Friday, March 25, 2011

The Impact of the Peace Corps on me

Following is a piece I wrote for on the impact of the Peace Corps upon the occasion of the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary. I was a volunteer in Kenya from 1968-70.

I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, then matriculated at the University of the South, a small liberal arts college, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Life in the south was comfortable, but in those years the region was struggling with racial issues. I yearned to see a bigger world beyond, meet a different set of people, find out more about myself and my role in life. One summer I signed on to a church work camp in Tanzania. That experience convinced me to apply to the Peace Corps. Although I truly wanted to go, I also thought that an African experience would be preferable to a Vietnam sojourn. So when my colleagues went into the military or home to run the family business, I flew to Bismarck, North Dakota for Swahili training. Immediately my world changed - not only with immersion in an exotic language, but also surrounded by fellow trainees from diverse backgrounds. We shared idealism and a disdain for conventionalism, but were apprehensive about what the next years in Kenya would bring. Two months later, with more than a smattering of Swahili under our belts and growing confidence in our technical expertise, off we went.

I had passed through Nairobi two years earlier so it did not surprise me, but the beauty of Kenya did have an impact – sweeping vistas, huge lakes, hulking mountains, verdant rangeland and millions of small farms. The people too, as I would soon come to know, provided that new window on the world. It was true that the world of rural Kenya was indeed smaller than that of mine at home. But contrasts were striking. How people approached family, work, education, time, responsibilities and religion differed. And as I began to understand their values, I also understood mine better too. We volunteers have hundreds of cross-cultural stories about communications that went awry or that struck a solid note of shared humanity. For example, one of my counterparts came to me in tears of grief to report his mother had died and that he had to return home (with a loan- read gift). I sympathized and complied. Two months later: more grief and “my mother has died” (and the need for another loan). I asked about his previously dead mother. He assured me that mother was my “father’s other wife, this was the mother who bore me.” So in sadness, I learned about Luo family relationships.

My assignment was to build a rural water system that would provide clean piped water to 1500 small farms. We built a dam, a head works and laid a hundred miles of pipe to communal watering points. Nothing was as exhilarating as to hear the water rushing into the tanks. I am proud to say that the system functions well today – forty years later. It’s impact on health and education of girls (who previously had to fetch water, but after piped water could go to school) was immense. It was the type of grassroots development that works.

My two years in Kenya changed me. I matured, I became more tolerant, more understanding that differences provided opportunities. I developed management and leadership skills and became committed to economic and social change in Africa. Also, I met a Peace Corps teacher that I later married. At the end of my service, however, I still had the travel bug – so three colleagues and I bought an old Land Rover and drove to England. Ultimately, I went to graduate school in international affairs, joined the Foreign Service and spent the next forty years working in Africa or on African issues in Washington. I credit my Peace Corps time as the inspiration for my vocation.

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