Finding My Village
“Are you crazy?” asked my father. “After all we sacrificed to put you through college, you’re going to Africa to work for nothing?”
It was 1965 and I had just told my family that I was quitting my job as a social studies teacher in New Orleans to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Somali Republic. I assured my father that my college loan would be deferred and now he could get that new truck for his electrical business. When I completed two years, the Peace Corps would give me a readjustment allowance to pave my way into graduate school and jobs.
My mother worried about my health and safety, and I assured my mother that the Peace Corps was not sending Volunteers where it wasn’t safe. My assurances didn’t soothe my Catholic grandmother. She feared for my salvation in a far-off Muslim country. “Will you promise me you will go to Mass every Sunday?”
“Yes,” I lied, sinning to relieve her anxiety.
I probably wouldn’t have persisted if I hadn’t seen how much my cousin, Ron Ferrier, had gained from serving two years in Ethiopia. He had become one of “Kennedy’s kids” in 1962, before the year-old Peace Corps had proved it could accomplish its three-part mission: providing trained Americans to help developing countries, promoting a better understanding of Americans in those countries, and giving Americans a better understanding of other people.
Besides, at twenty-five, I was restless. I longed to see the people and places I had read about in mission magazines as a child. I was in turmoil over the civil rights movement’s conflicting methods, which ranged from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violence to the Black Panthers’ urban activism. I wanted distance to gain perspective.
And I did. My two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer helped me find my focus and led me to an exciting, satisfying career as a Foreign Service officer, an ambassador, and—completing the circle—the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps.
Nowadays when I urge African Americans to contribute two years of their energy and abilities, I tell them from first-hand knowledge that they will receive more than they give. Hundreds of the 148,000 Americans who have joined the Peace Corps since 1961 have told me this. They say it no matter where they served, or whether they volunteered in the idealistic 1960s, the cynical 1970s, the materialistic 1980s, or the rejuvenated 1990s.
My own life illustrates the point. My two-year assignment was to teach English and social studies at a boys’ school in Erygavo, a village in northern Somalia. The British had built the school during their seventy-five-year colonial rule, and English was the language of instruction.
Soon after I arrived, a Somali asked me why I had come. “I am an African American and I came to find my village,” I told him, proud of my profundity.
He laughed. “You’re a fool. You have come all this way to find a village that doesn’t exist. After 300 years, you are a different people than we are. There’s a village for you some place. Find that place of peace in your heart and soul. There you will find your village.”
I was devastated. I knew he was right. I had to turn within to find my village. His insight accelerated my search.
Teaching with few materials and living with no conveniences left little time for introspection. I shared half of a metal-roofed cement duplex with two other Volunteers, John Schecter from Wisconsin and Rozier Martin from Maine. They taught science and math, and the three of us ran the school. We had little in common except that we had all attended Catholic schools, but we became close friends.
They helped me ease my grandmother’s fears. When we made the two-day trek to the nearest town, we found a priest but no Catholic church. He posed with me by a mosque that, at the right camera angle, looked like a church. I mailed the photos to my grandmother. Later, on leave in Kenya, I posed for photos with a man in dark robes in front of an Indian temple.
I knew those photos would comfort her more than hearing that the Somalis were ascetic, devout Sufi Muslims whose spirituality I admired.
Their diet of camel’s milk, goat meat and rice, however, soon sent me to the cookbook in the bootlocker provided for each Volunteer household. I learned to cook goat meatloaf and lasagna outdoors on our charcoal brazier.
We missed vegetables. Forewarned by my cousin, I had brought a trunk stuffed with things I might need, including garden seeds. The Peace Corps tradition demands that you do more than your job, so growing vegetables became a special project. All went well until we left home for a few days. We returned to find goats had destroyed our sprouts. We suspected sabotage.
Another special project was stocking a library with books from discarded Peace Corps book lockers. When I went on vacation, the books disappeared. Students claimed ignorance. Still another effort was providing recreation. My trunk held rope for making a volleyball net. We three Volunteers spent many hours figuring out the proper pattern and wove the net. The next time we were gone, the volleyball net vanished. Students said nomads had taken it.
When I completed my two years, I questioned whether I had really helped my students. In fact, until 1991, my Peace Corps experience seemed incomplete because all my special projects had failed. Yet I felt good about having managed a school and having been creative in solving problems. I came back feeling I could do anything.
Two weeks after I arrived in the United States, I was a program officer for VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. The Director was R. Sargent Shriver, the irrepressibly optimistic brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, who had chosen him to be the first Director of the Peace Corps.
In 1968, I started looking for a job in international development. President Lyndon Johnson urged the State Department to recruit minorities as career Foreign Service officers. Thanks to recommendations from embassy staff I had met in Somalia and from the Peace Corps, I became part of the first minority group to train for the Foreign Service under the President’s Executive Order. My first assignment was the U.S. embassy in Paris. I’ve also served in Hong Kong, Beirut, Cape Town, Djibouti, and Washington, D.C. My assignments included a year at Syracuse University, where I earned a Master’s degree, and a year in the Foreign Service Senior Seminar.
