Over the last half century the Peace Corps has touched the lives of many people and has given each of them a story to tell.
We collected a number of Peace Corps stories from volunteers and others who were involved with Peace Corps to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. Read their touching stories categoried by decades.
I was a first grader in 1961 when Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy. My interest was maintained in education because of the lunch that was provided by the American Government through CARE.
2 years later in 1963 our head master Mr. S.S.V. McCathy summoned an emergency assembly meeting in the fore ground of our school in a hot burning sun after our lunch meal when he broke news to us that President Kennedy who provides food for us has been assassinated. That was the first time I have heard a big word like that. With the urgency of the teachers gathering all of us together and the sadness on their faces we knew something bad has happened to our "father".
Silence fell on the entire student body that even the drop of a pin can be heard. The headmaster offered prayer in his memory and ordered the entire school be immediately closed and students dismissed. Our parents were surprise of early dismissal, I told my father as a 3rd grader that President Kennedy has been "assassinated" in other words he has been killed in America.
-- Falla Lamin
In September, 1964, I arrived at Harford Secondary School for Girls in Moyamba, Sierra Leone, where I was assigned as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach music and French. I was 22 years old and had just graduated from UW-Madison. It was my first time out of the country.
The two years at Harford were filled with learning, adventures, and wonderful new friends among the staff, students and townspeople. When my assignment was finished and I left in July 1966 I was in tears, fearing I would never see that beautiful place and those beautiful people again.
I returned home to Wisconsin and the next thirty-eight years were busy with school, marriage to a fellow RPCV teacher, raising three children and teaching. Thoughts of Harford never left my mind, however, as I kept in touch with teachers and former Harford students. I dreamed of going back sometime.
In 2004 the horrible ten-year war was over and Friends of Sierra Leone was planning its annual meeting in Sierra Leone. I had just retired from teaching and it was time to go back. Returning to Freetown I was shocked to see the destruction from the war but thrilled by the warm welcome of old friends. In 1966 Mohammed was a five-year-old neighbor boy. Now he was six feet tall and greeted me with cucumbers and bananas and an invitation to visit his family. No, we had never forgotten each other.
The highlight of the visit was the day we went to Moyamba to visit Harford where Lulu, our former student, was now principal. The road to Moyamba was littered with the remnants of the war: checkpoints, U.N. vehicles and personnel, burned out vehicles, and villages in shambles. What would I find at Harford?
Thomas Wolfe said “you can’t go home again” and I was going home. The Harford gate was the same. The paths to the classroom blocks, the bougainvillea, the barrie, the big house, the dorms and our house were still there. The girls in their same blue uniforms chattered and laughed in the dorms. They still swept the paths between the dorms and classrooms. But the once fine library had been destroyed.
Lulu told us about the arrival of the rebels who destroyed books and mattresses and typewriters and mounted their AK-47s on the veranda of the principal's house.
As I walked around town many familiar buildings were gone. The main road was now full of potholes and rocks. I walked to our friend Chief Gulama’s house and asked for her and was told that she had gone.
I asked about our shopkeeper friends the Holloways and Assads and was told they had also gone. The SLPP political party now occupied the green house where Peace Corps volunteers had lived. The market, however, was the same with busy smiling women selling tomato paste and rice and Fanta. At the river women still beat the clothes while their children played in the water. Children began following me, laughing with this pomoi woman who still knew a few words of Mende. As I returned to the Harford
compound it began to rain and a small boy appeared with an umbrella for me.
That evening I sat on one of the old stone benches in front of the intermediate dorm and remembered sitting there visiting with Ma Mary, Mama Challie and Mrs. Hatib. They were all gone but I remembered our lively conversations and them showing me the Southern Cross in the sky. It was the first time I had ever seen it.
Listening to the beautiful voices of the girls in the chapel preparing for the annual singing contest, looking up at the bright stars, and sitting on the old stone bench, I knew I was at home.
Now I know that you can go home again.
-- Judy Lamm Figi, RPCV-Sierra Leone '64-'66
I have many extraordinary memories of my time in the Peace Corps, but the most significant for influencing my life came when I was still in training. I served in a very early time in the life of the P.C. 1963-65. No one had yet returned and I remember my mother commenting that she was mostly worried because she couldn't meet anyone who had done what I was about to do and get a first-hand account of the dangers!!
