The Public-Health Hitmaker

Feeling energized after my recent lunch with my girlies, on Monday I dared to put homework and work aside to attend an afternoon college panel on international careers.

Reps were there from Volvo, the Peace Corps, the Foreign Service and an international-peace think tank. But the person who made the biggest impression on me was only an informal member of the panel who leapt on occasion to the podium, a 64-year-old retired Peace Corps worker who raved about his Corps work and told a story of Afropop and peanut flour.

Jack Allison joined the Corps as a young man in his 20s and became one of America’s few redneck white boys who speak fluent Swahili. He spent three years in sub-Saharan Africa and then returned home to get a Ph.D. (he called it a “Ph.Deity,” which made me laugh) in Public Health.

Twenty years later he ended up back in Malawi as a public health worker, writing and performing educational songs in Swahili about health issues, including one vaguely rockabilly tune he played for us that was #1 in Malawi for 3 1/2 years. Listen to it here.

I’m not kidding. I checked with him after the panel, and he swears this is true.

The song, in which a European rock band plays a vaguely Elvis-y tune behind a native Malawian singer, was about infant and child nutrition and urged mothers to supplement mush with peanut flour to get their kids eating enough protein.

Allison released other health songs, including a whole CD about AIDS (or in Swahili, “EDZI”). Songs in English and Swahili teach that you can’t get HIV from casual contact (“You Can’t Get AIDS From a Handshake”), beseech young Malawian women to avoid “sugar daddies,” and urge condom use, safe sex and compassion for those with HIV.

Listen to his music here.

I’ve got to interview this guy.

Amazingly, Allison made around $150,000 USD from his public-health hits, which were played on Malawian pop radio. He used the money to set up a foundation providing loans for people who do charitable works in Malawi.

He was quite a character, and gave me a copy of his CD, “Songs About AIDS,” which I have enjoyed listening to. (I am relieved to know that AIDS has nothing to do with witchcraft, and also know how to say “condom” in Swahili.)

After the panel he and I had an interesting conversation about being a federal employee. I have friends who are ex-Air Force, and they and Dr. Allison all rave about the federal benefits they receive, especially in retirement, which include medical, dental, vision and even long-term care insurance both for federal employee their spouse.

Ah, good benefits are one of the things that self-employment simply does not provide. I have trouble envisioning myself in any long-term federal position, but in the back of my mind is the new idea that as college makes the world larger and larger for me, good benefits (especially good retirement bennies) is yet another thing to consider as I seek new worlds of work.

And so, perhaps, is the Peace Corps.

The absence of service from a life of writing has always bothered me. Writing has creativity, autonomy, it lets me constantly change jobs while never changing jobs… But it doesn’t do much to help people.

The idea of service to society has always mattered to me, and is something I keep in mind while working as both student and writer to bring myself closer to new work possibilities. But a life of writing is rarely a life of service. That’s just how writing is, distant and descriptive rather than hands on.

Is there some compromise out there for the life I want? It’s a big world. The answer is probably out there.

And according to Dr. Allison, a stint in the Peace Corps entitles former Corps personnel to scholarship money and automatic entry into some graduate programs. I plan to subscribe to the Peace Corps newsletter to start checking out the possibilities.

Service, international work, retirement benefits, federal employ… Lots to think about from two strange hours spent in part talking to an odd and remarkable retiree about malaria and the Malawian hit parade.


As far as my semester goes, a 72 on a recent poli sci test took my confidence down a notch. It was my math struggles all over again but somehow worse, since this time I actually believed myself to have mastered the material.

I was so demoralized (and tired and busy) that I put off looking over my test for over a week. You know, I love my poli sci studies. So I was sad at doing so poorly at something I liked and had actually thought I understood.

And yesterday I finally got back another midterm, my humanities test that I took weeks ago but just now received back due to poor Dr. Davis dealing with a bone chip in his spine, poor soul. The highest grade in the class was a 96; my grade was a 94.

Now that’s more like it. Feeling better about myself, I dug out my poli sci test over lunch.

I’d legitimately missed one question, not really answered one properly, and on a 20-point essay question, confused two political thinkers. I got one point out of 20. If I’d gotten full credit on that question, I’d have made a 92 on the test.

Live and learn. Even at 38, after so many years of learning, live and learn. Clearly I am still learning to take tests. Really, there’s an art to taking a test well in 50 slightly panicked minutes.


I’m not sure where my eloquence has gone lately. It may be flowing out into my class assignments, which lately include two articles a week. I can hardly remember the last time I had that satisfied feeling of saying something new and interesting in this blog, or just saying a known truth particularly well. It feels a bit like writer’s block only I am still writing, albeit with little inspiration.


I’m still thinking about my cohousing idea. The next step is be certain the interest of my takers is solid (I’ve got 4 already — Heather and Rowan and their respective partners), and then to get with a real estate agent. I may also wait until the holidays are past, and for a more promising real estate market. But oh yes, I still think a cohousing arrangement might be what I want.

I’m looking for an Asheville-area home with around 5 bedrooms, fixer-upper OK. If you know of any possibilities, ping me.

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