Sargent Shriver, first Director of the Peace Corps, liked to say that the real beneficiaries of the Peace Corps would be the children of Volunteers. He meant that former Volunteers would raise their children differently because of the experience. Little did Shriver realize, back in the early 1960s, that for many families Peace Corps service itself would become a legacy. Someday the kids may inherit the family business, the attic antiques, even the homestead. But first, maybe, they'd join the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps has found over the years that it is former Volunteers who make the best recruiters, and they are especially successful at recruiting other family members. Having a member of one's own family not only recommend the Peace Corps but also tell stories and show slides makes the experience very up-close and personal.
This essay demonstrates what can happen when a Volunteer meets up in Africa with her parents who served in the Peace Corps.
I am serving as a Volunteer in Malawi, a small nation in southeastern Africa. Several months ago I traveled to the capital, Lilongwe, to meet my father, mother, and older sister who were coming for a visit. However, this was no ordinary visit, since my family had left Africa twenty-six years ago and was returning for the first time.
My mother and father had both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Kenya in 1969-70. They were newlyweds. My sister was born during their time of service. (Peace Corps policy was a little more relaxed about pregnant Volunteers back then.) Those two years in the Peace Corps changed my parents' lives and, subsequently, changed my own. Everything, from their decision to make a home in northern New Mexico because it looked and felt like East Africa, to raising their children as global citizens, resulted from their time working as secondary-school teachers in Kenya.
The first part of our time together here in Malawi was spent exploring. It was wonderful to share with them the beauty of Malawi and its people. They were sharply reminded of the unique life of a Volunteer: the lonely silence of a rural village, the frustrating cross-cultural struggles at work, the stress-relieving parties that erupt when Volunteers get together. All of this took them back to a time when they, too, ran to jump on a crowded country bus and struggled with this life they had chosen.
The apex of their homecoming to Africa, however, was our journey to a tiny village in Nyanza Province of southwestern Kenya. Taran'ganya was the place where they had lived and served as Volunteers so many years ago. Their first contact with the past was with one former student they had taught as Volunteers, now a highly respected professor in Nairobi, who had kept in contact throughout the years. He opened his home to us with great pride, having, as he sincerely said, "finally the chance to give back a little of what his Peace Corps teachers had given to him."
He took over all the arrangements for our trip to Kuria District to visit Taran'ganya Secondary School and many of his former classmates. The 350-mile trip was filled with memories for my parents: the dirt roads where they had desperately hitched rides when they were my age; the market where they bought bananas, powdered milk, and, occasionally, fresh meat; the people speaking a mix of Kiswahili, Kikuria, and English. For my sister and me, it provided a sharp realization of the impact that those two years had had on our parents, as well as proof that the Peace Corps adventure stories we had grown up hearing were, indeed, true.
Their region had changed and prospered in twenty-six years, just like the rest of Kenya. Their small school was now twice the size it had been in 1969. Its whitewashed buildings housed hundreds of anxious-faced students still learning out of old, dingy textbooks. As we walked into the schoolyard, students and teachers excitedly rushed out to see why the four wazungu (white people), accompanied by the well-known professor, were visiting their school. My parents were beaming as they spoke with these students who were so much like those they had taught, in that same small place, twenty-six years before.
We spent the next three days in Kuria visiting former students who had remained in their tribal district. I wish I could describe the rush of emotions experienced by mom and dad. To see their former students, schoolboys who could barely afford a pair of shoes, as professional adults with grown families was quite overwhelming for them.
The first student we visited was now the chief of a major Kuria village. He cried out with amazement at seeing his teachers again, and, over warm Fanta and biscuits, told stories about how my parents had changed his life. He spoke of spending hours at their house reading Mark Twain. He thanked their influence for his decision not to have his six daughters sent for female circumcision, still widely practiced among the Kuria people. My parents had no idea that their influence had been so profound on the quiet boy who would read in their house until the paraffin lamp ran out of fuel. It was so profound, in fact, that he had grown into an influential man who would begin, by daring example, to end a harmful practice among his people.
We then visited another former student who had become a successful doctor. He had chosen to stay in his town to practice medicine and to build a hospital, the region's first. Never have I seen the eyes of a grown man light up as much as his when he realized who the gray-haired people standing before him were. He was chattering immediately about the powerful influence mom and dad had had on him. He talked about the boxing and track clubs dad had started, and attributed the fact that he now writes in only capital letters to his trying to emulate the writing of his old Peace Corps teacher. He could hardly believe that the twenty-five-year-old woman in front of him was the same tiny baby to whom he and his friends had brought gifts when she was born. She was the first white baby they had ever seen.
And, finally, on our way back to Nairobi, we stopped at a small public health clinic in the town of Migori to visit the old medical assistant who had worked in the village near the school. He had given my father an injection to treat a bout of malaria twenty-six years ago. After the usual tears and delighted chatter, he took my mom's hand and led her to the back of the clinic. There he produced a medical text that she had given him as a gift before her tour in the Peace Corps ended. For all these years, it was the only training manual for the laboratory staff of the clinic. The book was now tattered and torn but was still serving a purpose my mother could not have imagined when she passed it on.
The point of these reflections is that my parents had absolutely no idea how much influence they were having during their two years of Peace Corps service. They did not consider themselves exceptional Volunteers; they simply went to class, taught a variety of subjects in the best way they knew how, and loved the people they lived among. But returning to their village so many years later, they were struck by the undeniable realization that they had indeed changed people's lives.
Seeing how these former students reacted to my parents was incredible, persuasive evidence that Peace Corps Volunteers have a profound influence wherever they go, whatever they do. In fact, I felt that a Volunteer could almost spend the entire two years of service locked inside a house and still change something significant in the lives of people all around.
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