Today, ladies and gentleman, I am very pleased to present some original video content. This past week I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle Bond, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in South Africa from 1999 – 2001 (full bio). During the interview, Michelle provided a lot of insight into her time as a volunteer. We spoke for about an hour, and I’m planning on posting more video from the interview in the future. For now, however, here is a short clip of her relating one of her many memorable experiences:
From Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa, a great quote on the country. Thompson discusses the chiefdoms that began in the third or fourth century A.D., spurred by the arrival of mixed farmers. Chiefdoms were generally cohesive groups, and chiefs had sweeping authority, but as Thompson notes, “A chief’s powers were limited by necessity as well as by custom. He had no standing army, no police force, no jail.”
He goes on to write:
The Basotho had two saying that summed up the underlying tension: “Morena ha a fose” (The chief can do no wrong) and “Morena ke batho” (No people, no chief).
This story is taken from the collection Americans do their Business Abroad, a generally hilarious bundle of essays of former Peace Corps volunteers recollecting the decidedly grimy aspects of their service. Not all of the essays hit the mark, but if you’re looking for more, the book is definitely worth the price of admission.
Jerry D. Loudenback writes of his time working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, where he was tasked with leading a UN “food caravan” to help alleviate some of the hardships of a severe drought plaguing the country at the time.
Loudenback recounts stopping at the small village of Tal-i-mir-ghazi; after distributing the UN-supplied wheat, the village chieftain insisted that he stay for lunch as an honored guest. Following a speech by the chieftain, a servant places a vat in front of him:
And, then, with a flourish, the servants lifted the lid from the vat and revealed…a head. Goat’s head soup. A skull, in essence: skinned, muscle and cartilage, tendons, brains (I think) floating out of the neck cavity. And those cooked, dead goat eyes staring me down.
Simultaneously with this intimate eye contact, my Midwestern stomach began a frantic dialogue with my ‘well-you-wanted-an-adventure-now-didn’t-you?’ brain.
“I ain’t eatin’ this.”
“You’ve got to or you’ll insult the malek and his elders.”
“No way, I’m already starting with the dry heaves.”
“These are poor people, Jerence ol’ boy, and they slaughtered a goat in your honor.”
“Yeah, well, maybe so but — Good God, there’s something in the damn thing’s nose!”
A sudden silence interrupted the bickering. The malek had finished up his eulogy, and twenty pairs of eyes, with twenty proud smiles underneath, were eagerly waiting for something. From me. This being a diplomatic circle and all, I offered in appreciation all of the kind words I could find, but I was uneasy; very uneasy when the malek responded. I leaned over to Hasan for a translation, and he explained, “It is the custom in my country that the honored guest has the privilege of eating the eye.”
The rivalry between stomach and brain escalated into an ugly confrontation.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
“Nope, this is serious diplomacy here, Jerence, cross-cultural adjustment, I think they call it.”
“Look, I shouldn’t have to do this, what with my dysentery and all.”
“Be Good for you — hell, it’ll probably kill off the amoebae.”
“But man, it smells bad, it looks bad, and you just know it’s gonna taste really, really bad!”
There wasn’t any choice really; it had to be done. Using my thumb and two fingers — all matters of cuisine are finger food in Afghanistan — I dug out an eye (it came out of the socket more easily than I had expected — the eye muscles were a little overcooked), shoveled it into my mouth, bit into it twice — once to kill it and again to make sure — and swallowed everything in one gulp of coagulated, jellied mucous.
I immediately began, very loudly and very quickly, to thank the malek, his elders, the village, the state of Badakshan, the proud country of Afghanistan, Allah and Mohammed, for this very great honor, of which my father back in the U.S. would be so proud, and that I would tell my sons and their sons, and they would tell their sons, about this great occasion and this hospitable village of Tal-i-mir-ghaz. The speech gave me time to lock down my throat, but the coagulated, jellied mucous was on the move, crawling, ever so slowly, down my esophagus. My stomach tried to make itself really, really small, as my intestines grumbled with anticipation.
