Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
From Peace Corps to Warlords
   by Ethan Gologor (Somalia 1962–64)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

Photos by Don Beil (Somalia 1964–66)

SOME OF US were motivated by the thrill of adventure, some by a spirit of idealism, and some (me) by a need to get as far away from the Bronx asPrinter friendly version possible. Some were extroverts, off at every opportunity to scale mountains, search for baboons and exchange teashop political wisdom with strangers; and some were introverts, spending the next two years teaching grammar or algebra in the morning, reading Thoreau or Montaigne in the afternoon and counting stars in the evening. And later this year, on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ founding, our Somali group, as we have done each decade, will have our own reunion. While our purposes and personalities will still be as varied as forty years ago (Randy will arrive with sleeping bag and Diane with Armani garment bag; Bob will have pictures of his son in nuclear physicist’s uniform and Nan will be mute about her son, who is just leaving rehab; Brad will have added a few more pounds to the hundred or so that we last saw and Phil and Merrill, with only a little help from their hair-dressers, will look hardly a whit different from the days of our robust youth), ninety per cent of us will come.

The landscape
     But this time may be a little different. As Somalia — suspected lair of significant numbers of Al Qaeda members — is in and out of the headlines these days almost as much as Iraq, and as it has been brought further into public consciousness by “Blackhawk Down,” ostensibly the story of our 1993 incursion, we Volunteers will have cause to wonder whether we dreamed up the whole thing. And I say that as a member of a project that was described by Peace Corps brass as “the most difficult ever,” that reputedly made Sargent Shriver cringe whenever its name came up, and that during our two years of service lost more of its Volunteers (40%), administrators (100%) and even doctors (67%) than any group before or since.

Watering their camels
     I say that because despite all this travail, the causes of which were much more complex and incidental than trying to live in the middle of a barren desert (“Entertainment facilities,” read our training hand-out, “are extremely limited and it is up to the Volunteers to entertain themselves”), our host Somalis were a people once so innocent that, at least in the “bush,” they looked as if they’d come right out of the pages of the Old Testament.

A Somali, his camel and his home

The home of a Somali nomad

The Somalis
Leading camels in a vast expanse of parched earth, supported by a forked walking-stick, his dusty sheet wrapped loosely around him and bellowing in the wind above his bare feet, this nomad looked for all the world like Moses, tending his flock. These were a people whose camels carried not just their meager household belongings, but the straw mats and bamboo that constituted their entire houses, as they “followed the sparse rains” for hundreds of miles. These were a people who would stop upon seeing one of us strange “Mareykans” at a tea shop in a tiny village, and form rings around our table to do nothing but stare. And if one of us displayed a tape-recorder, they would implore us to “do me, do me” and then giggle incessantly as we played back their voices. And if one of us snapped a Polaroid and showed them the result, they would look incredulously, not so much at the marvel of technology, but at the figure they wouldn’t recognize, never having seen themselves before.
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