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Peace Corps Writers November 2002
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Peace Corps Writers - November 2002: Front page
Taylor wins again
Mildred (Millie) D. Taylor (Ethiopia 196567) has won the Childrens Literature 2002 award from PEN Center USA for her book The Land published by Phyllis Fogelman Books/Penguin Putnam. This competition honors outstanding work published or produced in 2001 by writers living in the western United States. Millie as she was known in Ethiopia won $1,000 and was honored at a gala awards ceremony held at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on October 23. These awards, established in 1982, are a unique regional competition that reward writers in ten categories, from playwrights to journalists to novelists and poets, and celebrate the written word in all forms.
Earlier this year, The Land won the 2002 Coretta Scott King Award
Desperately seeking information about Moritz Thomsen
The last issue of Peace Corps Writers carried the third, and last (for the moment) installment of a biography-in-progress about Moritz Thomsen. It was written by Marc Covert, associate editor of Portland Magazine in Portland, Oregon, and managing editor of Smokebox, a bimonthly e-zine featuring Pollution-Fueled Commentary (www.smokebox.net). Covert is interested in talking to anyone who knew Thomsen, or has letters from him, photos, or can tell him anything about Thomsens life. Contact Marc at email@example.com.
In this Issue
A Writer Writes
On any given day I receive 2030 emails from Peace Corps writers who contact me for a variety of reasons, and many send along prose or poetry that theyve written. Every once in a while a piece will come to me that knocks my socks off, so to speak. Such a piece is The Last Ride by Elise Annunziata (Senegal 199699). Elise lived in Keur Madiabel for two years, working with students and teachers in eight surrounding villages. She extended her service a third year in Senegal as a Volunteer Leader in Kaolack, and also worked as a Peace Corps trainer for the first Environmental Education program in Guinea (Conakry). Today, she lives in Virginia and works for the Sierra Club. Elises piece is not only well written, but it also shows an understanding, an appreciation, and an awareness of a sensitive cross culture moment. Read The Last Ride and recall when you left your Peace Corps site for the last time.
Publish or perish
For a brief period in the mid-1990s there was a wild belief that the World Wide Web had spawned the answer to many RPCVs dreams of publishing their Peace Corps stories. We thought there was finally a venue for the telling of our incredible experiences, and the sharing of the world that we had learned about during our service. Our stories would be widely read and, hey, maybe one might even be made into a successful Hollywood movie. The reason: print-on-demand publishing. While many RPCVs books have been published P.O.D. (and more are on the way), we thought it would be worthwhile to review the some of the options of print-on-demand publishing and give suggestions on where writers should go to find out more information.
Peace Corps history
Hal Fleming served on the staff for two years in Peace Corps/Washington before becoming Country Director for Cote dIvoire in 1968. He had come to Washington, he said, at a time in our country when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War divided the nation. I had been tapped to work as a staff member in the Public Affairs and Recruiting Office for the Peace Corps. Hals account of early Peace Corps recruiting is wonderfully told, full of amusing and informative details, and captures a moment of tension in America and within the Peace Corps.
Besides, all of this information, we have book reviews, letters home, and poetry. And it is all in this issue of Peace Corps Writers. Read on.
Readings from the 40 + 1
A miners bar, northern Chile
Perdón, Meester. In the smoke-and-wine dizziness
before our table dirt-caked and unshaven,
genuflecting and bowing profusely as a tv oriental:
Perdón Meester, perdón Meester,
you are norteamericano?
I am comunista . . .
Yet I like the norteamericanos.
I wish to shake your hand . . .
Never have I known any norteamericano.
I have known a man once
but not norteamericano
from Canadá, I think.
You know him?
I dont think so, I say.
Perdón. In the mines
he was engineer, very importante.
His name I do not remember.
About 9 yrs ago
he was here.
You know him?
I dont think so, I say.
In any case, I wish to shake your hand
though I am comunista. Perdón.
We shake hands for about ten minutes
and everyone is silent
until the bartender escorts him
back to his table.
He looks back through the smoke:
say my colleagues at the college in New York
but I go anyway.
I bus 27 hrs through desert
(diarrhea, no toilet paper)
with its perverted dogs
battleground of indestructible fleas
termites secretly hollowing every wall
drilling holes through books
like secret eyes
(someday the whole city will collapse
in a heap of powder).
Behind the city
mountains of brown dust
announce the desert:
Life is temporary, they say,
It must be given oxygen.
The houses of the poor shuffle from the dust
like random cartons piled on one another.
These people, says Karen,
they dont live right.
They had money for bread
for the week
they spent it on wine instead.
Can you imagine?
Someone else doesnt live right
and he pays for it.
for defecating in the street,
the paper says,
gives his name
(Can you imagine!)
rattle like pots and pans
doors wired on
brewery steams away
defying the dust with
lit up all night
like an army of drunks noses.
at the Cafe Baquedano
drunks in rumpled pants
every one a lawyer
and tell us whats what.
Were always invited to
12 kids in 3 rooms
chairs and beds circle the new tv
in the living room
packed house on Saturday afternoons
to watch westerns.
At 35 heart trouble
and he has to quit the police department
now hes a fisherman
always fish stewing a bottle of wine
No matter what, he says,
in my house everyone eats.
When his pension check arrives
he takes the 12 kids
ancient family maid from Bolivia
even a few down-and-outs
all to a nightclub
and blows it all
like a fireworks exhibit on Sept. 18th.
No message but the bang.
He doesnt live right, I guess.
In the afternoon at the docks
over the glaze of guano
the smell of fish
pelicans swoop and dive;
we all skip work
buy a bottle of pisco
(it burns going down)
lie on the dock
trying to be like Mario
but never getting it right.
When his check comes
John pays everybody,
buys a big box of noodles
to live on for the month
and is broke.
Nothing but noodles?
I get invited out a lot, he says.
Brad, Lucho, Juan Carlos & I
move in over the warehouse.
We have no water.
I walk to the bar next door
& order a bucket of water.
The bartender gives me one,
but he doesnt like it,
so we economize, wash up
over the sink,
let the water down the open drain
into the bucket underneath
you have to watch your feet
use that to flush the toilet.
The landlord wants us to pay the bill.
He comes every night and says,
For life, three things are needed
First, air is needed.
He never says what the third is.
We dont like him; his name is Felix.
Someone we do like
comes by from Bolivia
with a bag of coca.
We hear it makes your mouth numb,
we never get around to chewing any
we like our mouths
the way they are I guess.
I go to the movies and bring
back a supply
of fleas for the cat.
Hes a kitten.
We name him Strangler
but its not funny, so
we change the name to Mauricio
Not funny either, but
he keeps it, Paloma's only three.
Now the toilet papers on strike;
we meet a sailor
who gives us some German toilet paper.
No wonder they started two wars,
Brad says, and we go out
for a newspaper. Now the cat
brings in a supply of fleas for me,
and a friend through the skylight
to eat all the tuna fish.
I throw his friend out;
the fleas refuse to leave.
I pick up a bike at the office,
we have nothing to do,
so we wonder can we ride it down the stairs.
Youd go right through the wall,
Juan Carlos figures out.
We picture that for a while
head through the splintered wall . . .
We dont do it.
We do go out for some wine
& those cigars with the chunks of wood in them;
sometimes the smoke wont draw at all,
& always find wood,
little pieces of wood.
John gets the local Luckies,
the kind the customs agent smelled.
He said it wasnt tobacco.
He didnt know what it was, oh well,
we smoke them anyway
& drink the wine and talk.
The next day Ruth
gives me her old
typewriter and Im
a poet. I already
have a table.
Down from the Northern Desert
into the lush South forest
lakes ringed with half-hidden chalets
the Volcan Osorno
posing for gorgeous postcards.
We spend a day in the Puerto Montt mist
waiting for the weekly boat to Chiloe
where dolphins leap
to look at us on deck.
the rain has stopped
crowds idle out of the closing shops.
We sightsee nothing in particular
Maria Elena, the prim librarian from Valparaiso,
who knows I like literature,
Would you like to meet Pablo Neruda?
Sure, why not? I answer theoretically,
but she s gone.
Then she reappears from the crowd
hand in hand
with Neruda, an apparition from a dustjacket,
enthusiastic and earthy as his odes,
happy to meet me
collaborating with an American photographer
with its fishing villages and ancient customs . . .
When he leaves, still expansive, smiling,
(it s a pleasure to know me),
I didn t know you knew Neruda,
I say to Maria Elena.
I didn t, she says,
I just thought you d like to meet him.
Three days later
as we stroll down a dirt road
behind the University in Valdivia,
coming the other way,
his arm around a blond,
He waves and smiles in recognition.
Ah, what a place!
Where great poets are friends with everyone!
James Galbraith taught English at the Universidad del Norte in Antofagasta. Since returning from Chile he has been teaching English and Spanish at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland
The Early Years in Tanzania
by Charles R. Swift
University Press of America, Inc.
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
THE MISSION OF PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS is certainly unique in the opportunities it provides for grassroots Americans to live and work among the peoples of developing nations. Some of the first Volunteers in the 1960s had the opportunity to witness firsthand the efforts of post-colonial nations to build their own civic and social infrastructures following the withdrawal of European administrators. This is certainly the case of Dr. Charles R. Swift. Although not a Volunteer, he could have been. In 1966, Dr. Swift left his position as medical director of a Child Guidance Center in New Jersey to work as a psychiatric consultant in the Muhimbili Hospital in Dar es Salaam, the capital of the newly nation of Tanzania. No trained psychiatrist lived in Tanzania at the time, and the Ministry of Health responded to Swifts query by inviting him to study the current national health system and develop new programs and opportunities for providing care. What began as a two-year assignment turned into an eight-year commitment including a stint as a United Nations Volunteer to work with host-country colleagues and medical students to integrate psychiatric capacities into Tanzanias medical infrastructure. The result of his diligent note-taking during this period is Dar Days: The Early Years in Tanzania.
An environment of mixed feelings
Swifts work begins two years following the union of mainland Tanganyika and the island Zanzibar, an unhappy consolidation from the perspective of Zanzibar. In this environment of mixed feelings, Swift records his encounters with expatriate holdovers from the British administration, whose attitudes he frankly records as tired and narrow, or professionally competent. He is also frustrated by the attitudes of some host-country colleagues who do not pay sufficient attention to the problems facing the mental health field in their country. Traveling to the regional districts, he is shocked to find some patients relegated to prisons due to a lack of hospital space and their inferior medical status. Despite some difficulties however, Dr. Swift finds support at the Muhimbili hospital, at the local university where he receives an appointment, and among other health officials.
Dar Days recounts Swifts personal experience in postcolonial Tanzania more than it provides a clinical study of mental health diseases. He does note a common hysterical laughing disease that many Africans are prone to, and seeks to modernize the local attribution of disease to witches. His observations of stress-related illnesses broaden his understanding of the family unit and the local village culture, though it is a little disappointing that he doesnt always share his findings or conclusions with the reader.
But Swift dedicates himself primarily to developing self-sustainable capacities within Tanzania, especially given the appalling physician-to-population statistics at the time. In 1966, one physician served an estimated 35,000 citizens. Eight years later, Swift says his anxiety about leaving is assuaged by the growing number of successful mental health physicians, practitioners and nurses in the country.
