Before she came to this impoverished African country as a Peace Corps volunteer, Mary Jane Lucas would throw away a kettle of soup if a bug landed in it.
Now she removes the bug and eats the soup. Food is too precious to waste.
A lot has changed since Lucas, a 62-year-old nurse, left her comfortable life in Sheridan, Wyo., two years ago to help improve health care in rural Malawi.
“I’m a heck of a lot tougher than I ever thought I’d be. I feel like I can do anything, anything I really wanted to do. I’ve empowered myself,” she said.
In Wyoming, her kitchen was equipped with a bread maker and a popcorn popper. In the rural trading center of Malomo, her kitchen is a closet-sized room with a paraffin stove.
Instead of soaking in a tub, she bucket-bathes under cups of water. Her toilet is a hole in the cement floor of her outhouse. A picture of Clint Eastwood, camera in hand, is positioned pointedly at eye level.
Compared to the mud huts of her neighbors, she lives in luxury. Two boys sleep on her living room floor each night because their homes are too crowded.
To get to Ntchisi, the nearest village with a telephone, Lucas squeezes into the crowded back of a pickup truck for a bumpy 18-mile ride that takes more than an hour along the dusty dirt roads.
She has found a snake in her outhouse and had her house invaded by thousands of ants. She has helped skin a crocodile and met with a witch doctor in an unsuccessful effort to find her stolen boots.
“I’ve had a lot of adventure here. What would I have been doing at home? The same old job, the same old charting, the same old writing,” she said.
In Africa, age brings respect, and Lucas enjoys the status of a “gogo,” or grandmother. She doesn’t hesitate to use it--to persuade an official to find money for a project or to tell a father of eight who brought a starving child to the Malomo Health Center to stop having children.
“When M.J. says something, people are going to believe it and trust it more than if a 22-year-old says something,” said Terry Murphree, the Peace Corps’ Malawi director.
Locals initially assumed Lucas would lack the energy of her younger predecessors, said Malomo resident Laurent Nita. “They thought she wouldn’t do much. But instead of doing much, she did more,” he said.
Lucas, using her gogo authority and unstoppable attitude, has improved a home-based care system, created a mobile clinic that brings medical staff on bicycles to remote villages, laid the groundwork for an orphan training program and a voluntary AIDS testing and counseling program, helped raise money for and overseen the construction of six bicycle ambulances, and started rural Malawi’s first hospice program.
The hospice, a small room with a thin mattress on the floor, means a huge difference for dying villagers, Lucas said. Malawi has no resources to care for terminally ill patients, and many people, worried about contracting HIV, are reluctant to help sick relatives.
In the room, local volunteers--trained by Lucas--teach families how to care for their dying relatives.
“She will not say, ‘Do this,’ ” Nita said. “She’ll say, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
The bicycle ambulances--metal stretchers attached to the end of a bicycle--transport villagers too sick to walk along the hilly, bumpy dirt roads to the health clinic in Malomo, 60 miles north of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
“This is the year 2001, and look at how we have to get the sick to the health center,” Lucas said. “It just doesn’t seem right with all the technology we have now. And these people are so thankful for these things made out of bits and pieces.”
Lucas is helping Nita, 21, search for scholarships to U.S. universities, and she has paid for his one-year course at a business school, dipping into her monthly living allowance of about $130. Because of that, she can hardly afford “luxuries” such as tuna but is satisfied with her diet of beans, rice, eggs, nuts, bread and peanut butter.
“I can eat [better food] any time,” she said. “He was a worthy investment.”
Though Malawi has taught Lucas to appreciate a simple lifestyle, she still applies lipstick, mascara and a dash of perfume every day.
Lucas applied to the Peace Corps after her youngest son, Jason, now 23, moved to Alaska. Her job as a home health-care nurse had become routine, and divorce had brought a newfound freedom.
“There was something missing. I needed to do something more in my life. I needed one more big bang in my life,” she said.
The Peace Corps, however, is not for all 62-year-olds, Lucas said. “It’s tough. I’ve had problems here,” she said.
Some would not be able to jump into pickup trucks, bike long distances or cook on the floor.
“My friends couldn’t even sit like this,” she said, squatting.
Back in the United States, Lucas’ four adult children have worried about her, sent care packages and e-mailed Peace Corps officials when months passed without word.
Andrew Lucas, 33, said his mother exceeded all expectations. “I don’t think that she knew what her capabilities were before she went into it,” he said.
Mary Jane Lucas, who will leave Malawi in July when her two-year term ends, said her life will never be the same.
“There’s something inside,” she said. “I’ll look at all these people in an airport or in a Wal-Mart store and they didn’t do it. They didn’t do what I did. Inside I know it. I call it inner attitude, and it’s there.”