As Consul General in Cape Town from 1988 to 1991, I witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa and the beginning of its constitutional process. I met the newly-released Nelson Mandela and many other remarkable people. I also saw the great contrasts between the cities and the countryside. I would not have hesitated, for example, to have open-heart surgery in Cape Town, but in rural areas I feared a cut.
Just when I thought my career couldn’t be more fulfilling, President George Bush appointed me ambassador to Djibouti, a tiny former French colony in East Africa just northwest of my Peace Corps country. I felt I was going home. But this time, tribal warfare, drought, and famine plagued the area.
Word that a returned Peace Corps Volunteer had come back as ambassador spread quickly. Northern Somalis lined up outside my office, expecting “their” ambassador to perform miracles. The elders invited me back to Erygavo to assist with a peace and reconciliation conference of five tribes. The participants included some of my former students.
“We knew you of all people would be able to bring this reconciliation effort off,” one said, and then he told me how he and other students had destroyed my garden, my library, and my volleyball net to see my reaction and what else I would pull from my trunk. I realized that even though my projects had not been successful, my work had left a lasting impression on my students. They realized as students that I had been there to help. They understood as adults that my efforts had brought them some measure of hope. At last, I thought, I had been a successful Volunteer after all.
But my connection to the Peace Corps would continue even after my time as ambassador to Djibouti. After he was elected in 1993, President Clinton nominated me to become Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. I hadn’t sought the appointment, but I accepted immediately and with great enthusiasm. Since January 1994, in addition to representing the Peace Corps publicly, I spend much of my time recruiting the next generation of Volunteers from America’s minority communities. I believe that the Peace Corps can fulfill its mission completely only if our Volunteers reflect the rich diversity of our nation. Today, about thirteen percent of Peace Corps Volunteers are minorities, and we hope to encourage more African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native American and members of other minority communities to become a part of the Peace Corps experience.
I have also been fortunate to help establish the first Peace Corps project in South Africa. I led an assessment team that worked with eleven South African ministries and the president’s office to create a program that would help meet the country’s development needs. In February 1997, the first group of thirty-two Volunteers, ranging in age from twenty-two to sixty, arrived to begin training to address one of South Africa’s greatest needs: primary education. Some rural schools don’t own one book, and their pupils bring chairs from home or sit on the floor.
The Volunteers—sixty percent of whom are African, Asian, or Hispanic Americans—are working with teachers to develop teaching materials. After school, they help their communities build their capacity to provide such critical elements as clean water and basic health care. Combining education and community development is tough, and we chose those first Volunteers carefully.
One is Norma Harley, aged sixty, who had just returned from teaching as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. She rejected her daughter’s suggestion of settling down in Sacramento and baby-sitting her grandchild. Norma told a reporter, “I’ve been optimistic in a lot of things that have happened in our country, coming through Martin Luther King’s era and Malcolm X, and then let down in so many ways. And I really hope, in South Africa that they don’t have to go through the disappointments.”
Another is C.D. Glin, aged twenty-five, who put a Foreign Service opportunity on hold in order to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. He wrote anti-apartheid rap songs as a youngster and shook President Mandela’s hand while attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was a leader of groups such as Concerned Black Men, a mentoring organization. He also tutored immigrants in English.
South Africa is a country that is rich in both natural and human resources. As always, the Peace Corps strives to work itself out of a job, which it has done now in more than thirty countries. If all goes well, the country will require Peace Corps assistance for no more than ten years. Another program I am especially interested in is Haiti. My father’s family came from Haiti to Louisiana in 1809, and my mother’s family just before 1900. Haiti was the slave ships’ last stop before the United States, and the place and people have the look of Africa. They are warm, hospitable, and hard working, and many of them are incredibly poor.
The Peace Corps program in Haiti was suspended in 1991 because of a military coup. But in 1996—after U.S. forces had helped restore democracy—Peace Corps Volunteers returned. In December, I went to Haiti to swear in a new group of Volunteers and visit the first group. Most are working with farm cooperatives to improve mango, avocado and papaya trees so that Haitians can raise commercially acceptable varieties to market abroad. Like modern Johnny Appleseeds, the Volunteers are grafting imported varieties onto the disease-resistant local trees. For example, Haitian-born Solange Lee, aged fifty-eight, holds a Master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Hunter College and was the supervisor of a shelter for the homeless in Brooklyn. Christine Steinmann, a veterinarian in Arizona, had worked in Kenya. She is developing an animal husbandry program.
In each of these Volunteers and hundreds of others whom I have visited around the world since my return to the Peace Corps, I see the same sense of adventure, interest in other cultures and desire to do something meaningful that I felt when I served as Volunteer in the 1960s. This is the great genius of the Peace Corps—Americans serving our country by making a difference in the lives of other people. And just as I did when I found my village in Somalia, the men and women who are serving in the Peace Corps are laying the foundations for their future lives by finding their own inner villages now.
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