Sunday, March 01, 2015

Happy birthday Peace Corps!


Today is national Peace Corps Day. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 54th anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive no further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.



Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa, as I did, are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elegies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.


(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)


The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Update: Just a reminder that in the history of the Peace Corps, 296 men and women have died in service, at least one in every year (except 1986) that the Peace Corps has existed. A website has been devoted to them.

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