During training, our group (Liberia II) had significant conflict with the Peace Corps staff, particularly around the Outward Bound exercises and expectations. The problems grew so serious that we learned that staff would attend the Selection meeting in Washington with a recommendation that almost all of us be de-selected and not
go to Liberia. We were very upset by this, as never was a group so ready and anxious to begin our in-country experience. During a meeting of all of us, we decided to send our representative (uninvited though he may be) to the meeting to tell our side of the story. The results of this effort were all that we could hope for; all of us went to Africa, and the staff were all terminated!!!
The gain for me in this experience is that I learned two things: one must develop some power in this world to achieve our goals, and that advocacy for oneself or others could be successful if carried out with others. These lessons have influenced much of my professional life and I use these stories as examples with my graduate students at the University. Upon arriving in Liberia, we learned that the staff there had heard about our problems and were somewhat worried that we would be unmanageable and difficult; later we were told that we were the most committed and responsible group they had seen...because we had overcome adversity and wanted so badly to be Volunteers...more so, they thought, than most. I think we all smiled.
-- Severa Austin, RPCV-Liberia ’63-’65
Being here in Madison for this conference has brought to mind so many 'stories' which are usually present in my mind and are easy to find and others so buried I've not thought of them for years. Here is one I think about from time to time. I was an education volunteer in Kenya, 1969-71, posted to Makueni in Machakos district. Makueni was not a PCV, CUSO, VSO etc. "destination" but rather off the beat and path. There were no other volunteers PC or otherwise within 50 miles or more. I taught English and history at a boys' boarding school. One constant during my period of service was Kenyans' nterest in talking about President Kennedy, his interest in them, his support of assistance to Kenya during a period of severe flooding shortly after he became president and his creation of the Peace Corps. There were a number of boys in Makueni, not old enough to be in high school yet, who were named after President Kennedy following his assassination. Johnkennedy Whatever.
One of my consistently interesting school break activities was to visit the homes of my students. I taught at a boarding school and many lived miles away. Frequently President Kennedy was discussed during these visits. One such trip was the longest journey to a student home I took. We took a bus ride of about 2 hours to the end of the line. It was dark so we could not begin to walk the rest of the way until the following morning. That night the man who provided us with a place to stay told me how his family had been saved from starvation during the floods by food President Kennedy had sent for them. He wanted me, when I returned home and saw her in the market, to thank Rose Kennedy on behalf of his entire family. I assured him I would, but of course never did. I never even wrote of this to Rose Kennedy or any other Kennedy. It always stuck with me as an unkept promise. In August of 1991 during the DC 30 years of Peace Corps celebrations on a very hot/humid August day outside the tent on the Mall I found myself waiting in line for a box lunch next to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. My chance. I told her the story. She listened intently, we grasped hands, both hands of each of us. She understood how powerful it was for me to share this with her. I believe her receiving the message was just as powerful.
-- David Easterbrook, RPCV-Kenya '69-'71
During my third year as a volunteer (I extended) in April of 1968, I decided to visit the Blue Nile Falls in the north of the country. I flew to Addis Ababa from Jimma in the southwest where I lived and the next day went to the bus terminal and joined fellow travelers also going north for the two-day trip to Gondar, where I thought I would find the falls. The Blue Nile Falls are as spectacular in their own way as Niagara Falls. My bus ride turned out to be as full an immersion into the culture of Ethiopia as any I had experienced. I shared my seat with several different people, and shared the bus with sheep, chickens and various other livestock that other passengers were transporting.
When I reached Gondar, I discovered that the falls were 35 kilometers away, and there was no public transportation. The next morning, I decided to hitchhike hoping someone might be going that way. Soon, two local folks picked me up in a large lorry. They were going about half way. One was Italian and the other Ethiopian. We had only Amharic as a common language. They let me off, and I walked the rest of the way, arriving at about 4 that afternoon. There was a small village near the falls, and a young boy offered to be my guide, and we walked out to the falls. We were the only ones at what elsewhere would be a major tourist attraction. I took lots of pictures, and we finally left around 6 PM.
I had no idea how I to get back to Gondar. However, there was a small hydroelectric power generating station there, and an Ethiopian who was one of the managers invited me for dinner and allowed me stay at his house overnight. We had a great dinner, and he gave me his bed. I was humbled and grateful. The next morning, I got up early and walked out to the falls. Again, I just took in this magnificent scenery through the early morning sunlight, amazed that I had it all to myself. I finally left and started walking back to Gondar, hoping someone might give me a ride.