The issue of expatriates in post-colonial Africa was a tenuous one. In Uganda, in 1972, Idi Amin had ominously directed all Asians to leave the country. Swift highlights the Tanzanian position when he recounts a public appearance by President Julius Nyerere at the University of Dar es Salaam. Nyerere, who had utilized a village model to develop a national brand of African Socialism, was asked about the presence of Westerners as potential breeders of capitalism. Suspicion of U.S. ventures had led to a phasing out of the Peace Corps in 1969, but Nyerere downplayed the threat by praising the humanitarian principles Westerners often brought to Tanzania, a tension-breaking response that emotionally affects Swift.
Swift ends his tour by co-authoring a textbook on African mental health system with the Nigerian president of the Pan-African Psychiatric Association.
Dar Days provides an engaging account of a Western physicians dedication to and collaboration with African colleagues on the development of a functional mental health field in Tanzania. Often encountering resistance as the result of disparate traditional and modern perspectives on the field of mental health, Dr. Charles Swift was nevertheless fortunate to work during the presidency of Julius Nyerere. His recorded observations offer readers a unique insight into some characteristic growing pains of a new African nation.
Joe Kovacs is a contributor to WorldView magazine and a marketing manager for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A Memoir Of Pursuit
by Ron Arias (Peru 196364)
Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University
Reviewed by William McCabe Coolidge (Bolivia 196668)
Who knows what causes the opening or closing of the door?
Wang Wei, a poet during the Tang Dynasty.
RON ARIAS, A CORRESPONDENT for People Magazine writes of his fifteen year investigative journey into the history of a man accused of spying, a man he learns is not his biological father, a man he calls, Daddy, a man who died quietly, alone without the knowledge of Ron and his two brothers, in 1980. This is a memoir of Ron seeking to open the closed, secret door of his fathers life.
This collage of a book is divided into two sections: Part I, 19511970, in which Ron recounts growing up, moving from army base to army base, nineteen of them in nineteen years. One of these moves was Rons assignment to Peru from 19631964 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Part II, 19852000, is the story of Rons search for his father. Ron provides us with journal entries, photographs, drawings, postcards, government and hospital documents, letters from friends of his father, maps and newspaper clippings.
Was his search successful? Arias became an investigative journalist for this memoir, using his skills honed as the death beat reporter in Sarajevo, Nicaragua, and other war torn countries for People. He attends ex-P.O.W. conventions, hounds the army for documents, looks at reports of his father escaping from a number of enemy internments during World War II and the Korean War and visits friends of his father. Year after year he writes and writes, thousands and thousands of words, when will he know he has finished? Succeeded?
We write to give form to the things we can sense but not see.
Why spend a decade and half traveling around the country, seeking stories and documents of a dead man? Who is interested, who will read it? Rons youngest brother writes, Our father died sometime in 1980 or 1981 in Ojai, California.
Rons response, I needed the embrace of a father who defined much of what I was. I wanted his approval of my existence. A painter starts with a blank canvas, a potter throws clay into a container with a hollowed emptiness. A dancer learns quickly to appreciate negative space. A writer puts down words out of a gnawing in the gut, a need to explore what is unknown and mysterious, often a drive to heal a broken heart. Ron is writing to fill in the missing pieces of his fathers puzzling life. A modern day Jacob, seeking a blessing from his father.
When I read Rons words, I needed the embrace of a father . . ., I thought of my own search for my mother who died soon after she gave birth to me. In my small town, no one spoke of her after my father remarried. My high school graduation present was the use of my dads car to drive to Duluth, Minnesota and visit her grave for the first time. After she was buried in the family plot, he moved to Michigan and never returned. At age 18, I was ready to begin my search. I quickly found out how the doors to memory close, how the lips seal after a tragedy. Only when my father was dying did he begin to tell me stories. Only after my father died did the neighbors in my hometown tell me about my mother.
I would like to live a life that is so big it would encompass contradictions and paradoxes.
Maxine Hong Kingston
When Ariass father returned from a prisioner-of-war camp in North Korea his mother said, There was some stranger in the house. Ron interviewed other prisoners of war and learned of their deep anxiety and fear of telling what they saw and experienced. Better leave the past in the past, was their slogan. Ron sought out his fathers second wife. We learn that his father had great difficulty in expressing his emotions, and that he withdrew from his three sons because he feared they rejected him for remarrying.
Many pieces of the puzzle of Armando Arias remain lost. Lost to previous generations of fathers taught the honorable way. My father before he died answered me, Once a day, when I am alone, I bring out a picture of your mother and remember a story of her, of me and I smile. Then I tuck her back inside my heart for safekeeping. Thats what you must do also Bill, dont wear your emotions on your sleeve.
Ron begins and ends this journey paddling a kayak from shore out into the ocean to an island and then returns. First it is the Pacific, then the Atlantic, and finally a return to the Pacific, near where his son, Jonathan, lived and died. I wonder about Jonathan and Ron. Another thread backwards? I am writing this review, two hours down the road from where my daughter is buried. She died the same year and age as Jonathan, just two months earlier. Hers is the picture I bring out of my imagination as I write and remember, a sacred trust built up over many years. I am like my father in that way. Im more open and honest but I am also secretive and often silent.
At the end of his inquiry, Ron hears from his fathers girlfriend in France, He had a sacred dose of culpability that he wanted to eliminate, without really being able to do so, which could explain his constant desire to break with the past in a universe where there is a sincere conviction about his bad conduct. Responding to this picture of his father, Ron adds, Daddy loved us with confounding limitations.
Was Arias successful? At the level of penetrating into the depths of his fathers past? Yes. In fact he over did it with the array of documentations, pictures and postcards. I got lost with all that information and started skipping pages. But at another level there remains work to be done. When Arias went through months and months of heart problems and depression, I began to notice a softening, a shifting of his perspective away from his father and his work and back into himself, his own fears, dark desires, denied losses. This memoir needs more of that type of engagement. Father to son, past to present. I wanted to hear more of the heart-felt reflections of why the author gravitated toward death beat reporting and was always on the move. Did this have to do with his losing Jonathan and his father?
This memoir is successful measured by Ron Ariass committment to digging out the details of a man with a secret life. He painted as full picture of his father as he was able, a picture deep in background with contrasting images, filled with as many paradoxes as insights and then he put the painting aside. Not completed, but finished. Mr. Arias knew when to stop.
I wish Ron had become a weaver of stories and reflections as a result of this search. How was his family affected? His vocation? The move back to California? This memoir lacked fulfillment at that level and that may be Ron Ariass next step. Asking the question, How am I changed because of what I went through and found out about Daddy? I hope Ron will wear his emotions on his sleeve.
McCabe Coolidge lives and writes from a second floor perch overlooking the Rachel Carson Estuarine, Shackleford Banks and the Atlantic Ocean. He writes poems, essays and book reviews and is editing a memoir entitled The Grace In Falling: The Blessing of the Erotic.
Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes
by Paul Violi (Nigeria 196667)
Hanging Loose Press
231 Wyckoff Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217-2208
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 196365)
IF YOU NEED TO LAUGH at the absurdity of life during these dark days, I recommend that you run out and purchase this edgy, hilarious book by Paul Violi. But be forewarned: dont expect frivolous humor. The unnamed narrator of each story has the sensibility of a twisted, paranoid imp. His is the deadpan voice of a jaundiced observer whose life is permeated with accidents, idiosyncratic juxtapositions, and macabre surprises at every turn. Another warning: dont read this book on a train between New York City and Washington, DC as I did or on any public conveyance unless you dont mind having the stranger in the next seat eye you warily and shift away as you break into uncontrollable giggles.
Paul Violi is a poet of some renown; this is his eleventh book and he has innumerable awards and fellowships including a 2001 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes is his first prose collection. It consists of twenty-four miniature pieces, anecdotes taken from real life, the longest being four pages, and spanning thirty years from 1967 to 1997. The stories are not arranged chronologically, but instead are organized by an inner subtexual logic that makes complete subliminal sense to the reader within the illogic of the zany world Violi creates.
In Local Color my favorite story in the collection and a reason in and of itself to buy this book, Violi begins with an almost clichéd situation of a city guy with a home in the country, a man who seems much like the poet himself, a teacher, an intellectual and progressive in his politics who has an exchange with a well digger working next door. After the local fellow relentlessly interrogates our hero about who he is and what he believes in, what ensues is an uproariously funny flip on our expectations. I would spoil it if I told you what transpires, but suffice to say that when I read it aloud to my husband, he and I both were laughing so hard I could barely make my way through the story. But before Violi is finished with his compact little tale, he has turned the screw one notch tighter until, against your will, your heart aches for the local man.
Anyone who has ever taught a creative writing course or suffered through one as a student will love Violis On the Job in which we encounter the first person narrator, our poet/teacher again, at the start of the semester with a new class, one with which he wants to set a good tone. The first student volunteering to read is a man, tall, ruddy-faced, about thirty five. Our narrator says in the opening of the story, Id heard him talking in the hallway before class began. A foghorn in fair weather. He must always sound like that, I thought. He must work in a factory. No matter where, even at a wake, hes trying to make himself heard above the clatter of heavy machinery. The foghorn reads a story about his father killing his pet bird, choking up and then weeping profusely by the end. A delicate moment. The students appeared to be concerned. So the teacher asks if he has another story. He does. He proceeds to read an excruciatingly humiliating story of being a clown at a childrens party. Again the student weeps as he reads, at which point the teacher loses it, but instead of crying in empathy, hes overtaken by an inappropriate urge to laugh, and in the struggle to stifle the eruption he slides off his chair like a pig out of a chute in front of the entire class. Anyone reading up to this point in the story would say: Great story. But Violi isnt content with that and again he adds a twist that I wont give away, but which will leave you breathless at the last line.
Not all the stories are humorous. Take Kid Stuff set in Turkey in 1968. It begins, Mud paths line the distant mountainsides, loop across the sheer and glaring drop, and shacks hang off them like dead fruit on a vine. Its Ramadan and three young people, two men and a woman, are driving three new Mercedes from Istanbul to Teheran, sharing the task with Iranians who hired them for the job. At first Kid Stuff seems simply like an exceptionally well told Peace Corps tale of oddity and discomfort in a foreign country, until Violi writes of, . . . Penny leaning out the car door, puking softly in the snow and then smiling, returning to the old notebook she had, constantly reworking, outlining a bad sketch of a stallion that shed colored in with the blood from her first fix. From this shocking moment on, the world Voili has created shifts to one of treachery, evil and viciousness. Somehow he makes us intuit the genesis of the local cruelty and understand how each day, around the world, the rage of powerlessness is played out against those who are perceived to be powerful.
Perhaps what I said in the beginning of this review about Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes bringing comic relief into our lives isnt entirely the case, but throughout the book your are assured of being in the hands of a master story-teller who uses his considerable gifts as a poet to make each sentence indelible, each anecdote significant, and each accident seem as inevitable as fate.
Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes has been brought out by Hanging Loose Press, a venerated publisher in existence for over thirty-five years as a producer both of fine poetry books and a prestigious journal of the same name. The journal began in 1966 as a mere stack of mimeographed pages mailed out in a cover envelope, thus the name, Hanging Loose. The press went on to issue debut poetry collections of such writers as Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, D. Nurske, and Jack Agueros, as well as publishing the work of Ha Jin, Denise Levertov, Harvey Shapiro, Jayne Cortez, and Maureen Owen among hundreds of others. The gifted Paul Violi is in the company of peers at Hanging Loose Press.
