|This version of the September, 2000 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers. It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on any of the pages.
PeaceCorpsWriters.org September 2000
October 14, 1960
OCTOBER 14TH, is what many of us consider the “official” anniversary of the beginning of the Peace Corps. On that date in 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy flew to Michigan from New York, where he had just completed a third presidential debate with the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon. Kennedy agreed to say a few words, late as it was after 2 A.M. to over 10,000 students who had gathered at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.
Speaking extemporaneously, he threw out challenges to the students: How many would be prepared to give years of their lives working in Asia, Africa and Latin America? How many would serve as teachers, doctors, and engineers? He spoke of the need for them to make a personal contribution, of the greater effort to be made and of the value of sacrifice. “On your willingness,” he said, “not merely to serve one or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete.”
“No one is sure why Kennedy raised the question in the middle of the night at the University of Michigan,” wrote Sargent Shriver in later years. Possibly Kennedy thought of the Peace Corps at Michigan because someone reminded him that Professor Samuel Hayes taught at the University’s International Studies Department. Hayes, in a report which he had submitted to Kennedy in September, had argued a case for American volunteers working in the Third World. Other staff members felt that Kennedy’s remarks were a counterattack to a criticism that Nixon had made during the debate earlier in the evening. Noting that the United States had become involved in foreign wars under Wilson, FDR, and Truman, Nixon had described the Democrats as the “war party.” Harris Wofford, a member of the Kennedy campaign team, and later one of the architects of the Peace Corps, later wrote, “Stung by Nixon’s word, Kennedy may have remembered the idea of a Peace Corps and spoken as he did in order to counteract the image of a Democratic war party.”
Kennedy did not actually mention a “Peace Corps” or “volunteer” at Michigan, but his remarks clearly embodied the spirit of the idea. For him, Ann Arbor was a turning point.
The Cow Palace speech
Three weeks later, on November 2, 1960, Kennedy was in California and gave a major address at the Cow Palace auditorium in San Francisco. Nearly forty thousand people jammed the hall to hear a speech crafted by Theodore Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, and Archibald Cox. The speech was called, “Staffing a Foreign Policy for Peace.”
Pinpointing weaknesses in vital areas of U.S. foreign policy, Kennedy warned that the United States would have to pay the price for its neglect of the newly independent countries of the Third World. He pointed to the paucity of American technicians at work with the peoples of the developing countries. He noted that Asia had more Soviet than American technicians and that a similar trend was becoming apparent in Africa. Stressing the impact that skilled Americans might have in the Third World, “building goodwill, building the peace,” he proposed a new government organization to accomplish this task, a Peace Corps.
President Eisenhower at the time ridiculed the Peace Corps as a “juvenile experiment.” Nixon said the agency would be a form of “draft evasion,” and Senator Barry Goldwater remarked that the Peace Corps would be the advance work for a group of beatniks.
And then the Daughters of the American Revolution at their 70th Continental Congress warned against a “yearly drain” of “brains and brawn . . . for the benefit of backward, underdeveloped countries.” Worse still, as they saw it, in the Peace Corps young Americans would be “living under abnormal conditions . . . and not with fellow-compatriots in barracks, as is customary in the armed forces.” With Volunteers thus “separated from the moral and disciplinary influences of their homeland,” the DAR saw only dire and “serious consequences.”
Well, the Daughters got it partly right.
Nevertheless, three years after the “experiment” began, a Time Magazine cover story concluded that the Peace Corps was “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration has produced.”
After Kennedy’s death, Theodore C. Sorensen, special counsel to President Kennedy, would say that the Peace Corps was the only new idea to emerge from the 1960 campaign. (From 1995 to 1997, Sorensen’s daughter, Juliet, would serve as a health Volunteer in Morocco.) Harris Wofford in his book, Of Kennedys & Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, would write, “Of all the social inventions of the sixties, the Peace Corps has been the most successful. It is John Kennedy’s most affirmative legacy.”
In a talk given at the 35th Anniversary Celebration of the Peace Corps in 1966, Theodore C. Sorensen said, “John F. Kennedy often invoked the old saying that ‘success has a hundred fathers and failure is an orphan.’ He would be the first to acknowledge that the Peace Corps, one of his proudest achievements, had a hundred fathers: a bill by Hubert Humphrey, a speech by James Gavin, an article by Milton Shapp, the example of the Mormons and a dozen other religious organizations, a petition from Michigan University student responding to his impromptu midnight challenge, and dozens of others.”
Today we don’t know really who first conceived of the idea of a Peace Corps, but it was John F. Kennedy who gave it birth, and all of us who served gave it life. So, in many ways, like Kennedy, it is also our greatest achievement.
Happy 40th Birthday Everyone!
In the September issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org
A Writer Writes
Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193) joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which, by coincidence, was the setting of her novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law. Assigned to the University of Veszprem in western Hungary, Simone taught teachers-in--training,
That novel, Louisa, her second, is being published this month by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and has earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. Such acclaim is a first for a Peace Corps writer. In this month’s “A Writer Writes,” Simone tells how she began her highly praised literary novel.
We’re in Africa again for our letter home. This issue, it is West Africa, and Joyce Lombari (Chad 199395) is writing home after a year in Bessada, Chad. Unlike the last issue’s reserved prose of Kathleen Moore (Ethiopia 196567), Joyce wears her heart (and her prose) on her sleeve. This is a tough letter to Mom and Dad and spells out the hard emotions that so many PCVs experience overseas.
Peace Corps Trivia
We’ve added a new column to our mix of items this issue. It’s Peace Corps trivia and hasn’t there been a lot of it over the years? We start with the story of how Vice President Al Gore is linked to the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps History
In the early years of the Peace Corps, before email and desktop publishing, and when the agency was still trying to define what Peace Corps Volunteers “really did,” a series of short monographs were typed up and printed out for the headquarters and overseas staff to read and discuss. The monographs were also circulated on college campuses in an attempt to reveal more about the opportunities and frustrations of Peace Corps life than what appeared in the press. The idea for the monographs was that of Donovan McClure (PC/W 196165 ) who came to Washington with Sargent Shriver as the director of Public Affairs and then became Country Director in Sierra Leone. McClure commissioned several Volunteers and staff members to write about the agency. Several of these monographs made it into print in The Peace Corps Reader, a paperback book published in September 1967 and published by Quadrangle Books for the Peace Corps.
