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Over Coffee

Over Coffee Dec. 27, 2007
By Penny Fletcher
Dec 27, 2007 - 7:23:18 PM

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I didn’t drink any coffee during my interview with Mary Atherton and her mother, Martha Fleetwood, but I stopped on my way home and picked up my free sample of House Blend from Sumatra Coffee in the Big Bend Shopping Plaza in Riverview. I’d been looking forward to getting it ever since the free coupon had come in the mail, and since the expiration date had almost arrived, I thought I’d better get it while the offer was still, well – hot.

Sitting here at my computer in my air-conditioned home office drinking specialty coffee made what Mary had just told me especially meaningful. You see, she has just returned from more than a year as a Peace Corps. volunteer in Andara, Namibia, which is on the southwestern side of Africa. She plans to return Jan. 3 and between now and then, she hopes people will e-mail her at and offer to supply her with some warm, clean new or used clothing to take back; onesies for babies; girls tights in gray or navy, size 6-14 (for school uniforms); and seeds to plant green onions, Romano tomatoes, Swiss chard, basil and parsley.

There’s no sense in trying to plant anything else,” she explained. “Most other things just won’t grow there. I am so humbled, watching these hard-working people plant huge gardens, which they till by hand or plow with oxen, and haul water from the river to irrigate it. It changes you. It even makes it very difficult to come home.”

While in Kings Point in the home she owns where her mother, Martha Fleetwood has lived for 15 years, the 62-year-old volunteer says she welcomes the opportunity to speak to individuals and groups about joining the Peace Corps or other organizations that work toward similar goals. “The U.S. Peace Corps has to be invited into a place,” she said. “We can’t just go anywhere and do anything. We were asked to help specifically with the HIV/AIDS problems there, and that is closely monitored.”

Martha Fleetwood, a 15-year resident of Kings Point, visits her daughter Mary Atherton, who owns the home, during Mary’s brief stay before going back to Africa where she has been working as a Peace Corps. volunteer for a little more than a year. Penny Fletcher Photo
An RN most of her life, Mary, now a widow whose children are grown, went back to college to get a degree in education before joining the Peace Corps. Her love of nursing and education made a natural combination to work with the huge HIV population in Africa. This follows a time of volunteering with Hospice in Morrisville, Vt., where she lives most of the time she is in the States.

“The Corps volunteers are right near the Andara Catholic Mission where I give a class for about 400 children every Sunday called ‘Peer Persuasion.’ Mostly, it’s about how to ‘just say no’ and still keep friends,” she said. She also teaches unemployed, unmarried mothers how to make money by basket-weaving and bead making. “We have a large support group, and it is through that group we do most of these things,” she said.

The percentage of HIV patients in Africa is astounding. In Andara, in Northeast Kavango Province, 22.7 percent of its population is infected. In the strip of land between Andara and Nibia, called Caprivi, 40 percent of the population has HIV, she said. “This causes a lot of trouble for us (in Nibia) because of the long-distance truckers and transients that come through.”

“The government gives out medicine, the people do not pay for it,” she said. “If they didn’t give it away free, they would all be dead. As long as people take their medicine, exercise and eat healthy and don’t use alcohol and tobacco, they can live a long time although the disease is not curable.”

It is impossible to tell if someone has HIV unless they are in a full-blown state of AIDS, she said, so education is as critical as care.

But even with all the hard work, bare living conditions, and sickness, Africa isn’t a “downer,” she said. “The people there are generous to a fault. They are very, very kind and just seem to know what someone needs without anyone having to ask. The extended families all live close together, sometimes in areas like compounds behind fences, because alone, they would never make it. Their homes are very eclectic. Some are concrete, while others are mud and sticks with thatched roofs.”
The people she has met also have a wonderful sense of humor, she said.

With another year to go – Peace Corps volunteers are asked to sign up for two years, although it is not mandatory they stay – Mary said she hopes others in the area will become interested as well. “I’m 62 and proud of it. People need to know they can do these things later in life, once their kids are grown and they don’t have so many obligations. As long as they still have energy, anything is possible.”

Mary said she is humbled to tell her story and I must say, I am humbled to write it. It certainly sheds a new light on our many blessings – like this great cup of Sumatra House Blend I’m finishing up as I end this column.

As I say every week, Over Coffee is your chance to talk about your favorite cause; pet peeve; tell about someone who’s doing something good in the community (or in this case, in Africa!) or simply let your neighbors know what’s on your mind. Email and let’s make a date for coffee – or just to talk. Just about any subject is fair game and remember, if it interests you, it will probably interest your South County neighbors!

One of the things Mary is proudest of is teaching young unmarried African mothers how to earn money by making items such as the basket and beadwork shown here. Penny Fletcher Photo

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