After about four hours, I came across the same lorry that I had earlier ridden in. I was tired and thirsty. There were some peasants who lived in small huts near the road. I asked them if they could give me a cup of tea, which they did. In the meantime, the folks with the lorry said they would take me but weren’t leaving right away. I finally made it back to Gondar late in the afternoon, stayed at a local hotel and the next day got on the bus for my two-day return trip, which was equally as adventurous as the one coming. I can say that the entire episode is among the most memorable and happy of the three years I served in Ethiopia.
-- John Woods, RPCV-Ethiopia '65-'68
Friday March 31, 1972. Our group which included my Father Hubert Hafs who worked for the Kenyan Rift Valley Province of Agriculture, my mother Carol Hafs, my younger sister Patty Hafs (2 years old), Dennis Meulemans and Jim Orf (Peace Corps volunteers) and I traveled to Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya. We arrived at the hotel near the park in mid afternoon.
The clouds gradually cleared and revealed Mount Kilimanjaro to the south.
The hotel was located just outside the park and there were Masai markets near the hotel. We all spent time shopping in the Masai markets. I was interested in buying a Masai spear. Some of the Masai women were fascinated with my younger sister Patty’s blonde hair. Mom and Patty were buying Masai beadwork. Dennis, Jim and I ended up buying Masai spears.
While shopping, I met a Masai warrior named Joseph. We started talking and he asked me if I would like to learn how to throw and use the spear. I said yes. Joseph led Jim, Dennis and I away from the market into the bush. Joseph took us to a termite mound and told us why the Masai spear is shaped the way it is: The tip of the spear has a blade that is sharp on both sides for approximately two feet. This is the weapon part of the spear. In the middle of the spear is a wooden shaft that you hold onto when using the spear. The bottom of the spear is a metal spike. Joseph told us that the spear is used to kill the lion in the following way: when the lion springs at the Masai holding the spear, the spike end of the spear is stuck into the ground and the lion impales itself on the blade portion of the spear. Joseph told us that he had killed a lion in this method and showed us scars on his face and arms that he said were cause by the lion. He said this was important because lion were a threat to the Masai cattle. Joseph took us to a giant termite hill and he showed us how to throw the spear. We spent some time throwing spears at the termite hill.
Joseph asked Jim, Dennis and I if we would like to go hunting. We said yes. I asked if there were lion where we would be hunting. Joseph said yes. We followed Joseph further into the bush. It was dusk and starting to get dark. All the clouds were now gone and Kilimanjaro rose above us as we hiked.
We continued to move through the bush as it got darker. A couple of times I heard animals moving away from us as we hiked through the bush as we followed Joseph. I had several thoughts as we walked in single file. What would I do with a spear if an Elephant, Cape buffalo or Lion was to come down the trail we were following? I also wondered about snakes and not being able to see them as it was getting dark. I was dressed in khaki safari shorts with calf high socks and ankle high boots. The last thing I wanted to do in the dark was to step on a cobra or puff adder.
It was now dark and I was trying to keep as close to our group as possible, I was the last in line in our group of four. We walked for another 20 minutes when we heard Joseph called out in his language; there were responses from in the bush. We were passing close to a Masai village or camp. It wasn’t much longer and I saw lights and we were coming out of the bush close to the hotel. Joseph had taken us on a hike through the African bush in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro.
We took Joseph with us to the hotel and introduced him to Dad, Mom and Patty. Joseph commented on how cute little Patty is. Mom let Joseph hold Patty. My parents wondered where we had been for the last hour; and we described our “hunt” with Joseph. My mother was very interested in talking with Joseph. Dad invited Joseph to join us for dinner, he agreed and we all entered the hotel dining room. The waiters and the people who were in the restaurant were watching us like a hawk. I’m not sure a Masai warrior had ever been served dinner in this restaurant. We all had a dinner that lasted for nearly an hour. We all asked Joseph a lot of questions about Masai culture and Lions. Everyone including Joseph had a good time despite the curious stares from others in the restaurant. After dinner we thanked Joseph for the hunt and for returning us safely to the hotel and said our farewells.
-- Bill Hafs
I shake hands. There you have it. I acquired this custom as a teacher in a rural high school in the eastern Congo in the late 1970s.
Every morning, before the Zairian flag was raised and the students lined up to sing the national anthem ("Zairois dans la paix retrouvee..."), the instructors would gather in front of the school building in Nyankunde and shake hands. Six days a week for two years means it became second nature to me, and to this day, I still stretch my hand out when greeting someone for the first time.
