Moberly man, home from Liberia, says Peace Corps mission outweighed Ebola risk

Tuesday, August 5, 2014 | 8:50 p.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 11, 2014
In this undated photo, Dane Sosniecki teaches a class in Liberia. Sosniecki is a Peace Corps volunteer from Moberly who returned to Missouri on Saturday because of West Africa's recent outbreak of the Ebola virus.

MOBERLY — Liberia was beautiful, Dane Sosniecki said, but beyond the lush landscapes was Ebola, a deadly virus that has become an international health issue.

Dane SosnieckiWhen the disease began to spread internationally, the Peace Corps called back volunteers in West Africa. Sosniecki was one of them. He left for Liberia on June 13 and was scheduled to be overseas for 27 months but stayed for only six weeks. He arrived home in Moberly on Saturday.

"It was something out of left field, something I didn’t even consider," Sosniecki said. "It had been there the entire time we were there. You just don’t see it."

Sosniecki said he and 50 other volunteers would have sworn into the Peace Corps in mid-August if the Ebola evacuation hadn't happened.

He spent his six weeks teaching eighth-grade animal science in Kakata, Liberia, roughly an hour and a half from the capital, Monrovia.

But teaching wasn't his choice. The Peace Corps made that call, and Sosniecki liked it. Although he had six months of experience as a substitute teacher with the Moberly School District, he found the classrooms in Liberia much different.

"You have language challenges and limited resources to let you help your kids and execute your lesson plans," Sosniecki said.

In Kakata, another challenge he faced was that students of all ages could be found in the same classroom, learning at different levels.

"You’ll have people 25, 26 or older than you in 10th-grade geometry trying to learn," Sosniecki said. "If kids need help multiplying and dividing or with algebra, then we can work on that."

In his eighth-grade class, he said, his oldest student was 21.

Sosniecki's classes had 25 to 30 students, which he said was small for a Liberian classroom; normally they would have had twice as many. Sometimes his students were not able to make it to class because they had to make money for their families or take care of a sick family member.

He also found that Liberia, like many African countries, doesn't have the same easy access to technology as the United States.

"It takes a while for your stomach to get used to the food," Sosniecki said. "There’s hardly any electricity and no running water. You sleep under a bed net every night, and you don’t have constant access to Internet and cellphones."

But he loved it.

Tougher than adjusting to a new lifestyle was being forced to leave the Liberian people, whom Sosniecki described as kind, respectful and generous.

He said he never felt like he was in danger from Ebola.

"We were worried about teaching, not running into Ebola," he said. "There was always the risk, but I felt the mission of the Peace Corps outweighed that risk."

Ebola can cause fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and internal and external bleeding and has a mortality rate as high as 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization. The organization said Monday that the death toll had risen to 887.

In Sosniecki's six-week stay, he didn't get to make the difference or create the opportunity that he wanted, but he did manage a personal victory.

"My host family had an adopted daughter without a bed net," he said. "Liberian independence day, July 26, I got a mosquito net for them. ... The night I found out I was leaving, I saw the family using the net. Even though I was angry about leaving, I saw that girl now has a lower chance of getting malaria, so that was big for me."

Sosniecki said leaving was relatively simple, but he thinks a better word could have been used than "evacuation."

"It wasn't like the last chopper out of Saigon," he said. "The 50 of us being trained were easy to move. We were told Wednesday afternoon, and it was Friday morning when we flew out to London.”

After flying to London, Sosniecki flew to Chicago and finally touched down at Columbia Regional Airport on Saturday.

Sosniecki said that he and the other volunteers who were flown out of Liberia were screened for Ebola.

Sosniecki plans to return to Africa, like Kara Oberkrom, another Peace Corps volunteer from Moberly, who recently extended her stay in Zambia for another year.

"I definitely want to go back. I'm eager to go back, and I hope I get to," he said. "I'm envious that she gets to go back while I have to stay here."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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