However, the majority of the essays were tossed away or left unread in overstuffed desk outboxes. Nevertheless, a few papers became legendary within the agency during those early days. One was written by Meridan Bennett (PC/W 196467). Bennett, with David Hapgood (PC/W Evaluation 196466), wrote one of the first books that assessed the work of Volunteers. It was entitled, Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps, and was published by Little, Brown in 1968. Before that came, Bennett’s “The Real Job of the Peace Corps: One Man’s View” and we are delighted to be publishing it for the first time ever.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers September 2000
(Guide Book, 6th edition)
by Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 196770) and Pat Yale
Lonely Planet, $21.95
The Mile High Club
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196869)
Simon & Schuster, $23.00
Conversations with Capote
by Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 196870)
DaCapo Press, $15.00
Above the Line: Conversations about the Movies
by Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 196871)
DaCapo Press, $17.00
Of Permanent Value:
The Story of Warren Buffett
(4th edition “Monster Millennium Edition”)
by Andy Kilpatrick (India 196567
AKPE (Andy Kilpatrick Publishing Empire), $30.00
Father Sun, Mother Moon:
Stories of Pluricultural Grassroots Development
by Charles David Kleymeyer (Peru 196668)
Quito, Ecuador: Abya Yala, price unknown
Av. 12 de Octubre 14-30 y Wilson
by Phillip Margolin (Liberia 196567)
SAMS Teach Yourself e-Job Hunting Today
by Susan Musich (Philippines 198990; Costa Rica 199293; PC/W Staff 199092. 199499)
Blood of the Liberals
by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Farrar Straus & Giroux, $26.00
The Cartographer’s Tongue
by Susan Rich (Niger 198486)
White Pine Press, $14.00
A Journey Across the New Russia
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890)
Ruminator Books, $16.00
In the Mountains of Heaven:
True Tales of Adventure on Six Continents
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Lyons Press, $24.95
by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193)
Putnam Publishing Group, $24.95
A Letter from Chad
by Joyce Lombardi (Chad 199395)
Dear Mom and Dad:
Your PopTart package almost made me cry. I had just ridden my bike home from visiting in a neighboring village and crying for four hours over God knows what when the chef du canton handed me a box and packet of letters. You and Fitzcarl and the Maryland Board of Elections made me weep anew.
I’m close to quitting Africa, at least in my thoughts. I have reached a stage of frustration and idleness I’ve never experienced in all my years of social do-goodism and activism. I am burnt out, tired of creating something from nothing: a working health committee from random, hungry people. A women’s health team for malnourished, overworked midwives. I am tired of vaccinating all the mothers and babies each Saturday while my clinic colleague runs off to drink manioc moonshine. I am tired of not being able to do a goddamn thing about: the allegation that our village doctor sexually molests women behind closed doors; the fact there are no medicines here; the fact most of my neighbors are starving; the fact that 14 people died of malaria last week alone; the fact that I am nothing not a doctor, lawyer, oceanographer or journalist. I am just an energetic woman spinning her wheels.
A young man came to my door recently. I was hiding inside on a Sunday morning trying to study for the GREs. He asked for money. His wife, he said, had a dead baby stuck inside her. Could he get money to go to the hospital in the next town? It could have been a scam. Such things are possible here. He was calm, polite, unhurried. I said, "Go to Tournesol [the village doctor]. Then come back and I’ll help you."
He never came back and I ran through the village looking for him. I spent the rest of the day wondering if I had killed the woman with my skepticism.
No, it turns out. He went to the mission instead, and found a pastor to drive him to the hospital in Koumra. They couldn’t help him there, so they drove straight to the big mission hospital run by Italians in a town about 100 km away. I’ve told you what the roads are like. The dust, the ruts, the wandering goats.
His wife is alive. He came to see me afterwards, because he heard I had been looking for him. It was their second stillborn since January. The midwife had yanked the arm and severed it. The baby had died the night before. The husband didn’t try to get help until 10 am the next day (I was his first stop). He didn’t go to Tournesol until noon. Why? He had no money.
So I’m washing my hair with St. Ives papaya shampoo while some woman is lying in a mud hut with a mutilated dead baby hanging out of her. Her womb is a tomb and no one in the village can help her. The little corpse is swelling and she is dying along with it. A walking grave.
I ran through the village wondering why I didn’t just give him the money. It was about $2. Because, I told myself, he had to go to the village doctor first. Because she could have died anyway.
There is nothing I can do.
Wash your hands. Boil your water. Use a condom. Peel your vegetables. Drink lots of water. Crap in a hole.
What the hell is that? Are those pat messages all I have to offer anybody? I can’t educate people who have been living this way for centuries. It’s ridiculous. Racist. Wrong.
Screw the flipcharts. I’m over group sessions. Empty words in a circle. At least vaccinating fills a need. A need to do something. The needle pierces skin, I push the barrel, the child will not get measles. And farming. It’s so direct. Our soybean crop is growing. My chickens are growing. I need to see what I’m doing. My neighbors admire my fat chickens, ripe tomatoes, tall banana trees. I give credit, tiny loans, to people with good ideas for tiny enterprises. Money. Economics. I need to do something tangible.
I need your help. Not just your support (thank you), PopTarts and love. I want you to try to help me get Depo-Provera into this country. People have asked for it. Women don’t want to have as many kids as they have but they can’t refuse a husband "his right." The condoms I give out, ultimately, are men’s choice to use or not to use. The pharmacy in the city used to have DepoProvera but no longer stocks it. Family planning is forbidden here, but it is hidden. No one mentions it when the men are around.
So. All I want for Christmas is aid for Bessada. No more PopTarts. For my midwife committee, I want:
- DepoProvera (injectible 6-month contraceptive, not pills unless you send 1000s and not diaphragms because they’re not discreet or clean.)
- Guaze bandages
- Antiseptic solution
- Latex gloves
- Bandage tape
Yes, this is bad development. No, I am not helping people sustain themselves. Yes, I am fostering dependency on hand-outs. Yes, I know better.
But I am burnt out. I only have a year and I can’t build a grass-roots family planning women’s collective in one year. I don’t have the energy. ACORN, SOS, AANNY, SafeSpace all my other activist/organizing/public health jobs be damned. I’m tired. I’m tired, I need a break.
But please, I can’t have another dead baby come to my door. Women here don’t want to be as pregnant as they are. If you’d rather not jump into this, okay. It isn’t a parent/daughter thing. That’s PopTarts and face soap. This is a first world/third world thing. If you feel like you can do old-style charity work, great. If not, and people ask about me over the holidays, tell them to send condoms, or anything named above. Call it the safe motherhood in action compaign.
Literary Type September 2000
Louisa by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 199193) published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons on September 4th has received Starred * reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and special notice from Inside.com, the powerful new media website. The novel, a reinterpretation of the Biblical tale of Ruth, who follows her destitute Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, to her homeland and adopts her religion. Lauded by Kirkus Reviews as “superb . . . mature and absorbing,” the novel tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and her German daughter-in-law, bound together by their experience in Hungary under the Nazis during World War II. Publishers Weekly says that Zelitch “transcends historical events with a provocative depiction of the enduring mysteries of human relationships.”
Inside.com drew attention, in early September, to the new fall books, and made note that while Simone Zelitch did not receive a hefty advance for her Louisa, the novel nevertheless has its “passionate believers.”