But I should make a confession: I am left handed. Oh yes, the hand of the devil. The first day of English class as I started to write on the blackboard, a cry went up in the room. I turned around thinking "What has happened?" One brave child asked what no one else dared to, "Mademoiselle, you write with THAT hand?" A rude introduction for us all.
This is important to my story because, like most lefties, I carry my books and shopping in my right hand, so though I knew to greet people on the way to the market with a hand shake, in the early days, I reached out more than once with my free left hand only to receive a grimace. (I later learned that the left hand is used in the toilet only). I would then have to quickly shift all the items in my right hand to my left and only then proffer the proper hand. What an ordeal. And if we stood speaking long enough, I undoubtedly had already shifted all the items back to the "correct" side for me, so by the time we were ending our conversation and needing to give a farewell handshake, I would need to transfer everything over again. I guess that more than a few students and teachers had a laugh at home about my antics. At least, I hope that they could laugh about this mzungu.
And now, back in the US, when I teach Swahili, and sometimes a literary piece in an English literature course by an East African, I bring up the importance of hand shakes. They join together not just two hands, but really two distinct worlds meeting and joining, if only briefly, before going on their own way.
-- Anne Lessick-Xiao, RPCV-Zaire/DRC late 70's
March 22, 1978; Bamako, Mali - Alpha has several records in his collection that could someday be worth their weight in gold. It all depends, of course, on whether African music ever becomes a bit hit in the USA. There already is the Afro-Cuban beat, but that seems to connect to only one strand of the vast network that is African music. There are so many kinds of music here in Africa--not only so many kinds of folk music, but also so many kinds of pop music. I know little about either, but for what it is worth, here is what I know about pop music in Mali.
It is best to start with people I know. There is one group which seems to float above all the others in reputation here in Mali. This group is the Ambassadors, and they are sponsored by the Motel of Bamako (a nightclub-lodged inside an aircraft hanger of the old Bamako airport and a lodging complex that is among the most comfortable places to stay in Bamako; although it is outside of town, to the west). I have met a number of people from this group through one of Alpha's friends--a pleasant musician named Issa. The leader of this group is a high-powered individual named Salif Keita. Another popular group is the Bembaya Jazz National. Another friend, Ba, once played with them. Otherwise, from time to time, I will meet people who say they play with the Ambassadors, or the Rail Band, or the Super Beton National.
My students in oral Comprehension class once filled up a blackboard with the names of groups from each of the six regions of Mali. Each region has several operating bands, each with some business or service sponsor--bars, motels, hotels, campgrounds, etc., frequently like to have house bands. The Rail Band (pronounced "Rye Band") is sponsored by the Malian National Railroad. They tour regularly along the rail route and appear in nightclubs at the train stations in Bamako and Kayes (buffethotels). Such a relationship makes sense in a third world country. The prospect of dozens of shoestring groups somehow making living selling records in the 3d poorest country on Earth is bleak at best. A record connoisseur like Alpha is a rare bird indeed. Most musicians have second, even third jobs. Issa is a teacher. This ties him to Mali, of course, and if Salif and the other Ambassadors ever decide to go after the big time then they would move to the Ivory Coast. Issa would probably not follow. His future with the band seems limited.
Super Beton National is the most prominent Segou group. They practice in a place next to the architectural bizarrity inhabited by Jeff Klenk. The group is named after a King of Segou, and is known for its very effective use of native instruments in the performance.
The Rail Band is my personal favorite--as far as a sound is concerned. They sometimes perform at the Carrefour des Jeunes (Young Peoples Crossroads), which is the seat of the Ministry of Sports and Youth. The main building is a huge two story colonial pile left over in the center of Bamako. A fairly well-trimmed garden surrounds the building. Concerts are held in this garden, with paying customers in the metal chairs and nonpaying customers sitting in the nearby trees and on the mud brick/plaster walls. The liquid sound of the Rail Band echoing in that open air environment, between the buildings and the trees, as the evening traffic honks, as the crowd runs up to the stage throwing money at the performers, and as the performers themselves make their frequent forays into traditional ballads is for me an important part of what is good about life in Bamako.
-- John Sime
I served as an Animal Husbandry Officer in the Kakamega Area Settlement Schemes of Western Province, Kenya, from 1970 to 1973. The essence of my work was daily visits to small scale (2 to 15 hectares) Kenya farmers with African extension agents to dispense advice on crop production and animal management. In three and one half year's time we visited over 1,500 farms, taught classes on livestock production to hundreds, arranged annual displays at three regional agricultural shows and published a newsletter in Kiswahili that reached thousands. I managed to anger one government official enough that he threatened to kick me out of the country only once.
