this year’s Ngorongoro Run, the Race Against Malaria, to raise awareness on prevention and treatment of malaria. The half-marathon, set against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful places on earth, attracted international runners, many of whom were qualifiers for the Tanzanian Olympic team.
“When I think of Jolene, I think of hamna shida (Swahili for “no problem”),” says Katie Gruner, who volunteered with Mullins in 2007. “When you work in a culture that moves a little slower and in a large district (like the area of Karatu), you need incredible patience and a sense of humor when things go wrong. She would use that phrase whenever something didn’t go according to plan. It was a way of saying, ‘Okay, how can we work with this, how can we be more creative?’ ”
Mullins’ role in the Karatu community defies standard titles or job descriptions. Laura Goetz, a doctor who recently visited the Tanzania project explains, “Being one of the only non-Tanzanian individuals in the town of Karatu, and being in the health care profession, Jolene often gets called upon to help when people in the town are sick.
One day, a man brought his daughter who had injured her arm to Jolene’s house. Jolene looked at the arm and thought it might be broken and fashioned a splint to stabilize it and relieve the discomfort. She then brought the girl and her father to the hospital, several miles outside of town, where the doctor looked at the arm and decided he should send the girl to the orthopedic surgeon who was in the next biggest town. He told Jolene that she had done an excellent job with the splint and he wouldn’t be able to improve upon it at all.”
In addition to the difficulties inherent in working with people from a vastly different culture, there are also the many challenges posed by unwieldy bureaucracy, spotty electricity and water pipes that are routinely broken by elephants. Yet, Mullins’ energy rarely seems to wane.
“She works 16-hour days most of the time and doesn’t even complain about it. I complain about it and ask her why she feels the need to do so much. She just does what she has to do. She always goes above and beyond for people,” Leah says. “She cares about people unconditionally.”
And although she’s spent a lot of time living in the midst of chaos and swimming upstream during the past three decades, her sense of humor has never failed her. “I’m the only thing I’ve got to give. You just do what you have to do and do the very best you can,” Mullins says with a half-laugh. “But I do worry later on I’ll be a burden to my daughter when I’m old. I won’t have a lot of money for retirement, but lots of memories … and very few regrets.”