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A Chameleon’s Tale

An interview by John Coyne

AS IS OFTEN THE CASE, an RPCV writes a book and goes looking for a way to let the world know. Most Peace Corps writers use thePrinter friendly version Internet, type in key words like: Peace Corps and writers and up pops our website. Something like that happened when Mo Tejani (Thailand 1979–80) published his memoir of an amazing life that stretches from Africa to the United Sates, Latin America, and Asia. The Peace Corps experience is a thin slice of a life-journey that has taken him to love and adventures on five continents. While important to him, his Peace Corps experience pales when it is compared to everything else that has happened to this man who came out of Africa to take on the world.
     
His book, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, was listed and reviewed in the last issue of Peace Corps Writers. Mo is one member of a hardy band of RPCVs writers who live and work [mostly as travel writers] around the world, publishing on-line and in many travel magazines only available overseas. Since hearing from Mo I have been emailing him about his life and the writing of his memoir. Here are some of the things he has to say.

Where did you go to college, Mo?

I attended the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England in 1972 and 1973, then transferred to Albion College in Michigan, from 1973 to ’74. I got my BA there and then went to the University of Michigan for my Masters in English Language and Literature. Ten years later, I got a Masters in International Affairs from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1985.

Tell us a bit about your Peace Corps service.

I was in Thailand from 1979 to 1980 as a University TEFL Volunteer, my first year at Phuket Teacher’s College and then at Chiang Rai Teacher’s College in Thailand. I taught courses on English language and English literature to would be Thai teachers of English.
     During the summer breaks, I worked at Khao I Dang and Ban Vinai Vietnamese/Hmong refugee camps in Thailand to help with the thousands of South Vietnamese (Boat People) and Hmong (who worked for CIA in the bombing of Laos), who were escaping their respective countries into Thailand in fear of their lives.

Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?

I joined the Peace Corps to gain English teaching experience in Asia, learn a new language and explore Asia after my two year tour of duty.
When you finished your tour what did you do?
Being fluent in Lao/Thai and Spanish, I spent a year and a half working as a resettlement social worker for the International Rescue Committee in Washington D.C., resettling Lao and Cuban refugees in the metropolitan DC area. 
     Then in ’82, I returned to Asia and worked as an American cultural orientation supervisor for the Experiment for International Living, which is now known as World Learning. I was training Indonesian teachers, and teaching Vietnamese and Khmer refugees about resettlement life in America. From ’83 through ’84 I did the same work for the same agency in Panat Nikhom Refugee camp, Thailand for Vietnamese/Khmer/Lao refugees bound for resettlement in America.
Go back to your early family history and tell us a little of the Uganda story of your life? I realize that there is a lot more in you memoir.

The Tejani family

My family — parents (who were originally from India) and nine children — all lived in Kampala, the capital city in Uganda from 1953 through 1972. We all had Ugandan passports. My father was a teacher at first and then an accountant. My mother was a housewife. There are three doctors in the family, my older brother and his wife, and my sister. The second oldest brother is also a writer who was working with Kenyan writer James Ngugi. Four other sisters worked at different professional jobs in the city. One other brother was studying at Makerere University and I, being the youngest, had just finished high school, A-levels, when Amin gave all 80,000 Asians 90 days to leave the country.
What was Kampala like at that moment in history?
In January 1971, Amin took over through a military coup, and by August of 1972 he had implemented the Asian expulsion. The time was wrought with terror. A brother-in-law of mine was kidnapped, another sister was badly assaulted, my doctor sister escaped rape because she was a doctor who had given medical treatment to one of the soldiers who invaded and pillaged her home.
     
My family lost eight homes, all our possessions and belongings, six cars, and a medical clinic. We left Kampala, as decreed by Amin, with 50 British pounds in our pockets. At least we got out with our lives intact unlike some 300,000 black Ugandans who were murdered during the Amin’s reign of genocide.
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