Below is a column I wrote for the newsletter published for Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa. A few words of introduction:
Peace Corps brings volunteers in cycles; each group has a 2-to-3-month training. During this Pre-Service Training, volunteers learn about the history and cultures of their country, study local languages, and receive technical training relevant to their project. I am in the twenty-fourth group of volunteers sent to South Africa (SA-24); the twenty-sixth group, of about forty-five volunteers, just arrived (SA-26). The rest should be fairly self-explanatory. And so, without further ado, the column:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Welcome and hoorah, SA-26! Woody Allen wrote the above words in 1980. Sorry to greet you with such dark tidings, but 32 years later, we remain wobbling along the very same precipice. I congratulate you, however, on making a choice. Make no mistake: by signing your name to a wrist-numbingly large number of dotted lines, you’ve made a hefty one. And for my money (what little the Peace Corps provides), you’ve shown both the wisdom and also the requisite brashness to choose correctly.
A sunnier injunction: resist humbling your optimism.
During my Pre-Service Training, my fellow SA-24s and I were repeatedly told to abandon the presumption of changing the world; to recognize that in two years we would not transform a country, not transform an educational system, not even reform a school. Because I realized these comments were true, I dumbly nodded along.
I nodded along because I didn’t want to fall prey to hubris. I also nodded because I didn’t want to be branded with the starry-eyed naiveté that figures large in the popular caricature of the Peace Corps.
And I nodded more vigorously than ever when I started work in earnest. I was thrown into complexly-layered cultures and institutions, which were not only alien, but which also continue to rumble and from the upheavals of rainbow-colored revolution. With the language barrier, I generally didn’t know which way was up, let alone what needed changing, let alone how to change it. Or so I affirmed with all of my nodding.
But it’s no good nodding like a PCV bobble-head doll strapped to a khombi disintegrating even as it rocks down an unpaved road. It’s downright nauseating.
What’s the point of my overwrought simile? Too much under-cutting of ambition, too much misplaced humility and hemming and hawingvitiates the hands-on interventionism that makes the Peace Corps great.
When you come into a group of fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-olds struggling to read and frightened of trying, you don’t have to consult a tract of cultural sensitivity to know things are wrong. And even if you know neither the root nor the compounding causes of the situation, don’t be too humble to wade in and fiddle. You were sent here to meddle, not to watch.
Decades ago, Langston Hughes, American jazzman of words, poetic sage and seer, wrote the following:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? or crust and sugar over -- like a syrupy sweet?
South Africa has made me ponder Hughes’s words often. I don’t have the answers to his questions. I know this, however: Every day you work in this country, you are working to realize a dream deferred. If you do good work, you’ll help prevent that dream from drying up, from festering, stinking, crusting, sagging or exploding.
Too often, having impact is conflated with having control. It’s true, you alone won’t control the destiny of the South African dream — Mandela himself couldn’t do that. But don’t let others delude you, and don’t delude yourself, into thinking that if you can’t have control of a dream, a big, puffy, country- or world-sized dream, then you shouldn’t concern yourself with having an impact.
And have some fun.
(h/t David Simon for the Allen quote)
There’s a distinctive sound that Shangaan men make as an exclamation of surprise. It’s a multi-voiced explosion, equal parts a man’s gut-punched grunt and a woman’s cry of pleasure. I’ve tried imitating it, but so far I’ve only succeeded in sounding like a woman faking an orgasm for the first time.
In Xitsonga, “Wa hemba!” literally translates as “You lie!” In practice, however, “wa hemba” covers “you’re kidding,” and “get out of here!” Little kids yell it as often as they cry “Wa penga!” [You’re crazy!].
Generally, I hear laughter, “wa hemba” and the Shangaan cry/grunt, all for doing nothing more than introducing myself.
Nearly every Peace Corps volunteer takes a local name when they reach their village. Casey becomes “Refilwe,” “Jillian” becomes “Xongile,” “Meghan” becomes “Nyeleti.” In the unlikeliest transformation, I go from “Mordchai” to “Hlulani.”
Taking on the name isn’t an attempt at assimilation. As I walk through my village, the child who starts hopping from foot to foot, screaming “Mulungu! Mulungu!” [“Whitey! Cracker!”] is a solid reminder that I’ll never shed my capital-O Outsider status.
So why take the name? There’s the practical benefit of going by “Hlulani;” I spare myself hours of watching my neighbors struggling to wrap their tongues around the phonemes of “Mordchai.” If it was simply a matter of expedience, however, I could just as easily switch to “Bob.” It’d be glib to dismiss the new moniker as a heavy-handed attempt at integration. Taking a local name is a deeply transformative action.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet opines to Romeo. “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” Whether I introduce myself as Mordchai, Hlulani or Mr. Montague, Juliet tells me, I’ll be just as white, just as American, with a nose that is longer and thinner than the noses of my neighbors (people are consistently and persistently excited to tell me this).
