Former President Jimmy Carter and his grandson, Jason Carter, discuss Jason's experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa
Anchor: Bob Edwards
Reporter: Susan Stamberg
BOB EDWARDS, host: The Carter family of Georgia has a history of public service. At age 70, Lillian Carter became a Peace Corps volunteer. Her son Jimmy became president of the United States. His grandson Jason also joined the Peace Corps, and has written a book about his experience in a South African village. The book's introduction is by President Carter. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg spoke with the two Carter men.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
Describe your village.
Mr. JASON CARTER (Author, “Power Lines”): I lived in a little town called Lochiel, and it's near the Swaziland border. I was the only white person for about 30 miles. The people carried their water from the river and they built their houses out of sticks and mud. No one had electricity. Power lines, as the book is called, ran through the town and no one at the bottom of the power lines had any electricity. And at the top, first-world South Africa sort of passed on by. STAMBERG: President Carter, I wonder what echoes you heard between your mother, Miss Lillian's Peace Corps experience, and there she was in her 70s, and those of your grandson, Jason, when he went in his early 20s. Is the common ground poverty?
Former President JIMMY CARTER: The common ground is abject poverty that Americans cannot even envision. Mother was a registered nurse and she was completely immersed in this village that was owned by a rich man. And she was an unclean person in the Indian society because she washed herself and she took care of people with leprosy and she touched filthy things. Mother couldn't leave the village. I mean, she wasn't forbidden. There was just no way for her to do it. But Jason had one great advantage in that he mastered the language very early.
STAMBERG: Jason, you learned Zulu and Siswati. Can you say 'Hello, Grandfather,' in each of those for us, please?
Mr. JASON CARTER: Sure. They're very similar. (Zulu and Siswati spoken) It's nice to see you. Learning the language was the number one thing that I did to become a part of the community. I mean, the psychological residue of apartheid is so thick and it's so difficult for people who are white or black to cross back and forth between South Africa's different communities.
STAMBERG: You were there working with rural teachers and trying to help them and what a difficult task to convert a whole curriculum from the apartheid years to post-apartheid and to black rule. But race really became the driving theme of your Peace Corps years there. You were the only white in that village of yours, and how were you perceived as a white man?
Mr. JASON CARTER: Well, I was the first white person in a hundred homes. And I was the first white person that a lot of people in my village ever looked in the eye. I was certainly the first white friend that almost any of them had ever had. And after apartheid, people would come to me and think—they had always gotten their answers from white people. And the self-esteem of the black community there is what the educational transformation is about and what the psychological post-apartheid transformation is about. And people would come to me and ask me, 'Jason, you know, my car's leaking oil, what should I do?' And I have no idea. And there's no reason for me to know, but they would come to me because I'm white and expect me to have the answers. And they would be explicit, 'Well, you're white, you obviously know. Your cars don't break down.'
STAMBERG: President Carter, I wonder, listening to this, hearing Jason's experience, and taking yourself back to Plains, Georgia, and growing up in the South, a peanut farm, racial divides of all sorts, what echoes do you hear?
Mr. JIMMY CARTER: Well, I hear vivid echoes because most Americans don't even want to believe or remember that after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, we had a hundred more years of racial segregr that after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, we had a hundred more years of racial segregation and discrimination legalized by the Congress and the Supreme Court. And that's when I grew up. And so we had an intimate friendship. I didn't have any white neighbors. All of my playmates were black. And we treated each other equally. We wrestled and fought and went fishing and competed and worked in the field together. But when we went to church, we got on a train, went to a movie, when we went to school, completely separate. And I didn't realize then as a child growing up—I left when I was 17 years old—the devastating effect that it had on them and how the chasm into societal structure was so great. That was what was so disturbing to me after I began to see how this country had delayed so long in providing basic equality to our black citizens.
STAMBERG: And, Jason, you saw so much of the same thing. I mean, you saw the great leadership that was there, the ability for that that was untapped, tremendously qualified teachers with whom you were working who had no job opportunities, all of that potential.
Mr. JASON CARTER: And being in South Africa and seeing the extent to which people are deprived of, the opportunities that I have, not as Jimmy Carter's grandson but as an American and as a white American, the opportunities that we have to make something of our lives, to control our lives are just amazing compared to anyone in South Africa, in the town where I lived. Hearing my grandfather talk about the South and growing up, makes me realize how exciting it is for me to get a chance to go and relive some of that in a different community because I was born in 1975. I see America's sort of segregation residue, but I never participated in it and, you know, saw it as intimately as I got to in South Africa. So it was a neat experience for me as someone from Georgia to be able to do that.
STAMBERG: Interesting. It's a new connection between you, isn't it.
Mr. JIMMY CARTER: Well, it is. You know, Jason was there helping to establish a new concept in education after the end of apartheid and the coming of Nelson Mandela. In the past, all those teachers had been concentrating on producing graduates who were qualified to work in the mines, ought to be servants in the white folks' houses, ought to work as laborers on the highways. And now they were producing a new generation whose responsibility it will be to run a country and to engender that concept of exalted possibilities and ambition in little children in schools, to me, was a breathtaking opportunity for Jason.
STAMBERG: Jason, I know you had plenty of days in which you doubted. You looked at the future. You felt this so bleak, this is so tough. Can we possibly accomplish any of this? Can South Africa? But really the shining light for you is a word—Is it ubuntu?
Mr. JASON CARTER: Obuntu.
STAMBERG: Obuntu. Talk about it and what it means and why it's a vehicle for hope.
Mr. JASON CARTER: Obuntu is a South African cultural idea. Obuntu means humanity, and the saying is (foreign language spoken). Obuntu means that they define themselves in terms of other people and think of themselves as fundamentally connected instead of as fundamentally individual. And the way—that sounds wonderful, but in practice, it's amazing. We can learn from those ideas and those cultural expertise, really, and community expertise that the people in this little town of Lochiel had.
STAMBERG: Thank you both very much.
Mr. JASON CARTER: Sure.
STAMBERG: Jason Carter, his book “Power Lines” describes two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small South African village. The book has an introduction by his grandfather, President Jimmy Carter. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
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