|PEACE CORPS' 50TH ANNIVERSARY: OUR BEST FOREIGN POLICY BARGAIN!
Peace Corps volunteers often ask, "What did we do for the host country?" When actually, the question is: "What did the host countries do for America?"
It's an important question - because Peace Corps volunteers were not there to force change upon the countries in which they served. They were there to bring new technology and information and ideas about government and fairness; and to show respect for the local people and their customs.
In return, something significant happened. The Peace Corps' thousands of volunteers brought their organizational skills home. They worked here in the United States to make government work for the people. They applied the lessons of helping others abroad to their fellow citizens in America. They embodied the concept of public service.
Many of these experienced volunteers worked in the Foreign Service and the Agency for International Development as well as in Congress. They brought the thinking of our country down to earth - to the level of the average person in developing countries. This made a huge impact on our foreign policy, and in the way we treated one another at home.
The Peace Corps was and still is one of the best foreign aid investments - and, in turn, one of the best domestic investments - our country can make.
Susan Elwell, Past President of WSDC
Peace Corps Washington and spouse of Peace Corps Niger PC Director
In 1963 I was fortunate enough to work in Peace Corps Washington (PC/W) which was an epicenter of the Kennedy Administration. PC/W was run by Sargent Shriver and his deputy Bill Moyers. My husband Richard Elwell who had worked there since 1961 was an Evaluator of the newly-installed PC programs and traveled all over the world writing "on the scene" reports for "Sarge".
In 1966 my husband chose to go overseas as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger (later the country was briefly famous as the possible source of uranium for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction).
Niger was a life changing experience for our whole family. We had two sons-15 and 13 years old with us and they attended the French Lycee in Niamey along with the local Nigeriennes The Peace Corps/Niger program was one of the best in the world with 150 volunteers settled generally two by two in villages spread across many hundreds of miles of sahel and the Sahara Desert where there were no roads and no directions but the sun and the moon and local nomads who knew where they were going!. The volunteers were completely safe living among the gentle and dignified Nigeriennes.
Our instructions from Peace Corps Washington were to separate from the American diplomatic team as much as possible and to associate and live like our Nigerienne counterparts. Many Nigeriennes became our friends including the President of the country, Hamani Diori.
Even though Niger is mostly the Sahara Desert, there was a narrow agricultural band across the bottom of the County. Drought which brings famine was not a problem in those days and the markets were filled with food. My job as a quasi-diplomatic spouse; entertaining volunteers and government officials except it was all very informal. I traveled by a small motorbike (not in a car as other Americans did) and visited Nigeriennes at their homes. Since it was a Muslim country I always went to the homes of government officials to invite the wives (whether there were one, two, three or four wives and because I had done that they often came to the parties they would normally not attend).
I learned French and the local language Djerma and shopped in the local markets; tutored some children who were not in a school and traveled around the country to visit the Peace Corps volunteers. A volunteer and I made a booklet written in French with photographs of their various PC jobs such as well-digging, maternal and baby health care, helping to run a peanut cooperatives (at the time a cash crop for Niger) and running a hospital complete with Peace Corps volunteers who were American doctors and nurses.
It is difficult to convey the sense of joy working the Peace Corps brought to us every day. Coming home was a real let down and we have always clung to our original Peace Corps friends as family and to this day they are our closest friends. We participate in Nigerienne activities, going to the Embassy and participating in charities. Niger will always be a most special and wonderful place to us.
The Peace Corps program was shut down last year due to concerns about Al-qaeda style terrorists infiltrating the country and the possibility of kidnapping and other harmful events. The program has yet to reopen and may not reopen in the foreseeable future although return volunteers from Niger have formed a lobbying group to see that it is reopened.
Susan Messitte,Past President WSDC
PC Volunteer Brazil
My husband, Peter Messitte, and I entered the Peace Corps in September, 1966. Since my husband had lived in Chile and already spoke Spanish, we selected a project in Urban Community Development in Brazil, which gave us the opportunity to learn Portuguese, and for my husband, a recent law school graduate, to use his education. We trained for three months at the Experiment in International Living in Brattleboro, Vermont. The training was primarily intensive language class. We had Brazilians living with us and we were required to speak Portuguese day and night. We learned to speak the way a child learns to speak--by listening and repeating.
After the three idyllic months in Vermont in the Fall, we were split into two groups. One group went off to Brasilia which was in the process of being built, and our half was sent to Sao Paulo to work with the local Y, (ACM), in poor, undeveloped neighborhoods. While my husband and I lived and worked with the Y and groups of children, our backgrounds also allowed us to teach at the University of Sao Paulo Law School. Peter's language skills allowed him to teach a law school class about comparative law, and I taught English to Brazilian law students. The Peace Corps was very encouraging of this dual role and we were allowed to create our own work experience.
