While you’re reading this story, Chandler Klawitter is in Central America training to become a sustainable agriculture extension promoter. The Hutchinson native and recent graduate of South Dakota State University will live the next 27 months in Panama as a volunteer of the Peace Corps.
“I’m a geography major and I’ve always been super interested in living abroad and experiencing a different culture,” Klawitter said. “Not just visiting or traveling, but integrating and living in a community. … I always wanted to live and work abroad once I finished school.”
During the next two years, the 22-year-old will work with local people and partner organizations on sustainable, community-based development projects to help those living in the area where he is placed. Before he knows where he’ll be serving, though, Klawitter has much to learn.
A hard choice
Joining the Peace Corps was not an easy decision, Klawitter said, but it was something he wanted to do. There were other options to live in a different country, but that wasn’t all he wanted. It was during a summer internship at the University of Iowa last year that he decided to apply.
“Some of the professors there had done the Peace Corps,” he said. “I talked more with them about it and it ticked a lot of the boxes: I could live and work in a different country, I could work in sustainable food systems … and it’s also a Spanish-speaking country. My minor is in Spanish.”
The Peace Corps has six sectors for volunteers to work in: community economic development, education, environment, health, youth in development and agriculture. Klawitter admits he doesn’t have much hands-on agriculture experience, but food system sustainability has been the focus of much of his studies, including the internship in Iowa.
“My project was on the spacial distribution of organic farms,” he said.
After applying for the Peace Corps and completing the interview process, Klawitter was notified in the fall that he had been accepted and was given three days to make a decision. In the end, he chose to leave his home and live in a foreign country.
“I was super nervous,” he said. “I lost sleep and didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. … Now I’ve gotten used to it and I’m not that nervous.”
Before being placed in the community where he’ll live and work, Klawitter will spend 10 weeks living with a host family and receiving training with approximately 40 other volunteers. Then he’ll be placed in a community by himself and eventually given his own place to live.
His job will be to help members of the community with projects they need, but especially projects regarding farming and the food supply.
“It could be techniques for planting and growing and management, and also marketing and anything in the supply chain,” Klawitter said. “I’ll also be trained and be able to give training on different techniques and strategies, and be able to help connect them with different funds and organizations.”
Covering the bases
In college, Klawitter studied abroad in Spain. He’s also taken family vacations to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Those experiences were nothing, he admitted, to where he’s at now and the amount of time he will spend in Panama.
“That was definitely the most intimidating part,” Klawitter said about the 27-month commitment. “Studying abroad is great, but it only lasts, at the most, maybe a year.”
His flight left Tuesday morning, and after a one-day stay in Miami he was off to Panama Wednesday.
Before taking off, Klawitter said he visited the Black Hills and spent time enjoying some of the things he won’t have in his new, temporary home.
“A lot of family bonding and a lot of eating all the foods I hopefully won’t miss too much,” he said. “But I think I’ve covered all the bases.”
Volunteers for the Peace Corps are advised to pack as little possible. Besides a few shirts and shorts, Klawitter is bringing a hammock, food spices, a Kindle and a solar panel for charging electronics.
“In our community, it’s pretty unlikely we’ll have electricity or even running water,” he said.
No electricity. No water. No family. It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love, according to the Peace Corps slogan. Klawitter knows what he’s signed himself up for and welcomes the challenge.
“I’m really excited to learn, grow personally and give back,” he said. “It’s about service.”
The United Nations estimates that since 2017, about 1,800 people have been killed in Cameroon, another 53,000 have been displaced and 1.3 million are in need. A Hutchinson man wants to do something about it.
“They are going to villages and killing,” Efi Tembon said. “They go in and raze whole villages.”
Area residents may recognize Tembon from around Hutchinson over the past two years, or from his time speaking at local churches. A little more than 10 years ago he coached soccer for the Glencoe Stars before going on to coach for Glencoe-Silver Lake while studying at Crown College in St. Bonifacius.
In 2016, Tembon was working as a missionary in his home country of Cameroon when protests broke out in the northwest and southwest regions of the bilingual country. The linguistic split by region is due to the nation’s colonial history. Following World War I, the German colony of Kamerun was split into French and English mandates. The 2016 protests were in response to French-speaking teachers being posted to English-speaking regions, as well as French-speaking magistrates, which locals feared would enforce a legal code more steeped in French history.
The Cameroon government cracked down on protesters, which led to widespread violence. The escalation led more of the public to join in on protests, and to start “ghost towns” in which locals refused to work and provide services.
“Helicopters were used by the government to start killing peaceful protesters,” Tembon said.
