Peace Corps Writers May 2006
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Peace Corps Writers: Front page 5/06
And then Sarge said to me . . .
Charlene Duline was a health and nutrition PCV in Quiquijana, Peru from 196264. Retired now from the Foreign Service, she lives in Indianapolis, Indiana from whence she writes that she is “deliriously happy” working as a volunteer animal handler at the Indianapolis Zoo. “This is what I was born to do,” she says, “I get to cuddle and talk about snakes, blue-tongue skinks, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, bearded dragons, leopard geckos, giant African millipedes, Madagascan hissing cockroaches, etc. I love it!!” Charlene is also currently working on an animal book.
She had joined the United Nations after Peace Corps service. Following two years as a United Nations secretary in Dacca, East Pakistan she moved to Paris in October, 1969 and lived there until 1972. Here is her “Christmas Story” of meeting up with Sarge.
IT WAS 1969 AND CHRISTMAS was approaching. I was settling into life in Paris, France after moving there two months previously. I saw an article in the newspaper about a Christmas Eve Mass Sargent Shriver, U.S. Ambassador to France, was having in the tiny, ancient Sainte Chappelle church to which he was inviting diplomats, friends and family. It was going to be an intimate and elegant affair, and I decided that I would like to attend. A friend who was a Volunteer in Morocco was coming to spend Christmas with me, and I knew she too would be thrilled to attend. I immediately wrote Ambassador Shriver telling him that we were RPCVs and we would certainly enjoy attending his Christmas Eve Mass.
A few days later as I returned from shopping, the concierge greeted me at the door with an envelope. She said, “Your ambassador’s chauffeur brought this for you.” I grinned, grabbed the envelope and flew up to my apartment. I ripped open the envelope and there nestled inside was an elegant invitation inviting Janet Ghattas and Charlene Duline to Ambassador and Mrs. Shriver’s Christmas Eve Mass. I swooned.
On Christmas Eve Sainte Chappelle glowed like a jewel as it basked in candlelight. Small heaters scattered throughout the church kept the worshippers warm. The Mass was simple, but touching and beautiful. Famed opera star Roberta Peters sang. Afterwards there was a receiving line to greet the Shriver family. Janet and I couldn’t decide what to say. As Shriver shook my hand I blurted out that we were RPCVs in Peru and Morocco. He grabbed Janet’s hand and shouted to his wife who stood right next to him, “Eunice! Eunice! Here are some Peace Corps Volunteers!” Eunice took it in stride saying, “Oh, Peace Corps Volunteers are everywhere.” Sarge stopped the receiving line to chat with us. How like him! It was an incredible welcome to Paris.
A few days later I went to the embassy to cash a check. I was told somebody at the embassy had to vouch for me before I could cash a personal check. I almost said I didn’t know anybody at the embassy, but then I remembered that I did know somebody. I said, “Ambassador Shriver will vouch for me.” And indeed he did. Thereafter, whenever I went to the embassy to cash a check, the cashier called the ambassador’s office and I was always vouched for. Sarge Shriver believes in, and loves his Volunteers!
Murder your darlings
There is a new and wonderful book for writers written by a good friend who is NOT an RPCV (even though my wife is convinced I don’t know anyone who wasn’t in the Peace Corps). His name is Ralph Keyes. The book is entitled, The Quote Verifier and it explores several hundred quotations that are often cited but seldom confirmed. To determine the roots of 460 such sayings, Keyes scoured old publications, accessed huge databases, watched vintage movies, consulted myriad scholars, and contacted those actually involved in coining popular quotations. His results routinely confound widespread assumptions about who said what, where, and when.
For example, “Murder your DARLINGS.” This common admonition to writers (suggesting that they excise the parts of their work that most delight them) is widely misattributed to the likes of Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and William Faulkner. Its actual author was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote in The Art of Writing (1916), “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes is out this month from St. Martin’s Griffin.
In this issue
We have a new column Response where we will post comments from readers. Often we do hear from people out in cyberspace about our website and the pieces we published, and we decided we should share some of these emails with all of the RPCV community.
Did you ever wonder how the term “peace corps” came about? We tracked down the author and found out how the agency was named and that story is related in our “To Preserve and to Learn” column. Also in the issue are three new writing opportunities for all those Peace Corps writers out there in cyberspace. Take a look as there might be something for you.
We have two “A Writer Writes” columns: Los 5 José by Lauren Fitzgerald (Panama 200305) and Unfortunately a Woman by Alison Coluccio (Togo 1995). There are also five reviews, a listing of 14 recent books by RPCVs, news of RPCV writers in Literary Type, and an interview with Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand who served in Guatemala and has just published a wonderful memoir entitled, When I Was Elena.
Again, Marian and I thank you for your support, your ideas, and the prose and poetry you share with us and everyone connected with the Peace Corps, past, present, and future.
We hope you enjoy this issue.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
Murder at Ocean View College
by Karen Batchelor (Korea 197274)
edited by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Cemetary Dance Publishers
Thundershowers At Dusk
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Middleborough, MA: Rock Village Publishing
The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Thomas Dunne Books
Wild Women with Tender Hearts
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 196264)
The Wit and Wisdom of Kinky Friedman (and Some of His Friends)
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
St. Martins Press
Africa's Legacies of Urbanization
Unfolding Saga of a Continent
by Stefan C. Goodwin (Nigeria 196567)
A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
Where Should I Sit at Lunch?
The Ultimate 24/7 Guide to Surviving the High School Years
by Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger (Liberia 1977-80)
The Toughest Show on Earth:
My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera
by Joseph Volpe
Charles Michener (Ethiopia 196264), collaborator
Osiris, Isis & Planet X
Chasing the Centuries
by Rob Solarion (AKA Robert Russell, Eritrea 196466)
Bloomington, IN: Author House
Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile
by John C. Schafer (Ethiopia 196365)
Southeast Asia Publications
Now Is the Hour
by Tom Spanbauer (Kenya 196971)
Step To Freedom
A Peace Corps Memoir of the Dominican Republic
by Joseph F. Zuiker (Dominican Republic 196567)
Foreword Anton Zuiker (Republic of Vanuatu 199799)
Literary Type - 5/06
A non-fiction piece, “Quarantine” by Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880) was in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine on May 28th about a Korean high school girl who learns her best friend lives in a quarantined city. Every night she goes home to a city of lepers because her parents suffer from the disease.
On Friday, May 5, 2006, he had an editorial on the NPR affiliate KUSP in Santa Cruz, California entitled “No Insurgent Left Behind,” a spoof on No Child Left Behind and the Iraqi debacle.
Paul also has a contract for two non-fiction stories, “Manners” and “Handwriting” with an MP3/ iPod publishing company called KidSlam. Stories are taped and authors receive royalties per hit.
Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 197880) will travel to Iceland on June 6th to film a travelogue under the Southern Trails aegis. The Viking-settled “Land of Fire and Ice,” volcanoes and glaciers, hot pools and cold beers under the 24 hour summer light is a fit place for Southern Trails to branch out from creating books to creating a film. Jack Kerouac talked about “spontaneous bop prose,” Carrozzi talks about spontaneous hip commentary. “We don’t need no stinking scripts for our riffs,” says Craig. “That’s our plan.”
For anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area interested in a showing of the travelogue anytime after July, contact Southern Trails at (415) 422-0043 or e-mail: email@example.com.
Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) has sold a novel Mother, and a travel book The Cold World, about the northern tip of the globe, to Houghton Mifflin. No dates yet on publications.
Joshua Norman (Togo 2000-02) was one of the reporters whose work for The Biloxi Sun Herald (Mississippi) won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism for their Katrina coverage.
Joshua says that in the days immediately after the storm surge when there was no water, food or electricity he found his Peace Corps experience had prepared him for the crisis.
There’s an important memoir coming out in June entitled The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism written by Michael McColly (Senegal 188183). This memoir examines the AIDS epidemic from a global, spiritual, and physical perspective. It is being published by Soft Skull Press. Check out McColly.ecorp.net
Tony D’Souza has been all over the publishing world with his novel, Whiteman. A short list includes: Excerpts in Sept. 5, 2005 New Yorker; Winter 2006 Tin House; March 2006 Playboy; April 2006 Prospect Magazine (UK). The novel was listed [12/29/05] in the Wall Street Journal as “One of the Most Anticipated Novels of 2006.” He was cited in March 2006 in Vanity Fair’s Hot List. The book was a Nerve Magazine “Henry Miller Award for Best Sex Scene” nominee in March, 2006. It was reviewed [among other places] in Entertainment Weekly, March 31, 2006; New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006; and a New York Times Book Review Editors Choice April 22, 2006.
People Magazine gave the novel a 4 Star Critic’s Choice on April 19, 2006; Outside Magazine reviewed it in May 2006. Other positive reviews were in the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Tony has non-fiction pieces coming out in The New Yorker, WorldView magazine, and Salon; fiction in McSweeney’s, Subtropics, the Chicago Quarterly Review; and new poems in the Fiddlehead (Canada) and Nimrod.
Also, he is now reviewing books and films for Amazon. A busy lad.
Richard Wiley (Korea 196769) has stopped teaching at UNLV for a while at least in order to head up the Forum on Contemporary Cultures, as part of the new Black Mountain Institute, at that same university. The idea of The Forum is to bring writers of international reputation to campus to spend a semester or two talking and writing about political events. The writers will be invited in pairs, will be of unlike minds, and will take part in a series of colloquia and lectures, culminating in publication. The Forum will be launched in the fall of ’06.
Check out Katherine Jamieson’s (Guyana 199698) short essay at Creative Nonfiction’s Issue 21 (Summer 2006) of Brevity.
Katherine is an Iowa Arts Fellow in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has been published in Newsday, the Lonely Planet anthology Rites of Passage, and in Peace Corps Writers. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Guyana, South America.
