One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo
|50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Vol. 1, Africa||$18.95|
ISBN 1-609520-00-9 480 pages
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Africa is a complicated place, and the Peace Corps Volunteers who have worked in 43 African nations have seen it all: from public executions to public celebrations to life in a time of AIDS. This heartfelt collection is the first of its kind to chronicle fifty years of Peace Corps service. Stories range from poignant to hilarious, involve political intrigue and cultural missteps, illuminating the joys and agony of volunteering abroad and representing the United States in the process.
Sixty stories provide a broad overview and give readers a glimpse into the life and times of these brave volunteers, who each learned at least one new language and went to work in the villages and cities from Morocco to South Africa. They worked hard, too. But in these stories you will see that they also danced, faced death by elephant, and witnessed unbearably grim events. One is admired for her “big butt,” another reminded that he had taught proper police procedure in a time of civil unrest. Saying “I was there” is sometimes a bittersweet declaration.
"These writings provide a record and a testament to the vision of those who created the Peace Corps and those who have made it such a success."
—Charles Greer, The Jason and Lucy Greer Foundation for the Arts
By JANE ALBRITTON
There are some baby ideas that seem to fly in by stork, without incubation between conception and birth. These magical bun-dles smile and say: “Want me?” And well before the head can weigh the merits of taking in the unsummoned arrival, the heart leaps forward and answers, “Yes!”
The idea for Peace Corps @ 50—the anniversary media pro-ject for which this series of books are the centerpiece—arrived on my mental doorstep in just this way in 2007. Four books of stories, divided by regions of the world, written by the Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived and worked there. There was time to solicit the stories, launch the website, and locate editors for each book. By 2011, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, the books would be released.
The website had no sooner gone live when the stories started rolling in. And now, after four years and with a publisher able to see the promise and value of this project, here we are, ready to share more than 200 stories of our encounters with people and places far from home.
In the beginning, I had no idea what to expect from a call for stories. Now, at the other end of this journey, I have read every story, and I know what makes our big collection such a fitting tribute to the Peace Corps experience.
Peace Corps Volunteers write. We write a lot. Most of us need to, because writing is the only chance we have to say things in our native language. Functioning every day in another language takes work, and it isn’t just about grammar. It’s every-thing that isn’t taught—like when to say what depending on the context, like the intricate system of body language, and like knowing how to shift your tone depending on the company you are in. These struggles and linguistic mishaps can be frustrating and often provoke laughter, even if people are forgiving and appreciate the effort. It takes a long time to earn a sense of be-longing.
And so in our quiet moments—when we slip into a private space away from the worlds where we are guests—we write. And in these moments where we treat ourselves to our own lan-guage, thoughts flow freely. We once wrote only journals and letters; today we also text, email, and blog.
Writing helps us work through the frustrations of everyday living in cultures where—at first—we do not know the rules or understand the values. In our own language we write out our loneliness, our fury, our joy, and our revelations. Every volun-teer who has ever served writes as a personal exercise in coming to terms with an awakening ignorance. And then we write our way through it, making our new worlds part of ourselves in our own language, in our own words.
The stories in these books are the best contribution we can make to the permanent record of Peace Corps on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. And because a Volunteer’s attempt to ex-plain the experience has always contained the hope that folks at home will “get it,” these stories are also a gift to anyone eager and curious to learn what we learned about living in places that always exceeded what we imagined them to be.
It has been an honor to receive and read these stories. Taken together, they provide a kaleidoscopic view of world cultures—beautiful and strange—that shift and rattle when held up to the light.
I would like to acknowledge personally the more than 200 Return Volunteers who contributed to these four volumes. Without their voices, this project could not have been possible. Additionally, editors Pat and Bernie Alter, Aaron Barlow, and Jay Chen have been tireless in shepherding their stories through the publishing process and in helping me make my way through some vexing terrain along the way. Special thanks to John Coyne whose introduction sets the stage for each volume. Thanks also to Dennis Cordell for his early work on the project.
There are two people critical to the success of this project who were never Peace Corps volunteers, but who instantly grasped the significance of the project: Chris Richardson and Susan Brady.
Chris and his PushIQ team, created a visually lush, techni-cally elegant website that was up and ready to invite contribu-tors to join the project and to herald both the project and the an-niversary itself. He took on the creative challenge of designing four distinct covers for the four volumes in this set. His work first invited our contributors and now invites our readers.
