Tom McCabe, the men’s lacrosse coach at Bowdoin for 22 years, and his wife, Pat, deferred their dream of joining the Peace Corps for more than three decades.
They had often talked, when they were college sweethearts, of living and working in some far-off country. But “life happened,” Tom said. They moved to Maine, bought a home, raised two kids and got wrapped up in their careers. Pat was the P.E. teacher at a local school.
Then in 2011, as he was strolling through Smith Union, Tom saw a Peace Corps recruiter stationed at a table, chatting with students. McCabe, at that time 59, approached her and brought home some literature to his wife. They attended an information session and made up their minds.
“We retired so we could do the Peace Corps,” Tom said. They buttoned down their Brunswick home, asked their children (Jenna, now 29, and Ben, 27) to pay their bills while they were gone, and left in October, 2012, for what would end up being a 27-month stay in Tanzania. They were open-ended about their placement when they applied.
“We felt we got lucky,” Tom noted. “We got to be in one of the greatest places. Tanzania is spectacular.” Where they ended up, near the Zambian and Malawi borders, the countryside is green, the produce abundant, and the temperatures relatively cool.
After a three-month training, where they learned the rudiments of Swahili as well as some strategies for working in a new community, the McCabes moved to a village called Simambwe, elevation 7,500 feet. Most of their neighbors were subsistence farmers.
Transitioning to their new life took some time. “Life is so different,” Pat recalled. When she first arrived, she wondered, “Isn’t there supposed to be water in the bathroom? Where do you bathe? Where do we wash clothes?” Chickens walked through their living room. The main street of the town was a narrow, rutted dirt path.
As foreigners, the McCabes were treated with extra consideration, and often were the subject of great interest. At weddings and other celebrations, they were frequently appointed the guests of honor and asked to pose with the newly married couple or the village statesmen. It was hard for the McCabes to walk around their village without being drawn into dozens of social interactions. And, since no one spoke English, they conducted all their conversations in Swahili.
“It was helpful to go to the Peace Corps as a couple,” Pat said. That way, they could take turns being the outgoing one.
At the same time, all those daily conversations with people were often friendly and gracious. “As an elder, younger people would say, ‘shikamoo,’ to honor you,” Tom said. “And you would reply, ‘maharaba,’ which means thank you for honoring me.”
Although they spent their careers as educators, Pat said they chose to be Peace Corps community health volunteers to try something different. In the end, though, they ended up incorporating quite a bit of teaching into their activities. They focused on sanitation projects and health education, such as HIV counseling and sex education for teenagers. But they also did so much more.
Working alongside local people, and sometimes other foreign volunteers, the McCabes arranged two five-day science conferences, one for high school boys and one for high school girls. By raising money and applying for grants, they helped renovate a local school: they built it a new bathroom, replaced all the windows (so rain no longer came into the classrooms) and bought new desks. They also created a hand-washing sanitation station. They raised money for a new drinking well for their village. Pat distributed reusable sanitary pads to girls and taught them about speaking with authority, being confident, having safe sex and more. They wrote a grant for, and received, 40,000 euros from a German coffee company for a new residential structure for a nearby orphanage.
They also amused and delighted people with their foreignness. Giggling children ran alongside Pat on her jogs (which she did in a long skirt). When Tom cooked meals on a charcoal grill, local women laughed at him — they weren’t used to seeing a man cook. But the children loved his French toast, Pat said. The children also enjoyed learning how to play lacrosse and the other games Tom taught them.
After two years of working alongside their friends and neighbors in Simambwe, they returned home in December and are all still settling in. “I miss the people,” Pat admitted. At the moment, she is also getting rid of a lot of her stuff. After living with so little for so long (they each had five outfits in Tanzania, for instance), she doesn’t see the need to have closets filled with clothes.
And as for their next endeavor? A stint as a volunteer park ranger? Volunteering again in Tanzania? “We don’t know,” Tom acknowledged. “It’s open,” Pat added.