COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT WORK is probably the toughest job assignment for Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of the time, they face huge obstacles: the people’s abject poverty, distrust of government, and suspicions of Volunteers’ motives. Add in a revolution, and we have the conditions Joseph Zuiker faced from 1965 to 1967 in the Dominican Republic.
Zuiker’s memoir provides an intimate account of his efforts to stimulate self-help projects in and around Santiago de la Cruz, near the Haitian border. He spent his first year meeting hundreds of families, fostering friendships with influential villagers, and gaining the trust of the people.
In his final year, Zuiker managed to inspire and coax people into action. His incredible energy and tireless trips to authorities to neutralize bureaucracy continued to prop up the spirits of the villagers. They attended planning meetings, hauled sand from rivers and streams, retrieved stones from rocky hill sides, sliced down heavy vegetation in jungles, cut down trees in forests, dug foundations, and poured concrete. By the end of his tour, the small village of Campeche had completed a road so the farmers could truck their crops out and bring in supplies. And his home village of Santiago de la Cruz had built a new school building with several classrooms.
From a literary point of view, there are plenty of points to criticize in this book. It is not polished writing. Actually, Joseph Zuiker did not write it himself. His father wrote it after listening to his son talk about his experiences. Another problem is Zuiker’s use of stereotypes that diminish the vitality of his story. He writes about one villager, “Like many Latins he was quite a ladies man.” About an important woman in the village, he declares, “[S]he could explode like many Latin Americans.”
Awkward phrases and exaggerations also detract from the story’s effectiveness. “Every car had a life story to tell,” really means the person in the car has a story. On one page he says that “A publico is a car,” and soon after he describes publicos as people: “Where I had cussed out the publicos after my first ride, I now knew that few of them owned their own cars.”
But this book stands as a testament to Zuiker’s determination and maturity as a PCV. To lead people to higher accomplishments, leaders need to understand group dynamics. They must gain the trust and cooperation of a wide range of people. Zuiker quickly became a master of organizing and inspiring group action. From this experience, Zuiker returned to the United States an adept leader.
Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, with poetry and short fiction published in more than seventy five journals, magazines, and anthologies including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, and in The Cynic. He also has published nonfiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats.US, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEd News. He is currently finishing a book about the U.S. Congress.