Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .

John Bidwell

An interview by John Coyne

I HEARD ABOUT John Bidwell (Mali 1989–91) from his wife, Peace Corps writerPrinter friendly version Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91). Kris and John met in the Peace Corps and later married. All these years later she wrote a wonderful book about her work with an African woman who was her mentor in Mali entitled Monique and the Mango Rains. When I interviewed Kris for these pages about the memoir, I came to know John, and the work he has done to market and promote the book. In email exchanges with him, I realized he had a lot of smart things to say about how to market one’s own book, or “brand” one’s name, and I asked him if I could interview him for Peace Corps Writers. John said, “sure” and this is what he had to say.

Where are you from and where did you go to school, John?

Like generations of my family, I was born in Hartford, Connecticut but my parents needed a kin break, so we moved to New Hampshire when I was eight. I consider Wilmot Flat, New Hampshire my hometown. By the age of 18 I wanted a bigger world, so I went to Montreal for university, majoring in Religious Studies at McGill. I edited their arts and sciences magazine my senior year.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?
My aunt and uncle served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia in the ’70s. They planted the seed. Montreal whetted my appetite to see more of the world, and I calculated the most economical way to do that was to have somebody else pay for it. And I do have a strong sense of duty. Many in my father’s family served in the military, but an astute recruiter steered me away. He said it was more than my studies in religion; it was that fact that I had registered with Selective Service under protest, and didn’t score well at taking direction.
What was your assignment?
I was a water resource manager in Mali from 1989 to 1991, an assignment that grew out of some summer construction work. This involved some latrine building and health education, but mostly I trained men to repair wells. It was a plumb assignment. I loved it. Everybody appreciates clean drinking water so it was easy to harness the village motivation. The guys I worked with were fantastic and we had a good time. So I’m going to take advantage of this forum and share a story.

Donkeys can be loud, especially the lonely males looking for . . . love. Such a braying beast was interrupting our work, so my friend Madou took the standard approach of finding a small stone to lob at it. The stone took flight and like a guided missile found its way right into the ass’s — well — ass. For a second, the world froze: all of us around the hole in the ground, the donkey, and by-passers. Then the world exploded in laughter while the donkey danced about, looking back at its rump. The unwanted gift dislodged and with a snort the animal wandered off.

That story was repeated daily, and may still be since Madou went on to start his own well repair business.

     The hardest part of the work was discovering that I truly fear tight, dark, deep, hot places. My first time into a well deeper than 15 meters required intense concentration, keeping my eyes on the dirt in front of me and repeating my girlfriend’s name. I crawled out twice before finding the wherewithal to descend all the way. I was also driven by fear of humiliation: if Malians do this, I can. Only afterwards was I told that the locals avoid wells at all costs. You can fall. There may be venomous snakes. Heavy gases displace oxygen. You can die. Only the crazy and desperate go in. It was then that I realized half of bravery is ignorance.
I also worked on a maternity repair project with my then girlfriend, Kris Holloway (author of Monique and the Mango Rains), and now wife. That was a wonderfully fulfilling project, involving the whole village, donations from home, and USAID funds.

When you finished your tour, what did you decide to do next . . . go to school? Start your career?
I had worked for several years between university and Peace Corps as a graphic designer. My mother’s side of the family is artistically inclined. My grandfather had me working with wood at a young age, and my great-aunt Betsy is married to Andrew Wyeth, giving me an intimate and unique exposure to art.
After Peace Corps I considered public health because of how much I had enjoyed my work in Mali. I became a state certified HIV/AIDS counselor, working nights for two years at a local clinic. I took my GREs in preparation for a master’s degree, but in the end I returned to communications, working as a senior designer for a marketing firm and a national magazine.
I love creative problem solving, and don’t thrive in bureaucracies. That is what I loved best about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sure, I had to jump through hoops to get in, but once in the field I was on my own. My foray into public health didn’t seem to allow for that.
     I started my own firm, Bidwell ID, in 1999, which is now at five employees and works with clients nationwide, many of them being cause-driven organizations: Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, World Learning, the National Yiddish Book Center, hospitals, and colleges. My firm’s emphasis is on branding.
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