Facing the Congo by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890; PC/Staff Uzbekistan 199293) will be published in October by Ruminator Books. Tayler is the author of Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia. He writes for such publications as Condé Nast Traveler, Spin, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly, and he is a regular commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Two of Tayler’s travel essays were selected by Bill Bryson for the 2000 inaugural edition of The Best American Travel Writing.
In a surprise announcement 35 years ago this month, the president of the United States gave young Americans a few hours at most to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives: Get to the altar by midnight or risk dying in Vietnam. What happened next is detailed by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) in the September issue of George magazine.
A new website, 12degrees.com, which offers travelers consultations for a fee with guidebook authors and in-country specialists, features three RPCVs. Among the authors who will design a custom overseas vacation for you: For the Caribbean, there is Karl Luntta (Botswana 197880), who has written travel books on Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles; and Turkey’s guide is Tom Brosnahan, (Turkey 196770), who has written on his country-of-service for Arthur Frommer’s popular guide books and the Lonely Planet guide book on Turkey (and is featured in our interview this issue). Among the in-country specialists who make all reservations, and arrangements for travelers, is Dudley Parkinson ( Cameroon 197678) who worked for seven years in West Africa and is a West Africa specialist for 12degrees.
Vanity Fair has Senior Correspondent Maureen Orth’s (Colombia 1964-66) piece on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new president in the October issue.
The late journalist, Jonathan Kwitny (Nigeria 196466) is acknowledged by Barbara Kingsolver in her “Author's Note” to the bestseller The Poisonwood Bible as her primary source:
Most profoundly helpful among [my sources] was Jonathan Kwithny’s description of Zaire’s postcolonial history, in his excellent book, Endless Enemies, which gave shape to my passion to write a novel on the same subject. I returned continually to that account for the big picture and countless small insights.
In January, Karl Luntta (Botswana 197780) had a short story entitled “Cold On Ice” in Northeast Corridor, published by Beaver College in Pennsylvania. He also had novel excerpt called “Sugar” published in the December 1999 issue of North Atlantic Review. The novel, to be published by Curbstone Press in 2001, is as yet untitled.
How to Be a Better Birder
by Michael Ketover (Honduras 199395; Guyana 199596; Crisis Corps/ Dominican Republic 1999)
Writer’s Club Press, an imprint of iUniverse.com, Inc., $11.95
Review by Laura McClure (Togo 199799)
PERHAPS THE METAPHOR was unintended. Perhaps the topic of birding is a straightforward one, and “better birding” a clean conceptual line, and this slim book just a traveler’s log of mental snapshots of . . . birds.
To be sure, there are all the bird sightings one would expect of an anthology that titles itself How To Be A Better Birder. If jabiru storks are your bird, you can find them here, jostling for attention with Bali mynahs, lime green parrots, fairy terns, wattled jacanas, and three kinds of heron. Ketover describes them all in the sun-drenched colors of the tropics.
But the anthology’s real subjects are the countries where these birds are found: Tonga, Guyana, Kenya, Nepal. Other countries remain unnamed and some are the countries of dreams (because not all his stories are non-fiction).
Through travel and NGO work assignments, Ketover has come to know Tongan churches, Carribean pesticide usage, and Masai female circumcision rites and he shares opinions of them all.
Like the birds Ketover seeks, cultural truths are elusive. How does one hear the individual through the political noise of a place? By being quiet and observant. By being, in short, a better birder.
Ketover’s sharp eye leads us to many an interesting view. So while it’s possible to finish this book still not knowing how to spot a jabiru stork, you will gain a fresh perspective on some controversial topics, some spicy stories from foreign lands, and perhaps even a brush-up course on how to observe.
Here's hoping you’ll be a better birder too.
Laura McClure is a Peace Corps Recruiter and free lance writer. She lives in San Francisco.
Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War
by William H. Armstrong (PC staff/Ethiopia 196668,
PC Director/Swaziland 196871)
Kent State University Press, $18.00.
Reviewed by Ted O. Hall (Peru 196668)
IN HIS BOOK, MAJOR McKINLEY, William Armstrong considers the early years of William McKinley, the man who would become President of the United States, particularly his experiences in the Civil War.
Other than the author’s Peace Corps experience, I was at first confused as to why PeaceCorpsWriters.org would select the Civil War experiences of a little known President as the subject for a book review. However, as I began to read, I found the premise: The author makes it clear that the Civil War was our nation’s first great battle for civil rights, and McKinley raised in an abolitionist family joined the Union army as a private fully committed to the fight to end the slavery of black Americans. This is really the story of a young man’s idealism and his commitment to civil rights, which ultimately propel him to the pinnacle of political power. The Peace Corps of course was built by committed young idealists, most of whom had a fundamental concern for human and civil rights. After completing the book, I found its subject matter entirely consistent with the Peace Corps experience.
The final chapter discussing McKinley’s post war life was most provocative. After the war, he continued to work for civil rights he returned to Ohio, became a lawyer, and worked for Negro Suffrage. Despite being considered a civil rights radical, he was elected to Congress in 1877. And throughout his years in Congress, McKinley continued to speak out for the rights of black Americans.
In 1896 McKinley was elected President, and at that time his reputation had earned him the respect and following of most in the black community. However, after ascension to the Presidency, he abandoned his lifelong struggle for civil rights, and political unification of the country became his most dedicated effort. As he reached out to integrate the South into the political process, he compromised his former unrelenting advocacy of civil rights.
McKinley turned out to be a rather inconsequential President. Great Presidents are those who enter office with a clear vision of what it is that they wish to realize while in office, and they leave office seeing their vision flourish. Sadly, McKinley abandoned his vision while in office.
On closing the book I wondered what history would have recorded had President McKinley continued to pursue his vision of equal rights for black Americans. Would the movement for civil rights in this country have been advanced had he remained true to the great cause of his youth? If so, would he now stand next to the Great Emancipator in reputation, instead of resting in the obscure pages of US history?
For students of the Civil War, this book is well researched and full of stories of military life during the war. It contains detailed descriptions of many battles that surrounded McKinley’s wartime service. For some, this reading may be a bit tedious, for others it will be a rewarding review of a rarely studied figure in the annals of US history.
Ted Hall is a member of the Southern Nevada Peace Corps Association. He is a published author of legal and accounting texts, and is working on his first novel from his Peace Corps memoirs.
Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett
by Andrew Kilpatrick (India 196567)
AKPE (Andy Kilpatrick Publishing Empire) Publishing
1162 pages ("Monster Millennium Edition")
4th edition 2000
Reviewed by John Hartley (Grenada 199294)
THE PROFITS OF WARREN BUFFET’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. (BRKa on the New York Stock Exchange) plummeted 42% in 1999, the worst year in its history, so the title Of Permanent Value may be a stretch even though for 35 years BRKa has performed nothing less than sensationally.