He said the internet was shut down to stop videos of violent crackdowns from being distributed online, and young people who matched the description of protesters were killed. By 2017, armed groups had formed to oppose the government. In reaction to the killing of soldiers, the military response grew. Accusations of human rights abuses have been leveled against all sides.
Tembon said people he worked with were among those burned to death by the government. Another was shot and killed, causing the man’s wife to flee to the forest and hide with her twin babies.
Ambushes against soldiers are answered with more violence.
In a report, Tembon has compiled photos of families hiding in the forest without shelter, torture and beheading victims, groups and individuals burned alive and other atrocities the government is accused of.
As the two sides fail to open a dialogue, the country also contends with cross-border raids and insurgency from Boko Haram, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Boko Haram is a jihadist terrorist organization.
“The challenge we have is the U.S. provided weapons to fight against Boko Haram, but they turned against local people,” Tembon said.
In June last year, Tembon — now a U.S. citizen — testified before the U.S. Congress with Amnesty International.
“I needed to find a way to make the world know about what was happening,” Tembon said.
He reached out through friends in the State Department and wrote to a friend who connected him with Congress.
At the time of Tembon’s testimony, he was serving as executive director of the Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy. He says CABTA fired him at the prompting of the Cameroon government in an effort to discredit him.
“They put my face in the paper saying I’m a rebel leader,” Tembon said. “They went to Facebook and took a picture I had with the McLeod County Sheriff and said these were the type of people I was taking (to Cameron) to help destabilize the country.”
Because of his testimony, Tembon is certain he cannot return home. His brothers and mother have left the country, and other family members moved to locations they hope will be safer. He says soldiers were stationed outside of his house, and that when his brother visited it was raided.
“They thought it was me,” Tembon said. “Thank God he entered and left. They didn’t notice he had left. ... If I go back they’ll put a bullet in my head. I know that.”
Earlier this year, the United States cut military aid to Cameroon. Tembon now works with the Oasis Network for Community Transformation, which focuses on Bible translation and empowering people to lead changes in their community. He is also an associate director for Wycliffe Associates, which has him traveling to 11 African countries as a missionary. Over the years, quite a few local churches have supported his ministry, Tembon said.
On Friday, Tembon traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and national leaders about Cameroon. He also plans to meet with Canadian and United Kingdom officials and diplomats.
“I am pushing for international intervention,” Tembon said. “It can be stopped now before it gets completely out of control.”
To help push for political attention, he has created a petition that included 120 signatures from Hutchinson earlier this week. Tembon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He hopes international mediation will be able to solve the conflict and bring those committing crimes to justice. He has sent a report to the International Criminal Court and has been told the report was received. He will be told if an investigation is undertaken.
“It’s all a lot of politics,” Tembon said.
For the first time in history, the Hutchinson Jaycee Water Carnival has a double winner.
After only two clues, the Water Carnival medallion was found Tuesday evening by the group of Dany Stoufer, Brittany Stoufer and Rachel Smith. They found it hidden among the daylilies beneath the Northwoods Park sign.
But here’s the kicker: Dany was also the Water Carnival button design winner this year.
“I don’t know if anybody has won the button design and found the medallion in the same year,” he said. “So I might be the first, I don’t know.”
While the $75 prize for winning the button contest was nice, Dany was even more excited to claim the $500 prize for finding the medallion.
“It took a lot less work,” he said with a laugh.
The group has been hunting for the medallion for the past five years. Like so many others, they came close two years ago when the family of Luke, Lydia and Emma Wollan found it in Masonic/West River Park on the sixth day of the hunt.
“I think everybody was looking in that same spot in the tall grass,” Smith said.
Last year, Neil Branstad found it on the first day at Elks Park.
For this year’s medallion hunters, it was a matter of geography. Thanks to the first two clues, they knew it was in Hutchinson and near a sign. They live next to Northwoods Park, so it was the first place they visited.
“This is usually the first one we’ll hit. … So we just walked over here, checked this one out, and within five minutes we found it,” Dany said.
“Dany was like, ‘Did I just see it? Can I honestly see it?’” Brittany said. “And then Rachel bent down and grabbed it and we were kind of in shock. … It was literally within minutes after we left the house.”
“We literally stared at each other and were like, ‘I can’t believe we found it.’ We just kept saying that over and over,” Brittany added.
The group didn’t have any immediate plans for the prize money but celebrated with frozen yogurt Wednesday evening. As for who will keep the medallion, Dany is hoping his partners will give him the emblem that bears his design, but they may have other ideas.
“We’re going to rotate custody,” Smith joked.