Then & Now
Training how different can it be?
In 1962, 340 of us men and women gathered at Georgetown for training. The first day, our pictures were taken for a mug book, complete with brief background sketches of all trainees, which served us then and helps me even now to identify Peace Corps colleagues. Many of us were greeted personally as we arrived by Harris Wofford, who was to be our country director, leader, and source of inspiration not just through training, but for the next two years of service.
Along with Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, Harris spoke and wrote eloquently again and again, instilling us with idealism and enthusiasm, affirming that we were special and that the work that we were doing was important. With such a very large group of trainees preparing to do what had not been done before, all on fairly short notice, inevitably there was much chaos, but overall for me training was a positive experience.
Even then one high priority was language training, but that was especially problematical and attempts to teach us Amharic, the official language, fell short. The Ethiopians who were brought in to teach Amharic became our friends, our genuine Ethiopian presence. One was my roommate throughout training. However, they were not in charge.
In Namibia, just the opposite occurred. Every part of the day-to-day training program was planned and controlled by Namibians, twenty-one of whom are listed in the welcome packet for our group of forty-six trainees. Although the language trainers stayed at the same locations where we trained, we did not share rooms with them, and there was always for me a sense of separation between us and them.
The official account of training in 1962 claims 480 hours of work in an eight-week period, from July 9 to August 30. Included in the eight components is Physical Education and Recreation, 60 hours, which many of the group remember as the exhausting, early morning calisthenics and runs, and afternoon game playing, all in the midst of intense classroom experiences.
The official account of training in 2004 claims 241 formal hours of work along with various informal seminars over a period of ten weeks. Completely absent from this training was any required physical activity. What was amazing and quite wonderful to me as a participant was that most of the younger trainees were up and running mornings and actively playing games afternoons, doing on their own what was required of us forty-two years ago while we oldsters chose our form of exercise, which for most of us meant a lot of walking.
Language training in Namibia was greatly emphasized, with trainees divided into three different language groups that related in some way to expectations of where individuals would be sent as Volunteers. Our language trainers had been prepared to present a kind of say it, read it, write it, repeat it, know it system that worked to some degree with some people, but it didnt work for me and left me far behind from the very beginning. However, as English is the official language of Namibia and the language of instruction in the schools, my lack of skill in a local language did not prevent my serving as a PCV.
The Peace Corps today is a world of acronyms, sixty-one of which are listed in the Namibian Volunteer Handbook. Not just in writing, but in everyday speech, Americans and Namibian trainers alike spiel off lists of letters in place of real words: See your APCD. (Thats Associate Peace Corps Director to the uninitiated.) Or The PCV VAC will meet to consider SPA. (PCV you know; Volunteer Advisory Committee, Small Project Assistance.)
One key acronym not included in the list of sixty-one is CBT, Community Based Training, which is a major component of Peace Corps training today. In Namibia, trainees are sent to live for a two- and then later a three-week period with host families. Ideally this is a wonderful opportunity to learn and practice language while immersing oneself in a very different culture. In practice, there were great problems. When we were entirely dependent on others for food, water, lodging, and security for a period of time, and when the others have very different ideas about what can and should be done, great problems could and did exist. My situation was difficult, but that difficulty was not mine alone. When our group of trainees reassembled after the first two weeks of CBT, the word was that we had survived.
Inspiration vs. perspiration
In 1962, we trainees were given special treatment from the very beginning. President John F. Kennedy greeted us at the White House. Various high government officials met with us during training. His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie shook hands with each of us individually at a reception in His palace in Addis Ababa. The U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia met with our group. Bill Moyers flew in to trouble shoot. The governor of Debre Berhan hosted a banquet for us twelve PCVs who had just arrived to serve in two schools there.
In 200304, we trainees were left alone. We never saw the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, though lesser U.S. officials visited us with words of warning and wisdom. The emphasis today clearly is on perspiration, not inspiration.