We worked hard but we also played hard. This included:(but was not limited to) climbing Mts. Elgon, Kenya and Kilimanjaro; playing Rugby with some colonial types at the Eldoret Sports Club; safaris to the incredible games parks of East Africa; more safaris to see a total eclipse of the sun, the source of the Nile, and the Kenya coast; and visits to other volunteers to see their work and living places. On one of these excursions we were with a volunteers' volunteer who was building a dam across a river to be a water source for several thousand farmers. His campfire had the remnants of several days' worth of egg shells. His observation that, "Egg shells don't burn." became a metaphor for all things that went awry for each of us in our Kenya experiences. There were many times our own egg shells didn't burn, but as long as our faith in mankind burned, we kept throwing those egg shells into the fire.
-- George Roemer, RPCV-Kenya '70-'73
My most meaningful contribution to the community I served in, Ebusiloli, has yet to be achieved. I was not a Peace Corps volunteer but a WorldTeach volunteer in Kenya in 1987-88. However, I was heavily influenced by the Peace Corps, and worked with a Peace Corps volunteer to bring a water tank (cistern) to the school I taught at.
My teaching experience had a profound impact upon my life. I developed deep bonds over two decades since with scores of people in the community and surrounding communities. I have returned over 20 times and founded an organization (Kijana Educational Empowerment Initiative www.kijana.org) which develops schools in western Kenya and builds cross-cultural links with schools here. During my visits in the mid 2000s, I was asked to pay for school fees for students at Ebusiloli Secondary School. Of the students I paid for, one student ultimately obtained a scholarship to study in the United States. Her name is Rhinah Ondiso. She was in danger of dropping out of high school during her second year. The headmaster asked me to pay for her fees, which I did. After graduating from school and as a student at Nairobi University, she applied to Zawadi Africa and was one of 30 young women to earn a scholarship to study here. Today she is studying at Arkansas Baptist College.
Last year, she represented Arkansas at the American Association of University Women Conference in Washington DC and has interned in Washington for a US Congressman.
As the first female alumnus of Ebusiloli Secondary School, to attend university, she has become an inspiration to many. Since then, , Rhodah Musimbi earned a partial scholarship to the university and I spoke with the head of the school, Naman Anjichi, today (March 1, 2011) and results just came out from the exam: four girls scored high enough on this past year’s national exam from Ebusiloli to earn university scholarships.
I have very fond memories of my time in Kenya as a volunteer: taking long walks through the back pathways; biking to get my mail and wiping out in a ditch to the astonishment of some members of the community; telling stories of America to my students and planting tree seedlings with them are just a few. I recall sitting up at night chatting and laughing with my colleague, Abel Kutai and his nephew, Kodheck while the night watchman (Zedekiah) sat with us and smoked his cigarettes. In 1996, I visited Kenya and Uganda again with my friend and fellow volunteer Treva, and we were waiting to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda and met a few travelers. One of them said he was in the Peace Corps in western Kenya. I asked where. He said Essaba Secondary school. I asked if he knew Abel Kutai. He laughed and said indeed. After telling him I had just visited him he went to visit Essaba again. Kutai told me they had a nice reunion. He was very happy.
-- James Cummings, a WorldTeach volunteer in Kenya in 1987-88
Excerpted from my book, From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Village markets are time machines from the 1980s. Boys pass in faded Def Leopard shirts and acid-washed jeans. The top Hollywood celebrities are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, whose explosion-filled action flicks are hot tickets in ragtag theaters, and Walter Payton and Erik Dickerson (or at least their jerseys) still grace the gridiron, competing for football rushing titles. Lastly, there is no mental health system to speak of in Malawi, so mentally ill people loiter in the open, sometimes naked, just like the 80’s when President Reagan cut social services funding. Khwalala Market is no exception.
Located a short walk from my school, it convenes on Tuesday and Friday mornings around nine o’clock. Each week, I try to arrive early, during breaks in my teaching schedule, fearing that the good stuff (e.g., fresh greens and mangoes) will be gone by noon. The Boys come, too. Entering the fray, they flank me like Secret Service agents protecting the President, carrying my plastic shopping bags, and shooing away hordes of star-struck onlookers. Whether running around to investigate the “real” prices of items, or taking time to explain an intriguing cultural nuance, they make market shopping a family experience.