Susan Brady brought it all home. It is one thing to collect, edit, and admire four books’ worth of stories; it is another to get them organized, to the typesetter, the printer, and the team of marketers on time and looking good. Susan’s good sense, exten-sive publishing experience, and belief in the worthiness of this project sealed the publishing deal with Travelers’ Tales/Solas House.
Finally, there are the two others, one at each elbow, who kept me upright when the making of books made me weary. My mother—intrepid traveler and keeper of stories—died four months after the project launched, but she has been kind enough to hang around to see me through. My partner, cultural anthro-pologist Kate Browne, never let me forget that if Americans are ever going to have an honored place in this world, we need to have some clue about how the rest of it works. “So get with it,” they said. “The 50th anniversary happens only once.”
By AARON BARLOW
Learning works both ways. You can’t help people unless you allow them to help you. Idealistic? Yes. But this is also the virtue and value of the amateur, the person learning along the way instead of bringing along prior expertise. Rarely vested in personal advancement, the amateur is a discoverer and a doer, concentrating on the thing-at-hand.
This, of course, is the idea behind the Peace Corps. Though PCVs do take expertise with them, it is hardly ever in develop-ment. They learn as they go and even when they return. And their learning helps others.
At about the time the Peace Corps was founded, a project called Airlift Africa, set up by Tom Mboya soon after Kenyan independence, brought students to the United States. Among these was the father of Barack Obama. Another was Mboya’s younger brother, Alphonse Okuku. While studying at Antioch College in Ohio, Alphonse stayed with the family of my teach-ers Ernest and Elizabeth Morgan, rooming with their son Lee.
I met Alphonse in the fall of 1963 and was enchanted by this serious and slender young man. Because of him, my seventh-grade self began reading about Africa, learning of a far, distant place. Though I would drift away from my interest in Africa until drawn back to it over twenty years later, the fascination sparked by Alphonse was always there.
Over the next few years, I remember reading Jambo, African Balloon Safari by Anthony Smith, Congo Kitabu by Jean-Pierre Hallet, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Cry, the Be-loved Country by Alan Paton—and more. Just by his presence, and in the course of his own education, Alphonse had opened a new world to me. Just as the presence of PCVs does, all over the globe.
After the close of my Peace Corps service, I visited Al-phonse, whom I had written from Togo. He did not remember me, but kindly showed me around a bit of the Luo areas of Kenya and even arranged for a balloon ride over the Masai Mara, something I’d wanted to do ever since reading Anthony Smith’s book as a kid. It was a fitting end to my service. Now, I had seen the world Alphonse had opened for me, making a vast intellectual broadening possible.
These stories, today, are continuing the same process. The process of editing this volume has taught me more than I had ever thought to learn, now, about Americans in Africa.
For the better part of a year, I’ve lived with the essays, going through them, sorting them, cutting them down so they could all fit in this volume. They’ve provided me with recognition, with joy, sadness, hope, disillusionment, and memory. They’ve taught me. They’ve re-opened a world I long ago left behind, and have helped me understand the nature of the Peace Corps beyond my own small experience. Ultimately, they have con-vinced me that, whatever its legacy in development, the Peace Corps will always be known world-wide as one of the United States’ most significant contributions to human kind.
Each perspective presented here is distinct. Though we who served in Africa will often nod in recognition as we read these essays, our experiences were never lock step, but were diverse and often extraordinary. This volume reflects that, as much as I could make it do so. Some of the stories deal with the small, daily events that came to be commonplace. Others present as-tonishing once-in-a-lifetime events. Together, they present a picture as true to the Peace Corps experience in Africa as I could make it.
The Peace Corps may not change the world in grand ways, but it does change individuals—and not just the volunteers. Like that seventh-grader awed by an African, there are thou-sands and thousands of people world-wide whose views of the world were expanded by naïve and idealistic PCVs who came to rest in their villages and towns, even if just for a short time.
That is one great success.
Table of Contents
ON OUR WAY…AND BACK AGAIN
Why I Joined the Peace Corps
There at the Beginning
TOM KATUS, GEORGE JOHNSON, ALEX VEECH, L. GILBERT GRIFFIS
Learning to Speak
First and Last Days
Hena Kisoa Kely and Blue Nail Polish
Coming to Sierra Leone
Shattering and Using Book Learning
SUSAN L. SCHWARTZ
The Adventures Overseas
LARRY W. HARMS
A Toubac in the Gloaming
E. T. STAFNE
Your Parents Visited You in Africa?