The most unique event that happened to us while in Brazil was my giving birth to our first child, Zachariah Paulo Messitte. It had been Peace Corps policy to send a pregnant volunteer back to the States, but conditions were such in Sao Paulo, (then a city of only 10-12 million!) that I was allowed to stay and used the birth as a teaching moment for my neighbors.
We still keep in touch with our Brazilian friends and have a close friendship with our fellow volunteers. We reunite regularly every five years and are doing so again in September, 2011. Peter, a U.S. Federal District Judge, often is asked to represent our judiciary in Brazil and other countries, and receives visitors from abroad in his court. Because of his work with the Brazilian Judiciary and Law Schools over the years, Peter was made an "Honorary Citizen" of Sao Paulo.
Last year we took our daughter and son-in-law on a trip to Brazil. We visited our basement apartment in what had been a poor neighborhood in Sao Paulo. It has now been gentrified and the streets have running water, electricity and fancy clubs and restaurants. Our daughter who lives in New York City was not impressed with our former living quarters. She commented that in NYC our apartment would probably rent for over $2,000 per month! Brazil has not had a Peace Corps presence since 1974.
Belva Findlay, WSDC member
PC Washington and Ghana 1,Peace Corps Volunteer
After finishing my graduate course in international relations in 1961, I worked at the offices of the fledgling Peace Corps in Washington for a few months and got interested in becoming a volunteer. When my boyfriend, who had just finished his doctorate at Stanford, got a grant to go to Ghana and other new African nations to collect documents on their independence movements, I applied to join the second Peace Corps group going to Ghana to teach school. Our group trained for two months at UC Berkeley. I was assigned to teach history at a secondary boarding school on the outskirts of the capital city of Accra. All instruction in Ghana was in English, and the curriculum and textbooks were holdovers from British colonial days, covering mostly European history. I taught all six grades, so I had six different preparations each night. I tried to add what I could to make the lessons more relevant to my students, but I wasn't very well prepared myself for such a challenge.
My boyfriend had extended his time in Ghana by taking a teaching job at the University of Ghana, and we decided to get married in the middle of the school year. When we asked the Peace Corps Director in Ghana for permission, he told us he had to get an OK from Sargent Shriver, which he did. (David used to love to tell people that he had to get permission from the President's brother-in-law to marry me.) In Ghana, it was possible to have more than one wife, but an "official" marriage had to meet certain requirements: bans had to be posted two weeks ahead, and the ceremony had to be conducted before sundown in a public building. We learned all this after we had planned to be married at the private home of the US Ambassador in the evening, and I had hand-written invitations to my fellow volunteers across Ghana. In the end, we were married twice: once at the University at noon and once at the ambassador's home in the evening, surrounded by our Peace Corps and Ghanaian friends.
Meanwhile, Ghana's independence leader and president, Kwame Nkrumah, was growing increasingly suspicious of US intentions toward Ghana and other new African states. At the end of the school year, Nkrumah insisted that in the future all PC volunteers would teach "non sensitive" subjects such as math and science. I felt unqualified to teach either subject, and since David wished to continue his document-collecting trip through Africa, I resigned from the Peace Corps, and we traveled to newly independent African countries for the next thee months.
I have never returned to Ghana. When I was in Africa, extraordinary hope and excitement about the future was palpable, but the decades since then have brought such disappointment and suffering, I have been reluctant to go back. Now I'm feeling encouraged that Ghana, at least, is on a more positive economic and political path, and I'm hoping to participate in a Habitat for Humanity house-building project there next March and I'm getting excited about the idea of joining it.
Sandra F. Robinson, Ed. D., Member, WSDC and Democratic Club of Leisure World
Peace Corps, Tanzania, 1966-68, and spouse of Fred Robinson, Education Director
We spent 1965 in Tanzania where Fred was part of a research team from Syracuse University. I was working with the Ministry of Education in Dar es Salaam conducting research and supporting a Tanzanian effort to improve its literacy. Our two young daughters were with us, but we cut our trip short because of an automobile accident that I had and a serious medical condition that Fred contracted. So, we returned to Syracuse in December 1965; but we were anxious to continue our work in Tanzania. Fortunately, Fred received an appointment from the Peace Corps and we returned in August 1966 and stayed until August 1968. I think we learned more from the Tanzanians than maybe they learned from us. As part of my work in literacy, I worked with secondary school students on a self-reliance project in which they taught illiterate women Swahili while I taught their spouses English. The spouses were wood carvers who wanted to deal directly with clients rather than going through a third party. The project was very successful and satisfying for both the students and me. Unfortunately, I haven't returned to Tanzania, but I have remained in contact with several Tanzanians. In addition to living in Tanzania, we were fortunate to travel to Kenya, Uganda and Zanzibar. My Peace Corps experience gave me a broader perspective of people and the world
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