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By Eli Francovich

“I had so many amazing God moments abroad,” said Sinead Voorhees. “I used to tell people that God can’t speak to me in whispers, he must speak to me in thunder.”

Sinead Voorhees (’07) got off the bus in Ethiopia with little to no direction. Her Peace Corps assignment to the east central village of Welenchiti (literally “Broken Promise”) was the first in the nation in 10 years.

“I was the first white person to ever live there,” Voorhees said. “So I was literally like a blue person. Babies would cry at the sight of me. I remember walking to get vegetables and I literally had a parade of people following me.”

Because the program was new, Voorhees was given plenty of room to improvise. She spent the first three months figuring out exactly what would help the Ethiopians the most. It quickly became apparent to her that one of the biggest problems was sex trafficking fueled by a constant influx of truck drivers into Welenchiti.

In an effort to create economic stability in a region known for its violence, the Ethiopian government undertook a highway-building program. One highway runs north-south and connects with the small coastal African country, Djibouti. The road, while admirable in many ways, thrust a slew of problems onto Voorhees’ adopted home.

“This road created a portal for small towns that had never been affected by traffic – by this transient population of truckers. So then AIDS rapidly increased, orphans, commercial sex work, drug use. All of it rampaged,”
she said.

The trucks were not allowed to park in the region’s capitol city, forcing them into nearby villages like Welenchiti. Come evening, Voorhees said, semi-trucks filled the streets. As the drivers emerged, so did the sex workers.

“Literally I would be in my mud hut every day at dusk because it was not safe for me,” she said. The public relations major quickly found herself working side-by-side with prostitutes.

“These women had no other choice in life, but they said, ‘You know we’re smarter than this and we don’t want this for our children,’ ” Voorhees said. Partnering with local women she developed other ways for them to work, like opening tea stalls or shower facilities for the truckers. That’s how she spent the first nine months of
her deployment.

Then disaster hit. The well-publicized famine and drought that afflicted east Africa in 2011 really started in 2008, Voorhees said. Crops withered and everything began to dry out. Again, due to government policy, Welenchiti relied on water plumbed in from the regional capitol, Adama. As the drought worsened, Adama restricted Welenchiti’s water, allowing the wealthy city residents to avoid the effects of the drought. At first, water was available a few times a day – soon that decreased.

“What we would do is leave the spigot on and put a bucket underneath and in the middle of the night if you heard drips, we would all get up and walk like zombies to get water,” Voorhees said. Eventually the village went without water for nine days. Voorhees, determined to live like a local, became dangerously dehydrated. Though she had money to buy bottled water, she
felt that was a betrayal of her
adopted village.

“I would see 80-year-old women filling water bottles out of mud puddles because they are so poor and feeding that water to their children,” she said. She became sicker and sicker without realizing, until one day she went into seizures on the floor of her mud hut.

“I just remember closing my eyes and being like, ‘Take me home Jesus,’ ” she said. “And I woke up with a banging and a light flashing in my eyes.” She thought she was in heaven, only to open her eyes and find her concerned Ethiopian neighbors breaking down her door. Voorhees was medically evacuated from Welenchiti and flown to South Africa for hospital care. The doctors there said her kidneys were failing.  She was lucky to be alive, but she didn’t feel that way. Devastated by her perceived failure, she returned to the United States and tried to forget her experiences in Africa. The guilt of survival was too heavy.

“I became an event planner and my days consisted of purple versus lavender,” she said. For almost two years she dove into that work, ignoring her Welenchiti memories. A midday Facebook message changed all that.

C.R. English was Voorhees’ replacement in Welenchiti. She was a tall, white brunette, just like Voorhees. When she stepped off the bus, the villagers swarmed her with cries and kisses, English told Voorhees via Facebook. They thought she was Voorhees, and they were overjoyed she’d returned. English wrote, “So if you think you never made a difference you did,” Voorhees recalls, “and then I just remember sobbing in my cubicle.”

It was exactly what the disillusioned and traumatized Voorhees needed. She started to deal with her experience in Ethiopia, and decided she wanted more travel, service and adventure.

Born in Ireland, Voorhees enrolled in an Irish master’s of science and development run by Trinity College and Columbia University. The interdisciplinary program combined law classes, biochemistry and human rights. She was one of two American accepted into the program in 2010. The goal, Voorhees said, is to prepare students for humanitarian work.

The two-year program was split into six-month segments, the first spent in the classroom, the second in an internship abroad and so on. During her first internship Voorhees worked in Rwanda for the International Justice Mission on child sexual assault cases post-genocide. While there she conducted the first audit of Rwanda’s judicial system.

After six more months of classes in Ireland, Voorhees headed out for her final segment. This time she did a short internship and then traveled, exploring France, Turkey, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

“What is brilliant about travelling is you’re so isolated from comforts that you’re forced to realize things about yourself,” she said. “Things that you could have kept hidden.” One thing she realized while adventuring was that, despite her growing experience working with victims of sexual violence, she needed to do something else.

Her other realization? That she was falling in love with Mark Voorhees (’04), from her event-planning days and her best friend. While in Nepal, Sinead said, God told her, “Your relationship with Mark has to change.” In August they married. Today, she’s not working in international development. Instead the couple is responding to God’s call in a different way.

“We’re looking forward to starting a family,” Mark said. “I feel like we’ve been called back to Spokane for a reason. But we don’t put God in a box. Should we get called to go be missionaries back in Ethiopia …”

Sinead interrupts, “Oh please, not Ethiopia.” They both laugh.

“Somewhere else, you know?” Mark said. “Who knows what’s going to happen.”

One Response to “Life in a village of broken promises”

  1. Gary S. Collins says:

    I was a Peace Corps secondary-school teacher in Togo many years ago. What impresses me about Sinead’s story is that she had to confront such severe living problems (no water) and social problems (sex-working as the only viable alternative for many women). By comparison, my time in Togo was idyllic. My heart goes out to her and, even more, to her people in Ethiopia.