Marnie Muellers Peace Corps novel, Green Fires, was the winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp where she was born. Her most recent novel is My Mothers Island. It was named a BookSense 76 selection by the American Booksellers Association.
Tales of Wisdom and Cunning
Although the Malagasy people have a wonderful gift for expressing themselves verbally, I heard very few folk tales while I was in Madagascar. I heard this particular story from a farmer and friend of mine in the arid region of the southwest, after he asked me if I knew why the akoho (chicken) was a domesticated animal. Besides explaining the different fortunes of the akoho and the akanga (pheasant), this tale teaches a strong moral lesson about thievery and greed. I like to believe that there are many more stories of Malagasy lore. Maybe it was just my fault for not listening Rob Roberts (Madagascar 199901)
ONE DAY TWO FRIENDS MET on a path in the forest. Well, hello, Mr. Akoho! said the first. Hello, Mr. Akanga! replied the other. They were both very excited for they had not seen each other in quite some time.
Mr. Akoho and Mr. Akanga sat down to reminisce. They had grown up together and shared many childhood adventures. Do you remember the time we snuck into the farmers hut and took some of his corn? laughed Mr. Akanga. He nearly hit you with his slingshot!
I sure do, chuckled Mr. Akoho, who thought of all the more dangerous adventures hed had since then. Hey, Ive been traveling all morning without breakfast, he said. Shall we go and pay the farmer another visit?
Mr. Akoho and Mr. Akanga walked to the edge of the forest and peered through the bushes on the edge of the farmers land. No one was there. Maybe the farmer and his family have gone to work in the fields, said Mr. Akoho. Lets go.
They tiptoed towards the farmers hut and carefully peeked inside. No one was there either. Quickly, whispered Mr. Akanga, afraid that the farmer might be nearby.
They looked on the table, searched the floor, and poked their heads under the bed but found nothing. Im starving, said Mr. Akoho. Lets check that other hut as well.
They raced across the yard to the door of the other dwelling. Look! cried Mr. Akanga, who spotted a mound of sweet potatoes piled high in the corner. What should we do? he asked, knowing that sweet potatoes were very heavy to carry but also very delicious.
Im going to take two of those big ones home and eat until Im full as the farmers pig, said Mr. Akoho. He inspected each of the sweet potatoes, arranging them in a line from biggest to smallest. Im not leaving until I find the two biggest ones, he bragged.
Not me, replied Mr. Akanga, Im going to take some of those little ones and get out of here. He flew away, carrying a few small sweet potatoes from the end of the line. He landed near the edge of the forest and hid, waiting for Mr. Akoho to follow.
Meanwhile, the farmer returned. He was moving slowly, tired after a long day tending to his fields of beans and corn. Suddenly, he dropped his shovel and started running towards the hut after seeing the thieves tracks in the sand.
Mr. Akanga saw the farmer from his hideout deep in the bushes. Run, Mr. Akoho! he pleaded. The farmer is coming!
Mr. Akoho heard his friends warning and started to leave. He was dragging two giant sweet potatoes behind him when the farmer caught him coming out of the hut. The farmer grabbed him by the neck before he could fly away. Help! screamed Mr. Akoho, as the farmer carried him away. No one was there to hear his cry. Mr. Akanga had already retreated to safety far in the forest.
There are days when Mr. Akanga misses his friend, and he will venture down to the edge of the forest to see him. Mr. Akoho is still there, but he is now old and lazy. The farmer feeds him a handful of rice or corn everyday and lets him roam free around the yard, because Mr. Akoho no longer tries to escape.
From his old hideout, Mr. Akanga always thinks of his happy childhood with Mr. Akoho and regrets their last adventure together. He still waves to his friend every time he visits, although he knows that Mr. Akoho has stopped waving back.
Rob Roberts was a beekeeper, a farmer, an environmental education teacher and a World Wildlife Fund technician in St. Augustin, Madagascar. He wrote a monthly column about his Peace Corps service in North Penn Life and has been published by Southern Cross Magazine. He recently returned to the east coast after five months spent traveling in the Rocky Mountains and now resides in Arlington, Virginia.
A letter from . . .
Edith Sloan (Bulgaria 2001 ) teaches English in a secondary school in Straldiak, Bulgaria. Having been a teacher and school principal in Indiana and Florida, she retired to South Central Florida before she joined the Peace Corps with her husband Rel.
August 16, 2002
Ive got fleabites all over my body on my back, sides, around the waist, legs and feet. With our traveling to Panagyurishte this week and then on to Sofia, I accumulated a few bites just through the normal activity of being out and about, something to which Im more susceptible than Rel. But by the time we had arrived home last night, I had them everywhere. After analyzing it, it seemed that they could have only come from sitting in an old overstuffed chair for about a half-hour yesterday morning in the hallway of a hospital in Sofia.
I had made previous arrangements with our medical office to have my six-month eye check-up and Boyko, our doctor, took me to the office of the well-respected eye specialist (she had also checked my eyes last winter before our return to the States). The only place to wait for my appointment was in the hallway chairs (like when our own hospitals become overcrowded and patients have to wait in beds out in the hallways). Next time, however, I think Ill stand.
When Rel had to return to Panagyurishte to help with training, I decided to accompany him. He had volunteered also for the Orphanage Committee, which raises funds for orphanages around the country (their only funding comes from the government, which is very lax in their contributions). This was the week for the auction, one of the fund-raisers. Items sold at the auction come from Volunteers returning to the States from their two years service and range from things like clothing to kitchenware. The new trainees have the opportunity to buy items they didnt bring but may need (a small bottle of chili powder went for at least 3.50 lev) and the proceeds go to the orphanages. After two days work, we collected between 700 and 800 lev.
Visiting Panagyurishte for the first time since our training last summer was an eye-opener. Without the stress, tension and pressure of training, I found myself appreciating much more the beauty of the town. Located in the mountains and surrounded by them gives it a natural beauty that other towns located in the plains lack. But there was more to it this time. Much improvement has taken place since our arrival over a year ago (Peace Corps usually trains two consecutive years in the same town). I wasnt sure if the improvements were real or imagined, since this time I was coming from Straldja rather than from America. But the bus station now has new concrete walkways to buses and a new roof overhead. Windows in the banya that houses the pool (new pool this year) are no longer all broken; they have been replaced by whole windows or white coverings. The streets are cleaner and gardens along the sidewalk are better maintained with less trash. The park now has newly painted benches and a new childrens playground for which the latest PCV found funding. I was also told that the Mayor in the first meeting this summer confirmed that they were able to make many improvements due to Peace Corps training there.
Its amazing how much a place can change when theres money available to fund improvements. Already the grant that Rel got for the Roma schools playground here in Straldja has made an impact, just from the repairs done to the wall surrounding the school and playground (it LOOKS so much better).
The Roma school not only created their own NGO (non-government organization) but also approached the ceramic tile factory in town to donate tons of clay for the surface of the playground. So it seems that the attitude of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps may be starting to work here.
Even though I submitted my SPA grant for our English Resource Room in June, it wont be reviewed until Oct. Then, if we get it, the funds wont be available until December. So sometimes it takes a while, but maybe our patience will be rewarded. Rel also has several more grants entering their last stages of possible approval. (Rosie told us today that the Yambol radio station mentioned Rels Roma school grant on the air and gave his name.)
Ive been considering writing a partnership grant for the womens quilting group. However, I feel Im already in partnership with at least three U.S. sources that have been providing materials. I just received a package of fabric pieces from the Tantie Quilters in Okeechobee, a box of quilting books and magazines collected by Nilsa in North Carolina, and a box of more fabric from my cousin, Carolyn, in Seattle. Now the next challenge is to put it all to work with the group here in October. START YOUR ENGINES! With the sewing and creative skills that these women have, Im hoping theyll just be able to take off on their own. (Transferring inches and feet to millimeters and centimeters as well as English to Bulgarian are the biggest challenges!)
Im thinking that some students at school may be interested in putting together a tied quilt during the school year. The project would require, again, both their English and math skills, to say nothing of their creativity skills.
Just before we left for Panagyurishte, we had dinner at the hotel with Rosie, her husband, and Martina, her daughter. Rosie explained that August 2 was a name day called Ilinden, the feast day for St. Ilia (Elijah), so that women with that name celebrated. It seems that St. Ilia was believed to send thunderstorms and lightning. Elijah, in Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, is a transmuted version of Perun, a pagan god of lightning and stormy heavens. (Balkan Ghosts)
In talking about names, Rosie also explained that, under Communism, there was a list from which parents could choose names for their children. Any name, like John, that sounded too American was not part of the list. Traditionally here, girls are named for their grandmothers and boys for their grandfathers. However, if, during Communism, that name wasnt on the list, it couldnt be used.
There is a legend here, Rosie said, about a dish called Amambaildah. While Bulgaria was still under the Turkish yoke, a Turk came into a home and demanded food. He was fed a dish of sweet and sour eggplant that included garlic, onions, sweet peppers, sugar, vinegar and salt. After so much of it, he began to yell, Stop, stop, Ive had enough. And thats how the dish got its name. Amambaildah is a Turkish word meaning, Stop, stop, Ive had enough.
A well-traveled and knowledgeable person told us the other day that those countries under Soviet rule who retained their own identities despite difficulties have had a much easier time of it since the Soviet downfall than those that didnt. For example, Bulgaria, despite 40+ years of Communism, didnt really adopt the Soviet identity, but instead remained true to its own history and traditions. However, other countries that were actually member states of the USSR, like Moldova (which never had their own country anyway), and Uzbekistan are having more problems making the transition back to their own country identity. With the Soviets, it was total governmental control and no local say, resulting in a pessimistic cant do attitude so why try and thats difficult to overcome. There is some of that here in Bulgaria, but not to the extent, were told, that it is in these other countries.
Rel tells me that the Mayor of Straldja, while visiting a Maryland city in the States for three months last winter, attended city council meetings and came away very impressed with the way local citizens spoke out in the meetings and actually participated in the decision-making process. Here, there is no such thing: no sunshine law, no ombudsman (representative of the people in government), and citizens are not told of upcoming meetings, let alone be invited to them. So the Mayor is now creating a booklet describing the relationship between the administration and local citizens. Whether or not that will result in more openness and citizen participation in government here remains to be seen.
A Straldja story: Michael, a member of the local Bulgarian Orthodox Church, explained today why the wall paintings in the church (icons) are so badly faded and in need of repair. It seems that the paint was supposed to have had eggs in it to help retain longevity. However, the painter, instead of adding the eggs to the paint, ate them! Although he also painted churches in the nearby villages of Atolovo and Zimnitza, the paintings have evidently not faded as quickly because the parishioners watched to make sure the painter didnt eat the eggs! He also liked to drink and one day, while he lay painting horizontally near the ceiling, he rolled off the scaffolding and died.
Michael, with a partner, is now planning a weeklong grape festival in late September. They hope to attract investors for the grapevine farms. We are told that this is a very fertile area for grapes and, indeed, much of the land is given over for that purpose. In addition, there is a brewery in town that makes wine and rakiya that is well known throughout Bulgaria. Two years ago, Michael had such a festival in mind but could not find enough interest among others. Now there seems to be more interest and people that are willing to help. As I say, just a little investment of money (like Rels grant) seems to create a heads-up, people notice, and maybe, just maybe, a sense of can-do and prosperity is beginning.