Charles Michener (Ethiopia 196264) is the collaborator of Joseph Volpe’s The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera recently published by Knopf. Charles Michener was senior editor for cultural affairs at Newsweek and senior editor at The New Yorker and has written widely on music for many publications. He collaborated with Robert Evans on The Kid Stays in the Picture and was coauthor with Peter Duchin of Ghost of a Chance.
George Packer (Togo 198283). author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, reports regularly on Iraq and had a piece, “The Lesson of Tal Afar” in the April 10, 2006 issue of The New Yorker.
John Flynn (Moldova 199395) has recent writings in The Paterson Review and Plumb Biscuit, and another due out in The Powhatan Review. A new short story by John entitled, “Cajolery” is currently on VerbSap.com.
Thaine H. Allison (Borneo 196264) appeared on the National Geographic Channel on April 24th. He wrote: “I play the 4 star General who works for the devil and we blow up the world as predicted in the bible. It was fun, especially since I don’t much about the bible, the devil or the military.”
Talking with . . .
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
ELLEN URBANI HILTEBRAND’s (Guatemala 199193) memoir When I Was Elena looks back at her time in a rural village in the guerrilla-infested mountains of Guatemala. It tells her story, as well as the stories of seven other women in the villages where she lived. One of the aspects of this book that makes it particularly interesting is the way Hiltebrand shifts point-of-view to tell the stories of the women she befriended. In reviewing the book, Publishers Weekly noted this narrative technique: “The tectonic shifts in perspective between her amiable voice and the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends result in a rich mosaic of culture and character.” This device alone makes the memoir special among Peace Corps books, giving it a scope that not many RPCVs have attempted.
Ellen first contacted me when she was looking for a publisher and I recommended The Permanent Press, a small New York publishing company that has published some of the best Peace Corps books. Ellen then disappeared and finished her memoir. It was published earlier this year.
I caught up again via e-mails with Ellen within the last few weeks. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she is the mother of two babies, as well as an Art Therapist who owns her own consulting company that runs therapeutic arts programs for cancer patients and their families. Her therapeutic arts work was the subject recently of an Oscar-qualified short documentary and is, writes Ellen, “fulfilling and, in fact, quite joyful.”
Some little-known, and quite revealing, personal statistics include the fact that she has duel American/Italian citizenship; once spent the night in a Honduran whorehouse (by accident, not by design); has never drunk a cup of coffee; dislocated her hip during college cheerleading tryouts; applied to be on the original Survivor (they didn’t want her, but she watched the show anyway); and considers Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner to be the books that have most influenced her life to date.
Most of Ellen’s time today is spent with her two children, 1-year-old Clara, and 2-year-old Elijah. Life has not been easy for her lately. About six weeks before her Peace Corps memoir was published Ellen and her husband separated. They are now in the process of divorcing. As Ellen writes, “Anyone who knows me from Guatemala knows Frank we met there. They’ll all be as shocked as I am that this is happening.”
Since the recent separation, she has moved into a new home in Portland and continues to think about writing. “I have more books in me,” she says, “but heaven knows when I’ll have time to write them. I did have a beautiful writing desk built-in at my new home . . . proving that hope springs eternal, yes?” Well, When I Was Elena is one wonderful start toward that goal.
You lived in Guatemala at the tail end of a decades-long civil war, when there was continued guerrilla and army occupation of many areas. You were also there during three political coups in as many weeks. What was it like to leave a homeland of political stability and wake up the next morning to a world of civil unrest?
Surreal, obviously. Given my comparatively cloistered upbringing, there was a significant disconnect between what I saw and what I felt. The civil and political unrest that permeated the country never settled into me so fully as it settled into the people who lived their whole lives within its shadow. Though I witnessed the coups, the disappearances, those things always felt so far outside my realm of conception that I suppose I maintained a cognitive, and an emotional, distance. The fears that stalked me were of a much more personal nature a specific person rather than a political possibility. That said, in our fears, though of an uncommon nature, I found a commonality with the Guatemalans I befriended. We all longed for safety, for security. Our socio-political affiliation didn’t matter; whether a socialist, communist, or democrat, we each wanted to walk out our door in the morning and return home at night unharmed. Our fears were a terrific unifier and, oddly, created a firm foundation where we could live together in great empathy. We realized that despite our evident surface differences, at heart we wanted the same things, and by relying on each other, we had a better chance of achieving them.
Given the backlash against U.S. foreign policy, what do you think about the Peace Corps today? And, as follow-up to that question, how prepared are you to take on the informal role of Peace Corps ambassador that is often bestowed on RPCVs who write about their experiences?
In truth, the Peace Corps is remarkably successful in maintaining an apolitical perspective, though I’d be a fool to deny there isn’t an American agenda attached to its mission. It promotes among other things self-sufficiency, independence, creative thinking, and a free-market economy; all cornerstones of the proverbial “American way.” This, and its relative appearance as a highly moneyed venture in the foreign countries where it serves, can leave it vulnerable to misinterpretation by the world’s poor. But the beautiful thing about the Peace Corps is that it focuses on building bridges to understanding. In opposition to diplomatic or military maneuvering, it values and promotes individual relationships with people not just with countries or governments. The political jargon being tossed about so freely nowadays Axis of Evil, Evildoers, Liberation, Revolution you know who that doesn’t include? That doesn’t include Rosa, who isn’t worried about anything more complex than how to feed a family of eight with food enough for four. Or Lucinda, who has six children and a field to harvest without a husband, because he became “a disappeared” last night. Those are the people the Peace Corps exists to serve. So in answer to your question: Am I prepared to be an ambassador for that sort of ethical, forthright, people-centered American intervention abroad? You’re damn right I am.
You write of the damaging impact of U.S. military involvement on local villagers in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Having seen firsthand the effect on the lives and attitudes of the civilians this intervention was meant to benefit, what consequences do you foresee as the result of current, similar U.S. policies in other parts of the world?
You can pick up a newspaper in any city in this country, on any given day, and read about the sad, but typical, turn in sentiments that those who have been “saved” experience when they start to perceive the liberator as equivalent to the oppressor. But in a letter I recently received from John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, he touched on a consequence of foreign military intervention that I think few people have fully realized. In reference to his own experience in Guatemala, he said: “In general, it’s probably a major crime for our imperial government, or country at large, to be sending its blond, blue-eyed do-gooders to our starving satrapies around the globe. What I learned in my brief adventure as a blond, blue-eyed representative of the United States was to never again visit a Latin American (or other Third World) country as anything other than a person actively protesting the United States’ economic, cultural, political, or environmental policies in that country and elsewhere.” His observation is a keen one, and aligns with my own perspective. I think one of the major, yet relatively undiscussed, impacts of current U.S. foreign policy is that it is endangering Americans abroad. One is no longer safe if recognized as an American in many parts of the world.
Why do you think the Guatemalan culture hasn’t significantly changed or modernized despite ongoing international aid?
Quite possibly because there was nothing wrong with the culture that needed changing in the first place. Not that I don’t think there is great merit and one could argue need in eradicating certain preventable diseases, in establishing and maintaining hygienic living conditions, etc. But the international aid that is introduced in countries like Guatemala is often determined and delivered based more on the perceived needs of the giver rather than the receiver. For example: Do children learn better in enclosed concrete buildings than they do in open-air huts? My experience has been that the structure has little impact. But show most Americans a picture of poor children studying in a bamboo lean-to, and they will lament that the children need a schoolhouse. So an outsider intervenes, with a full heart and good intentions, and builds a schoolhouse out of imported materials that can be neither repaired nor replaced when the benefactor leaves, and the recipients are never again satisfied with the lean-to that had served their needs adequately before they were convinced otherwise. The real question, the hard introspective question, should be: Whom does this type of aid truly serve?
You had to work hard to overcome many Guatemalans’ preconceptions of you, and Americans in general, based on images they’d been fed through television and movies. What is your perception of the way America represents itself to rest of world via pop culture and the media?
The country I live in, and the one Guatemalans perceived me to have come from, are two dramatically different places. The Hollywood world of all sexy, all pretty, and all wealthy has never been a reality for me, yet it was a mien I could rarely escape from during my years abroad. Regular folk like myself are at best done a disservice by the glamorous images foisted upon poorly educated populaces; these people have no reference points allowing them to distinguish between the fantasy of film and the reality of life in the United States. What Americans consider to be escapist entertainment is considered by most Guatemalans to be a fact-based primer on life in America. That is our fault, for we have only rarely provided them with a more honest picture of ourselves. At worst, when held accountable to that distorted, typically sexualized image, it can result in real personal harm, especially to women, as detailed in When I Was Elena.
What were your preconceptions of Guatemalans before you arrived in-country, and how successful do you think you were in overcoming them?
I knew very little about Guatemala before I arrived, aside from a few glimpsed images in magazines extolling the landscape and the quaint nature of indigenous life. But let’s be honest: A life of abject poverty isn’t quaint anywhere, and since 99% of the Guatemalan population including the entire indigenous population lives in poverty, that notion got dispensed with pretty quickly. Other things I never fully adjusted to. I still fail to understand why, beset by the same level of poverty, some people choose to live as neatly, as cleanly, as possible, while others allow themselves and their surroundings to deteriorate. I hated the machismo; the sense that in many men’s eyes I was nothing more than a sex object. And while the slower pace of life is something I struggled to embrace at first, but then did fully, the plodding pace of business and government left me consistently stymied. None of these things are entirely unique to Guatemala, however. Those characteristics that are unique to Guatemalans, the traditions and superstitions, the daily rituals, the cariño of the people those are the things I loved.
Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps in the first place?