Juliet’s not wrong, but she’s right in a narrow way. Study after self-satisfied study has shown that when people are given piss-poor wine in fancy bottles, they rate the wine more highly. We are creatures of language, and our experience is mediated by the names we use for things. If I hand you a rose and tell you it’s a special strain, genetically modified to smell less sweet, Juliet is correct in objective terms. No matter what I say, the same particles are striking your olfactory receptor neurons. You would never know it though — the name transforms your perception.
In his seminal paper On Sinn and Bedeutung, the late-nineteenth-century linguist and philosopher Gottleb Frege wrestles with the question of how proper names are used meaningfully.
Ancient civilizations made many remarkably accurate observations about celestial bodies. One particularly bright body can be seen most clearly shortly before sunrise; it was, reasonably enough, dubbed the “Morning Star.” Another can be seen shortly after sunset – the “Evening Star.” And then, at various times, astronomers in various civilizations recognized that the Morning Star and Evening Star were in fact one and the same – what we now refer to as Venus.
Frege notes that if we were only interested in the objects that words refer to, saying “The Morning Star and the Evening Star are both Venus” would be no different than saying “Venus is Venus is Venus.” And yet when Pythagoras pointed out that the two stars are single body, he was presenting a radical observation. In everyday exchanges, we treat proper nouns as simple signposts; they are tags, and casually used to discuss the objects with which those tags are associated. The signposts themselves, however, are significant.
And so when I choose a name, I’m giving more than a tag, more than a sound to which I’ll turn my head, canine-like.
My name, “Mordchai,” is historically derived from Marduk, a supreme Babylonian god who came to power through the murder of another god. The name “Mordchai” is taken from the tale of a Jewish man working in the royal Persian court. He refused to bow to one of the king’s advisors, prompting the advisor’s wrathful plot to murder all of the Jews within the empire; through political machinations, Mordchai succeeds in averting this disaster. I am named after my grandfather. It was his name, and the affiliated identity, that redefined the trajectory of his life. Mordchai was once again marked for destruction, not by the Persians but by the Nazis. Once again, Mordchai triumphed by surviving.
When people here in my village learn that my name is Mordchai, all of this encoded information is generally missed. People learn, however, that I’m not local, not Afrikaaner. Occasionally someone will recognize the name as being Hebrew, but with the absence of Judaism in the region, that usually leads to me explaining that I’m not a descendent of Jesus (unfortunately, perhaps, since that could make me some sort of great-grandson of God).
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, however, I’m making a statement and beginning an argument. It’s understood that I was not given the named Hlulani at birth.
When I introduce myself by a local name, I make a declaration of investment. If I were passing through the district to make a survey of mango production, I probably wouldn’t bother with a local name. That I am a white man taking on an African name has additional significance in South Africa. In his hefty memoir, Nelson Mandela writes the following,
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
To say that many South Africans remain sensitive to race is like saying that a rabbi might notice if you run into a synagogue dressed as a ham sandwich. When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I’m not breaking from the past – an impossible task, no matter how common the phrase – but I am rejecting the previously dominant structures, and the beliefs upon which they were founded.
The moment of introduction by local name is a jump, a jitter, a shaky blast of static. In South Africa, all relations are race relations, in a way more fundamental and immediate than anything I’ve ever experienced in America. Claiming an African name doesn’t magically wash away that lens. It creates a moment of confusion however, an opening in the doors of perception just wide enough to jam your foot into before they slam shut.
Ultimately, the name change affects me more than anyone else. When I first began introducing myself by a local name, it was with a wink and a nod. I’m not from here, most would say I don’t belong here, give a guy a break.
Every time that I use the name Hlulani, or respond to it, I am reasserting that I have come for more than consulting work, for more than a job in any conventional sense. No native son, but more than a long-term visitor.
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I continue to get a laugh, a cry/grunt and a “wa hemba!” Six months later, however, my response has changed.
“I’m not lying,” I respond in Xitsonga – “a ni hembi.”
Several weeks ago I was walking home from school when I heard some particularly desperate-sounding bleating. I came across a goat kid stumbling about, with an old paint can stuck on its head. I managed to catch it, and wiggle the can off. Freed from the unwanted helmet, the goat happily bounded off.
When I related the story to a fellow volunteer the following day, she had the perfect response: “Now, if anyone asks you whether you made a difference as a Peace Corps volunteer, you can honestly say that you saved a kid’s life.”
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has posted a cool video of an interview with Earl Yates, a former Peace Corps Country Director for South Africa; he briefly describes the experience of bringing a diverse group of volunteers to the country so soon after the end of Apartheid.
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:
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]