. . . but I was innocent.
by Don Beil (Somalia 196466)
IT WAS TOO COLD to walk.
I was in Budapest working on a project with a group of fellow American teachers of the deaf, and we had spent the afternoon shopping and absorbing the beauty of Vör At first impression the subway system seems to be free. There are no ticket takers, no turnstiles, no coin or token drop boxes, no floor-to-ceiling iron-fingered gates; instead, people just walk on and off the trains. But that isnt really the case. The Hungarians I had traveled with had been sliding 90 forint (about $0.40) tickets for each of us into machines at the subway stations. The tickets well, I dont know how one could really call them tickets are flimsy strips of paper they bear a great resemblance to those little bits of paper that you tear off the corner of a newspaper when you are in desperate need of a bookmark. Anyhow, the tickets are to be inserted into ticket-validating machines to have a small bite taken out of one corner. The machines look like a junior version of our parking meters or golf ball washers but are mounted on much thinner posts. You dont notice the machines, for even at a very large station theres only one or two at the entranceway at the top of the escalator. You also dont notice them because most Hungarians buy a pass good for unlimited travel over a several month period of time that they carry with them, ready to present on demand if they are requested which they never are. Instead, all just walk freely on and off the subway.ösmarty Tér (square) near the center of the city in Pest. It was time to return to our hotel across the Danube in Buda up atop the hill in an area know as the Castle district. All agreed they were too exhausted to make it back on foot.
We could hop on the bus or, I suggested, we could take the subway, which I loved to ride. Its always a challenge to be certain youve chosen the right direction on the right line, and even if you dont, so what, as we were never in a real hurry. When I asked Hungarians for help by pointing to where I wanted to go on my map of the city, a man or woman would often take the time to lead me by the sleeve through the labyrinth, up and down stairs until I was at the correct platform.
Id been to Budapest several times before for the project, and had ridden on the subway with several of our Hungarian hosts. In doing so, Id learned the secrets of the ticketing system, and felt quite confident leading this group of Americans.
Tourists and Hungarians who only rarely travel on the subway are expected to buy single tickets or a booklet of tickets, and use them one-by-one for each ride. Those who use the tickets often find themselves standing frustrated, repeatedly trying to stuff the small bit of paper into the machine, hoping to work the magic necessary for the ticket to be recognized and punched.
Although only teenagers seem to speak English in Hungary, and although I know only a few words in Hungarian, once I learned the process, I prided myself on my ability to find sales windows, and buy and use the tickets. And I frequently found myself acting as tour guide to other Americans (its that RPCV blood that makes me comfortable navigating in new locales), and I would purchase tickets for all, patiently prod the machine with tickets, and then wed go on our way. No one ever collected the tickets, no one ever stopped us to ask for our tickets, no one seemed to care. But, I was about to find out differently.
I was carrying a half-dozen tickets in my wallet which I had torn out of a ticket book Id purchased earlier so I treated for the ride back to the hotel, and went through the usual annoying ticket-validation process for all. It was as we were just getting to the bottom of the long escalator deep inside the subway station that my love of the Budapest public transportation system came to a temporary end.
As we stepped off the escalator, a man in street clothes motioned us aside and asked for our tickets. I showed him the tickets with the correct corner clipped and with what appeared to be the proper date and time stamps. I was raised to follow the rules a regular Mr. Law-and-Order. The man asked me I should have known that he of all people would speak English where the ticket booklet was. I had a sinking feeling. It was in my hotel room. God forbid I should have to carry around the excess baggage of a small ticket booklet!
But, I put the tickets in the machine. Look at the tickets!
Show me the booklet.
But you can see that I put the tickets in the machine. They are punched and stamped for this ride.
Where is the booklet?
There was no talking him out of the jam. He pulled a ticket booklet from his bag and showed me the tiny words on the inside cover. In English the only place in Budapest that Id seen English except on the pastry menu at the Marriott Hotel and Hungarian, it directed travelers not to remove the ticket stubs from the booklet. I could only think of Alices Restaurant. I was not getting away. Then the man asked for the fine to be paid in cash, 1300 forints, approximately $5.50, from each of us right there on the spot. Yes, it was starting to feel like a scam, but then he pulled an official pad from his bag with cash receipts for the fines he levied.
In discussions with many Hungarians following our run-in with the ticket police, all agreed that they had not seen anyone being stopped and asked to present a monthly pass or a single ticket in at least the last six months.
I was left with a problem for The Ethicist from the Sunday New York Times. Should the fine be submitted as a travel expense? I had the receipt. I decided it should with an explanation.
Now I know The Ethicist wouldnt like the next part. Feeling unfairly treated, during the rest of that visit to Hungary I strode confidently doing my best to look Hungarian onto every subway in sight without using a ticket. And I was in love with the transportation system again.
For the past 27 years, Don Beil (firstname.lastname@example.org and www.rit.edu/~dhbndp) has been teaching computing to deaf and hard of hearing students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY. NTID was a partner with the Hungarian association of schools for the deaf in a grant from the Soros Open Society Institute to improve information technology education in the schools for the deaf in Hungary.
A Volunteer's Life in Romania
THIRTY ROMANIAN HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENTS, most sitting ramrod straight and looking a bit nervous, stared at me.
I was about to begin a week of practice teaching as part of my training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Though I work in community economic development and never have been a teacher, I will teach as part of my secondary projects.
These teenagers were taking time from their summer vacations to sit in a steamy classroom for a week to hear about American business and culture. And despite their nervous faces, I knew they couldnt wait.
I knew that despite paltry funding, Romanias educational system is excellent and extremely strict to the point where students generally are talked at by teachers and interactive discussion is discouraged. I had to get them engaged. What would do it?
I focused on the Internet and the dot-com boom and subsequent bust and used it to illustrate a free-market economy: Entrepreneurs, start-ups, business plans, investing and shareholders, stock markets, profit-and-loss and fundamental economics. I explained how America impacts the worlds economy every day. I talked about companies they already know, such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. And elaborated on e-commerce and how money, money and more money flows back and forth via the Internet.
I forced questions on them, and gradually, more spoke up. I wanted to make sure they understood what I was trying to leave with them. Some themes were complex for high-school students who speak English as a second language, but I could tell these kids were very bright, and much of it was sticking. I was pleased.
One boy asked how much money most Americans earn per month Romanians think in monthly salaries where we usually think of annual while another asked a good question about overhead and profits, though he didnt know the terms. The kicker was yet to come.
A girl in the back who had spoken very softly during introductions and hadnt uttered a peep since, raised her hand and asked deliberately: What happened to Enron? All of the other heads turned around. Clearly nobody else had any idea about Enron the collapsed energy firm based thousands of miles away in Houston.
I almost fell over with delight at her knowledge and curiosity. As a former Enron shareholder and employee of a major financial firm, it was easy to tell the sad but true tale of that corporate failure a good lesson indeed.
A few students then gained confidence and questions turned sharper, more specific. I kept thinking, their parents grew up in Communist times and all of this is still so new, so foreign Romania was only liberated in 1989. In fact, many argue it was neo-Communist until the mid-1990s, while some say it still is just with a prettier face. The average income is about $100 per month, yet Romania aspires to join the European Union in 2007.
You have so many opportunities in America, and we dont. What can we do?
We can go to university and then get a job, but the money is terrible.
There is no money in Romania. Most young people like us want to get out and go to Europe (as if they are not part of Europe).
It wasnt the first time Id heard such talk, especially about leaving Romania. I know many people want to, and this country of 23 million has seen its population drop by 1 million in the past ten years, many of them young and bright headed to Western Europe, USA, Canada, Israel and elsewhere.
I said, Wait a minute. All of you are selling yourself short. There is something you have that is very marketable. I know you dont have money and that high-school students arent given the chance for part-time jobs and experience. I understand Romanias poverty and various predicaments.
But guess what? You all speak English and very well, I might add. Do you realize that this is what most people around the world want to do? Do you realize that as Romania transitions to a free-market economy one reason Peace Corps is here more companies will expand here and there will be demand for native Romanians who also speak English?
The stares turned into nods and slight grins. I could see the wheels turning.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working as a business consultant for the Chamber of Commerce in Timisoara, Romania. We have asked Andy to file reports for the next two years of what his life is like working and living in Romania.
A Writer Writes
I HAD SAID SO OFTEN that leaving my Senegalese village, Keur Madiabel, would the most difficult part of my three-year Peace Corps service. Every time a farewell scene crept into my mind, I banished it quickly and vowed to think about it later. But, before I accepted the reality of my departure, later was looming over my head and it was time to drive for the last time from my village to the regional capital, with a fraction of my original possessions thrown into the backseat of a Peace Corps vehicle.
My last full day
Most of the afternoon on my last day in Keur Madiabel, I spent talking with my adoptive family, Ousmane Thiam, his wife Mame Diediou and their children. Ousmane and I sat outside on two broken wooden-back lawn chairs while he fiddled with the wire antenna of a hand-held radio with speakers that I had given him. We talked about the kids education, how I could wire money to him through Western Union (when, God-willing, I got a job and had some money) and the project I wanted to pursue to publish the poetry and prose of an extraordinary villager, collaborator and friend of mine who had recently died from an unidentified illness.
Mame and I talked while she was ironing, again mostly about the children and which of them was destined for education beyond the 6th grade. Incredibly, I found myself agreeing with her statement that only three of their six children would likely be encouraged in school; I urged her to push the youngest Kiné, Mbaye and Elise, my 1-1/2 year old namesake. In an another attempt to stress the importance of girls education, I also mentioned that I thought the eldest girl, Ndeye Astou, was a very good student although I suspected the Ndeyes destiny as the oldest daughter could be to stay in the village and help in the household until she married. Culture prevails, and Id grown to accept that, although it rarely stopped me from expressing my opinion to my Senegalese friends. I now wonder if anything Id said or demonstrated, albeit with a certain American optimism and illusion, will have a significant impact on this family or on the teachers and students from eight rural villages with which I had worked.
At the end of my conversation with Mame, she said Elise is your daughter too, and she belongs to you even if you cant take her with you to America. I was stunned to hear those words aloud, even though the giving of children to other family members was not uncommon. To me, it was an immeasurable demonstration of love, friendship and acceptance of me as a member of their Senegalese family. It was then that I felt the haze of our cultural differences, which I had fumbled in and out of for three years, was transgressed by our common work, love and humanity.
That evening, Ousmane talked with me for a long time before and after dinner about how he felt I was like a member of the family. He said that when he decided to name his youngest daughter after me, he did so not because he thought I would give them things or that I would bring her to America. It was, he said, because he knew I was human, as they were human, and none of us differentiated between our conditions or ourselves. I ask now, why does the idea that there is nothing more or less human about a white or a black, or an affluent or an illiterate, or a Catholic or a Muslim, or an African or an American seem like an unshakable truth? That last night, sitting in the dark with Ousmane and Mame, I felt truly united in humanity when he said we were comme des parents (like family). He thanked me again and told me not to worry about leaving them; we had already formed unbreakable bonds, even if it took me 2 or 5 or 20 years to come back to Senegal.