Warren Buffett has subscribed to a very simple hypothesis that is “know how to invest the available capital to achieve the best long term results for shareholders.” This is not a very complicated formula coming from a complicated man who has shunned the glitzy CEO fraternity that visualizes themselves as celebrity. For most of his long life, the reclusive Mr. Buffett has had the best ringside seat in the business world. Long ago recognized for his analytical skills, he has continued to amaze the world with a stock that has climbed from $19/share to its present $62,100. Okay, it’s down from its all time high of $78,600, but the average gain over 40 years has been at 24% compounded annually. With a personal stake of 474, 998 shares, his holdings are worth $29.5 billion. Not bad for the kid from Omaha who lives in the same house he grew up in, draws a salary of $100K per year and lives very frugally except for a private jet. Katherine Graham of the Washington Post once said upon visiting his home in Omaha, “Warren, is this all you can afford?” Throw into the mix Astrid, his French waitress mistress, allegedly recruited by his wife, Susie. Gift cards from the Buffetts are signed Warren, Susie, and Astrid.
The author of Of Permanent Value, Andrew Kilpatrick, weaves a path through time that delineates transactions in painstaking detail that even astute investors such as this reviewer cannot understand. Each of Warren Buffet’s acquisitions has been carefully calculated and, in retrospect, has been brilliant. Kilpatrick brings us the blueprint that Buffett put to use with uncommon brilliance yet incredibly obvious results.
In the early days, Nebraskans invested in BRKa through word-of-mouth and with very attractive terms. Omaha is now loaded with millionaires who owe their success and financial security to Buffett. Had an investor taken Buffett’s advice and invested $10,000 in Berkshire Hathaway in 1965, she/he would be worth $50 million today. Conversely, the same $10K in an S & P index would be worth $500,000.
Author Kilpatrick has detailed most of the transactions up to 1996 when his book was originally published. Since that time Buffett has continued to overwhelm even the most casual business observer. His stock has shot-up from $38,000 per share in 1996 to its present $62,100 per share.
From the beginning, Buffett made his fortune from investing. Between 1950 and 1956, he saw his seed money grow from $9,800 to $140,000. In 1959 his net worth was $400K, in 1982 $250 million, in 1984 $750 million, and today its $29.5 billion.
Kilpatrick provides many interesting insights into Mr. Buffett, and does a good job of capturing the reader’s interest in this extraordinary man. though 1162 pages are a bit much. Some of the Buffett deals are described in excruciating detail that would be over the heads of many readers. At one point, the author describes the will of Howard Buffett and how his son, Warren, was left out of it. All of a sudden we are introduced (albeit briefly) to Matt Seto, a teenage investor who is quoted by Kilpatrick as saying, “So many wealthy people you read about started out wealthy, Buffett didn’t.” Kilpatrick also provided a picture of Seta which leads me to the conclusion that the only justification for this is that Seto is a customer of Kilpatrick’s?
In spite of the length of the biography, and finding out much more than we really care to know about his business deals, Warren Buffett is a very interesting character.
John Hartley has been manager of the Peace Corps Los Angeles regional office since March, 1996. John, a native of Colorado, and his wife Katha were volunteers in Grenada from 1992 to 1994.
by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski (Borneo 196971)
Jeff McNeely (photographer),
Dr. John Quigley (illustrator),
The Encyclopedia of Malaysia (illustrator)
Sid Harta Publishing, $13.00
Reviewed by Paige Risser (Paraguay 1996 98)
NO SOONER HAD I brought Paul Spencer Sochaczewski’s Redheads home to read, than my fiancé became engrossed in it. (Luckily for me, this was not an expose about carrot-top supermodels, but rather a novel about the struggle to save the rain forests of Borneo and its inhabitants, including the red haired Orangutan.)
For the next two days, whenever I glanced his way to see what he felt like for dinner or to ask if he could pass me the “Style” section, instead of the visage of my beloved, I was met with that of the shaggy red Orangutan on the book’s cover. Eventually, if prodded enough, he would pay distracted attention to me. But as soon as he could, he put his nose back in the book.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long in my disregarded state. My fiancé found Redheads so riveting that he burned his way through it, and a mere forty-eight hours later, the book and the beloved were mine once again. The book was well worth the wait. (The beloved wasn’t so bad either; turns out he prefers blondes.)
So it was with this ringing endorsement that I began my own journey through Redheads, Sochaczewski’s tale of ambition and corruption, sex and compassion amid the fragile ecosystem of Southeast Asia.
Sochaczewski knows of what he speaks. He’s what a fellow conservationist calls “an old Asia hand,” a succinct way to describe someone who for 30 years has lived in that part of the world and worked for as many years to preserve it.
You can read the author’s wildlife credentials on the book jacket. Inside, however, you’re treated to his storyteller’s mind, and the delightfully quirky, flawed characters that have sprung from it. You meet all the players in a theater of lush flora and fauna teetering on the brink of disaster: the misguided American academics, a lonely Swiss eco-rebel, the disenfranchised natives, the vain government ministers, a no-nonsense conservation fundraiser and the avaricious loggers. The danger is that the characters could become caricatures of the motivations they stand for, but the author avoids this by giving each a soul that everyone can connect with.
Sochaczewski moves them around a fantastic plot like a clever puppeteer. The Swiss man leads the natives in guerilla tactics against the logging companies. The fundraiser and the government ministers pester the academics with accountability and bureaucratic red tape. There is action, action and more action, a rollicking good time made more fun in part by the author’s steady sense of humor throughout. Readers feel his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as an observer of these very human characters crisscrossing throughout his story.
While the novel is acutely funny, there is no question that the subject matter is also genuinely serious. Sochaczewski strikes a delicate balance between the two moods. Readers are aware that at the heart of Redheads lie the very real problems facing not only this, but many regions throughout the world. One gets the feeling that Sochaczewski’s seen it all during his fight for the forests, and runs the risk of being rendered cynical by the tragedy. But just when one least expects it, his passion and idealism are clear, and readers start to believe that despite the darkness in the world, good will win the day.
Here’s hoping it does. Until then, enjoy a damn good read.
Paige Risser a blonde is the Public Affairs Specialist with the Peace Corps’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Recruiting Office.
Talking with Tom Brosnahan
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
IT’S A CONVOLUTED STORY that tells of how we found Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 196770). It involves the article by Ginger Taylor Saçlioglu (Turkey 196870) entitled “For Love of Ankara” in the July issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org, the wonders of the internet and a little enjoyable detective work.
Tom has written in a different way about Turkey than Ginger he has written several guide books on the country. Through a quick series of emails, I pieced together Tom’s very successful career as a travel writer, all of which began while he was serving in the Peace Corps.
What was your Peace Corps country and assignment?
