Peace Corps Writers
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Then & Now

by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962–64; Namibia 2003–04)

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ON AUGUST 30, 1962, after eight weeks of training at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I was one of 285 men and women inductedPrinter friendly version into the Peace Corps to serve as the first group to go to Ethiopia. After a brief visit home and my first overseas flight, I had two weeks of orientation in Addis Ababa before traveling with eleven other Volunteers to Debra Berhan, where I taught English as a second language in Haile Mariam Mamo Secondary School to grades nine and ten for the next two years.
     On January 9, 2004, after ten weeks of training based at the Andreas Kukuri Conference Centre in Okahandja, Namibia, I was one of 39 men and women sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers to serve as the twenty-second Peace Corps group in that country since it gained independence from South Africa in 1991. That same day, the principal of Ebenhaeser Combined School drove me and my worldly possessions to my new home in Karibib, where I taught English as a second language to grades eight, nine, and ten for one full trimester, until the end of April, 2004, when I decided to terminate my Peace Corps experience.
     “Then” I was twenty-one years old, and “now” I am sixty-three. However I might remember these two experiences, I realize that much is personal and subjective, and that many years of life experience have given me a very different perspective from what I had in 1962.

The invitation to serve
The differences between then and now were immediately evident in the application process. As a senior at Bowdoin College in 1962, I filled in a form on my trusty portable typewriter, and then traveled from Brunswick to Portland, Maine, to take a written examination, and later to the nearby Naval Air Station for a physical examination. That spring, I received a telegram informing me that I had been chosen to train to go to Ethiopia — at which point, quite honestly, I had to check a map to be sure of just where Ethiopia was.
     Applying in 2003 put me in immediate contact with the massive bureaucracy that is now the Peace Corps. After retiring, I had been inspired by returned Volunteers in South Florida, some of whom had gone back into the Peace Corps in later life and spoke very positively of their experience. I labored through the many pages of the initial application that included being fingerprinted at the local police station, and then a lengthy telephone interview. I was told I would be put on the “fast track” as my qualifications for teaching were much needed, but before being accepted I had to be medically and dentally “cleared.” That was not so easy for a person my age. For any medical problem that I may have had in my long life, I had to have a doctor testify in writing that I am now fit, and that there is little or no chance of a recurrence within the next two years.
     For a few specific matters, this meant seeing specialists and being retested, a process that dragged on for many weeks. In my case, because of a heart irregularity, it cost me thousands of dollars — not covered by either the Peace Corps or insurance — to “prove” that I was in excellent physical condition and fit to serve.
     The day the final piece of my medical data was finally faxed by my doctor to Washington, I received a phone call that I would be welcomed as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) in Namibia. Once again I had to find a map, this time to see where Namibia is.

Off to training
In 1962, I packed my bags, and my parents drove me to the airport from our family home. In 2003, I was faced with selling my car, putting my condo up for sale, and packing and storing a lifetime of accumulated possessions, all that in about a month’s time. That done, I flew to Philadelphia where I joined 45 other PCTs for a two day orientation “staging event” before our flight to Namibia.
     In 1962, Peace Corps had authorized sea freight, a trunk that we could send from home full of personal items that we could not carry on the plane. In 2003, what we carried on the plane was all we could take: two suitcases, or, in most cases, duffel bags and back packs. Struggling to haul my overloaded suitcases into the hotel, I met a Namibia 22 trainee on a Philadelphia street, with her backpack and duffel, a woman just the age I was forty-two years ago, who greeted me with a big smile and affirmation that we were in this together.
     Most of our group of 46 trainees were in their twenties or thirties. I was the third oldest, with our senior member being 77, another who was returning to serve again at 73, and just a few close below my then 62 years. We senior citizens were warmly welcomed by everyone and never, to my knowledge, given any sort of special treatment because of our age.
     The staging was handled by Peace Corps/Washington staff members who spoke with authority about what we were about to encounter in another culture. Upon arrival in Namibia, after many hours in the air, we were greeted at the airport by a large, enthusiastic group of Namibians who were to be our trainers over the next ten weeks. That first, late, dark, jet-lagged evening, we were bussed to a hotel on the outskirts of Windhoek, the capitol, where we were given two days of orientation before traveling to our training center in Okahandja.

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