The children seemed particularly somber, yet still went about his or her tasks. After Ousmanes speech, Mbaye, the precocious three-year old brother of Elise, kept asking me where I was going, and I felt like he was doing so with an incredible insistence for truth. He knew I was GOING and I couldnt bring myself to answer him with any reassuring measure in my voice.
After dinner we all sat down to watch Mari Mar on television and Ndeye was squeezed next to me on the corner of my chair, as usual. I didnt follow the show and kept thinking about the fact that I would probably never again be a part of this scene this comfortable family setting: sitting with a group of African children and adults who considered me something between a sister and an aunt, all crowded around a 12-inch black and white television run off a 12v car battery to watch a cheesy Mexican soap opera dubbed in French. Finally, I went home to my compound around 12:30am and went directly to sleep. I still hadnt accepted that I was really leaving the next morning.
Time for departure
I woke up at 6:00am a certain rarity for me, and immediately started to load my truck. Ousmane had sent his older son and nephew to help me. When I left the house where I had lodged for years, I thought it would be fairly easy to say goodbye to my landlords and their family, to which I was not nearly as close as the Thiams. But, right at the end, I chocked up so unexpectedly that I hurried the rest of the handshakes and good-byes and jumped in my truck.
When I arrived at Ousmanes I went inside the house to greet everyone before we started unloading the belongings that I was going to leave behind with the family my wooden double bed frame, sponge mattress, metal tuna fish can footlocker, double-sized Peach Corps-issued mosquito net, buckets, clothes, pencils, scraps of material and all kinds of small treasures that the kids would find ingenious uses for. Mame hardly looked at me and went into the kitchen.
The event that sticks most in my mind from that day is breakfast. Mame brought me into her and Ousmanes bedroom and set down a meal of duck, fried potatoes and onion sauce that was left over from our dinner the night before. Elise came in and sat down on her little wooden stool and we ate together. Actually, all I did was pick at the bread. Once I looked at Elise, I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall into a pit; I couldnt eat and I just kept crying into my bandana. Though she ate, the 1/1-2 year old watched me and between bites she tentatively called my name, Khady? She knew too, I think. When Mame took the breakfast bowl away she didnt even comment on how little I had eaten.
The rest of the family joined us in the bedroom and we made small talk. Thankfully, Ousmane was there to get me going. He said I shouldnt linger nor have any ceremony; it was simply time to leave. The children were suddenly quiet. Mame went on arranging the plastic bowls on top of the dresser, keeping her face turned away from me. Ousmane asked me if I had a piece of cloth. All I had was my wet bandana, but he found small strips from another scrap of blue tie-dyed material I had given them. He told me to tie a thin piece of cloth around the wrists of both Mbaye and Elise. I did it, but didnt need to ask why.
It was the moment to leave. I could barely touch any of them or say anything. Hugging seemed too dramatic and if I had done that, I would have broken the cultural code of restrained, repressed emotion something I had promised myself I would not do in public. Instead I shook Mames hand and looked at her beautiful Diola face for an instant until we both looked down. I touched each childs face, kissed Ndeye on the head and turned to leave the room. Mame stayed inside with all of the children except Elise, who I was carrying, and Ousmane walked with me to the truck. I met Mames sister at the door and shook her hand. She surprised me with a sob and her abrupt retreat back into the room. Finally at the entrance of the compound I quickly shoved Elise back to her father before she had the chance to cling to me as she often did when I left her. I thanked Ousmane and shook his extended left hand the hand used to wish someone well on a journey and a gesture promising that we would see each other again someday.
As I drove slowly out of the village, I looked, for the last time, at the ancient mahogany trees that lined both sides of the tar road, the sandy fields that were being prepared for the growing season, the electric power lines there were still not connected and the sparse, sublime horizon that had been stripped of almost all green. On the way out, I picked up a villager who wanted a ride to Kaolack, the regional capital where I had packing and writing my close-of-service report to finish. Once past the village limit, I couldnt hold back any longer. My passenger looked embarrassedly away from my unstoppable flow of tears, and the only I words I spoke for 35km were to ask him to put on his seat belt.
Ousmane Thiam and his family continue to live in the Muslim village of Keur Madiabel, and they remain in frequent contact with the author. Ndeye Astou, the eldest daughter, did not pass her entrance exams last year in order to continue education beyond 6th grade, but Ousmane is encouraging her to try again. The author helps to financially support the education of Elise Thiam, who is now four years old and attending her second year of pre-school in another village.
Immediately after the destructive events of September 11th, the Thiams tried for three days to get through the phone lines to the United States. Mame said they could not sleep or eat until they spoke with [me] to ensure [my] safety and well being. Recently, the family telephoned the author to express their condolences on the one-year anniversary of September 11th. Ousmane said that they are praying for her, and for America.
Elise Annunziata lived in Keur Madiabel for two years working with students and teachers in eight surrounding villages to develop Environmental Education curricula. She extended a third year in Senegal as a Volunteer Leader in Kaolack and also worked as a Peace Corps trainer for the first Environmental Education program in Guinea (Conakry). Now living in Arlington, Virginia, Elise has a Master of Arts in Environmental and Natural Resources from The George Washington University and currently works for the Sierra Club in Arlington.
Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
PETER CHILSON HAS BEEN KIND enough to appear as a panelist at several Peace Corps writing conferences, most recently in Fishtrap in Oregon this past September where we spent some time together.
A creative writing professor at Washington State University, Peter went into the Peace Corps after finishing college at Syracuse University, where he earned a BA in journalism and international relations. It was while he was living in West Africa that he began to research and write Riding the Demon, a book on the extreme travel done by truck drivers on the African continent. This book, published in 1991 by the University of Georgia Press, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction.
After the Peace Corps, Peter went back to school for a MFA at Pennsylvania State University, and since then it seems he has been constantly on the road, mostly in Africa, and also on long weekend drives between Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and Portland, Oregon where his wife lives and works. Since meeting up with Peter at Fishtrap, we have been emailing each other about his career, writing, and what he will be doing next. In fact, this is what weve been talking about.
Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer, Peter?
I was in Niger, West Africa, from 1985 to 1987. I taught English in a district junior high school in the town of Bouza, south central Niger, about 60 miles north of the border with Nigeria.
At Fishtrap you really impressed everyone when you explained your "note taking" while on the road. Could you detail that process for us?
Well, I got my start in newspapers, first as a columnist for my hometown weekly in Aspen, Colorado while I was in high school, and later as a county government reporter in Colorado and at the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. At the Times I covered the sheriffs department, all of county government, two school districts, and was expected to do feature reporting as well. I wrote 34 stories a day. That is a lot of material to keep straight and the only way I could do it was to keep separate notebooks. For example, I had one notebook for the sheriffs department, another for political stories, and different notebooks for different major ongoing stories, and so forth.
I had to keep different notebooks just to keep my facts and issues straight, which is evidence of my poor memory. But that is how I solved the problem. Ive found over the years that notebooks help keep me organized and clear even when compiling material for a single essay.
For example, I hang out a lot with scientists, who are very detail oriented people and to win their confidence I have to get my facts straight. This summer I was traveling in Mali with an African soil scientist who does research on how to revive the devastated soil of the Sahel. I am writing an essay about him, his work, and his life divided between Africa and the U.S. For this one essay, I have three notebooks: One contains material of my travels with him in West Africa. The second contains material on my travels with him in the U.S. The third, a small notebook I keep in my breast pocket, contains only scientific terms and a glossary of words from African languages, namely Bambara, since that was the main ethnic group of the area in which we were traveling. When I was with him in the bush, Id pull this smaller notebook right out of my shirt pocket to quickly jot down the names of plants, soil types, or a new word in Bambara
Thus, in the end, when I sit down to write, its easier to access my own notes because it is all fairly compartmentalized.
If an RPCV wanted to write travel pieces for publication, what are some practical suggestions that you would give them to help get their material published?
I believe that persistence and continuous hard work pay off. At any given time I have an essay and a story or two that have just come out, a couple of pieces that are coming out in the near future, and finally several projects that are in the pipeline. The idea is that I am keeping the pressure on at all times. So, if a rejection comes back, its not big deal because I have other projects I am working on.
I think its a good idea to approach freelancing with a good sense of the view from the editors desk. Working on newspapers and magazines as an editor and reporter has given me a good idea of what happens on both sides of the editors desk. When writing queries I try to think from the editors point of view and keep the query crisp, direct, brief and fresh. Somehow, I have to get the editors attention. Having been a magazine editor (I was an editor at High Country News, a journal that covers the American West), I know how fickle editors can be and how much an editors mood can influence whether or not a piece is rejected or accepted.
In other words, its important for a writer to be aware of his weaknesses, but not to take rejections very seriously. Keep trying. Keep the pressure on.
Ive also found it helpful to cultivate relationships with editors. Once a magazine publishes something, I try to keep in touch with new ideas so the editors dont forget me.
What travel writers do you read?
I enjoy V.S. Naipaul. He is quirky and honest and his use of language never gets in the way of his story. I love Joan Didion. Shes not strictly a travel writer, though much of her nonfiction is connected to landscape as well as a certain intellectual journey. I also love Graham Greene, George Orwell and Mark Twain. Mary Kingsleys book, Travels in West Africa [originally published in 1897], is one of the best travel accounts I have ever read for its precision, honesty and humor. Kingsley kept notebooks and I love the quirky detail of her narrative, right down to telling us how she removed tics that had become embedded in her flesh.
Another of my favorites is Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance: Shackletons Legendary Antarctic Expedition. She also wrote great book called One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley. I can go on and on, but what I love about these writers is that there is always much more than travel woven into their narratives. They all believe in reporting. They are good observers and investigators of place.
At Fishtrap you talked about all the writing that you were doing. Do you consider yourself a travel writer? Non-fiction writer? Short story writer? All of the above?
Im all of the above. I like to think my book, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa, works as a memoir and historical perspective on road culture in West Africa, as well as a travel narrative. I also started writing short stories two years ago. I have three published stories, including one that was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff and Arts and Letters Fiction Prizes. I like to think I am branching out. But I love travel and am very attracted to it. The theme of investigating place informs nearly all my writing.
What have been some of your recent successes in writing that youre proud of?
My essay, Guilt and Malaria (Ascent Fall 2001) was recognized as a notable essay of 2001 in the 2002 edition of The Best American Travel Writing and my essay, The Road from Abalak: Heat, Wind, Dust, Fear came out in the summer 2002 issue of The American Scholar.
You went to Penn State for your MFA. That, as you know, is where the wonderful writer, Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173), also studied. Would you suggest that an RPCV who is interested in writing get a Masters in creative writing?
Not at all. Following a career path in creative writing is a very individual pursuit. I can think of a few acquaintances, mainly journalists, who did not take the graduate school route and have been successful anyway. Really, its a matter of persistence, having enough self- confidence and a realistic awareness of ones own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
I entered the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University because I needed help to break out of the newspaper writing format. I was pretty much stuck in that and unsure how to proceed. I also entered the program with a very specific project in mind, which was a book about road culture in West Africa. There were three writers at Penn State whose work I was familiar with. I applied there specifically to work with them and, fortunately, I was admitted and things worked out. The program provided the feedback I needed and the access to funding support (in my case, a Fulbright) to get back to Africa to do my research.