I was a volunteer in Turkey from 1967 to 1970. I taught English in a dual-language high school near Izmir. After the first school year was over, we were required to be of service during the summer as well, so we had to think up a summer project. I could see that Turkey had immense tourism potential, but few Americans knew it. I proposed writing a chapter about Turkey for Arthur Frommer’s popular Europe travel guidebook, Europe on $5 a Day, so Americans could read what Turkey had to offer. I wrote to Frommer, who said that such a chapter wasn’t really appropriate for his book, but that he would “give a swift and sympathetic reading” to a manuscript for a new guidebook devoted to Turkey. I decided to write it.
So your first travel book was on Turkey?
Quickly run through how one book led to another. I’m particularly interested in the “building blocks” of a career such as yours.
Once you’ve written a successful guidebook, it’s easy to get work doing other books. Publishers know you can do the job. After my Turkey book went off to press, my publisher, Arthur Frommer, asked me if I’d be interested in revising a guide to Mexico. I was, and I did. I later added Guatemala and Belize to the Frommer Mexico guide.
Looking for more work, I contacted other publishers. Berlitz Publications needed writers, and sent me off to do seven books over a period of years. Frommer called again also, and gave me a contract for a guide to Canada, and others for New England and Israel.
By this time I had given up graduate school and was writing full time.
How many travel books have you published?
About three dozen. It’s a matter of definition. Is a revised edition a “new” book? It takes months and months to revise a guide, so I think so.
Do you also write travel article for magazines?
Yes, it’s enjoyable to write articles as well. I’ve written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, BBC World, Diversion, Travel & Leisure, TWA Ambassador, and numerous newspapers and syndicates.
What advice would you give to a recently returned PCV about travel writing?
It takes time to break into travel writing, to build up a body of work that will give editors confidence enough to give assignments to you. Travel writing is certainly enjoyable, but many times it is also plain hard work. Some people earn a decent living at it, others must subsidize their writing habit with income from savings, a day job, or a solvent spouse.
How is it doing books for Lonely Planet?
Lonely Planet is a great company. I’ve written for them for almost 20 years now. For most of that time LP has been the best company in the world to work with. Recently, however, they’ve been wildly successful and have grown very big and perhaps out of necessity have gotten more and more “corporate.” It’s not nearly as lucrative nor enjoyable as it once was, but I still get a great thrill when I see my name in a new edition of one of my guides.
Do you write on a laptop? Do you take it with you on trips?
My primary tools are a paper notebook and ballpoint pen. They’re absolutely indispensable. Yes, I take a laptop on trips, but I use it mostly for email. I don’t spend much time writing during research trips. I’d rather get home sooner to my family, write at my desk, and not incur further on-the-road expenses.
Where do you live?
I live in the world’s most beautiful town: Concord, Massachusetts.
What is your favorite country? Your favorite city?
Well, these are difficult questions for a travel writer! I’d have to say that my favorite country is the US of A, but my Peace Corps “home,” Turkey, is a close second. My favorite town is Concord, Massachusetts, where I live, but my favorite city is indubitably Istanbul. I feel more at home there than in any other place except Concord.
On an average book, how much time is spent researching the country and how much time do you spend writing?
It really depends on the book’s format. Some guides are prosy travelogues, others are virtual encyclopedias with hundreds of facts on each page. For a brand-new 700-page Lonely Planet guide, I might spend four or five months in research (most of that on the road), and six or seven months writing, with a month or two of answering editors’ queries after that.
How do you pay for all the traveling? Hotels? Cars? Etc. Does the publisher give you an expense account or do you get “freebies” from hotels, etc.?
Almost all expenses come out of the fee or royalties earned from the book. A few publishers pay a few expenses, but in most cases it’s up to the author to pay. Official travel offices may sometimes get us free air travel and perhaps a few hotel rooms, but our need for anonymity doesn’t allow us to accept much more in the way of freebies.
A guidebook author has to travel fast because information is always changing, and s/he can’t afford to spend much time chatting amiably with “hosts” (hotel managers, restaurant owners, etc) who offer freebies in exchange for a chance to pitch their establishments to the writer.
Who are your favorite travel writers?
My all-time favorite is John Lloyd Stephens, New York lawyer, sometime ambassador plenipotentiary to the fledgling United States of Central America, pioneering archeologist, and author of two excellent works, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, and Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, published in the 1830s and 1840s. His writing is graceful and lucid, enjoyably descriptive, often eloquent, and always exhibits the joy of travel and the author’ s positive outlook, healthy sense of humor, and thirst for adventure.
One last question. If you were suggesting a great trip for an RPCV where would it be?
The best trip an RPCV can take is back to where s/he served, and the greatest reward is to meet people you knew and came to love during your service.
For me, this is now bittersweet. I’ve returned to Turkey dozens of times since my service there, and although many of my students are alive, well, and serving in prominent positions, most of my other, older friends from my service time are gone.
These days Volunteers of all ages set out to serve. In my day we were all young, mostly in our early to mid-20s. We had little acquaintance with the world. However much our Peace Corps may have helped the people of our host countries, it helped us, the Volunteers, far more. It was our coming-of-age, and a rich one it was.
We left our homes and went abroad to find other customs, traditions, beliefs, and ways of living. Perhaps more importantly, living and working abroad taught us more about our own country than we could ever learn living at home: what was right and wrong, good and bad in it.
Peace Corps service was a real education in the School of Life, a crash course in the way the world really works. Returning to our Peace Corps “alma mater” is sweeter and more telling than a high school or college reunion could ever be.
Was Al Gore's Sister A Peace Corps Volunteer?
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE has said on a few occasions that his older sister, Nancy, was a Peace Corps Volunteer. While Nancy Gore did have a Peace Corps history, it was not as a Volunteer. A friend, who worked in the Peace Corps building in the very early days, emailed PeaceCorpsWriters,org about Al Gore’s connection to the agency.
Nancy Gore, Al’s older sister and the daughter of Senator Albert Gore, and Sally Bowles, daughter of Chester Bowles, former Connecticut Congressman, Undersecretary of State, and Ambassador to India, shared an office in the the Maiatico Building, the first Peace Corps office at 806 Connecticut Avenue when I started working in recruitment there in July, 1960. I remember that there was a large poem/sign over the door: “Sally Bowles and Nancy Gore, I don’t want to go to war!”
Little Albert used to come there from Saint Albans School and wait for Nancy to finish work and take him home, so we put him to work around the office. He was as nice a young boy as you would want.
The culprit for saying that Nancy (along with Sally) were the first “volunteers” was no other than the granddaddy of all Peace Corps myth and overstatements, R. Sargent Shriver. In his recruiting (and other) speeches and I attended a lot of them he would say that the “first volunteers were Nancy Gore and Sally Bowles who walked into our temporary offices and said ‘what can we do?’” Then Sarge would boast about Chester Bowles and Senator Gore. Sarge never insinuated that either were overseas Volunteers, as there were none at the beginning. But Sarge used Nancy and Sally as examples because he wanted the Peace Corps (here and overseas) to be full of famous, interesting people. Sally and Nancy were a signal to American youth that even the children of famous people were excited about the Peace Corps.