My motives were entirely selfish. I wanted to learn a foreign language. I wanted a novel adventure, and knew there would be few other times in my life when I’d have the opportunity to step out of my typical life and take off for an unfamiliar place. And I felt in the way only a naïve, presumptuous 22-year-old can that I already knew my own country well enough and could learn more by moving abroad. On that count I was both right and wrong: I wouldn’t trade the lessons Guatemala taught me for anything, but there was, and still is, much to discover about my homeland.
How do you think this book will be received by RPCVs?
If anyone can appreciate this book, certainly RPCVs can. They don’t have to agree with my impressions or share my experiences, but I trust they will appreciate my motives in writing about those years. How the Peace Corps as an organization, specifically as a governmental organization, will receive the book . . . I can only speculate. I would hope it is received as a truthful portrait of an institution that is at once both flawed in minor ways and fabulous in the important ones, as many goodwill institutions are. For you will find no greater advocate for Peace Corps service than I. I know of no more remarkable vehicle by which Americans can acquire a diplomatic understanding of the world, while at the same time recognizing that idealism alone cannot eliminate suffering. Despite the hardships to which it exposed me, I still count it as one of the smartest, most wonderful things I have ever done.
Do you recommend the Peace Corps to anyone? Why should someone join the agency today?
To build character. To discover courage in oneself. To learn what one’s core strengths are and to become comfortable in one’s own company. To acquire a sense of self-reliance and resilience and fortitude. And, finally, to expand the myopic brand of nationalism that staying too long in one place can subversively impose upon oneself.
Lets go back to your book again. Why did you write it?
My primary goal in writing this book was not so much to toss my own voice into the literary fray, but to repay the trust and friendship extended to me by the women of Guatemala by speaking of, and for, them. These women are virtually silenced, by means of illiteracy and conditioning, and they live within a culture that is also largely unheard from. I originally made the same mistake I think many do, which is to minimize the value and the example of Guatemalan women. I failed to appreciate their strengths in person; I was still too immature at that time in my life. It wasn’t until I had some distance, some time, some age-won wisdom, that I came to respect their quiet brand of fortitude. Setting their stories as a counterpoint to my own experiences seemed to be the way to throw their lives into greatest relief. What I am most proud of as a person, and then as an author, is my willingness to appreciate the plight of these women and endeavor to empathize with their perspectives. I feel that is what makes When I Was Elena a wholly unique accomplishment.
This book is intriguing in that it is authored by you, but comes across as if it is written by eight very different women. How did you pull that off?
When I Was Elena is a literary endeavor, not an act of journalistic reporting. It is a personal, creative work, and as the craftsman of that work, I assumed authority for developing the narrative in a way that was most advantageous from a story-telling perspective. In the years-long process of deciding how to do that, long before I ever wrote a single word, it slowly dawned on me that speaking in the voices of those other women would be most compelling. Realizing I couldn’t switch back and forth between my voice and theirs without developing a sizable personality disorder, I got my own stories out of the way first. Then I embarked on what turned out to be a fascinating process of “becoming” those other women while I wrote. I felt like a medium; everything about them came alive for me again. I could hear their voices while I typed; I could feel the weathered skin on their hands and smell their hair. It turned into the return trip to Guatemala that I had not yet managed in person. By far, though, the most surprising, and rewarding, outcome of “becoming” them for the book is this: I finally, fully, appreciated the concealed strengths in them to which I had previously been blinded. It was a humbling, heartening endeavor.
With all the talk (and writing) recently about memoirs specifically whether the author is obligated more to hard fact or to his/her interpretation of events how do you respond when asked if your book is entirely true, or whether it is a work of creative non-fiction?
I suppose it is easier for me than for other memoirists, in that it is obvious I am not eight separate people, and therefore parts of the book are by necessity fictionalized. In my own stories, there’s some temporal distortion, with the order of events rearranged to accommodate the narrative flow. Also, in an effort to minimize the introduction of superfluous characters, I took the liberty of erasing many cohorts. As for the other women, there are obviously some re-imagined parts, as I was forced to fill in details I wasn’t privy to in order to flesh out their stories. But I maintained a commitment to basing even those added details on truths I came to know from the lives of actual people; nothing is made up. The result is that some of the characters are hybrids based primarily on one person, but including incidents culled from others’ lives. As for the riveting nature of their stories, I chose each of the featured women based not only on my association with them and their impact on me, but also for the way in which each of their stories could challenge and provoke readers. I needed seven; choosing six was simple, but I agonized over the seventh. I decided at length to include another American to balance out my point of view, and then I considered a Peace Corps office worker, an embassy employee . . . I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it should be another Volunteer. Once I set upon that idea, it was clear what story she would tell, and that character, therefore, is the greatest amalgam. Given the trauma her story addresses, I felt I had no right to base it entirely on any one person; the hard facts of that story are all altered.
The lives of the Guatemalans you write about are short, hard, and unchanging. One woman is described as “thirtyish and looking forward to a life done living.” In stark contrast, here you are, at 37, setting off on a whole new career with the publication of your first book. To what do you ascribe such dramatic differences in the opportunities afforded you?
The idea of reinventing oneself of taking up a new career or relocating to a new town is something that never crossed the mind of any of the Guatemalans I knew. (With the one glaring exception, I must note, of their dreams of perhaps someday emigrating to the United States.) Yet for Americans of my generation, reinvention is not just something we consider; it is something we expect to do, perhaps frequently. This difference in our expectations, then, is an element I think is particularly crucial. Let’s use, as an example, a female teenager. A typical fifteen-year-old Guatemalan girl expects to soon be married, having children, harvesting squash. She expects to do this very same thing for the rest of her life. A typical fifteen-year-old American girl expects to have an enormous cell phone bill. She anticipates the possibility of college, but has no idea where, and couldn’t begin to tell you what she’ll be doing in ten years. Some might call that spoiled, others lucky or blessed; still others would call it cursed. Not to exclude the impact of economics, social structures, or political institutions, one could argue that, within reason, we actualize what is expected of us.
Men and missionaries take a pretty hard hit in your book. How do you respond to the charge that you’ve just put a literary spin on male- and religion-bashing?
I like most men, and have loved my share. As for missionaries, though I don’t favor the practice of evangelism, I do, with limited reservations, respect the munificence of their intentions. I don’t know how anyone could fault me, however, for chafing at the ilk of men and missionaries I encountered with frequency in Guatemala. So I will make no apologies for what I have written. It is my truth.
Fair enough! Thank you, Ellen, and good luck with this book and all the books to come.
Thank you, John. And thank you for sending me to The Permanent Press. They have been wonderful.
Several weeks ago we received this email from a non-RPCV who had discovered our site.
I read the article you printed on your website written by the Peace Corps Volunteer Andy Tricia who was in Romania in 2002. It was so personal and true I knew it was real, word for word. I felt the heartfelt gratitude of the Romanian man who asked Andy to check on his brother’s family in the United States.
The description of the Romanian family and living conditions in this man’s house, and the conditions in the whole village were heart wrenching to say the least. Most Americans have never seen this type of life. Most Americans do not know how the people of the world actually live ever day of their lives. But Andy gave this man and this village something they never expected to see, someone who would actually help them the best he could; someone who wanted nothing in return.
I served two tours in Vietnam, and to this day still vividly remember the living conditions of the people. I also remember the American soldiers and their lack of sympathy, and lack of empathy towards these people.
I became ashamed of my own people for the way some of our soldiers treated the Vietnamese, especially the way they treated the children. I could tell you of things best forgotten; things I saw overseas. It was terrible then, and what happened there still haunts me.
Today I am trying to find an organization that will help me give back to people in need. When I read Andy’s story on your website, it just clinched the unspoken hope I have had in my mind for so very long.
I turned 59 the other day and I sent in my application to join the Peace Corps. I can teach English to the children and adults who want to learn. I can do HIV/AID education. I can work with kids. I can plant trees or build fish ponds. I can do it for them, and I can do it for myself.
Thank you for telling Andy’s story of his life in Romania. Someday I hope you will be able to tell my story, tell of my time in the Peace Corps.
Thank you so much,
A Fine Place to Daydream
Racehorses, Romance and the Irish
by Bill Barich (Nigeria 196466)
Reviewed by John Givens (Korea 196769)
WE BEGIN with a ship transporting horses at night. But not just any horses. These are jumpers hunters, chasers on their way to the Cheltenham Festival, the peak of the long English steeplechase season. And they are Irish.
Bill Barich’s A Fine Place to Daydream comprises a series of portraits of steeplechase horses and their trainers, of jump jockeys and their injuries, and of punters, bookies, pub pontificators, and random tipsters with their inside information on the ever-elusive “sure thing” insights that the author, who is willing to place a bet, does or does not credit, to his pride and or chagrin, depending. “Sometimes after a bet I want to go back a minute later and beg the bookie for a refund, as people do when they send a nasty or unguarded e-mail, but at others I’m enveloped in a profound aura of well-being and entirely regret-free, as if the result of the race were preordained.” And then the tape drops and the horses surge forward . . ..
Bill Barich, author of the racetrack classic, Laughing in the Hills, moved from California to Ireland, drawn by love; and he soon developed a fascination with the country in terms of one of its most characteristic enthusiasms: horses and in particular those horses which will agree to jump over obstacles while galloping pellmell around a grassy track. He is an insightful and entertaining guide. Writing about a place well means writing about yourself there, and Barich filters the race tracks and training yards and pubs of Ireland through the inner landscape of his own experiences and expectations, vividly portraying a small country that can usually be trusted to punch above its weight. A Fine Place to Daydream is about steeplechase racing in terms of its Irishness.