What I Tell My Students
WILLIAM G. MOSELEY
Slash and Burn
Two Years Lasts a Lifetime
SALLY CYTRON GATI
Sister Stella Seams Serene
STARLEY TALBOTT ANDERSON
Ivory Coast/Côte d’Ivoire
The Forty-Eight Hour Rule
MARTIN R. GANZGLASS
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
A Promise Kept
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
The Utopia of the Village
HEATHER CORINNE CUMMING
WHY ARE WE HERE?
The Engine Catches
KELLY J. MORRIS
Nous Sommes Ensemble
The Sweetest Gift
MARCY L. SPAULDING
My Rice Crop
EDMUND BLAIR BOLLES
Gentle Winds of Change
JENNIFER L. GIACOMINI
ALLISON SCOTT MATLACK
SANDRA ECHOLS SHARPE
The Season of Omagongo
The Drums of Democracy
PAUL P. POMETTO II
GETTING THROUGH THE DAYS
Boys & Girls
RYAN N. SMITH
I’d Wanted to Go to Africa, But the Peace Corps
Sent Me to Sierra Leone
BOB HIXON JULYAN
Watoto of Tanzania
LINDA CHEN SEE
Begging Turned on Its Head
Learning to Play the Game of Life
A First Real Job
It’s Condom Day!
The Civilized Way
Who Controls the Doo-Doo?
The Ride Home
The Little Things
There Will Be Mud
The Hammam in Rabat
Straight Razors in Heaven
PAUL NEGLEY, JR.
Big Butts Are Beautiful!
JANET GRACE RIEHL
Monsieur Robert Loves Rats
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
Hail, Sinner! I Go to Church
A Visit From H.I.M.
ROBERT E. GRIBBIN
Bury My Shorts at Chamborro Gorge
Near Death in Africa
JACQUELYN Z. BROOKS
The Baobob Tree
The Sports Bar
LEITA KALDI DAVIS
One Last Party
The Peace Corps in a War Zone
Holding the Candle
SUZANNE MEAGHER OWEN
ENID S. ABRAHAMI
A Brother in Need
A Tree Grows in Niamey
For Lack of a Quarter…
IRENE G. BRAMMERTZ
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
Crazy Cat Lady
At Night the Bushes Whisper
Children of the Rains
About the Editor
The Drums of Democracy
By PAUL P. POMETTO II
“They” may try to stop it, but the drumming lives on.
Many people imagine the sounds of Africa to be the roar of a lion, the laugh of hyenas, or the calls of exotic birds. This may still be the case if you are camping on the ledge of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania or staying in a guesthouse in one of Na-mibia’s or South Africa’s national parks. In Ouédo, where I was living for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the most acute sounds of “my Africa” were the drums. Every night, there were the sounds of the drums.
Prior to assignments to our villages in 1974, the Peace Corps had flown us to Cotonou, the economic capital of Dahomey, and trained us for three months in the culture of the nation, French (the national language), some Fon (the language in the region of my future assignment), and basic agricultural methods (grain storage being my project). We learned within our first weeks the importance of using only the right hand for eating and greeting, the practice of tasting all liquids before offering them to our guests, and other basic courtesies. We also learned fairly early about animism and the importance of the voodoo culture in everyday life to Dahomeans. This included the sa-credness of pythons and a similar respect for baobab trees, wherein people believed some of their ancestors resided. During one of our first receptions, which was at the home of the Peace Corps Director, the staff consulted a witch doctor to ensure that it would not rain on the event. Daily rains were part of this par-ticular season. Indeed, it did not rain in the yard where the re-ception was held.
Ouédo was located on a dirt road perhaps eight miles from Abomey-Calavi, which was the closest town with a post office. Back in 1974, Volunteers depended on la poste for receipt of mail and monthly allowances. Each of us had been issued a small motorbike—a mobylette—that facilitated trips to the post office and our job sites. Cotonou was about ten miles south of Abomey-Calavi. The official capital of Dahomey—Porto Novo—was further east, toward the Nigerian border. I also used the mobylette to visit the farms where I was promoting and as-sisting the construction of small, cement grain silos. At the end of each day, I liked to either take a walk or a ride on the bike to visit different homesteads. Dahomeans were most hospitable and seemed always to enjoy my visits. Over time, they returned visits to my tin-roof bungalow. This is how I learned about the Fon people and some of the practices of their voodoo beliefs. I would learn later that millions of people practice this religion all over the globe, including in the United States.