I am also sure that Sally and Nancy worked quite a while without getting paid. I recall their talking about just starting to work without any pay. If I had the impression that his sister was volunteering for the Peace Corps, well, I’m sure Al did as well.
When Nancy Gore did get on the payrolls at the Peace Corps she became the assistant to the Associate Director for Planning and Evaluation. Sally Bowles became a Volunteer liaison officer in the Division of Volunteer Field Services. Sally was actually a charter member of the Peace Corps Staff, arriving for work on March 1, 1961, the day that President Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the agency.
The Ashtray, or How I wrote Louisa
SOMEONE ONCE ASKED CHEKHOV how he wrote. Chekhov replied by picking up an ashtray and saying, “Tomorrow, I will write a story called 'The Ashtray.'” Of course it should be that easy. We find stories everywhere, and we simply need the courage to tell them. I began Louisa in just that spirit. After completing two dense, ambitious, novels, I longed for a way to shrug off all pretensions and simply write. Why couldn’t I just start something simple, something called, say, The Ashtray? I typed that title on top of the first page, and then began: “I started smoking when I was six years old..”
The process begins
Who started smoking? A woman who was not so young, not terribly attractive and this came to me slowly in a perpetual foul temper. Why was she in a foul temper? Because she couldn’t get any cigarettes. Why couldn’t she get any cigarettes? Because, I thought, she is dependent on someone, and can not bring herself to ask for a favor.
So began a stream of emotionally charged questions, and I realized that I had entered deep waters. It would take a long time to do justice to this story about a prickly, strong-willed woman who is in somebody else’s power. She was a survivor, a it came to me Holocaust survivor named Nora, who arrived in Israel after the war with her German daughter-in-law, Louisa.
According to the Bible, another survivor once appeared in Israel with her daughter-in-law. The survivor’s name was Naomi, and the daughter-in-law was Ruth, a non-Jew who clung to Naomi and took on her people and her God. I had received at least a skeletal religious education, and knew the story of Ruth and Naomi well enough to be aware that Ruth was a model of selfless devotion. However, as I re-read the story, I found myself struck by Naomi’s consistent bitterness, the way she never expressed affection, or even gratitude, towards Ruth. Is it possible that not everyone wants to be loved as much as Ruth loved Naomi? In my novel, Louisa saves Nora’s life by hiding her in her family cellar. Now, Louisa refuses to leave Nora. Can any such relationship be simple?
Research and the story
Once I began to do some research, matters became even more complicated. After all, in choosing Nora, I had taken on two impossible subjects, the Holocaust and Zionism. One of the most difficult parts of writing historically based fiction is knowing when to stop doing research. At some point, I would have to reign myself in and focus on the story at hand. Unfortunately, given the material, I could take Nora’s story in so many directions that the most likely final outcome would be complete paralysis. I managed to figure out that Nora is Hungarian and that she is in Israel searching to for a Kibbutznik cousin. However, those two facts alone could have kept me in the library for the rest of my life.
Then I got lucky.
I joined the Peace Corps and they sent me to Hungry. There, I taught for two years in Veszprem, a town just west of Budapest, and I went through a period when I didn’t read or write a word. My full-time job was trying to make sense of where I’d landed. Veszprem has a famous zoo, a castle, a scenic overlook, an enormous Jewish cemetery, and no live Jews.
I remember the first time I looked through the gate of that cemetery and tried to read the Hebrew inscription through a tangle of weeds. Later, I returned from a trip to find that the undergrowth had been cleared by a volunteer troop of youths from Israel. The stones looked less forlorn, but I couldn’t shake the sense that thee was something dishonest about weeding that cemetery. It seemed to deny a basic truth: once there were Jews in Veszprem; now there were none.
When I traveled around Hungary, I made a point of searching for abandoned synagogues. They weren’t hard to find. Some of them were shells, filled with old tires, car parts, and wildflowers. Some of them had been cleaned up and turned into something else altogether such as the Great Synagogue of Kecskemet, which is now a Technical Museum and Dance Club. I walked around that museum for a few minutes, searching for some sign of what it had been; and , then, without warning, I had to rush outside to the park across the road, where I sat on the grass and cried. Somehow, I had never felt as Jewish as I did in Hungary. It made me wonder how we define identity. Can we only know who we are when we know what we’ve lost?
Israel enters the story
My years in Europe allowed for a few trips to Israel, where I did some research at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and explored the Galilee where Nora’s cousin founded a kibbutz. I will admit to a long-time fascination with Kibbutzim and their founders. Even as I developed a critical ambivalence towards Israeli policy, I still loved those early pioneers. The first Jews who left Europe to make a home in Palestine believed that as they transformed the land, they would transform themselves. The Israel I found was still a land shaped by that spirit, what might be called “heroic optimism.” Logically, when I came to that country, I should have felt what all Jews are told they ought to feel in Israel: proud, secure, and completely at home. Yet somehow I didn’t. It might have been those years in Hungary, but the thought of transformation set my teeth on edge.
At one point, I came across a deserted Arab quarter where an empty mosque had been turned into an artist’s studio. When I asked my Israeli companion how he felt about the way the building had been used, he shrugged. “It was a war. They were here. Now they’re gone.” I told him about the synagogue in Kechskemet and he nodded. “Same thing. Thee was a war and now they’re gone.” I felt a little sick. Admittedly, the analogy had been my own, but I’d never expected him to agree. Once he had, I almost wanted to start an argument, to insist that there was no equivalence between expulsion and extermination. Still, was that the question at hand? I had asked about some empty buildings. What did I want the Israelis and the Hungarians to do with their mosques and their synagogues? Turn them into museums of displaced persons? Re-populate their countries with the people they had dispossessed and shepherd them inside?
I imagined Nora and the other survivors arriving in Israel in 1949. Some of those newcomers moved into emptied Arab villages. How did they fit into this society that did not believe in looking back? Nora, in any event, was neither heroic nor optimistic. In fact, her refusal to let go of the past, and to become a new woman, is an essential part of her character. Would she feel at home in Israel? Hardly. Yet she had no other home. And with her was her German daughter-in-law, Louisa, who, like the Biblical Ruth, was as flexible as mercury, a genius at transformation, in some ways the perfect Israeli. Nora responds with a cranky and ironic distance that rises like a wall of barbed wire. What does she protect behind that wall? The past.