Horses and trainers occupy center stage: Moscow Flyer, who is either careless or carefree; Beef Or Salmon, a disappointing horse (and one that has disappointed us yet again this year at Cheltenham); Best Mate, everybody’s favorite; and hovering above them all, the spirit of Arkle, greatest Irish horse ever. Much is known about each of them. It seems possible that through dogged investigative efforts, thoughtful analysis, and an unflinching avoidance of self-deception, you just might be able to pick the likely Gold Cup winner. That it’s not so simple comes as no surprise.
Barich cares about the horses, and he learns early on that there’s more to it than pondering bloodlines and past results. “I couldn’t bring myself to back Beef Or Salmon. He still had that distracted air of youthful inattention, while Best Mate grasped the exact nature of his mission. When he hit the track, he showed no hesitation. Instead, he was off at a trot, tossing his head about and eager for the action to start.”
The Irish love of jumpers also partakes of an atavistic desire to stick it to the Brits. And Barich amasses anecdote and evidence as he moves through the racing calendar on his way to the final showdown at the Cheltenham Festival in the quaint Cotswolds. He is an informed guide and a curious student. Stories are told, opinions shared, races run; it rains or it doesn’t rain; the “going” is too hard or too soft or not hard or soft enough; and in the end, something happens. A favorite lives up to its potential or fails to. The author bets wisely or in some of the most enjoyable moments in the book goes with his gut and follows a hunch, often with unfortunate results. The Irishness of it all is there always:
I had another Guinness, a guilty pleasure at midafternoon, and basked in the atmosphere of bonhomie . . .. The faces along the bar had a rosy burnished glow, teased out by the beer and the whiskey, and as I sipped my pint, I thought dreamily about my travels and all the people I’d met, struck again by the relative purity of the National Hunt purity always being relative and how the love of the game colored and enriched the lives of those who cared for the horses, a simple but powerful equation.
A Fine Place to Daydream is about Irish steeplechase racing. But on a more fundamental level, it is about embracing enthusiasm, about the pleasures of taking up a new concern and applying yourself to it, about caring for what you’re doing and then doing it well. Barich follows the winter season in Ireland and England, from dismal rain-soaked affairs with leaking booze-tents where tattooed thugs stand in the mud sucking it down to posh affairs with toffs in tweeds, and the range and authenticity of the experience is part of the pleasure.
All the hype, all the boozing and carousing, even the slot-machine frenzy of the Centaur, they were swept aside by a cosmic broom, and we were delivered to the hear of the matter and understood our purpose again. It went that way at every major sporting event, be it the Super Bowl or the World Cup final, because the event itself was often buried under so many layers of commerce that its essence was obscured. But there always came a revelatory moment such as this, when everyone remembered the why of it and snapped to attention, ready to witness the impossible forward pass, the amazing penalty kick, or the making or unmaking of a champion.”
The next Cheltenham Gold Cup will be in April 2007. Any thoughts on Kicking King’s chances?
John Givens was raised in California, and studied and worked in Japan for 12 years. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Givens’ novels include Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police and Living Alone. Givens currently lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he is finishing a novel set in 17th century Japan.
A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler (China 199698)
Reviewed by Michael McCaskey (Ethiopia 1965-67)
CHINA INTRIGUES ME. While the United States is approaching a population of 300 million people, China already has a billion more people than that. The government is communist, and yet recent polls show that the Chinese people prize capitalism more than Americans do. As we all know, the Chinese are producing many of the goods that used to be manufactured in America. They also enjoy a huge trade balance, and carry a significant portion of our country’s debt. The energy of her people and the rapid economic growth of the country has inspired respect and, in some quarters, fear.
In 1996 when I first visited Shanghai I was struck by the building explosion then underway. Vast areas of the city were being leveled and skyscrapers being erected as quickly as possible. Building cranes and bamboo scaffolding were everywhere. One commonly heard claim was that two-thirds of the world’s building cranes were then in use in Shanghai. Crossing a major street was a challenge because of the seemingly endless hordes of bicycles. Ten years later there are more cars than bikes and it’s still a challenge to cross a major thoroughfare. To lessen the burden on the roads, Shanghai is building an extensive subway system underneath an established city of 17 million people. China might be the only place in the world able to initiate such feats over the objections of whatever businesses or neighborhoods lie in the way.
Last year I attended a conference in Beijing of businessmen from around the world. The highest government official responsible for enforcing intellectual property rights told of how the Chinese government was cracking down on violations. Another member of the panel, a Hollywood executive, complained strongly of pirated DVDs still readily available in China. It didn’t help the government official’s case that while waiting for the bus to fill up to take us to this session, a man had poked his head in the door and offered to sell two “Rolex” watches for $10.00.
The government is taking steps to control the situation. The out-front DVD stores have been closed and tourists have to work a little harder to find the “clubs” that sell the pirated DVDs. It is not a problem easily solved because copied goods, some economists say, might be responsible for twenty to thirty percent of China’s economy. The “crack down” will continue, however, especially as Chinese entrepreneurs develop intellectual property they want protected.
Being major political and financial players, the United States and China will at times face off against each other. In 2001 military planes from the two countries collided in mid-air over the South China Sea killing all on board both planes. A major diplomatic brouhaha occurred as the Chinese needed an “apology” for the deaths of their military personnel. From the other side, the United States felt it had done nothing wrong and, therefore, couldn’t apologize. It is in our best interest to try and understand China and the Chinese better. Where can we find a guide to help us better understand a very different culture, language, and way of looking at things?
One of the best possible guides, another RPCV, is Peter Hessler. Peter speaks the language, lives at the grass roots today in China, and enjoys a wide range of friends and acquaintances. Peter served in the Sichuan Province where he taught English at Fuling Teachers College. His account of those two Peace Corps years were remembered in River Town, an exemplar of careful observation and fine writing.
After his tour he returned to the U.S. to write his book, then went back to China where he worked as a “clipper” of news articles in the Beijing bureau of The Wall Street Journal. He also works as a freelance writer for The New Yorker (which the Chinese Foreign Ministry insists on translating as “New York Person.”) Peter now lives mostly fulltime in Beijing.
His second book on China is entitled, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, and follows the lives of three Chinese whom Peter befriended. Emily, one of Peter’s former students, is highly motivated to improve her lot in life but frequently questions the extent to which one can be truly happy. She moved from her rural town to work in a factory office in the boom town or “Overnight City” of Shenzhen. Peter visits her from time to time and listens to her feelings of loneliness, and her struggles to adapt to heavy work demands, a walled city, and lecherous bosses. She and many displaced villagers listen nightly to a radio show host, a kind of Chinese Ann Landers, for advice on finding their way between traditional and changing China.
The second story line of Oracle Bones focuses on one of his best students, Willy, who goes on to become an English teacher. As a teacher, Willy remains an avid learner who compiles vocabulary lists from reading Western newspaper articles and listening to the Voice of America. On a national exam, his class scores the best at his school (which is regarded as very important in the Chinese school system). When Willy finds certain favored schools have been leaked advance information on the contents of the national exam, he writes a letter exposing the corruption. With his obsession to perfect his English, also comes a distancing from, and ambivalence toward, his home Sichuanese region.
The third person in the narrative is Polat, a Uighur, an ethnic minority from Western China renown for their business and trading skills. His life on the margins of Beijing involves activities like converting currencies on the black market. Eventually he arranges counterfeit papers and emigrates to the United States where he works delivering Asian food in Washington, D.C. Polat fights traffic and parking tickets, is mugged, and poignantly reflects on what he experiences in America.
In addition to the lives of these individuals, Peter Hessler is fascinated with China’s past. At periodic intervals in his book he presents one or more “artifacts,” such as ancient bronze heads and horses, or the excavation of an ancient city. One set of artifacts are the “Oracle Bones,” a very early system of Chinese writing inscribed on animal bones and turtle shells.
I was intrigued by Peter’s account of how increasing contact with the West is changing the Chinese view of sports. It appears that today the Chinese are much more comfortable with being openly competitive. From my conversations with government officials, it also appears that they are preparing themselves to win their full share of medals in the 2008 Olympics.
Equally fascinating is Hessler’s look at what happened in China after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.
While the government issued official expressions of sympathy, people on the street seemed to take some satisfaction in America being repaid. They seem convinced that a nation as powerful as the United States couldn’t have possibly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by accident in 1999, nor could one of their military planes collide with a Chinese plane by accident. Hessler writes about the hastily produced DVDs that inter-cut scenes from horror movies with scenes from the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings, and excerpts from American politicians. Accounts like these vividly demonstrate how wide the gap is between our cultures.
Peter also uses his own experience to show how frustrating it can be for a Westerner to understand and to try to work the system in China. His adventures to be certified by the government as a journalist are amusing and revealing, and will strike home to all of us who worked in the developing world.
However, it wasn’t amusing for Peter, when on a camping trip to a remote section of the Great Wall, he makes the mistake of saying he is a journalist. Suspicious officials detain him for hours. They couldn’t believe he just happened to be near a small town holding elections or that, as a journalist, he had no camera with him.
I admire Peter Hessler’s tenacity and courage in developing his citizenship in two languages and two vastly different cultures. Through stories and lives I couldn’t possibly uncover as a visitor, Oracle Bones captures many aspects of what China is undergoing today. If you are looking for a sustained and brave attempt to understand China, or if you will be traveling to China, Oracle Bones is well worth reading. China intrigues me, as I said. And I promise it will intrigue you, once you read Peter Hessler’s wonderful new book.
In the Peace Corps, Michael McCaskey taught science and English in Fitche, Ethiopia. Following that, he was a business professor for ten years and then became an executive of the Chicago Bears.
Michael is interested in exploring how new technology (internet, recycled cell phones and robust local networks) could be developed to improve the delivery of material in rural Africa and Asia. He lives with his wife and two children in the Chicago area.
Service Without Guns,
by Donald J. Eberly (PC/W staff: 1961)
and Reuven Gal
Reviewed by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 197476)
SERVICE WITHOUT GUNS is an important book to read if you believe that the world is too violent a place. It may be even more important to read if you do NOT believe the world is too violent a place.
