Monday, March 01, 2004

HAPPY PEACE CORPS DAY



Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medeival 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 43rd 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 quite the opposite. 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.

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 and random invasions.

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

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to help 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 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."
-Elogies 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.

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.

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