The heart of the novel
Above all else, Nora drove the novel on. I let her voice shape the book’s structure, as memory gives way to memory, and she tries to reconcile what she has lost with where she had landed, in a country she cannot understand with a girl who will not let go. It was a matter of telling the story on her terms. It was also a matter of trying my first cigarette at the age of thirty. It was an unfiltered Chesterfield, and it smelled like a Fig Newton, and gave me a head rush that took me by surprise. For just one moment, I held the world at arm’s length, and everything made sense. Then, just as suddenly, it didn’t. No wonder Nora wanted another cigarette.
Ultimately, it is not such an easy thing to write about an ashtray. When you have a certain kind of imagination, every object turns into a metaphor, and those metaphors have their own momentum. In the years it took me to figure out the best way to tell Nora’s story, I have always returned to the woman who put between herself and her circumstances a little smoke.
Simone Zelitch was born in Philadelphia. She attended Wesleyan University where she wrote an early draft of her first book, The Confession of Jack Straw (1991). The novel won a Hopwood Award, and was published by Black Heron Press. After the Peace Corps, a grant from the University of the Arts Venture Fund and a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts allowed her to completed Louisa. Currently she is an instructor at the Community College of Philadelphia. She is working on a novel about Blacks, Jews and the Civil Rights movement.
The Real Job of the Peace Corps
One Man’s View
by Meridan Bennett(PC/Washington staff 196467)
I HAVE BEEN EMPLOYED BY THE PEACE CORPS for more than three years, first as an overseas staff member, then as an evaluator of the Peace Corps’ overseas programs. During this time I have naturally formed some notions as to what the real work of the Peace Corps is. I do not mean the breakdown as between teaching, agriculture, public health and so on. I mean the character of the work underlying all these assignments, for there is a common element that I have observed overseas in all types of Peace Corps jobs when performed well. What I am describing is a personal view. My interest in the work of the Peace Corps is, if anything, stronger now than it was when I came to the organization in the first year of existence; but it is a different kind of interest.
When I came to the Peace Corps I came attracted by an idea. Now that idea has become a demonstrated reality. What interests me now is effectiveness. I think most who have worked with the Peace Corps share my shift in emphasis.
The Peace Corps is important and has relevance only so long as it is effective in assisting the development of those nations which have requested its help. This is the criterion by which the Peace Corps will eventually be judged, not only by the host countries, but by the Americans who agree to volunteer their services for two years.
The Developing World
What is meant by development assistance? In the nineteenth century, one gets the feeling that all too much of the assistance being rendered those parts of the world that we now call “developing” was rationalized as assistance to bring them qualities of mind and spirit which, it was felt, would result in their eventual ennoblement. Today, with the vast majority of those areas recently freed from colonial rule, many people feel that we have no business messing with their qualities of mind and spirit but instead must assist them in every way possible to overcome their problems of hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear. There are, in fact, few people who still believe that development can occur as a result of the single-handed efforts of outsiders. More and more people are coming to see that each nation and ethnic grouping must take a sizeable, even a dominant, role in its own development if any significant change is to take place. It is my view of development assistance that it must be aimed at those basic problems hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear and leave the qualities of mind and spirit to the peoples who must eventually live with them. By discovering solutions of those hard problems not global solutions, but solutions that are appropriate to each local situation in which those problem are the agonizing facts of life the people that we are trying to help will learn the process through which problems are solved. The attitudes and values thus formed will be their values, their attitudes, and will be a source of increasing self-esteem.
Peace Corps Reality
The foregoing is the substance of the idea that has become a reality in the Peace Corps. But how does one go about solving those problems of low agricultural productivity, poor distribution of what is produced, low gross national product, lack of foreign monetary reserves, non-existent public health measures, school systems that do not reach out to the mass of the population with anything like an educational program geared to the needs of the people, and patchworks of divided, suspicious communities unable to unite for collective action so as to alleviate the personal, local and national insecurity which increasingly threatens the future of civilization? Does one send American food and dollars, transported in American planes and ships, parachuted on isolated villages? Does one supply the doctors and nurses to set up and run a health establishment? Does one build and staff a school system with American money and teachers? Does one set up a political administration patterned along lines that Americans think to be workable? These solutions, which smack more of disaster relief than development, have been tried singly or in various combinations and have not worked in the past, and show no sign of working in the future. Colonialism, whether of the dollar-plus-food variety or by political administration, is also a dead letter, whether for benign or sinister purposes.
Development assistance, to have any effect at all, must work at a much more basic level, and it must involve at every turn the people who are receiving it. And this brings me to a consideration of what I have called the “real” work of the Peace Corps. It does no good to send an agronomist overseas to tell people what crops they should be planting. Any agriculturist, to be effective must go beyond the immediate problems of technology and study why it is that people farm the way they do, and what are the religious, economic and social characteristics that make them resist vaccination of their herds and furrow irrigation of their crops. Any nurse or doctor, to be effective, must learn what local health practices are being used, and what is their utility for the whole man as well as the whole complex of human forces that go to make up people’s attitudes toward life and death. A teacher, to be effective, must know the home life of his students, and he must not only concern himself with matters of teaching technique, but he must examine at every turn the educational needs of the people he is serving in order to help them to acquire wisdom that will be relevant to their own purposes.
The examples of how an agent of development assistance becomes effective could be multiplied many times. But underneath them all lies the need to learn and understand. He must acquire an ability to help the people he is serving to find their own ways to solve their problems, not to show them our way in the sublime and frequently unrealistic faith that it is the only right way. This is the real work of the Peace Corps. It is also the real work of effective development assistance.
Starting from Scratch
Starting nearly from scratch in 1961, the Peace Corps began to find ways of training its Volunteers to be effective. One way has been to make them more sensitive to each other during their training period before going overseas. Through this means, they learn to observe the mechanics of relations between individuals and groups. Upon this base can be built a body of methodology for studying human interrelationships. By the time a Volunteer arrives overseas he can be trained to observe the flow of all resources in a community how they are procured, how they are distributed and used and to relate them to the social structure of the people he is working with. But above all, the most important skill a Volunteer learns is the one that helps him to involve the people he is working with in studying themselves so as to achieve an understanding of their own problems.
In this sense the Volunteer becomes a catalyst with every observation he makes, for it is often an observation acquired through discussion with people who are for the first time taking a good look at what they had previously accepted as inevitable. No Volunteer can be effective who does not live closely with the people, nor can he make the grade without being able to communicate with them in their language. That is why the Peace Corps takes no chances it teaches him the language and assigns him to live and work among the people. These two preconditions of effective work have become more entrenched in Peace Corps programs with every passing year. So has the concept of making the Volunteer a more effective catalyst, or instrument of change.