This thoughtful and well-researched book by Donald J. Eberly and Reuven Gal (with a guest chapter by Michael Sherraden) presents the case for national youth service as a substitute for military service in certain situations.
Their premise that “young people everywhere in the world would much rather cooperate with other young people in constructive activities than engage them in combat” leads the authors to investigate a 21st century paradigm where service becomes part of the fabric of society.
Donald Eberly was founder and director of the U.S. National Service Secretariat from 1966 to 1994 and the author of several books on national service. Reuven Gal served in the Israeli Defense Services from 1960 to 1963, earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, and pursued a career in non-profit and policy-making bodies. In 2002 he became the Deputy National Security Advisor for Domestic Policy at the Israeli National Security Council, where he was in charge of promoting Sherut Leumi, a university youth service. Beyond this partial summary of their backgrounds, both men have vast experience with youth service initiatives at both the policy and practical levels.
They introduce their topic by comparing military service and national youth service. While acknowledging the different purposes of these enterprises, the authors make the point that individuals performing non-military service might benefit from their experience in ways similar to individuals serving in the military. Helping others can help young people mature even as it meets important societal needs. The authors ask the rhetorical question, “Shouldn’t we give them the opportunity to engage their sense of adventure while helping people? The situation is somewhat analogous to that in military service, where young people encounter challenges, do important work, and have support readily available.”
Eberly and Gal describe the 20th century phenomena of declines in conscription-based armies, humanitarian missions performed by military organizations, and other linkages between military and non-military service. Their view is that the time has come for national youth service to gain prominence independent of military organizations. Ascribing the conception framework for national youth service to William James in 1906, a long and impressive list of successful national youth service initiatives is presented, including American versions (Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, Peace Corps in 1960, AmeriCorps in 1993) and comprehensive efforts in Germany, Israel, and Nigeria.
While there is no commonly accepted purpose of national youth service, there are best practices. The following elements are provided as important elements of successful initiatives:
- the service is important and the service providers see it as important
- recruitment of service providers occurs only to the extent necessary
- support exists from the ones who benefit
- proper orientation and training are provided
- service providers have a decision-making role
- service providers serve in teams
- the duration of service is 9 months to 2 years
- appropriate recognition and benefits are available
- positive opportunities exist for service providers after the service.
The authors provide additional insights into service-learning and the impact of national youth service, providing ideas on practical measures to advance non-military service. Another chapter with relevance deals with the role of national youth service in community reconstruction and intercultural understanding.
Service Without Guns is a book with a purpose. It provides information on successful non-military service initiatives and demonstrates the positive effects of these initiatives. Most importantly, perhaps, the book provides a how-to guide for anyone who wants to make the world a better place through peaceful means, enhancing understanding among peoples while providing valuable services to societies around the world. It is a dream worth pursuing.
Bryant Wieneke grew up in southern California and holds degrees from UC Riverside and New York University. After serving in the Peace Corps he began a career in university administration and later worked for Congressman Walter Capps.
He has published Winning Without the Spin: A True Hero in American Politics and Priority One, the first of a planned series of international suspense novels.
by Diane Skelly Ponasik (Morocco 196567)
Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 197981)
THE MOST EXCITING PART of Tangier, A Novel begins on page 184, when Kassim spies Lili, Ted and Tariq riding horses past a café in Taza where he is drinking coffee. He sends a boy after them, giving him a coin and offering him more coins for telling him the final destination of the three.
Taza, a city in Morocco, is about to be attacked, defeated and sacked by the army of Sultan Moulay Abdul Aziz IV. Tariq is one of the commanders of the army. Following the defeat of the city, the novel moves very quickly to the discovery of what has happened to the friend Lili had gone to help in Taza, Meriam, and to her aunt, Rebecca, who is unwell after a difficult pregnancy and delivery, and her baby, sons and husband. This story within a story is very compelling, showing the strong compassion of both Lili and Meriam, the wickedness of Kassim, the courage of Rebecca’s husband and sons, and the strength of anti-Semitism in Morocco in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This novel, more than anything, is about the weakness of men and the strength of women who are left unprotected by their husbands and lovers, both physically and emotionally. Ted allows his wife, Meriam, to live unprotected in Taza so that he can go to Algeria to further his journalistic career by spending an extended amount of time accompanying and interviewing General Lyautey. Later he wants Meriam to abandon the baby that she has after being raped by soldiers in Taza. Lili is emotionally abandoned by her husband Arthur nearly every night as a result of his drunkenness and subsequent sexual impotence. She is also abandoned at one point by her lover, Tariq, who marries the woman his parents have chosen for him because he is unwilling to pursue a woman who appears uninterested in him. Tariq leaves Malika, his wife, and their children with her family in order to marry Lili after Arthur dies in an earthquake in San Francisco. He eventually follows her to Paris to resume their life together after the birth of their child.
Tangier is also about how men and women don’t communicate with one another. As Tariq tells Lili:
Here marriage is a contract between two families. We are not involved. Even after the ceremony, aside from the marriage bed, the husband continues his life with his men friends, and the women do the same. If we are lucky, we respect each other, but love, such as they describe in Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre, or some of the other books Ted and I read with Miss Higgins, I do not see that in my family. My cousin and his wife, for example, hardly speak.
Many of the terrifying things that happen in the novel are recounted in such an emotionally flat way that the terror is completely drained from them. When Ted holds a lamb barbeque to celebrate his upcoming wedding to Meriam, Al-Raisuni, the Robin Hood of Morocco at the time of the novel, and his band of robbers arrive and hold up everyone at gunpoint, taking all of their money and jewelry. The robbers depart, and at the end of the evening, the fathers of the bride and groom apologize to the guests, “They finished the evening, Matt and Brahim passing from table to table to express their embarrassment and regret at the incident. Once the initial shock had worn off, most guests seemed inclined to shrug it off.” Earlier in the novel, Kassim has a confrontation with a shopkeeper in Tangier, observed by Meriam and Lili:
“Hmm, rather rude,” Meriam murmured, obviously not wishing to pursue the subject. That was often her way, Lili thought. Just ignore the unpleasant and maybe it would go away. “Let us go now.”
When Kassim buys a black woman slave at the market, the extent of her terror is described thus: “She was shaking with fear.”
I found most of the novel to be very descriptive of events but very unemotional. I longed to hear how the characters felt about what happened to them, and rarely did this occur. The dialogue is descriptive but not emotional. All in all this novel provides a lot of excellent historical information about Morocco and about issues related to Islam, Judaism and Christianity in countries in North Africa and the Middle East, but not a lot of complex and developed characters to move the history towards the novel side of the equation.
Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University, of recent NCAA Final Four fame. She runs competitively up to marathon distance and is working on a creative non-fictional account of her years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica.
We Wait for You
Unheard Voices from Post-Communist Romania
by Annabelle Townson (Romania 200103)
Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 196567)
“WHILE THERE IS ‘POOR’ and some outright poverty, Romania is not suffering economic impoverishment as much as mental and emotional dysfunction; they are recovering more than developing.” In this way the author describes Romania’s condition from her experience there as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2001 to 2003. Fortunately, some positive governance changes have occurred in Romania since her service, primarily through positive pressures via the EU accession process.
We Wait For You is an interesting narrative of the author’s experience as a “business” Volunteer in a transitional Romania which until very recently was unable to break the hold of the Communists cum Socialists who were responsible for Romania’s devastation for the past 50 years. Dedicated in December, 2004 and printed last year, the book draws heavily from the author’s diary as a Volunteer in her 50s serving without her spouse which provides an unusual and interesting perspective.
My interest stems from my own, limited experience with Romania, first as the Peace Corps Country Director in Bulgaria from 1996 to 1998 benefiting from the tales of my Volunteers who visited Romania and Volunteers from Romania touring Bulgaria. In 2000, I visited Bucharest for a week on business as Peace Corps Chief of Operations for Europe and Asia. I found Romania fascinating and beautiful in spite of the ravages of its tortured history and unique culture. We Wait For You added to my understanding and appreciation of Romania. It also renewed my appreciation for the challenges of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in that part of the world.
Ms. Townson’s narrative is very personal and emotive, focusing much on relationships between her and her Romanian friends and colleagues. It does not provide a smooth read, however, and I found it difficult to maintain my interest. Self-published, the book could have benefited from professional editing. The characters might be more robustly developed, the culture more extensively explored and descriptions of the economic and political environment more informative.
There is, in sum, too little about Romania and Romanians for my taste, but there are numerous insights and revelations. For those interested in Romania, the book should prove interesting, as it was for me. For the rest, it will remain a book with much potential, but a work in progress nonetheless.
In addition to being a PCV, Ken Hill was a Peace Corps staff member who left the agency in 1975 to pursue his own business interests. In the mid-’90s he returned to Peace Corps to become Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he was made Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Ken is now an independent consultant, semi-retired and Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association. He and his wife Winnie (Nepal 196668) live in Alexandria, Virginia.
A Writer Writes
Los 5 José
by Lauren Fitzgerald (Panama 200305)
IN THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR there were five men, all named José Concepción. The first time I visited them, they offered me a pink plastic chair and took turns shaking my hand and introducing themselves. I expected them to tell me their apodos, their nicknames, how one might differentiate among them, but they never did. They left me to figure that out on my own. Their mother Rufina and sister Yaurisbeth were of little help, only referring to them as mi esposo, mijo, mi papá, or mi hermano. If I asked which son, or which brother, they said el grande or el chiquito or “the one who helped you kill the snake.” So I learned their apodos from the guys who came hollering from the road, on bicycles, or in packs, or stumbling drunk on a Sunday. They would call out a name I didn’t recognize, and I would scramble to my doorway and watch to see which one emerged. I recorded their nicknames on a page in my journal, but I hardly ever used them. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to.
