By Amanda McGregor
SALEM — Jennifer Jordan was looking for a way to educate her Salem State colleagues about the Peace Corps and the sub-Saharan African country of Botswana, where she'll be living the next two years as part of a public health mission.
So she asked people to join her in a symbolic "Trek to Botswana," by either running, biking or swimming the distance from Salem to Botswana — 7,694 miles — by her departure date on April 16. To her amazement, 30 faculty and staff members got on board.
"I'm overwhelmed by the support you get from people when you go forward with something you really want to do," said Jordan, who works at the college's Wellness Center.
Since Jan. 14, the eclectic, multiage group of professors, staff and students has been exercising and tracking their mileage on a Trek to Botswana wall that Jordan set up at the Wellness Center in the O'Keefe Center.
"It's a fairly stable African nation, but like all African nations, they need support. Public health is a big issue," said professor Louise Swiniarski of Salem, who is a runner. "I teach global education, so I hope she'll come back and talk to my graduate students in two years."
Every week, Jordan pastes up facts about Botswana and phrases in the country's main dialect, Setswana, such as "Le kae?" which means "What's up?" and "Go Siame," meaning "OK/goodbye."
"I've learned a couple of phrases, and I went home and Googled Botswana by myself and learned a little more on my own," said Salem State senior Rintaro Fukutomi of Salem.
A "Wall of Shame," marked by an askew skull and crossbones, draws attention to participants who don't keep up with their 20 miles a week.
"Everyone has been so wonderful that it makes it even harder to leave," said Jordan, 39, a petite, energetic woman who has worked at the Wellness Center for four years. Last May, she graduated from Salem State with a bachelor's degree in fitness and leisure studies.
Together, the group must clock 600 miles per week in order to reach its goal by April 16 — the day Jordan leaves for the Peace Corps. Members of the team say Jordan has been an inspiration to them at the gym.
"When I first started coming here, I couldn't even walk 20 miles a week — now I'm running 25 miles," said Nick Giarratani of Salem, who is on the music department staff at Salem State. "Jen's been helping me, so I thought this was ... a good chance to get more in shape and for her to raise awareness."
Volunteering for the Peace Corps has been a longtime dream for Jordan, who lives in Burlington.
Her mission is to improve public health through youth education in Botswana, where AIDS and HIV infection rates are among the highest in the world, she said. In 2001, 39 percent of the adult population, ages 15 to 49, was infected.
"It's a politically stable country, but (AIDS) is a big problem," Jordan said. "I don't know yet, but what I hear is that communication is the biggest problem. There is a lack of education; parents don't like discussing (sexual behavior) with their children. ... I think denial runs very deep."
Jordan leaves in two weeks, so she's been busy selling off her furniture and belongings, studying Setswana, and packing for extreme conditions — while maintaining an 80-pound luggage limit. She's been told that winter nights in Botswana are "bitingly cold" and summer days are scorchingly hot.
Until she arrives in the country, she won't know her placement — whether it's in a small village or a city, or whether she'll have indoor plumbing, heat and electricity, which vary throughout the country. She'll be there for 27 months, until 2010.
The seasons are opposite from New England, since Botswana is far south of the equator, so Jordan will be re-entering winter when she arrives, as summer approaches back home on the North Shore.
"Going to Africa and living in Africa is very exciting," Jordan said. "I'm excited to live with people in a different culture. ... And I'll be keeping a good sense of humor while I'm there."
The efforts of the Trek to Botswana team will culminate at the 12th annual North Shore Wellness Fair and Road Race on Sunday, April 13, at 9 a.m, at the O'Keefe Center on Canal Street.
For more information and registration, visit www.salemstate.edu/wellness.
Location: In southern Africa, north of the country of South Africa
Population: 1.8 million
Comparative size: Slightly smaller than Texas
Geographic features: Kalahari Desert in southwest
Language: English is the official language, but 78 percent of the population speak Setswana, and there are various other dialects.
Information gathered from the Central Intelligence Agency's database at www.cia.gov.