But no one said a word. The silence again: the twenty pairs of eyes, the smiles, they were insatiable. Things were getting ominous. Hasan came to my rescue and explained the situation, ever so gently, with a shitty little smirk on his face. “In my country, it is unlucky to eat only one eye.”
A bit more background on the Peace Corps, in the form of a few stats. Despite their stunning realism, I actually drew the pictures by hand. All the statistics are taken from the official Peace Corps website, as is the map used below.
Putting this post together has made me realize two things: (1) If I was in a race with a three-year-old to see who could draw ten stick-figures fastest, I would still be putting the arms on my first figure by the time my opponent had finished all ten and eaten half a box of crayons. (2) I may have a future in creating novelty calendars.
The Peace Corps is not only seen as sugar, spice and everything nice. It only takes a cursory search to come up with stories of volunteers’ frustrations and failures, and arguments positing that the organization either generally has little positive impact, or even causes significant harm. I don’t agree with that argument, or I wouldn’t have signed up, but by all accounts there is plenty of fair criticism to be leveled.
The Peace Corps is fecund ground for great stories, stories worth retelling. I’m in no way claiming that these stories are representative of all volunteers’ work — in fact, like great stories generally are, these are exceptions to the regular. With all that said, on to the good stuff.
This particular story is lifted from Brent Ashabranner’s book A Moment in History, which chronicles his experience working as a staff member in the first decade of the Peace Corps:
“One morning I received a frantic phone call in my Lagos office. The caller, whom I never identified, shouted that one of the volunteer teachers assigned to a school near the city had been bitten by a green mamba, an extremely venomous West African snake. I rushed to the school and found the volunteer waiting at the roadside with two of his twenty-one students and the dead snake. As we drove to the hospital, I got the story. The volunteer, who was wearing shorts, had gone to his house between classes and just as he entered his living room had been struck on the leg by the snake. The volunteer ran to the kitchen, picked up a butcher knife, and killed the snake. He then took his snake bite kit, which we had issued to all volunteers, and walked to his next class. He told his students what had happened and then said, ‘If you ever get bitten by a poisonous snake this is what you should do.’
He proceeded to take the razor blade from the snake bite kit, cut the proper cross over the wound made by the snake’s fangs, and draw out the blood with the suction cup. He explained that if the victim did not have that kind of equipment, he could suck out the blood and spit it out, or have someone else do it for him. The students told me this story in awe, and I am sure I looked awe-struck as I listened.”
If anyone has other stories, either from your own time as a volunteer or of another volunteer’s work, please send them my way!
A bit of a strange bird, the Peace Corps is. It falls outside of the three major U.S. branches of foreign activity — defense, diplomacy and development (or foreign aid). And while the Corps has elements of the latter two — sending smiling ambassadors of goodwill abroad to foster sustainable growth — it obviously operates a bit outside of the mainstream. If the program was being proposed today, I can’t imagine it getting very far. The 2011 federal budget deal cut $71 million from the Peace Corps budget, and Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan would slash 44% of the total budget for international affairs and foreign assistance by 2016. Today, 59% of Americans favor cutting foreign aid, although that’s probably because Americans think that foreign aid makes up more than 10% of the federal budget, when it really makes up less than 1%.
So how did Peace Corps start?
The official Peace Corps website explains the organization “traces its roots and mission” to an inspirational speech given by John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign. He was scheduled to give a quick talk at the University of Michigan on the night of October 13, 1960. Running late, he didn’t arrive at the school until two in the morning, and was surprised to find that some 10,000 students were still gathered, expectantly awaiting his address. Inspired, Kennedy extemporaneously laid the foundation for a youthful, altruistic good-will global volunteer service. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Just about every part of this founding story is wrong.