And, by now, they know that I cherish the opportunity to see her, my Malawian Madonna. Tucked away, in a little cul-de-sac of produce, among snake oil salesmen and hucksters, her transcendent smile and effusive warmth attract customers like moths to a beacon of light. Seeing her and exchanging greetings becomes a ritual of replenishment and an infusion of encouragement “” her bright smile (stark white on ebony skin) an island of equipoise and grace. She, strikingly beautiful in her forties, with the hands of a worker and the heart of a saint, insists on giving me free vegetables. I stand smitten every time.
I come as often as possible. Our interactions, always warm and cheerful, follow a now-familiar script performed in Chichewa, her language. It goes something like this: an effusive vocal greeting; the snug embrace of our bitonal hands (hugging would be culturally inappropriate); me offering to buy tomatoes or onions followed by her adamant refusal of payment; me feigning disbelief then sincerely thanking her; her heaping vegetables into a plastic bag as I present a token of appreciation, often a chocolate bar; and a bittersweet parting with promises of future meetings. It happens like clockwork.
I don’t know why she is so kind to me. Perhaps it’s a reward for speaking Chichewa or showing my face in the dust bowls of African commerce. Maybe she has never been shown respect before by anyone, much less a white man. Or, perhaps it’s something different “” a pact between us that transcends race and culture, a mutual realization that we need each another in this world to be fully human and that by reaching out to others, we achieve our fullest potential for ourselves and society. What better way to celebrate this reality than by practicing random acts of kindness?
-- Michael Buckler
I served in Tanzania from 1981-83 on Zanzibar Island. I was assigned to a World Health Organization (WHO) Schistosomiasis Research and Control Project. My Peace Corps experience was incredibly transformative for me. During our training, we were invited to the State House in Dar es Salaam, and got to meet President "Mwalimu" Nyerere. For my work, I was posted in a rural community on the north side of Zanzibar Island about 20 miles from beautiful, pristine, white-sandy beached. I had a small motorcycle. I became fluent in Kiswahili language. My work was engaging and exciting, in part because I wrote grants and became involved in several secondary projects, including an infant feeding intervention at the Maternal and Child Health Clinics, and a water well improvement program to address the problems with seasonal rains and the spread of malaria. I have returned to East Africa many times over the past 30 years, for work and for pleasure. I was born in St. Paul, and live
here now, but I most definitely 'grew up' in Tanzania.
-- Patrick Tschida, RPCV-Tanzania '81-'83
Getting from one place to another as a Peace Corps Volunteer was always an adventure. Travel from one town to the next had the air of what life was like during our parent’s time when not everyone owned a car or truck. Transportation usually included being packed four people across in a van so that you lost all feeling in your legs. It was common to have kerosene bottles by your feet and bags of charcoal on the racks above the vehicle. I always travelled light with just a backpack, canteen and a shopping bag(if I was a going to a large town for groceries). I considered myself lucky when I got on a vehicle like this even though I knew full well what would happen if we had an accident. I always said my silent prayer thanking the Almighty for having lived such full life and to please let me live another day.
On another day transportation was with 10 people in the bed of a pickup truck with a hobbled Brahma bull lying in the center. I never saw people move so fast as those on the relieving end. Someone tried to pat the animal to calm him down and the others just kept their feet in the air until it was all over. My thought was, “how did they ever get this large animal in this little truck and get him to lay down?” There was always much laughter and comradery among us travelers. My host country will always be a land of friends and smiles to me.
-- John Macho, RPCV-Ghana '89–'91
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania (1989-1991) and Mali (1991). My experience in Mauritania has had the most lasting impression on me. Originally born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, here I was, a young Spanish-speaking girl out of college sent to work among Moor nomads in the Sahara desert. The Sahara with its desert colors of different shades of brown and its size equal only to the ocean in its vastness and complexity. On my trip to my village of Mekanet, the vastness of the ocean dawned on me, and I realized I was like a spec of sand. This realization instilled in me a fear of the desert and a respect for those who managed to carve a life for themselves and their community. As of that moment, my initial plans and wishes to travel across the desert by camel became a nightmare. As of that moment, I was simply happy to travel by car the twelve hours on the Road of Hope to my village of Mekanet.
However, as desert tales go, finding Mekanet was not so simple. Driving to my assigned village were mountains of dunes everywhere. In our rudimentary Arabic, as no villager we encountered on the sandy landscape spoke French, we could not make our way across the dunes. But, eventually we did manage to find a guide who helped the driver steer the car through the dunes to behold a golden sight “a village if you could call it that -- with a few one-room stone structures and a scattering of fixed tents.