On one of my rides down an unknown path, I spotted a reve-nant (meaning “ghost,” in the French language) in the distance and it was coming my way! I had learned about these ancestors coming back from the other world, but had never “met” one up close. It appeared like a small haystack floating or dancing up this narrow dirt alley with high grass and trees on either side. Even though I understood a human was inside this costume, it startled me as I struggled to turn around the bike in the narrow walkway to race the other direction.
A visit to the Temple of Pythons in Ouidah was particularly impressive to our group of Peace Corps Volunteers. The temple was simple—round and made out of clay—but it contained doz-ens, perhaps hundreds, of pythons. We were coached on how to approach these symbols of deity, and at the appropriate mo-ment, to touch or pick up one of the snakes. We had already been instructed never to disturb a python that was crossing our path or the road. In a car, we nearly always came to a halt to permit a python to cross the road. Unfortunately, there were times at night on paved roads when we didn’t have enough time to stop, though some of these snakes were strong enough to sur-vive such bumps in the road.
One day in 1975, my assistant ran into my hut to inform me that the nation had changed its flag. He was concerned because I had just paid for a tailor-made flag of Dahomey for my own collection. Nonplussed, I simply asked the tailor to make me another flag, using the new design. About a week later, he men-tioned to me that a few more changes had occurred. Dahomey was now the People’s Republic of Benin, there had been a revo-lution, and Marxism-Leninism was the new philosophy of President Mathieu Kerekou. I also learned that it was against the law to make the new flag. One had to purchase flags that had recently been made in North Korea. More importantly to Ouédo, the president had banned voodoo practices and the play-ing of the drums!!
The silencing of the drums changed the entire environment of my village. Ouédo had no televisions or theaters; it had no electricity or running water. I was content to spend some of my free time reading by the light of a kerosene lantern, but I missed the music of the drums. There were exceptions, however, in-cluding one for July 3, 1976—my twenty-fifth birthday. I had talked with Dahomean (now, Beninois) friends and neighbors about having a great celebration, in part, because they had in-vited me to so many family ceremonies. Fortunately, one of my friends was the brother of President Kerekou’s driver, and I was given permission to have the party. There was food and drinks for all who visited from Ouédo and other villages. Stilt dancers excited the gathering and the drums played wildly.
Though the earlier spread of both Christianity and Islam had banned voodoo practices to no avail, Kerekou made a brave at-tempt to end this practice; however, by the 1990s, he had dropped the Marxist-Leninist policies, the “People’s” in the na-tion’s name, and the ban on voodoo practices. When, in 1991, Kerekou stepped aside to permit the victorious Nicephore Soglo to become president, many around the world took notice. Benin had become the first African nation wherein a democratically-elected president followed a dictator without bloodshed. By the time Kerekou won the free and fair elections of 1996 and 2001, the nation was celebrating an annual Voodoo Day! Kerekou re-tired from office in 2006 upon the election of the current presi-dent, Boni Yayi.
The drums have continued to beat as a democratic and peace-ful society evolves in this area of West Africa. In fact, the call of those drums reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Wash-ington, D.C., otherwise known as the White House. That Presi-dent and Mrs. Bush visited Benin in March 2008 was a testa-ment to that nation’s growth, to U.S. and international support for Benin’s evolving institutions, and to the recognition of a cul-ture that even includes animism as the national religion. Peace Corps celebrated its fortieth year in Benin in 2008.
About the Author
Before joining the Peace Corps as an agricultural extension agent for animal traction (plowing using oxen) in Togo, Aaron Barlow spent two years teaching at the University of Ouaga-dougou in Burkina Faso, where he was Senior Fulbright Lec-turer in American Studies. Fascinated by Africa, but realizing the city experience was far from the whole, he wanted to live and work in a village.
Barlow’s Ph.D. from the University of Iowa was capped by a dissertation on the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and completed in 1988. He did not become a full-time academic in the United States, however, until 2004. In the meantime, in ad-dition to his Peace Corps experience, he co-founded and ran a café/gift shop in Brooklyn, NY called Shakespeare’s Sister, dedicated to the idea that there is talent and art in every individ-ual.
Now a specialist in the intersection of technology and cul-ture, Barlow has produced four books over the past six years, two relating to film and two to new media and the blogosphere. He teaches at New York City College of Technology, a part of the City University of New York where he enjoys working with a student body representing over 100 different languages and cultures, a diversity he learned to appreciate while a Peace Corps Volunteer.