The father was called Chengo. I went to see him with his sister-in-law, Sara, because she told me he had a house to rent, and I needed a place to live. (Although Sara was assigned by the Peace Corps to be my community guide, she only introduced me to members of her family.) We walked next door and took a look around the wood and clay house; there were droppings and spider webs, and it was empty and very dark except for one naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I said I would like to rent it. After a long, tedious wait, during which Sara nagged Chengo to answer and Chengo stared catatonically at his own hands, he offered me the house for twenty dollars a month, plus thirty to fix it up initially. When I moved in, there was a table for my stove, a table to eat at, and three more tables to stack like shelves. There was a bookshelf with the word biblioteca written on it in black magic marker, and there was a well-crafted bed. There were also decorations on the wall for me. Graduation photos of one of their cousins, a string of pink plastic rosary beads hanging on a nail, and four paper maché cherries with letters spelling out L-O-V-E.
For over a year, I shared the water tap, latrine, and bathing area with the 5 Josés and Yaurisbeth and Rufina (whom I learned to call Yody and Rufa.) I borrowed their broom and mop instead of buying my own, and used their slab of wood and brush for washing my clothes. I gave my rent money to Chengo for the first few months, but his silence and refusal to look me in the eye in those moments made me decide to simply leave it in an envelope on top of their refrigerator.
The first time I tried to call Chengo by his nickname, I said chango, which, from everyone’s reactions, I gathered was some kind of orangutan who liked to play tricks on people. I apologized, and just called him José from then on. He was well known in surrounding communities, and everyone said he was buena gente. He was the president of the Fisherman’s Club, and also of the Club de Hornato, which was responsible for cutting the grass on the soccer field. For work, he dug drainage ditches on a sugarcane plantation. He left every morning on his bicycle just as the sun was rising, with the lonche that Rufa had made for him at 5 AM swinging from the handlebars in a round orange cooler.
The eldest son went by Alvenis, which was his middle name. He was 22 when I met him, quiet, serious, and single and on crutches. In all the time that I lived there, we had only one conversation, and I knew of only two things that happened to him.
I learned of the first thing during that one conversation that occurred one evening sitting at my table, during my first week in the community, when I was tired and my Spanish was still más o menos. He sat with me in silence, probably, I thought, sent by his father to keep me company, as Chengo tended to either send one of his children or come over himself every evening after dinner. After much hand wringing and focusing on various points around the room to avoid looking at me, he suddenly launched into a long and excited tale about the legendary Coibita soccer team. I concentrated as hard as I could and understood that the team was undefeated for several seasons, and that he was an integral part of its success. Every time he related a happy memory, his voice rose and then fell as he patted his wrapped leg and said, “Not anymore.” He told of traveling all around the province for games, and of taking home trophies, and of beer drinking and fighting in cantinas with rival teams. He spoke very fast, and without looking at me, so when I started to glaze over, my capacity for Spanish comprehension exhausted for the day, he failed to notice, and continued his story for what had to be more than an hour before abruptly saying, “Hasta mañana,” and walking out.
When his leg healed, he could no longer play soccer, but he was able to start working again. One day, while doing a job allá arriba in the mountains, he fell from a great height and hit his head, and had to be hospitalized. I don’t know if he fell from a tree or a ladder or a ladder leaning up against a tree. I only know that he was driven down the mountain in a cattle truck, bleeding all the way. He was hospitalized in Soná, then sent to Santiago to see a specialist, then sent all the way to Panama City for surgery. Chengo spent several afternoons racing up and down the street on his bicycle, stopping at friends’ houses to borrow money and collect on debts to pay for the bus fare and hospital bills. I paid three months rent in advance; I gave it to Rufa because I thought they might not find it if I put it on top of the refrigerator. In the end, they raised enough money for Rufa and Chengo to go to Panama City together, and they put their daughter Yody in charge of the house. They were gone for three days. When they came back, they brought Alvenis alive, with gauze wrapped around his head like a turban and a dark bloodstain on the left side. Throughout his recovery, I asked Yody how he was doing, and other people asked me how he was doing, and I told them in detail, even though he was always inside and I never actually spoke to him.
The other thing I knew about him was that one day he started building a house in the backyard. As soon as the frame was up, people started asking me if he was getting married. No one could think of any girl in La Soledad who had been seen with him. That meant that Alvenis was bringing in a girl from afuera. Gossip raged, with rumors ranging from the unlikely (that Alvenis had met a nurse in the hospital in Panama City during his head surgery) to the absurd (that he had been corresponding with a friend of mine from America and they’d fallen in love a través de las cartas.) When the palm roof was in place and there were three palm walls and one wall of corrugated zinc, Yody’s best friend came over from Soná, and she and Alvenis sat together in the hammock between the acacia trees, out in front of my house. Everyone knew that she was 15 and dropping out of high school. What concerned them more was if she knew how to sweep a floor, being from the pueblo and all. They were sure that Rufa would feed them until the girl learned how to cook, and that she’d probably wash their clothes as well, but everyone hoped that the girl would quickly learn to wash her own clothes because Rufa had enough work on her hands, with 5 men in the house and all named José.
After Alvenis came Bladi, short for Bladimir, his middle name. On the night I moved in, Bladi was a guerilla warrior with a camouflage bandana tied over his face so only his eyes showed. He hammered in nails for me to put curtains on, and stood on my bare mattress to hang my mosquito net from the wooden beams above. Early the next morning, he came over with a plate of patacones for breakfast and, still wearing the camouflage bandana, told me of an idea he had had the night before while he was falling asleep. He proceeded to move my light-switch to a place where I could reach it from my bed, so I wouldn’t have to turn out the light and then fumble my way to bed in the dark.
Nineteen year-old Bladi brought over a notebook and pencil one day and demanded I teach him all the open chords on the guitar. For the next few weeks he came over every evening to practice as soon as he’d showered and eaten after work. In exchange for the guitar lessons, we spent a day at my stove and he taught me to how make lentils, rice, and hojaldres, and how to fry an egg the Panamanian way (since I told him I already knew how to fry an egg.) He bragged that of all the Josés, he was the only one who could cook. The rice came out salty and the hojaldres never inflated, but we ate everything anyway. He helped me wash the dishes, and as he was leaving he turned and said, “Lorena, I am going to teach you many things.”
He brought over a tape and a black boom box that looked like it had been sanded down and left out in the rain.
“I hope this works,” he said, plugging it into the outlet that brought electricity illegally from his house to mine. “It’s Tano Mojica. Our vecino.” And he pointed with pursed lips out the door and across the field to the famous singer’s two-story house.
The music was warbled and hard for me to understand.
“What he’s saying is:
Morena, si Usted no me quiere,
A su casa no vuelvo mas nunca.
Morena, si Usted no me adora,
A su casa no vuelvo mas nunca.
(Darling, if you don’t love me,
To your house I will never return.
Darling, if you don’t adore me,
To your house I will never return.)”
During Carnavales in February, Bladi came over as I was cooking chili and I told him to stay to try some. He watched me stir the pot, and he said, “Lorena, I don’t know, but I think . . .”
“What?” I asked.
“I think . . . you would look prettier with earrings.”
I rolled my eyes at him and concentrated on the chili. He reached over and pushed my hair back from my ear so he could see it better, then squinted at me for a few moments.
“Yes,” he said. “You would look much prettier with earrings.”
“Well I don’t have pierced ears, so too bad,” I told him. “I guess I’ll never be pretty.” I spooned some chili into two bowls and brought them over to the table. He tasted his, and told me it was good. We ate in silence for a while, and then he started gazing at me.
“What?” I asked him. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Can’t I look at you?” he asked.
“But why are you looking at me así? Are you drunk?” Many of the men and boys used Carnavales as a 4-day drinking binge, so I did think, and still do think, that he was drunk that day. Even though he insisted he wasn’t.
“I just can’t stop looking at your eyes. They really grab my attention,” he said.
I made a face.
“Why don’t you let me compliment you?” he was speaking softly now. “If I complimented you in English would you like it? If I said, ‘You beautiful’? If I said, ‘Hello, baby, I love you’?”
“No, no,” I said.
“If I were a gringo?”
“I already have a boyfriend. Tú lo sabes.”
“Then why didn’t he come here with you?”
“Because he’s studying in the University.”
“So if I were rich?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.”
“If I were estudiado?”
“Then what? What do I have to do?”
“Nothing. There is nothing you can do.”
“¿Nada nada nada?”
“I’m your amiga and that’s it.”
“I’m your amiga,” he mimicked, in a high-pitched American accent. “That’s it.”
I paid him the courtesy of not looking at him. I stood up to clear away the dishes. Suddenly my guitar notebook flew off the table, and I turned to see the songs I had collected and organized over five years scattered all across the floor. He mumbled something as he was leaving, something that sounded like, “Se me cayó.”
“Next time you come over we can pretend this never happened,” I said brightly.
But he never came over again.
The third son was known as Chengito, and he was seventeen when I met him. He wore his hair longer than the others and used a lot more Friendly Fresh hair gel. He had a mustache that came and went.
Like many adolescent boys in Panama, Chengito liked to listen to reggae romántica. He and his friends would gather all the extension cords they could find and come to my house to use my outlet, and connect the cords in a chain all the way to the acacia trees and the hammocks made of fishing net. There, they would plug in the old, abused tape player and listen to Chengito’s tape, sitting in the hammocks or leaning against the trees until the ants started biting. The melodies wavered at maximum volume, the Caribbean beat bounced in and out of tempo, and a tone-deaf male falsetto whined and crooned as Chengito and his friends sang along to every word. They were a chorus of mournful, wounded puppies in sports jerseys, crouched under the trees outside my house.