The name of my village was Mekanet, which translated in English as the village that did not exist. But, the translation was the least of my challenges. I came to live in a village whose daily life revealed itself in similar fashion as might have occurred in the 15th century - slow, hot, devoid of the western colors of my Caribbean imagination, with a diet consisting of boiled rice, couscous with milk, and on special occasion with the arrival of a guest, or a stranger, the roasting of meat.
The initial boredom of rising with the sun and going to bed with the sunset was difficult. The irony was that I was an agriculture volunteer in a village that had slaves or slave-like relations with individuals of darker skin who lived across the dunes. The Haratin, as the workers were identified, did all the physical work in my village, and every night you saw them traversing the dunes to bring us our evening meal of couscous. To deal with the boredom, I put my all into my work. My emphasis on gardening resulted in the harvest of a green pepper, here and there, or an onion but otherwise bore little fruit. During those initial months in the village, I wondered what was worse, the lack of work interest on the part of women or the fact that the garden was located close to the only well in the village whose daily presence of goats, camels, cows and children and women pulling water made working a difficult task. But, I trudged on writing two letters a day, reading endless books, and practicing my rudimentary Arabic over my ninth glass of tea.
While my experience in Mauritania was cut short by the first Gulf War, the lessons learned are still with me. I still think of those nights staring at the stars while my Muslim family finished their prayers, of our family gathering around the bowl of couscous for our evening meal, of the long stretch of evening, drinking our three cups of tea. My Peace Corps experience reinforced for me the importance of family, the importance of focusing on the here and now, particularly the person in front of you, and that your lasting legacy is measured by the number of times we extend a helping hand to a neighbor or stranger, regardless of religion, color of skin, or national identity.
Shrukran and Masalam. (Thank you and God be with you.)
-- Maria del Carmen Moreno, RPCV-Mauritania '89-'91, RPCV-Mali '91
In 1990 I was a was a squad leader for a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit sent into the Liberia civil war to rescue foreigners and protect the U.S. Embassy, during one mission we were to find a Peace Corps volunteer located outside of the Monrovia capital. We had radio contact with the volunteer but he was emphatic about staying with his host community and refused any of our assistance so we abandoned a plan to pick him up, later we picked up a group of foreigners desperate to get out. One mother holding her young son had a Romanian passport, we had orders to only fly out NATO member countries, so I had the very unpleasant job of removing her from the chopper.
Because of this experience-the heroic Peace Corps volunteer who wouldn’t leave and the reality of our shallow foreign policy rules, I decided to join the Peace Corps nine months later. I was sent to Nicaragua a country that had just ended a 12 year war. I went to work for a Sandinista organization as youth development worker. I was thrilled to now be part of a positive foreign policy experience and went about building trust with my Nicaraguan team. Unfortunately someone in the Peace Corps commented to my counterpart about me being a decorated U.S. Marine. When I arrived at my assignment the next day the entire staff was waiting to confront me with the allegations. Regrettably, I was not able to continue with the organization, however I had made good friends with a number of local boys and decided to start my own youth group. I spent a great deal of energy finding resources and support for positive youth programs-- mainly sports and outdoor activities. After leaving the Peace Corps I expanded the idea into a National youth exchange, I partnered with a Sandinista Army veteran to organize barrio sports and art projects. For the past 12 years we have sponsored hundreds of youth from the United States to partner with Nicaraguan high school students. The program, The Nicaragua Summer Exchange has sponsored over $500,000 in community support. Started in 1998, today it is one of Latin America’s longest running youth exchanges. Visit: www.highschoolspanish.org
-- Thomas Coughlin
In 1996, I was evacuated from the Central African Republic after serving almost two years as a Peace Corps biology and math teacher. I traveled around the U.S. with an old habit of a boyfriend, selling posters out of a Ryder truck. After we broke up, I hung out in Manhattan for a month, walking the streets by day, crashing in my college friend's living room by night. Eventually, I holed up in my parent's Omaha attic, writing a novel based on my best friend back in the C.A.R.
Still reeling from the effects of reverse culture shock, I got wanderlust and moved to San Francisco where I started dating a guy from Omaha. Neither of us could stay still and hopped up and down the coast of California. After a few months, we decided we needed to learn Spanish and chose Guatemala because I had a good college friend in the Peace Corps there, and knowing how P.C.V.s live, guaranteed it to be a great opportunity. We raised money for the trip selling posters out of a Ryder truck. Needless to say, we broke up. I went to Guatemala alone.
