Oh, you haven’t seen the world, honey

May 08, 2009
Mia Chabot, MPH
Clinical dietitian, Duke University Medical Center pediatric clinics
Peace Corps volunteer, Niger, 2003-2005
Master of Public Health (Nutrition), 2006-2008

As an undergraduate at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Mia Chabot didn’t envision herself in Africa. She was majoring in biology, assuming that she would teach math or science after college. She had always been interested in nutrition — maybe she would get a graduate degree and work with young women who had eating disorders, she thought.

As a Fulbright scholar after graduation, she was able to study in an international health program in Finland, where she met and developed friendships with people from around the world — Pakistan, Tibet, China, Indonesia.

“They asked me if I had traveled, and I thought I had,” Chabot remembers. “But when I listed all the English-speaking places I had been, they said, ‘Oh, you haven’t seen the world, honey!’ They challenged me to travel beyond the first world, and that was the beginning of a great adventure.”

In 2003, Chabot joined the Peace Corps and was assigned as a community health extension agent in a village in Niger. She lived with a host family during the Corps’ prerequisite three months of in-country training in culture, security, and language, and then was sent to work on health promotion in her village, including educating the residents about nutrition and AIDS prevention.

“There was a good deal of culture shock at first,” Chabot recalls. “When I arrived, I looked around and thought, ‘Now, why are there plastic bags in the trees?’ I thought it might be some ritual, but no — since there are no trash facilities, people just throw things out their windows. If the trash is light enough, it ends up in the trees!” she says.

No one in the village had any formal education, and there was a barrier to conversation, given that she spoke English and a little French, and the villagers spoke mostly Zarma and Hausa. But Chabot was quick to discover that music and laughter are universal languages.

A radio station, powered by car batteries, reached several villages in the area, and Chabot was one of its celebrities. She played CDs she had brought with her, especially hip-hop, a favorite of the younger villagers. She wrote and sang songs about health issues, including hand-washing and conjunctivitis.

“Those songs were a measure of the effectiveness of what I was trying to do,” she says. “Since there were no antibiotics or other medicines easily available, you had to make substitutions from what you had on hand.

“Conjunctivitis, which is very prevalent, can also be treated with a salt-water solution. So I wrote a song about how to mix the salt and water and use it to make pink-eye go away.

“The rewarding part was that the song took on a life of its own. In one case, a 12-year-old boy was singing it as he treated his own infected eye, and in another, a young girl was delighted that she could teach her mom about the treatment by singing the song for her.”

Applying to the School’s Master of Public Health program was a natural next step for Chabot. The foundation was in place for her work in the world, but there were still a number of skills she wanted to hone.

To learn more about the Sahel landscape and hear the stories of people who live there, visit the Syngenta Foundation website.

View more photographs of Mia Chabot’s Peace Corps experience on Flickr.
See another video featuring Mia Chabot at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.