First, efforts to create a U.S. organization that would allow young Americans to volunteer overseas preceded any work by Kennedy. In fact, Senator Hubert Humphrey submitted a bill in June 1960 that actually used the name “Peace Corps.”
Next, to put it bluntly, the much-mythologized speech is pretty terrible. Kennedy’s speech was improvised, and it shows in the bland, jumbled paragraphs. And if you look at the text, it’s not at all clear that Kennedy is describing a Peace Corps-like program; on the contrary, he makes a direct plea for more career diplomats and aid-workers:
…how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can!
Most important, however, is the context in which the speech was given. There’s every reason to believe that Kennedy wasn’t just reaching out to a mass of wide-eyed, do-good youths — he also saw thousands of potential Cold Warriors, just awaiting their marching orders.
On the morning of October 13, Kennedy had his third debate with Richard Nixon. The bulk of the debate concerned battling the influence of the Soviet Union. Leaning into the TV studio’s camera, his square jaw thrust forward, Kennedy proclaimed the importance of American prestige abroad, saying,
…if we are on the mount, if we are rising, if our influence is spreading, if our prestige is spreading, than those who stand now on the razor edge of decision between us or between the Communist system, wondering whether they should use the system of freedom to develop their countries or the system of communism, they will be persuaded to follow our example.
I’m not writing just for the fun of picking apart an oft-repeated tale — the facts of the real story are more instructive, and more inspiring.
After Kennedy’s middling speech, a group of students at the University of Michigan formed a group called Americans Committed to World Responsibility. The idea of an international youth service quickly spread across college campuses; mail supporting the concept flooded the Democratic campaign headquarters, and a group of students went to discuss the idea further with the Kennedy campaign.
Kennedy picked up the groundswell of support, and in a speech given two weeks later (at the awesomely-named Cow Palace of San Francisco), he laid out an argument describing and endorsing the Peace Corps. Still, Communism remained at the center of the speech, as Kennedy warned of “enemy advances” and the superiority of “The Lenin Institute for Political Warfare.”
The other remarkable aspect of the story is that the Peace Corps managed to avoid becoming just another Cold War tool. Warren Wiggins, one of the most influential architects of the Corps, argued that the organization could not fall under the auspices of the International Cooperation Administration (later USAID). The idea was endorsed by Sargent Shriver, the Corps’ first director, and then by President Kennedy himself.
By establishing the Peace Corps as an independent federal agency, the organization grew with its own ethos, and has generally been accepted by foreign governments as free of the obligations — both formal and implied — associated with other forms of foreign aid.
Ultimately, the organization was inspired by Kennedy, and it was built under his direct supervision. The above story, however, seems a better embodiment of the Peace Corps spirit — an unlikely project that began as a bottom-up movement, with a commitment to independence and humanitarian ideals that pushed the organization further from the binds of parochial politics.
[Additional information taken from Brent Ashabranner's excellent book A Moment in History]
On July 5, 2011, I will be leaving for South Africa to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. Officially, I will be working as a “Resource Specialist” as part of the “Schools and Community Resource Project.” Typically, volunteers in this position are responsible for a mix of teaching, HIV/AIDS education and youth/community development projects.
The blog name is taken from the Kafka story of the same name.
A bit on my own background: a native son of Baltimore, I graduated in May 2010 from the University of Maryland, College Park with degrees in Linguistics and Government & Politics; I also earned minors in Middle Eastern studies and International Development & Conflict Management. I’m going to hold off on discussing my reasons for joining the Peace Corps, but I will say that the professors and courses from the IDCM program played a major role in the process.
And although I’m sure it’ll change as I go, I think the blog will be focused on updates on what I’m doing as a volunteer and related commentary; hopefully there will be a nice mix of text, pictures and video. On a related note, I am happy to say that the banner picture is a drawing by my own hand. Until I scratched it out myself, I didn’t appreciate the cleverness of the official Peace Corps logo; the familiar star of the American flag shifts to the outline of a dove. And now you know.