My friend Andrew met me at the airport in Guatemala City with his Peace Corps girlfriend. After a few days getting me oriented, he sent me off to the highlands with a volunteer he was pretty sure I wouldn't want to date. Andrew and I planned to meet back up at a Valentine's Day Peace Corps party in the eastern part of the country. At the party, I asked about his girlfriend. "We broke up," he said.
I went back to Andrew's site in El Estor, a wonderful little fishing town on the shores of Lago Isabal. Two months later, we decided to get married. "You realize this means that your experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is going to be totally different than if you were alone." I guess he didn't mind because I lived with him in El Estor for two and half years. Now, ten years and three children into marriage, we are all the richer for the humor and love we shared while negotiating the fascinating and frustrating experience of living and working in a foreign country.
Who knows, maybe our children will be third generation Peace Corps Volunteers, Andrew's parents having served in Nepal as some of the P.C.'s first recruits.
-- Joanna Dane
This is actually my husband's story (I played a bit part) whom I would like to interview.
He was a high school biology teacher in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, East Africa 2001 - 2003. While living in his rural village (about 2 hours outside of Tanga) Scott (my husband) had a spontaneous lung collapse. He actually lived with his lung collapsed in his village for approximately 24 hours assuming it to be a back problem. He eventually took the long and bumpy ride to Tanga where he received a chest tube. He had multiple lung collapses in Tanzania and was eventually flown to South Africa via a low altitude plane where he had major lung surgery.
That's 'what happened' but the story is more in the details:
- The surgery he needed to prevent what would ultimately be a life attached to a chest tube (and likely an early death) was not available anywhere in East Africa.
- The cultural differences in the treatment styles in Tanzania (nurses slept in his room with him should he need anything) vs South Africa (if he asked for water from the wrong person that person would be deeply offended/angry) and the US is quite interesting.
- The extremely limited resources for medical care in Tanzania is shocking (he took a taxi across town with his chest tube in place to the only working xray machine). Yet his Tanzanian doctor accurately diagnosed his problem within minutes with a stethoscope.
Every time I hear the story I learn something new.
Peace Corps made him return to the states after surgery but we have been back to Tanzania to visit Tanga and his site in 2007 (I was also a peace corps volunteer there '99 - '00; we got together when I was back in Tanzania visiting after my service) and tried to find the nurse who stayed with him but were unsuccessful...
--Aimee Nash, RPCV-Tanzania ’99-’00
"They looked lost." That is what I remember thinking when I first saw Mark and Darin. I was leaving the home of a girl that was in my girl's club. I had been informing her and her family that she was going to be receiving a scholarship so she could remain in school. Little did I know that upon leaving her hut I would meet my future husband.
I had been in Nepal for a little over a year as a National Park's volunteer. In addition to trying to help improve the park's services I had started a girl's club. Teenage girls are often taken out of school and married off so they are no longer a financial burden on their families. I formed a group which developed a bee-keeping project that produced honey money to keep them in school.
Thus scholarships were given out and that had taken me to Shusma's house that day in May of 2001. Since I was living near National Park I saw tourists more than most PCV's. However, these two boys were far from where most tourists travelled. I approached them, asked if they were lost and the first thing they asked me was if I was PCV. It turned out they had been PCV"s in Papua New Guinea were traveling and trying to locate a friend of postmate who was currently a PCV in Nepal. I knew exactly where she was, training in new PCV's in a nearby town. During the next 2 hours I was captivated by this long haired, blue eyed boy named Mark Dickson who, as it turns out, had gone to the same college at the same time as I had. He thought he recognized me from plays I had been in, I didn't recognize him but I later found out why. He had short hair and glasses in college. I remember thinking I had to come up with some reason for needing his email before I let him get on a bus.
I of course would need travel hints for when I left Nepal so that served as my friendly reason. We only spent 2 hours together but something happened on that dirt road in Nepal that I couldn't explain. I just knew I had met the man I was going to marry and I shared that with friends in Peace Corps. I sent letters, just friendly ones sharing my experiences and reading way too far into his responses.
When I returned to the states I was able to make a fairly good reason for going to his hometown and we ended up hanging out for a long time. The spark for me was still there but I wasn't sure where he stood. Well, to cut this short, a year later we moved to New Mexico for a Peace Corps Fellows grad program, a year after that we were married, and now have three children. The first has the middle name of the town in Nepal where Peace Corps brought us together - Sauraha.
-- Katy Dickson