One last question, Peter. Looking at what you have written what are two favorite lines an opening and a closing of what you have written?
That is a tough one, but a line I like a lot is actually from a short story called, Disturbance Loving Species, published in the Clackamas Literary Review (Spring/Summer 2002). It reads,
It starts with a character, a strong voice, and with a strong image in a specific place.
As for a last line. A quick answer would be from an essay coming out in spring 2003 in The North Dakota Quarterly. Its called, Tourist of Fire, Prisoner of Dust, about the culture of fire fighting in the American West as an ecological feature of war, and the science and culture of dust in West Africa as another ecological feature of war. The last line is,
I like this because it ends with a kick and it is also an image linked to several other important themes in the essay.
Literary Type November 2002
Paul Eggers (Malaysia 197678), now an assistant professor in the MFA program at California State University in Chico, California, has published a new book. A collect of his short fiction, How the Water Feels came out in October, published by Southern Methodist University. Many of the stories in the collection are based on his Peace Corps and United Nations relief work, all taking place in South East Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews. His novel Saviors, published in 1999, was a Barnes & Noble Discovery selection and won the 2000 Maria Thomas Fiction Award.
In October, Eggers was the first reader in the 20022003 Pittsburg (Kansas) State University Visiting Writers Series sponsored by the English department of the university. Stories by Eggers have been published in The Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Northwest Review and Granta.
Also teaching at California State University/ Chico is Rob Davidson, the 2002 winner of the Maria Thomas Fiction Award for his collection of short fiction Field Observations. This must make Chico State the only university with two RPCV writers on their faculty, as well as the only university with two Maria Thomas Award winners.
Bird Cupps (Kenya 198789) had an essay entitled Quills in the April, 2002 issue of The Sun, a North Carolina literary journal. The essay was a lyrical piece reflecting on suffering after Bird received a serious injury from a belt sander.
In the October 14 & 21, 2002 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Hessler (China 199698) returned with an article on The Middleman the small-time traders who operate in downtown Beijing in the neighborhoods around the foreign embassies.
Paul Therouxs (Malawi 196365) next novel is Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Dark Star Safari takes Theroux down the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, forgotten trains, and rusting steamers. Along the way, he is shot at, robbed and spat on, and sleeps in malarial flop houses, and unsanitary trains. Sounds like Peace Corps travel to me. He tells great stories, as always, and writes wonderfully, as always. Heres his description of being caught in a stifling tent in the desert.
There came a trotting sound, not one animal but lots of tiny hooves, like a multitude of gazelle fawns, so soft in their approach they were less like hoof beats than the sound of expelled breaths, pah-pah-pah. They advanced on me, then up and over my tent, tapping at the loose fabric. It was rain.
The book will be published in February by Houghton Mifflin.
Rick Gray (Kenya 198890) is currently performing in Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov at The Connelly Theater in New York (220 East 4th Street between Avenues A & B). The production is part of the CHEKHOV NOW festival. Information is available at www.chekhovnow.org.
Richs own play, Oil Men, is currently under consideration for the ONeill Playwrights Conference/2003. This play is set in Saudi Arabia where he worked for a period as an English teacher.
Educational Leadership carried an article in the October 2002 issue on the Peace Corps book, Voices from the Field, a textbook that uses Returned Peace Corps Volunteers personal narratives to increase understanding of other cultures. The article was written by Cerylle A. Moffett (staff: PC/W 2000 ) the curriculum design specialist of World Wise Schools in the Peace Corps and co-author, with Beth Giebus (Morocco 199093) and Betsi Shays (Fiji 196668), of Voices from the Field.
Richard Richter (staff: PC/W 1963-64; Kenya Deputy Director 1965-67) had a Op-ed article in the Washington Post on Friday, October 25 entitled China Walls Out the News. Richter, who is president of Radio Free Asia, leads off his piece with, The media are full of news these days about China embracing reform and emerging as a world player. But dont think for an instant that Beijing has stopped practicing what Thomas Jefferson called tyranny over the minds of men.
The cover story of the October 2002 issue of National Geographic Traveler on Bali was written by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69.) Kluge is the writer in residence at Kenyon College in Ohio and author of several novels as well as books of non-fiction.
In the December issue of Vanity Fair, Maureen Orth (Colombia 196466) has a cover story on Fort Braggs bloody summer of 2002 when a series of domestic murders and suicides occurred, and all involving experienced soldiers who had served in Afghanistan. Orth not only wrote the story but at a reception in Washington for Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez she went up to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and told him about the insensitive treatment received by some of the families left behind. Less than a week later, the general in charge of personnel called to thank me and said the survivors could contact her personally, says Orth. Since then, several survivors have received assistance they had not thought available, and the Army has begun revising its procedures for such case. Once the top guns became aware, says Orth, they also became accountable.
In October Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 199295) read her poetry at the Salt Lake Public Librarys Main Branch as part of the City Arts reading series. Lyons is working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and writes about her experiences in southern Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) has an essay about Frank Millers new graphic novel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in Flak Magazine. You can read it online at: www.flakmag.com/books/darkknight.html.
The fall issue of storySouth, a magazine edited by Jason Sanford, is now online at www.storysouth.com
You can also read some of Jasons writings at www.jasonsanford.freeservers.com
Recent books by Peace Corps writers November 2002
A Memoir of Pursuit
by Ron Arias (Peru 196364)
Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University
Moon Handbooks Nicaragua
by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000) and Randy Wood (Nicaragua 19982000)
Avalon Travel Publishing
My Father's Ghost
The Return of My Old Man and Other Second Chances,
by Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 196163)
J. P. Tarcher
Protecting the American Homeland:
edited by Michael E. OHanlon; I. Mac Destler (Nigeria 196163), contributor.
The Brookings Institution
How the Water Feels
by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 197678)
Southern Methodist University Press
by John Flynn (Moldova 199395)
Be Move Press
Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions
Making Sense of Transatlantic English
by Orin Hargraves (Morocco 198082)
Oxford University Press
High Impact Resumes and Letters
How to Communicate Your Qualifications to Employers
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand) and William J. Banis
Simon & Schuster, September 2002
Beyond our Greatest Notions
by Chris Matthews (Swaziland 196870)
by Mark T. Sullivan (Central African Republic 1983-85)
Atria/Simon & Schuster,
(Nations in Transition series Young adult)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
To Preserve and to Learn
by Hal Fleming (Staff: PC/W 196668; CD Cote d'Ivoire 196872)
IN 1966, I CAME DOWN TO WASHINGTON from New York. It was a time in our country when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War divided the nation. I had been tapped to work as a staff member in the Public Affairs and Recruiting office for the Peace Corps.
On my very first work day in Peace Corps/Washington, I was told to join Warren Wiggins, the Deputy Director of the Agency, in his government car for a one-hour ride to a conference for new campus recruiters at Tidewater Inn in Easton, Maryland.
Wiggins, preoccupied with his opening speech to the conclave, said very little to me except to read out a phrase or two of buzz-word laden prose, mostly unintelligible to me as the new guy, and ask for my comments. At the Tidewater Inn, Mr. Wiggins rose to the podium, and hardly got through a page of his much-worked speech to the 200 assembled in the main hall, when the pointed interruptions and questions began.
Although a bit baffled by the lack of respect and believing all government employees meek and accepting, I was equally at sea in trying to understand the basis for the complaints.
The main gripe among the articulate and forthright assemblage of mid-twenties, new hires was that in their very recent overseas experience, Peace Corps Medical officers were prohibited from distributing contraceptives to PCVs although there was no such ban with regard to the U.S. Military. While in the late 1960s the HIV/AIDS pandemic was very much in the future, in most areas where Peace Corps worked, other, more common sexually transmitted diseases could be a major problem.
The second gripe centered on the Vietnam War and the Peace Corps unwillingness to take a stand when most of its potential and active clientele had strong anti-war views. It was considered a question of credibility.
Wiggins survived the cries of hypocrisy and double standards by appealing to their loyalty to the much-admired Peace Corps, by cautioning them not to throw the baby out with the bath water by censuring the Agency for policies beyond its immediate control.
At the ensuing luncheon and in the ante-rooms, I had opportunities to engage my new colleagues in less heated discussion and returned to Washington much in awe. I had none of their battle scars, had not worked to better the world in far off places, had not lived in the proverbial mud hut, and could not converse fluently in any language but English, certainly not Swahili, Tagalog, Hindi or Amharic. I was awed by the RPCVs in the room, and many of these new Peace Corps employees were about to come to work for me as Recruiters.
Peace Corps blitz recruiting*
Peace Corps, then at its peak, had over 15,000 overseas or in numerous stateside training programs, and my office, one of the largest in Washington, had a staff of 200, half of whom were out-posted to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and, added on my watch, Atlanta. We were the largest employer of recent college graduates after the U.S. military, and in those booming late 1960s our suitcase recruiters visited 900 colleges and universities each academic year, some of them, like UCLA, Berkeley and University of Michigan, two and three times. Each recruiter in the 9-month academic year logged about 100,000 air and car miles, slept in cheap motels and noisy student unions, and worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. Like the circus, they packed up after the last Saturday event and traveled to the next college town on Sunday. There were also the talk shows, the newspaper articles, the celebrity photo ops, all of which stretched a 24-year-olds limits of organization, persuasion and directorship, but all typically came off smoothly.
De-bureaucratize the Peace Corps
The Recruiting machine required precise scheduling, advance visits, analysis of the graduating college seniors and their skills, and the production and just-on-time shipment of recruiting materials including everything from portable booths, brochures on the overseas experience and skill needs, handouts, posters and importantly, applications.
My particular contribution to the effort my first year in Washington was with the help of our resident graphic artist to de-bureaucratize the brochures and application forms by adding color, front cover pictures of Africans, Asians and Latinos being helped by Peace Corps Volunteers, and the like.
I also headed a new division called Applicant Services geared to keeping those who had applied as a result of campus visits reinformed about Peace Corps, and where their particular applications were in the selection and assignment pipeline. The Agency had in place a time-consuming, cumbersome, hand sorting process led by distinguished academics who had screened and selected the first team of U.S. astronauts. Attesting to the Agencys popularity among young Americans, tens of thousands of applications clogged the system, many from high school students and university underclassmen not yet ready or able to join up.
I joined the Director of Administration and Finance in a walk through of the office where dozens of clerks sorted piles of applications. A four-part carbon paper summary form was key to the current system. The green tissue paper copy was routed one way; the pink that way and the white to another table. I asked the perplexed Chief of the unit what happened to the buff colored copy. She yelled down the line of desks where does the buff go? No one was certain. I soon headed up a task force to quickly redesign the application for computerization, enabling our information officers and the Selection and Training staffs easy access to those who would be graduating in the coming months as well as those with special skills.
Compared to the ponderous and many-layered ways of other federal agencies I would come to know well in later years, Peace Corps moved quickly and cost-effectively, its imperatives being the academic year and the goal of putting thousands into training during the three summer months. New ideas were readily accepted, and the Agency itself had few traditions, cast-in-concrete regulations, and government lawyers to encumber it. We were known as the hot outfit, and everyone clamored for a job.