Making Sense of Development
Looked at this way, development assistance begins to make some sense. It requires the presence of a person not just advice, commodities and money. This person, whether he be sent to work in a school, a rural clinic, a city slum, or a local or regional council, recognizes his basic job as one of helping people to find out about their problems, and then teaching them the techniques of problem-solving. Learning this job, and applying its techniques overseas, is as challenging and rewarding an enterprise as any American can engage in at the present moment of our country’s history. To engage in it means acquiring intellectual tools that are largely unavailable through any other source in America. It means applying them, often with results that strike right at the heart of the syndrome of dependency and inertia that have consistently nullified efforts to reach the masses of the people in other development assistance programs. It means teaching the techniques of problem-solving to people who desperately need them, people who will welcome the help when it is provided within the framework of their own needs and desires.
This job means developing leadership potential at the grass roots by throwing the prestige, willingness and analytical tools of a visiting foreigner behind those people in the community who appear more eager to involve themselves in change. It means feeding information about resources to the people who can best use it. It means helping people to plan at all levels of society for the more effective use of the human, energy, information and raw material resources that go to make up their environment. It means constantly seeking out people’s opinions, constantly asking questions, constantly feeding information into the various systems which go to make up that nebulous entity we call “community.”
All these aspects of the Peace Corps job can be accomplished by any Volunteer, whether he be working in a school, on an agricultural experiment station, in a department of public works, in slum-based community centers, in a hospital, in a federation of cooperatives, in a firestation project in short, in any of the many jobs in which Volunteers are now working. The person who makes a success of the Peace Corps is one who is curious, endlessly interested in what is going on about him. He is above all interested in people. The Peace Corps has shown itself capable of taking that kind of person and training him to be effective in development assistance, then assigning him overseas in a place where h can use that interest and training to take the slow, careful, practical steps that are needed to secure peace in a world that badly needs it.
A Whole Generation of Americans
I think it is not extravagant to state that a whole generation of Americans roughly, those whose conditioning occurred after the Second World War understand the need for a new approach to development assistance in the have-not world. Their own personal struggles to develop competence and effectiveness have been colored by growing up in an era in which progress does not always seem to go in a forward direction. Their era is one in which nineteenth-century optimism has found its final contradiction in the potential of the human race for complete self-annihilation. These Americans are eager for the intellectual challenge of understanding and using the tools by which competence in problem solving can be created and made a constructive force for peace without coercion.
The Peace Corps was born in a time of contradiction between the values being acquired by American youth and the values being expressed abroad by official American agencies caught in the paradoxes of the Cold War. In 1961, for the first time, an agency of the United States Government established itself in overseas operations with the capability of expressing the diversity of American life a diversity all too often observable only when one gets down deep into the fabric of life at home. The Peace Corps not only has no official foreign policy to promote; it would be incapable of imposing one upon its Volunteers, who come from a great diversity of backgrounds and who, in any case, did not volunteer their services to be told what to think or say. The Peace Corps has therefore been able to remain an official agency and at the same time to a large extent non-partisan in the Cold War.
A Typical Peace Corps Evening
I once ate supper in Latin America with two Volunteers and a Latin friend of theirs. One Volunteer had been active in liberal activities on his campus in America; the other had been a staunch Young Republican. The two Volunteers got to arguing American politics. The Latin said to me, in an aside, “I’m glad to discover that these two gringos are manly enough to argue about politics with each other. Up to now, they only argued with me!” The discussion waxed and waned, gathering a few participants who happened to drift into the restaurant. “Look, friends,” said our Latin companion, “I’m not a Communist, but if your Marines ever land here I’ll join the Communist guerillas and take to the hills then I’ll have to shoot you both!” Everybody laughed, and the conversation drifted on to women and futbol, then the Volunteers and their friend said goodbye and hurried off to a meeting of their newly-formed credit co-op.
It was a typical Peace Corps evening nobody got shot, everybody had his say, nobody agreed, and we all put away a satisfactory dinner. When it was all over, the Volunteers and their friend went off to perform the kind of constructive work which somehow cuts neatly across partisan lines and strikes at the root of basic development problems. When the chips are down, Peace Corps Volunteers do not get shot. People everywhere have quickly realized that the kind of help which brings hope is not easily come by.
The Real Work of the Peace Corps
The things that the Peace Corps has learned about its real work it has learned thanks to its Volunteers. They are the ones who have discovered time after time, place after place, what works and what doesn’t. The common element that emerges out of all their experiences, what I have called the real job of the Peace Corps, has been a voyage of discovery, which we have undertaken with the warnings of the seasoned experts and old hands. The Peace Corps believes it has hit upon something vitally important. Yet it is always the Volunteers who come up with new discoveries as to how we can make the work of development assistance more effective. They will continue to do so for a long time. The Peace Corps must still expend a lot of energy to give Volunteers what they want a meaningful job overseas and the countries requesting help what they want development assistance. But a start has been made, and the Peace Corps still depends for direction and substance on the Americans who volunteer their services for two years.
Little by little, these Americans, the Volunteers, have been increasing their effectiveness in development assistance. Little by little the Peace Corps bureaucracy is learning to systematize those methods by which effectiveness is obtained. I sometimes think the pace is too slow; on the other hand, after having seen some of their year’s crop of Volunteers I realize that the Peace Corps is still getting those men and women who see the grave injustice and the threat of underdevelopment and who want to do something practical about it beyond simply raising their voices in protest. The Peace Corps still offers them the chance to become instruments of change. It still offers them an alternative to graduate school. It offers those with intelligence and an interest in people a chance to do something other than become mindlessly rich.
What encourages me most: the Peace Corps is learning to train its people to be effective instruments of change. To acquire that training, and to use that skill for peaceful ends, produces a vocational bias in life which, I should imagine, is not easily found at home in this day of the packaging revolution and the two-ton car. The job overseas is not teaching, digging ditches, planting hybrid corn, healing the sick, building the roads and bridges, running the civil service. The job overseas is to help people find out how change operates in the kinship, the economic, the religious, the political and the associational systems of their community. The job is to find out where and how change can be introduced to mitigate the dehumanizing forces of hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear. This, in my view, is what constitutes effectiveness; it is what constitutes the real work of the Peace Corps.
Meridan Bennett evaluated several overseas programs in the early days of the Peace Corps, and. with David Hapgood (PC/W Evaluation 196466), wrote one of the first books that assessed the work of Volunteers entitled, Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps.
What Peace Corps book begins . . .
HOW DO YOU PACK for a two-year trip to Africa? I knew what I needed to take but not how to carry it all. I considered a suitcase for a while, but eventually decided against it. Its unwieldy bulk would surely prove out of place against Africa’s dusty landscape. Next, I considered a backpack. But again there was a problem. I couldn’t find one large enough for my swelling list of supplies.
No one came up with the answer for last issue’s quiz. (What Peace Corps book begins: “They took us in the Land Rover, Mike and me, with Kim Buck driving . . ..”) It is is the opening paragraph from An African Season written by Leonard Levitt (Tanzania 196365). This Peace Corps book was published by Simon & Schuster in 1967.