Chengito was the one to whom Rufa and Yody were referring when they said, “the one who helped you kill the snake.” He didn’t help me kill it so much as just kill it himself, once I found it. It was lying under the cardboard cover to my box of Californian Red Worms, the composting experiment that I had been neglecting for several weeks. When I lifted the cardboard, I saw snuggled among the petrified chunks of horse manure a skinny red and black snake. Was it the poisonous red and black, or the red and black that only mimicked the poisonous one? I dropped the cover and ran next door, where I ran whenever I needed help, because someone was always around. This time, Chengito was home by himself, swinging in the indoor hammock and watching a novela on the black and white TV.
“Buenas,” I said. “Hay una culebra.”
He sprang up and grabbed his machete, and followed me over to the palm-thatched back part of my house.
“Under the cardboard,” I said. “Be careful!”
He held his machete ready in one hand as he lifted the cover with the other, slowly, slowly, until the cover was all the way off but there was no snake.
“It was just there a minute ago,” I mumbled.
Chengito prowled around the worm box and looked up and down the palm-thatched walls, not saying a word, but searching carefully, walking softly. No snake anywhere.
“I guess it went away,” I said. “Sorry to bother you.”
He went back to his novela, and I uneasily took another look around, but found no trace of the snake. Finally satisfied that it had slithered far away, I went inside the regular part of my house. I walked over to my food shelf to get some crackers. A rustling amid the plastic bags below the shelf caught my attention, and I looked down to see the snake wiggling around on the floor. Very quietly, I walked backwards. When I reached the doorway I turned and ran to the house next door, calling for Chengito as I ran.
He was ready with his machete. I led him into the house and this time the snake was still there, still amid the plastic bags on the floor under the shelf. Chengito crouched down and, with one quick and confident motion, smashed the snake’s head with the side of the machete. He then used the blade to lift the snake, now utterly limp, and carry it out.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.
“Throw it away,” he said.
And he walked into the fields behind the house to get rid of it.
The youngest José was twelve. He was skinny and dark with a great big smile exposing rows of bright white teeth. In Spanish, the suffix in is added to boys’ names when they are young, or to differentiate them from an older family member with the same name. Thus, the youngest José was called Joseín.
Nobody knows who started it, and no one remembers quite when, but at some point Joseín slipped into Hussein. Then Hussein became Sadaam. So when the neighborhood boys came around yelling, “Sadaam!” from their bicycles, “Ven acá!” they were really looking for the good-natured, unassuming boy who could make a kite from a cartucho and peel an orange so the peel remained in one piece.
The barrel of water that we all used for bathing was enclosed by three palm-thatched walls that barely came up to my armpits. The open side faced the fields. There was once a thin, gauzy tablecloth hanging over the opening like a curtain, but the wind and rain and 5 men named José inflicted so much wear on the fabric that it was reduced to threads. I was bathing behind this ghost of a curtain when I heard Rufa yell for Sadaam to go cut a basketful of corn for chicheme. If Sadaam hadn’t been such an obedient child, if he had stalled or refused to go, or if Rufa had sent Chengito instead, I might have had time to wash the shampoo out of my hair and cover up with the towel I had hanging on a tree branch nearby, but Sadaam complied at once with his mother’s request and in an instant appeared, sliding under the barbed wire fence with his basket and machete.
I stood still. Sadaam walked down a row of corn a few yards away from me and cut several ears off their stalks. I was afraid of making the slightest noise because he was close enough to hear and turn in my direction. My nakedness itself was loud, and my racing pulse was deafening. I crouched down and covered as much of myself as I could. He whistled as he filled his basket. I trembled. My calf muscles burned from squatting. I noticed clumps of my hair on the floor. I saw the boys’ shaving mirror tucked into the palm wall, a triangular shard of glass, and it glowed pink with the reflection of my flesh. I tried to breathe quietly. He was whistling a song I recognized from the reggae romántica tape.
“¡Joseín! Hurry up!” called Rufa from the house.
“¡Ya voy!” he yelled.
He lifted his basket and slung it over his chest. I breathed a sigh of relief that was just loud enough to make him swing his head around, which terrified me so much that I closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone.
PEOPLE LIKED TO COMPARE the five Josés. In height order, from tallest to shortest, they were Chengito, Alvenis, Bladi, Chengo, and Sadaam. From darkest to lightest they were Sadaam, Bladi, Chengo, Alvenis, Chengito. And the most likely to succeed, that is, to become un profesional, was Sadaam, because he was still in school and still had time to make something of himself. Bladi could have been somebody, but he had failed English.
“If only Lorena had come sooner,” said his mother, “Bladi could have gone to college.”
Rufa told me what each José liked and didn’t like to eat (Bladi ate everything, and Sadaam was the pickiest), and all of their medical problems, like Chengo’s high blood pressure and Alvenis’ propensity to injure himself, which dated back to his birth. Yody told me their embarrassing secrets, like how Chengito kept a picture of a centerfold from the daily Critica in a book under his bed, and how Bladi wore a bandana over his face when he first met me in order to hide the horrible cold sore on his lip. Rufa told me that Chengo hit her once, when they were first starting out together, and she said, “I’m your wife, not your niña,” and he never did it again. One morning when I was up early, I saw Chengo pedal off on his bicycle, and heard Rufa’s voice cry out over the dawn, “¡Chengoooooooo!” He stopped and turned around, and she cried, “¡Tu pastilla!” He hurried back home to take his blood pressure pill, then pedaled off once more into the sunrise.
When I moved away, I left some things behind that I didn’t want to take with me. I left my machete with its brown leather sheath, and a pair of old running sneakers. I left some clothes, among them a stained orange T-shirt I had worn since the eighth grade. And I left a miniature pink gift bag with kittens on it that had come full of candy in a care package from my mother. As the bus waited, Rufa and Yody hugged me and cried. Chengo hugged me but didn’t cry. The other Josés stood around with their hands in their pockets, avoiding my eyes, until I looked back from the window of the bus and they waved. Not long after, I came back to visit and saw that the family had moved back into my house. The door was open and the black and white TV was on inside. Rufa was frying fish. Yody was washing clothes. Sadaam was wearing my sneakers. Chengito had on my shirt. And the little kitten gift bag was hanging on the wall, right next to the photos from their cousin’s graduation.
Lauren Fitzgerald graduated from the University Professors program at Boston University in 2003. She then worked for two years as an environmental conservation volunteer in rural Panama. Originally from Connecticut, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently writing a book of short stories that take place in Panama.
A Writer Writes
Unfortunately a Woman
by Alison Coluccio (Togo 1995)
THE WHOLE IDEA WAS to plant trees. Of all the ambiguous callings in life, the dreams that feel silly to say out loud, the careers that ask you to leave your soul behind if it’s too big to fit in a carry-on bag, I figured planting trees in Africa seemed like a pretty sure bet. I’m all for helping clothe a denuding planet, giving good soil something to hold onto. And besides, there’s nothing quite like shade and a ripe mango.
I sat at the edge of a circle of village women and tried to figure out how to talk trees in my infantile Moba. My French was not terribly impressive, either. Nanoum, my homologue, my main collaborator, damn him, had arranged this meeting for the pre-coffee hours and my brain was still on hold. Let alone suffering a small touch of stage fright.
Nanoum had the floor; he was talking about me. I smiled and nodded at the ladies, comprehension eluding me. Nanoum switched into his arm-swinging, breathless French for my benefit, “She came here, all the way from America, to work with you, the Black Togolese. She’s the expert on agriculture, on soil chemistry, on Agroforestry. Listen to her and learn better ways. Do not shame us with your ignorance and laziness.”
Then he nodded at me to get up and I stood there for a moment, mouth open and empty in front of these women. My entire Moba dissolved into the single joke I’d heard about a guy who went around asking people in the village if they ate cats. No doubt a classic in Moba humor, it didn’t seem likely to save me from the wreckage of Nanoum’s good intentions. “Black Togolese”? I wanted the concrete floor to open and drop me into some hidden escape hatch. The latrine would have sufficed.
Nanoum, I could only presume, meant well. But he had tics. He bounced and twitched, his eyes gleamed too pale and too wild. When we approached, the people in town backed away, recalling chores waiting for them elsewhere. While other Togolese were quiet, Nanoum chattered out agricultural fancies like a river of black ants spilling from his mouth. Legend had it that those gentle ants who stormed great black ribbons across the sand brought prayers sweetened with honey to the sage men of the Otherworld. Nanoum’s words carried prayers, but they fell on the wrong ears. He spoke to us but we were not sage and we were not dead and his words were not so sweet.
The morning I first met him, I opened my front door to an old man in farmer’s rags fidgeting on my wide concrete porch. The porch served as a communal oven of sorts and I’d often found it strewn with surprises: roasting peanuts, drying chilis, chickens, children. But nothing topped the rusty bike and a fretful old man who hollered out, “I am Nanoum, your homologue!”
I was a surprise for him as well. He tried to be polite for a moment or two. Then finally he blurted, “I see you unfortunately are a woman.”
We made attempts to work together, but in truth I was glad the old guy lived several kilometers away. I had my village and he had his. He kept inviting me to visit and I kept making excuses. But my paychecks arrived monthly in my account at the marble-countered bank in the region’s capital, an hour’s bike ride north on the one tarmac road, the gudron. Which passed directly through the center of Nanoum’s village. If I wanted my mail, money, or anything resembling coffee, I was going to have to visit him. We finally set a date: I would find him in his village on the next market day.
Marche day in Nanoum’s village came and the women of mine had bananas on their heads. They moved gently along the side of the gudron, burdened by as much weight as I, on my lightweight modern bike, was free. We stared at each other for a moment, women in different lives moving up the same road. Then my pedal scraped the edge of the road and blue sky looped around me. As did my bike, its green paint doing a rainbow over my head, then landing on me, hard, down among the trodden mud off the side of the gudron.