In addition to my hectic headquarters duties that first year, I was called upon to join recruiting teams on campus, to give talks in classrooms and give more formal speeches. My first assignment took me to Texas Southern University in Houston where I joined four of our recruiters from the euphemistically called Specialized Recruiting Unit, which targeted predominantly black colleges and universities. The team of former Volunteers all attractive young Afro-American women met up with me at our Houston motel the Sunday before our campaign at Texas Southern began. I recall being more apprehensive about traveling South given the unease in the region about civil rights and the pressures for desegregation, rather than about my credibility with students and faculty. Also, my father, who had been born in the then-British West Indies and raised in the East, cautioned me about going south of the Potomac River, and I never had except to National Airport in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
The Specialized recruiting team caused quite a stir at the motel and at dinner. Although the reservations had been guaranteed through Washington and the facility, part of a national chain, advised of our mission, we were probably the desegregation test case. A sales convention was having its kick-off dinner at the same time we sat down to eat, but I believe the stares from the white businessmen had more to do with speculation about my particular role in hosting the four animated and photogenic young women, than with any real discomfort at being in the same dining room with blacks.
Because my staff of information officers and recruiters included many who had gone out in the first Peace Corps days, they had received much coverage in their home town newspapers and in the national media for being the first Volunteers in some of the worlds remotest areas, for living in some cases under extremely primitive conditions, for being Americas new goodwill ambassadors, and, hopefully, for providing practical and lasting help to those Africans, Asians and Latinos they served. To many still in college or in high school, these first waves of Volunteers were larger than life, heroes and heroines of a bright new age.
Unfortunately, the recruiters many accomplishments overseas and all the attendant adulation soon became overshadowed by Americas darkening clouds. Anti-war protests triggered police brutality and worse. With the Civil Rights movement, surfaced deep-seated bigotry. Two days before my recruiting visit to Houston, white State Troopers turned on and shot students at South Carolina A&E, a predominantly black land-grant college. In my brief two years at Peace Corps/Washington, we would be further shocked and embittered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. All of my beautiful, bright-eyed Peace Corps boys and girls would be stunned by what was happening to America, and they saw it every day going from Williamstown to Cambridge, from State College to Ann Arbor, from Southern to Grambling, from Santa Cruz to Berkeley.
On the West Coast, which in the late 1960s produced almost 40% of our prime applications from the big state universities in California, Washington and Oregon, the campus anti-war radicalism, epitomized at Berkeley, began to infect some in our San Francisco office, creating anxieties at headquarters about a possible short-fall in our recruiting targets. In the first time in my professional career, I had to play the heavy and fire people. I identified ten of the most bitter and disillusioned from our San Francisco office and they left without much protest, realizing the damage they were causing but being unwilling to moderate their militancy. I then moved in substitutes from the true believers in the Chicago and Washington offices, who relished a change of venue. I experienced a number of sleepless nights about the lives I had altered in this personnel shuffle, but became forever marked in my Foreign Service career, for better or for worse, as a task-oriented manager.
Among the many Peace Corps Recruiters working for me during this period were: Phil Sheller (Thailand), Jon Sutinen (Kenya), Phillip Yocum (Liberia), Jan Pawlowski (Jamaica), Robert Read (India), Elaine Sutinen (Kenya), Ann Buessing (Iran), Robert Casey (India), Alan Corner ( Sierra Leone), Gloria and David Myklebust (Cameroon), Jon Keeton (Thailand), Priscilla Luders (Malaysia), Frank Garcia (Guatemala), Vern Fulcher (Ethiopia), Robert Fogg (Turkey), Ken Hill (Turkey), and Maureen Orth (Colombia). Never before (or since) have I worked with such dedicated and talented young people.
The Numbers Game
In spite of the unrest across the country and the soul-searching within our own ranks, we managed to significantly surpass our recruiting quotas and fill our training targets. Some said our numbers were so high because young men were joining the Peace Corps to evade military service, since most draft boards quietly and unofficially acknowledged volunteering in such programs as Peace Corps and VISTA as an alternative to military service. In answering Congressional inquiries on this suspicion of draft dodging, we pointed out that we were consistently recruiting males and females in a fifty-fifty ratio. If anything the number of female applicants showed a slight increase. These numbers tended to diffuse the criticism, but did not mute the clamor of some right wing conservatives who had no love for anything that smacked of foreign aid, as well as anything associated with the late John F. Kennedy.
On any given day from September 1967 to May 1968 we had teams of recruiters on 30 to 40 campuses across the country. The leaders of the various teams called into headquarters almost every evening with their application results as well as the news on campus protests and more violent student confrontations with authorities. Various offices of the U.S. Congress would also call in to confirm reports of troubles at universities in their respective home districts, and between five and seven P.M. most evenings at PC/W, I was on the phones. The news media also learned that we were a timely source of such information. The offices of several bachelor Congressmen also called regularly not to learn about campus riots but the whereabouts of recruiter Eileen, or Sue, or Sally. We had among our recruiters and information officers some of the most glamorous women in Washington, for they had been hand picked for their looks as well as their brains.
Black Like Me
There were sharper confrontations along the way. Along with Marine Corps recruiters, one of our teams was locked up overnight by student protestors in an activity center at a Mid-western university. A gray government sedan acquired from the local Government Services Administration, GSA, motor pool in Atlanta Georgia was riddled with buckshot when leaving a campus. One of our black women recruiters traveling alone in Mississippi fought off a rape attempt by several white airport workers.
On one swing through the South, Washington asked me to make an urgent side trip to a Peace Corps training facility outside of Baton Rouge. A burning cross had been placed outside the girls dormitory and the hundred plus Trainees and staff were understandably quite distraught. The facility, a former U.S. naval officers training school complete with several red brick campus buildings, was being used at the time to train health workers, largely female and mostly white, destined for French-speaking Africa. As in all training programs some of the language, technical and cross cultural staff were drawn from the African government agencies for which the Volunteers would be working. The area had a Cajun-speaking population, and Trainees were placed with families on the weekends to attune their ears to a French dialect. Segregation, however, persisted in the area, and at the nearest shopping area, the laundromat among other businesses, remained off-limits to our African guests. On arriving to investigate the cross-burning incident, the training director, a Harvard academic who had never before been to the deep South, recounted the story of how the burning cross had been discovered in the early morning, and how after one call to the State Police the response was almost immediate. I advised him that I wasnt surprised by the swift action for in that part of the South, the State Troopers and the Klu Klux Klan were often odd bed fellows if not synonymous. The cross burning provoked a flap in Washington and among Baton Rouges elected officials with whom I met, for the African instructors traveled under diplomatic auspices. As a positive outcome to the tense affair, however, the No Coloreds signs in the nearby laundromat and the one general store came down.
Icing on a rotten cake
University administrators at some of our important schools became unsettled by the campus unrest and barred Peace Corps along with other Federal Government agencies from campus and classroom access. Several of the better-organized protest groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, singled out Peace Corps for attack, labeling it the icing on the rotten cake of American imperialism.
Flying High with Pan Am
The most dramatic of these confrontations occurred at Columbia University during the Fall of 1967. Being barred from recruiting on campus, we were able to acquire several New York City buses through the good offices of Pan American Airlines. Pan Am earned about $2 million a year in late 1960s dollars flying groups from training sites to various overseas posts. TWA and Eastern also competed with air chartering new PCVs to their assignments overseas. The quid pro quo for Pan Ams helpful intervention was a placard for display on the side of the buses reading Join the Peace Corps, Youll Go Far and Pan Am Makes the Going Great.
The Deputy Head of the Agency was not amused, saying that Peace Corps would be open to criticism by appearing to endorse one particular airline. I countered that in New York, the advertising capital of the world, such marketing tie-ins were commonplace, and no competitor would protest. Others agreed, and we went forward with our plan.
We arranged for police permits to park the two buses right by the main gates of the University at 116th Street and Broadway, and we gathered up a first string team of recruiters from our Boston and Washington offices. Within minutes of opening up our mobile recruiting stations and turning on our loud speakers, a dozen SDS agitators appeared and began blocking access to our buses. Almost immediately on that bright fall New York City day a counter picket formed. These were international students from Latin America, India and Africa. They said in effect to the stunned and speechless SDS group, Leave these people alone. They were our teachers.
Without lifting a hand to stage-manage the event, I watched the SDS protestors melt away; several even filled out applications to join up, and the four day stand on upper Broadway was a success. The poster version of the Pan Am placard became a hot ticket item with college students, and no competing airline lodged a complaint.
Peace Corps cinema verite
Nevertheless, one of the central issues the Peace Corps constantly faced during this era was how, as a U.S. Government agency, could it distance itself from the official policies related to the war in Vietnam, and so maintain credibility with its main clientele the college student of the late 60s. Our challenge in Public Affairs was to develop all the print and electronic materials for recruiting taking these currents into account. We also had help from the public service window of the Advertising Council of America. Additionally, we contracted for one or two films a year on Peace Corps life overseas.
Despite our popularity and ready access to the media, the Agency for the first time since its establishment had to deal with the troubled domestic reality all around it .We also faced up to the reality of the sometimes disillusioning overseas Volunteer experience. This disturbed some of the staff who felt we should stick to the optimistic and often sugar-coated messages of the past. The Advertising Council understood our dilemma and was quick to respond. For the 6768 recruiting year, we produced several public service spot announcements. The best of these and one that garnered several awards was done in cinema verite style showing young adults playing a parlor game. The question addressed to the participants was simply What is Peace? All provided thoughtful definitions, but the one that became quoted throughout the dormitories and study halls was simply Peace is the absence of war. The tag line on the spot read, This message brought to you by the United States Peace Corps in collaboration with the Advertising Council of America. This was a bold statement for its time, and while my neck was on the line for pushing the agency toward this veiled criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the few angry calls from the Congress and the State Department were drowned out by applause.
RPCVs produce a poster
We were somewhat less fortunate with a poster produced by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Committee of Harvard which found its way into our general campus recruiting kits. Far less subtle than our Peace is the absence of war message, it showed a line drawing of a carbine and a shovel and read M16s jam, Shovels Dont. Join the Peace Corps. In addition to all its woes in Vietnam, the Pentagon was faced with the malfunctioning of its standard issue rifles. An exasperated Secretary of the Army telephoned me pleading please dont do that to us. Subsequently, there was a witch hunt by the Congress to see if any appropriated U.S. funds had been used to print these posters. None had been, and we dropped the posters and were spared.
Yankees Go Home
A controversial feature length documentary made during this period depicted the darker side of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. The film, made by an award-winning Hollywood group, showed no smiling, clean-cut Americans surrounded by happy, appreciative Africans, but those in realistic work and social situations. Some Volunteers were positive about their accomplishments, while others expressed self-doubts about their effectiveness, about themselves, about their ability to understand another culture. Some Nigerians criticized the Volunteers for doing jobs as teachers or health workers they themselves could do. In a closing frame, one Nigerian held up a quickly scrawled sign to underscore his views: Yankee Go Home, but Leave Your Cigarettes Behind.
The Agencys senior staff was mortified by the film, while the recruiting staff of former volunteers thought the views expressed, while not necessarily universal, rang true. Adding to the furor, the Agency Director banned the film from use in recruiting adding to the furor. The African program chief, C. Payne Lucas, who would go on to found and manage the private voluntary organization, AfriCare, also thought the film misrepresented the views of the Nigerians, but finally agreed to let the film be shown as a test case to a group of returned volunteer graduate students at the University of Michigan. He was invited to Ann Arbor to moderate the discussion after the screening on whether the volunteer experience in Africa had been accurately portrayed. The debate concluded that while no one film could capture the highly variable world of the Peace Corps, the film added to the agencys credibility by presenting both positive and negative perspectives. Vindicated, we were allowed to show the film on selected large campuses.
