Sally Hoh spent two years up to her knees in mud while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Honduras from 1984 to 1986. As a freshwater fish outreach volunteer, it was her job to dig fish ponds and stock them with tilapia for the people of Jesus de Otoro to eat.
“When I went down there, no one from central Pennsylvania had ever heard of tilapia,” Hoh said, who graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in Biology. The now popular staple in the grocery store freezer aisle was chosen for Hoh’s Honduran project for the same reasons it took off in the American diet two decades later.
“They grow fast and they’re nutritious,” said Hoh, who now works at York College in the Biology department.
Hoh remembers her years in Honduras fondly. She traveled safely throughout the country by bus and felt welcome in her village. Which is why the current turmoil ripping through the country hurts her even more.
According to the United Nations, Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, four times that of Mexico. Governmental institutions are still strained from a 2009 coup. And because of this potential for danger, the Peace Corps pulled out all 158 of its volunteers from Honduras on Jan. 18.
“I called the Peace Corps and they wouldn’t tell me why they brought the volunteers home, just that ‘they have paused services while the agency reviews the safety and security of the country,’” said Hoh. “That’s the statement they sent me.”
Hoh acknowledges the country has likely changed and that it no longer seems to be the quiet, primitive life she experienced.
Hoh shared a house with two to four other volunteers who worked in her town. “We bought power from a generator from 6 to 9 p.m. every day,” said Hoh. “There was one phone at the police station and if the Peace Corps wanted to get a hold of us, they would send a telegram.”
There have been 5,750 volunteers in Honduras since 1962 with the Peace Corps.
“That’s a lot of good,” she said. “But the current volunteers who were in the middle of projects have had to abandon them.”
A prison fire in Comayagua, Honduras last week killed 357 people that burned and suffocated in their cells, the AP reported.
Andrew Coyle of the International Center for Prison Studies at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom told CNN that, nationwide, the Honduran prison system was overcrowded by 40 percent in 2010.
The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs website states the high crime rate in Honduras is compounded by widespread poverty, street gang activity and drug trafficking.
“It sounds to me like the Honduran government is trying to adjust to the high crime rates by strictly enforcing laws,” said Hoh.
That has likely taxed their prison system and led to overcrowding, which can make it hard to maintain order, said Hoh.
“What happened in Honduras isn’t that different than situations in the United States,” said Hoh, in response to the growing prison populations in the U.S. “And ignoring the differences can only make things worse.”
Students at York College interested in volunteering with the Peace Corps will approach Hoh with questions.
“Most tell me they’re apprehensive about delaying their adult lives by spending two years in the Peace Corps,” said Hoh. “What I tell them is that my adult life started with the Peace Corps.”
As a volunteer Hoh grew and enhanced her perspectives. She learned to look at the world as “less ‘us and them.’ We’re all one big ‘we’.”
“Even after 25 years, I still feel a strong connection to the people of Honduras.”