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From Wawa to Malawi, West Deptford Native Making an International Difference

WDHS '04 graduate Brooke Mancuso is coordinating a countrywide anti-malaria program in the African nation through the Peace Corps.

Brooke Mancuso (far right) is working on anti-malaria programs in Malawi. Credit: Brooke Mancuso.
Brooke Mancuso (far right) is working on anti-malaria programs in Malawi. Credit: Brooke Mancuso.

From the Wawa on Crown Point Road to sub-Saharan Africa, West Deptford native Brooke Mancuso is certainly a world traveler. 

After a year abroad teaching English in Italy, the 2004 West Deptford High School graduate parlayed her undergraduate science background into a master's degree program at Tulane and a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Malawi.

Patch caught up with Mancuso via e-mail to discuss her experiences living in the developing nation of 16 million, where she is working as the Stomp Out Malaria Country Coordinator.

PATCH: How did you get into the Peace Corps?

BROOKE MANCUSO: At Virginia Tech, I was set on the idea of medical school. While I loved biological sciences focused on human disease, I didn't feel passionate about medical school with the usual course of working in a hospital or clinic in the United States.

I returned home in June 2009 and began working at Wawa, the one located close to RiverWinds and very close to my old home in West Deptford. During this time I discovered that you could combine a masters in public health with the Peace Corps.

Tulane University's MPH program focuses on parasitology, which include all kinds of diseases. This kind of degree, which has its focus mostly on international work, was something I knew that I'd love. 

PATCH: What about tropical medicine specifically interests you?

MANCUSO: I loved the idea of combining language skills with my biology discipline. Public health looks at all kinds of aspects of disease—for example, why your drugs stop working after a while, insects that spread disease, and all the ways we can combat disease using public health interventions in addition to clinical medicine.

I chose tropical medicine because it had a heavy biology focus. In graduate school I had the opportunity to look at all kinds of crazy diseases under a microscope. It was nerdy and fantastic.

Furthermore, the professors at Tulane are outstanding. They are involved in research in all different countries for all different aspects of disease. My dream job would probably be to work for an organization like WHO or CDC.

PATCH: What's your day-to-day like in Malawi?

MANCUSO: I live in Bwanje, Ntcheu, which is located in the central region of Malawi. The lake [near which I live] is huge, and one of the most biodiverse in the world. It is bright blue, and snorkeling to see the fish is one of my favorite things to do here.

There is no electricity or running water. My house is made of mud brick and a tin roof. Even the clinic only runs off of a few solar panels, but has to use a gas tank for its refrigerator to keep vaccines cold.

This is pretty standard throughout rural Malawi, but there are rumors that a neighboring town, Bwanje, will be connected to electricity in two years time.

A general day in the village consists of waking up early with the sun (like 5 a.m.), and starting a fire for coffee and food. I have a dog so I cook for her and me every day.

PATCH: What's it like to be doing outreach in this environment?

MANCUSO: When planning events, we have to have meetings with local leaders. These take all day for a number of reasons; for example, everything happens on Malawian time, so if you say to meet at 12 p.m., usually you are meeting around 2 to 3 p.m.

I've worked with secondary schools and a new Girls' Club here doing an HIV/AIDS prevention program called Grassroots Soccer, and other various activities. This means I hang at home or with a friend until about 3:30 p.m., when we start our meetings.

PATCH: What do you do to unwind?

MANCUSO: I usually hang at home reading or exercising, or I go to my friend Evelyn's house, where I will spend hours hanging out while she cooks. Sometimes we chat or sit at her maize mill, trying to communicate with the ladies who come to grind their maize into nsima flour.

Nsima is the staple food, and there is a fierce pride among Malawians about it. It's made from ground maize. When cooked, it's a sort of patty that you roll in your hand and dip into whatever side you cook.

PATCH: When is the last time you've been back to West Deptford? What do you miss about home? 

MANCUSO: I was lucky enough to come home for a visit back in May 2013 [when] my younger sister, Chelsea, was graduating from Virginia Tech; I spent the first week and a half up in West Deptford.

My closest friends are still my high school friends, and via phone we are able to talk every day while I'm here. Malawi has decent cell phone coverage where I live and I am fortunate enough to have a smart phone—not the Peace Corps experience 10 years ago!

One friend, Lauren Ginipro, came with my mom and sister to visit me back in July, as well.

Another of my favorite places is RiverWinds. This is where I often find myself walking with my grandmom or friends, catching up on each others' lives and planning our time together.

I love looking at the airport by the river and imagining all the places I have yet to go, while staying grounded to my home there.

PATCH: Why is the anti-malaria work so important to you?

MANCUSO: The Peace Corps just "reintroduced" malaria as a key priority in sub-Saharan Africa back in 2011. When John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps, malaria prevention was on the agenda, but somehow it got pushed to the back burner.

Malaria to Malawians is like cold and flu to Americans; unfortunately, malaria kills about 660,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa every year, most of whom are children under the age of 5. 

Malawi's Stomping Out Malaria Program is in its nascence compared to other Peace Corps countries: I became the first Malaria Coordinator for Peace Corps Malawi. There is so much potential for all volunteers to do a little bit in promoting the use of effective interventions, like sleeping under a Long Lasting Insecticide Treated Net (LLIN) every night.

We still have a long way to go, but through partner relationships and assisting all volunteers, we can have an impact on positive behavior change in our communities. After all, we know the local languages, customs and people, which makes Peace Corps volunteers an invaluable tool.

PATCH: What would you want other young people to know about the Peace Corps based on your experiences?

MANCUSO: Peace Corps gives you a view of the world that you will be hard-pressed to get otherwise. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers are able to see the struggles that people face firsthand, especially after developing relationships with their communities.

Peace Corps also lets you see that much of life's joys and successes are shared universally as well. It's not an easy two years. You have to be self-motivated and patient.

With Peace Corps, there isn't much oversight while you're in village. What you do depends on your creativity and exchange of ideas with other volunteers. Sometimes you have to accept that something you think would really benefit a community is not at all wanted and ultimately will never be successful.

People are always amazed that I can carry water on my head or that my house has no electricity (although I'm spoiled; I have a solar panel that I bought).

It's being away from family when you're lonely or disagreeing with cultural practices that you can't change. But when I'm sitting at my friend Evelyn's under a full set of stars, watching a storm over beautiful Lake Malawi, enjoying the success of a project or conversation with a Malawian, playing netball with Malawian girls—that's when  I remember that this is Peace Corps.

That's the most valuable thing you will get out of it.

Know some West Deptford natives who have branched out beyond South Jersey? Invite them to share their stories with Patch. E-mail westdeptford@patch.com for details.

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