The women hurried over in the wake of my colossal wipeout and peered down at me and tried to take me to their homes. The bike worked fine; it was the first thing I checked. It was askew but I could ride it. But could I?
I was a mess. From the toe of one sandaled foot, split open down the middle, up through one knee, elbow and shoulder, my blood was gummy with dirt and I’d knocked my helmeted head hard against the pavement.
The banana ladies clustered with concern and I contemplated rolling my bike home to patch things up before I continued towards the city, but Nanoum was in the marche waiting for me, and further up the road, the Peace Corps maison: clean, filtered water, sterile bandages and mail from home. I got on my bike and pedaled somewhat shakily north.
Aching and dizzy, just a few kilometers on, I wobbled to the edge of Nanoum’s marche. Young boys led me back through the circus tents to the tchokpa stand Nanoum favored. He sat on a log in the busy alcoholic shade, the mud floor wet with sloshed millet beer offerings to the ancestors.
“Come! You’ve come!” Nanoum sounded surprised. For once I’d exceeded expectations and caught him unguarded, without his peevish agendas and tics.
I took a calabash in my scraped hands and spilled some out. I drank too; I felt like I needed the sustenance of bubbly warm alcohol in my body, some fluid to fill in the bits that were busy leaking out.
His friends came around as we sat there in the shade too thick for anyone to really see how muddy and hurt I was. Nanoum’s joy was catching: his pride in his home, the way he showed me off to them, like I’d come not from the next village over but from half the world away to visit him, on this particular tchokpa log, this particular, peculiar old man. I don’t know if Nanoum’s village friends thought he was as insane as my villagers did, but somehow here it didn’t matter. He’d been born in this village. He might have been crazy, but he was their crazy fool. Inside their affection for him, home, Nanoum lost a layer of his anxieties; like I wasn’t the only one there minus some skin, exposed.
Nanoum asked me to come by his house, to see his fields. By then the bruises and the flies had caught up to me and I was itching to get to the city. But more than his village, Nanoum’s farm was his home. It was our trade: he wouldn’t fuss about my refusal to wash my wounds in his unfiltered water and I would pay my respects to his fields.
The millet bowed around me, tall and redheaded and bountiful. Nanoum’s fields cupped the crest of a soft hill above the village, and stretched far beyond his earthen house. Most Togolese lived close to other homes, preferring to walk to their fields rather than to their neighbors, but Nanoum’s home sat apart from people, nestled among his plants, under the arms of a big mango as lush as a wild tree.
Nanoum reached his hands up into a low-slung portion of mango leaves like he was shaking hands, touching the palm of a friend. “I grafted early-bearing fruits on this side.” We followed the fat trunk around and he reached higher, to where the branches were denser. “This portion I grafted with a mid-season variety. Then the late here, as well. Since the grafting had succeeded.”
And we stood there under the canopy of a tree that had grown, since its grafting, tall enough to shade a house. A tree he’d cut and scarred and encouraged to heal at least as long ago as I was born. An ever-bearing tree, whose fruits ripened around the tree like the rolling of the Earth around the sun. And I saw him there, hands in the dark green leaves and knew then that he was the true expert from another country, another planet even. A prophet whose words had gone so long unheeded that the ants and honey had made him funny in the head. Desperate for someone to give a damn, to stop and learn about the ways he’d woven his hands into the green and what wisdom had ripened in them. He’d even consent to present me a woman as his cover, his partner, his homologue. He’d pretend I was the one with the brains and the expertise if one of his countrymen would just listen to the things, the impossible things, he could teach them.
I couldn’t stay. I had to take what light was left in the day and ride on to the city. We both seemed a little shaky, stale, drunk in the dwindling sunlight. Nanoum walked me to the edge of the millet, where a dirt path led down off the hill. We could see the village from there and the gudron pulling out of it, away to the north. Behind us I could still just see his home beneath the growing shade of the mango tree a tree so improbable, so precious it must have been grafted by a fool. Or perhaps a very wise man.
Alison Coluccio was an agroforestry PCV in Togo and is a research technician who has studied the genetics of flowers, particularly of corn, arabidopsis and potatoes, at labs in New York and Guanajuato, Mexico. Currently she works on yeast genetics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and lives on Long Island with her husband and daughter. She is at work on a novel inspired by the lives of three women she met in Togo.
Naming the “Peace Corps”
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
THOSE OF US WHO follow the history of the Peace Corps agency know the term “peace corps” came to public attention during the 1960 presidential election. In one of JFK’s last major speeches before the November election he called for the creation of a “Peace Corps” to send volunteers to work at the grass roots level in the developing world.
However, the question remains: who said (or wrote) “peace corps” for the very first time? Was it Kennedy? Was it his famous speech writer Ted Sorensen? Or Sarge himself? But as in most situations the famous term came about because of some young kid, usually a writer, working quietly away in some back office that dreams up the language. In this case the kid was a graduate student between degrees who was working for the late senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey.
Today, forty-five plus years after the establishment of the agency in March of 1961, it is generally acknowledged that Peter Grothe, now the Director of International Student Programs at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, authored the term in the spring of 1960. I learned about the history of the naming from Peter when we exchanged a series of emails earlier this spring.
“There would have been no Peace Corps without John F. Kennedy being elected President,” Peter told me first when he wrote me on April 19, 2006. The term “peace corps” came about when Peter, then Senator Humphrey’s Foreign Relations Advisor, drafted a bill in May of 1960 and used the words “peace corps.” This was on the eve of the U-2 incident and the West Virginia primary which Kennedy won, a victory that showed a Catholic could win in a traditional protestant state, and, therefore, could win a general election.
“I gave the name “Peace Corps,” [in this draft of a Humphrey sponsored foreign assistance bill] in order to be consistent with the Senator’s Peace theme,” Peter explained. [Humphrey was also proposing an “education for peace” bill]. “I first, toying round, gave it the name “Works for Peace Corps,” but that seemed too cumbersome,” Peter remembers, “so I just shortened it to “Peace Corps” and Senator Humphrey approved. Some said that it sounded ‘communistic.’ Other said that it sounded too militaristic (corps). But somehow it stuck!”
Peter also added this important and missing piece of information about his involvement with the “peace corps” idea. “When I left Humphrey to go back to do my Ph.D. work, I asked him if I could take the idea to Kennedy, who, by that time, had won the Democratic nomination. Humphrey said, ‘of course!’ I drafted a speech I hoped JFK would use in the campaign and took it to the head of Kennedy’s speech writers in the campaign, Archibald Cox.
“I told Cox we had received an enormous amount of mail, many of it from organized letter writing by Protestant groups, because the Peace Corps reminded them of action-oriented, Protestant missionary work. Cox listened to this because, as you know, no Catholic had ever been elected to the presidency.
“I returned to Stanford and was in the Cow Palace in San Francisco the night Kennedy chose to give the Peace Corps speech I had written. There were some changes, but about 75% of his speech was what I had written. The major change was that the Humphrey bill had the Peace Corps as an alternative to the draft, and Kennedy removed that provision (good politics!). I sat there in disbelief of Kennedy’s giving MY speech and I said to myself, “if the Lord wants to take me right now, Lord, I am ready to go.”
Well, the Lord didn’t take Peter Grothe that night. He is still with us, and if nothing else, as he says today, he is forever “a footnote in Peace Corps trivia history.”
Thank you, Peter, for giving us a name that, as you say, has stuck.
Opportunities for writers
- Peggy Hogan (Sierra Leone 196769) is a book packager currently looking for writers of non-fiction adventure stories for 912 year olds. She writes, “We propose re-telling adventure stories such as Teddy Roosevelt’s trek along the Amazon or Leonard Clark’s discovery of the lost cities of El Dorado.” The books are to be about 20,000 words, or 150 pages, and have short chapters with cliff-hanging endings. They are looking for writers with great story-telling ability, and who can develop character and plot as if they were writing fiction. The goal is to find writers who have felt the need for adventure themselves and who have some direct experience with the setting of the story they are writing.
Her company is called Flying Point Press.
Write to Peggy at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Paul Alan Fahey (Ethiopia 196871), editor of Mindprints, A Literary Journal, an international magazine of short fiction, poetry and art published by the Learning Assistance Program at Allan Hancock College, has written of a flash fiction contest. First-, second- and third-place winners will receive cash prizes of $50, $30 and $20 respectively, and their stories will appear in Volume VIII of the journal. Several honorable mentions will also be published. The contest theme is “Mirrors and Masks.” The theme may be broadly interpreted in 500 words or less. Entry fees are $5 each; individuals may enter as many times as they wish. The contest postmark deadline is October 27, 2006.
For more details go to iMindprints.com.
- An upcoming edition of Abroad View, the global education magazine for students, will feature an in-depth section on the impact of collegiate international experiences on career choices and paths. To better inform this section, the magazine is seeking data from college and university alumni who have had such experience and would appreciate their help in taking a 10- to 15-minute survey.
From those who had a significant collegiate international experience (6+ weeks) that influenced their career choice, they would also welcome article contributions. Some suggested areas are:
||Social Justice/Non-Governmental Organization
|International Business/Marketing/ PR/Law/Journalism
|Fine and Performing Arts/Architecture
||Work involving a Foreign Language
|Social Sciences/ Anthropology/ Archaeology
Contributors are asked to write in the first-person and give insights and reflections on the role their collegiate international experience(s) played on their career choice. Anecdotes and details of specific moments, projects, encounters, or realizations are sought.
Submissions are due by June 30, 2006. E-mail queries and articles to Andrea Licavoli at email@example.com. To learn more about Abroad View, visit their site: AbroadViewMagazine.com