Chicken every Sunday
Recruiting had its lighter moments. To the tune of the jingle See the USA in Your Chevrolet we saw the USA in our GSA, the gray official cars from the government services motor pools of the day. I recall coming back to Washington from LA on an infamous Red Eye Special with three of our most charismatic recruiters whom passengers assumed on that run must have had something to do with the movie industry. Always working, we managed to get ourselves upgraded to business class at no extra cost, and also obtained dutifully completed and signed applications from three of the six stewardesses on that flight. At one West Coast university, a fast talking recruiter got the entire graduating class of forestry majors to apply and take the foreign language aptitude test as well, describing to them a ground-breaking reforestation project in Greenland. The Peace Corps never had a program in Greenland.
Most graduating college seniors were not that specific about where they wanted to serve overseas since they had little knowledge about most countries in Asia, Africa or the Americas. Almost all, however, in ordering their priorities asked about the food. To address these concerns about basic needs, we produced several taped interviews with our recruiters for distribution on campus radio. In one such interview which I conducted, a petite, attractive Afro-American woman who had been a business skills teacher in Belize described her diet as provided by her host family:
On Mondays we had white beans and rice.
On Tuesdays, it was red beans and rice,
And on Wednesday they served black beans,
And of course rice.
Then on Thursday it repeated with white beans and rice.
Friday again the red beans and rice
Saturday supper was black bean and rice.
Then the former teacher of typing and accounting paused, her eyes moistened and she became more animated. But on Sundays we had chicken!
Greatest Recruitment Year
In the spring of 1968, despite problems with morale, changing messages and turbulent college campuses, we were on course to chalk up the most successful recruiting year in Peace Corps history, success being defined as the number of prime applicants available for summer and fall training programs. From well over 100,000 completed applications we were able to draw from an actively interested and available pool of 36,000. In the 32 years since, this record has not been surpassed. By now, however, my sights were increasingly focused on French language training and the Ivory Coast, or Cote dIvoire to which I had been nominated to become Country Director.
In, Up, and Out
At the end of March 1968, I made my last big swing through our regions.
In Atlanta, T.M. Alexander, Jr., a graduate school friend who was financial adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, invited me to a midnight supper on the occasion of Dr. Kings return from a desegregation march in Alabama. In the dimly lit church basement, I recall how tired and ashen King and his lieutenants appeared as they walked slowly to their tables. Andrew Young, whom I would get to know in the mid-70s when he was a U.S. Congressman, and Ralph Abernathy were among the solemn band. There was no opportunity for introductions or discussion as the exhausted ministers ate quickly and in silence, and left the room as quietly as they had entered. The scene I witnessed in that bare dimly lit church basement at midnight was profoundly inspiring for I had participated in the March on Washington and was raised by a family active in Civil Rights. At that moment, however, I had no intimations that I had been present at a last supper.
I left Atlanta for Chicago and then went on to San Francisco where the entire 40 strong, revitalized West Coast team would be together for the last time in the Bay area. Consequently, much planning had gone into holding a retreat near Carmel. I finished my recruiting chores at Berkeley early on that April 4th and was programmed to go into the city to give a talk to a two-hundred-strong group of Trainees being sent to Hilo, Hawaii for three months training before being assigned to programs in the Asia/Pacific region. I was then to go on to the retreat. It was a beautiful West Coast day as several of us drove across the Bay Bridge with the radio blaring out The Mamas and the Papas on California Dreamin, in our sedate GSA issue car. With the ambiance, my attractive escorts and the music, I had a hard time concentrating on my notes for the talk, but all my fantasies of the mellow West Coast were cruelly interrupted by a news bulletin informing us that Dr. King had been shot at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We were stunned, I doubly so, for I had sat with the man only ten days before at that silent midnight dinner.
We headed to the Peace Corps office on Market Street to cancel my talk to the Hilo-bound Trainees and to call Washington for instructions. Headquarters, confused and disbelieving, spoke of rioting in parts of the city and elsewhere in the United States. The National Guard had been called out and offices were sending workers home. Stay out there until further notice, I was told. Keep the office and the team together.
Feeling helpless, we decided to continue on with the retreat since we would be out of the city, and hopefully out of harms way. One of our recruiters father was on the Carmel Town Council which controlled twelve thousand acres of woods and park land of Big Sur near the famous Esalen Institute. It was to these acres that some sixty of us, including secretaries and significant others, gathered. Instead of heading to the rustic cabin on the property, we drove up the dirt tracks to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Cars went as far as possible and then we all hiked up to a grassy knoll. Startled wild boar crashed about us in the brush, but we all sat silently, not greeting one another, deep in our thoughts about the days events. Was this the end of the Civil Rights movement? Would there be an all out civil war? Sixty young adults, and I at 34 the old man sifted this tragedy over and over to ourselves as we watched the spectacular sun set below us, a large orange disc dropping slowly into an unruffled, flat sea. Little else is so ingrained in my Peace Corps memories as the profiles of these bright, exceptional Americans against the backdrop of that sunset. They in their mid-twenties had experience more of the world than most people ever would in their lifetimes. They symbolized the nations idealism and humanitarian concern for peoples of all races and creeds. Now with yet another assassination of an American hero, could we possibly sustain what they had worked for? Shaking us from our private thoughts, two US Navy jets streaked low over the flat Pacific, the vanishing sun reflecting off their sleek, dark blue aluminum skins.
* College campus blitz recruitment at the Peace Corps was created 1963 by Bob Gale. Gale had come to the Peace Corps from Carlton College, where he had been vice president for development, and at the Peace Corps he initially worked with Bill Haddad, head of Planning, Evaluation and Research, as chief of special projects. In that role, he tried blitz recruitment as an experiment in April, 1963 at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. After early successes with this strategy, Shriver made him Director of Recruitment for the agency. The most successful of the early blitz recruiting trips was in October 1963 to California when Gale assembled five advance teams and five follow-up teams. Teams were staffed by PC/W senior staff and each team spent a week in southern California and then a week in northern California, visiting every major campus in both areas. Shriver came out during the second week of the blitz and spoke at Berkeley and San Francisco State, among other colleges, always receiving tumultuous receptions. On this trip, the advance team collected two hundred completed questionnaires from interested students, and in the second week, seven hundred more. At that moment in Peace Corps history blitz recruitment became a reality. It remained in force until the Nixon years when the Peace Corps became part of Action. President Nixon moved toward decentralization of the government and Action created regional and sub-offices around the nations for the recruitment of Vista and Peace Corps Volunteers.
After the Peace Corps, Hal Fleming went onto have an illustrious career. He is currently on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Child Health International. He has published and lectured on International Development and U.S. participation in the United Nations. He holds degrees from Brown and Columbia Universities.
Resources for writers
The New World of Internet Publishing
P.O.D. and You
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
FOR A BRIEF PERIOD IN THE MID-1990s there was a wild belief that the World Wide Web was the answer to everyones dreams of publishing a book. Soon, we all thought, every RPCV with a story to tell would be published, and his or her story would be widely read before it was made into a successful Hollywood movie. The reason: print-on-demand (P.O.D.) books.
This publishing nirvana never happened. Print-on-demand companies came and quickly went and by 2000 the P.O.D. moment on the Internet was over. P.O.D. companies disappeared. Or almost disappeared. Today, there are still a few companies publishing books that are available on the Internet. And scanning the list of Recent books . . . listed in each issue of this newsletter youll see that a sizable number of new books published about the Peace Corps are by .com companies with www. addresses. I believe with rare exception that print-in-demand books are the only way RPCVs have to tell their Peace Corps story in print.
However . . .
The problem with P.O.D. publishing is not writing your book, or putting it up on the Web, it is selling it. Unless you have hundreds (or better yet, thousands) of friends and fans who dial up and find it on the World Wide Web, your book wont be purchased. It isnt available to see or be thumbed through in a book story, and it wont be read about in a Publishers Weekly book review.
The New York Times (and almost all other newspapers) wont review a print-on-demand book. Bookstores dont stock them on their shelves. So unless (and this is a big unless) you make an extraordinary promotional efforts on your own, your book will sell less than a hundred copies, and then mostly to friends and family.
This, of course, is true of most books. Very few books make The New York Times bestseller list. Over 100,000 books are publisher each year; very few of them sell enough copies to earn an income for the writers. And these are authors who have a publishing company, and that companys sales force, selling their books. If you publish by P.O.D., it is 10 times harder to get your book sold.
So why publish?
Then why publish a print-on-demand book if the reality is that you cant make money from having your book on the Web, and, in fact, it will cost you money?
Because the P.O.D. route is a relatively easy way to get published, and does provide you with a professional looking book that tells the story you want to tell, whether it is collection of your letters home from the Peace Corps, or a novel based on your Peace Corps experience.
What do P.0.D. publishers do?
For money (and not a lot of money in most cases), a P.O.D. publisher will professionally lay-out your book, give you a selection of layout design, paper stock , cover design, size and binding, and arrange for the registration for an I.S.B.N. number which is used to list the book in databases open to traditional and online bookstores.
You then get 10 free copies and can buy additional copies for 60 percent of the retail price. Your book is never published but it is there on the Internet if anyone wants to buy it. It lives forever in a digital file and is ready to print when someone finds it.
Major P.O.D. Companies
Here is a list of five major companies that offer print-on-demand services and the approximate costs of publishing your book. Plan to spend some time at each of the sites as the options for support services and costs vary a great deal.
1st Books Library
Royalties: 5 to 50 percent of retail price.
Rights: Author retains.
Options: Prints in variety of hardback and paperback sizes.
Services: Editing and promotional services available at additional charges.
Formats for sale: hard-copy printing; .pdf; eBook.
Fee: $99 to $299.
Royalties: 25 percent of retail price.
Rights: Author retains.
Options: various page layouts, cover designs, sizes
Services: Marketing assistance for extra fee.
Formats for sale: hard-copy printing, eBook.
Fee: $159 to $949.
Royalties: 20 percent of retail price.
Rights: Author retains.
Services: Copyediting included at highest fee level.
Fee: for membership, $175 first year and $100 in subsequent years, plus $50 and a $15 administrative fee per book title.
Royalties: 100 percent of sales price retained by author.
Rights: Author retains.
Options: hardcover and paperback
Services: accepts returns from bookstores.
Fee: $500 to $1,600.
Royalties: 10 to 25 percent of retail.
Rights: Author retains.
Services: Prints paperback and hardcover, including picture books; copyediting and marketing available for additional fees.
- Opportunity for writers: Tamara Oliver, the Founder of a voluntary organization called Human Journey, has a new magazine, Human Journey, which is for readers who thirst for perspective and truth, readers who desire to understand this complex world and to learn from all walks of life. Human Journey is seeking features articles of 1,5003,000 words and columns of 350500. The first issue is planned for January 2003. If you are interested in contributing to Human Journey, email Tamara Oliver at:email@example.com or write to Human Journey, 1314 East 5th Street, Newberg Oregon 97132.