A Writer Writes: “Peace Corps Reflections” by Bob Criso (Nigeria)

In the Peace Corps Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67) was in southeastern Nigeria, the village of Ishiagu, and then in the Somalia 1966-67 in the village of Bulo Burte. After the Peace Corps he worked in mental health, and also at Princeton University as a psychotherapist for students and with a private office in Princeton. He retired seven years ago and currently lives in New York City where he reviews plays, take photos (four exhibits), and writes memoir articles. 

Peace Corps Reflections

Bob Criso

There I was, back in the sixties, teaching English at a rural school in eastern Nigeria, raising chickens in a coop behind my house and hustling to promote sales of the beautiful pottery in the village of Ishiagu. It seemed like a great gig — a house of my own, a humongous book locker filled with classic and contemporary gems, motivated students, friendly colleagues and, in time, accepted by the locals into their mud huts for palm wine and kola nuts. Add a weekend here and there in Enugu, the regional capital, to catch a movie and have some American-style food with friends from training and you have a pretty happy young man. Culture shock? Never really happened. Take my picture and I could have been a poster boy for the Peace Corps — a fresh-faced, twenty-two year old with blond hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, trying to do his best. Everything turned out just as I had imagined when I filled out my Peace Corps application and asked for a placement in sub-Saharan Africa. Perfect, only …

Underneath it all, I was a bundle of insecurities: worried that I was not good enough, thinking other Volunteers were probably cooler, smarter, more effective, more authentic. I was convinced that the first Volunteer in Ishiagu was the legitimate Peace Corps Volunteer, one of those well-selected, early-sixties, wonder boys, not a fraud like me. I figured most of the other Volunteers in Nigeria probably had more friends, more sex, more get-togethers and were more in touch with what was happening in the country. I was isolated in the bush and frequently lonely. Part of the problem, I’ll admit, was the psychological baggage I brought with me to Nigeria but, hey, I got through the psych-testing and individual sessions with the shrinks during training on St.Croix.

So now I’m in my seventies and I look back and ask myself, “Who was I back then?” I don’t think I had a clue, but I was certainly skilled at playing a role, fulfilling others expectations and doing what was expected of me  whether it was by family, church, culture, peers or the Peace Corps itself. I was more in touch with what others wanted from me than what I wanted for myself. The Peace Corps gave me purpose and direction when I sorely needed it. “I’m an American Peace Corps Volunteer,” I proudly declared when anyone asked. It felt good, it felt strong and well defined.

What would I have done if I hadn’t joined? Probably taken whatever job a B.A. generalist could find until I learned a few things about myself. Or I might have gone to graduate school or law school like some of my friends — can’t go wrong with another degree, right? So the Peace Corps became a kind of default identity, doing a good thing and giving some structure to my life until I learned what really suited me.

All of this is not to say that I wasn’t inspired by “Ask not” or not enamored with Kennedy and Shriver. I was one of many swept up in the spirit of the sixties. The Peace Corps felt noble. And hadn’t I always been always fascinated by Africa anyway, starting with those exotic stamps of elephants, giraffes and flamingos that I saw when I was a kid. Later, it was those African names that stirred my imagination — Lumumba, Nkrumah, Mobutu; Kinshasa, Ouagadougou, Addis Ababa; Swaziland, Cameroon, Ethiopia. I could draw the map of Africa on the palm of my hand and followed the independence movements as closely as I followed the New York Yankees.

Ironically, it was a Peace Corps trauma that finally pointed me in the direction of self-discovery. I hadn’t realized how serious the Nigerian civil war had progressed until the day I found myself trapped in my house with two other Peace Corps Volunteers while an angry mob, suspicious of anyone who wasn’t indigenous and fueled by the paranoia of refugees, rolled a fifty gallon drum of kerosene underneath the house, threatening to burn it down. Saved by the eloquence of a village elder who spoke up for me and rescued two days later by Biafran soldiers, followed by a hair-raising trip through a series of menacing roadblocks trying to get to the coast to be evacuated, I think I went into a kind of auto-pilot and emotional detachment in order to cope with it all.

With Nigerian teachers

With Nigerian teachers (click)

Leaving Nigeria after sixteen months, I chose another Peace Corps assignment in Somalia, an intriguing country that was overtly hostile to Americans and had one of the highest dropout rates in the Peace Corps. It was a tough assignment, but I stuck it out for the rest of my two years. Two months before termination however, alone in the desert one night on a marijuana high, everything that had happened hit me. Repressed feelings surfaced like a submarine coming up from the depths: I had almost been burned to death, I never had a chance to say goodbye to any of my students or friends in Ishiagu, I had lost all contact with my friends from Peace Corps training, I had lost all of my possessions in Ishiagu and I had found little connection with anyone in Somalia. It was 1968 and I’d be home in two months. Viet Nam was escalating and I would be prime meat for the draft. I feared being sucked back into an unhealthy family situation, and I worried about fitting in with my old friends, many of whom had moved on to marriage or careers. I felt fragile and vulnerable, an inexperienced rock climber hanging off  El Capitan.

When I got back to New York, culture shock hit me like an emotional tsunami. It was the Age of Aquarius and I felt like an empty shell after being stripped of my Peace Corps identity. I was able to find a draft-deferred teaching job and then a psychiatrist who I could talk to. That eventually led to a career in mental health and I ended up with a half-time job at Princeton University and a half-time private practice. But the best part of my story lies ahead.

I had always wanted to return to Nigeria, but time and circumstances never seemed right. I had been warned by knowledgeable others that it would be too dangerous to travel to a village like Ishiagu. In 2008 however, some former PCVs organized a return trip to Nigeria that would be accompanied by armed guards. More anxiety. Would I re-experience the trauma of the kerosene mob? Would I find anyone who remembered me? How had the war affected the people I knew in Ishiagu? Or, would the trip be a major disappointment?

We toured the country for three weeks, but while the group was in eastern Nigeria, I rented a car with driver and went to Ishiagu. I asked around town if anyone knew St. John Bosco Secondary School. No one had even heard of the place. My 1966 instincts pointed the driver down a side road and when we went over a certain incline, I knew I was home. It was the same incline I had gone over hundreds of times on my Honda 50. A little further down the road we found the renamed school, Government Agricultural College.

My first house, destroyed during the war, was a small pile of stones. My second house, the one with the kerosene drum, was abandoned and surrounded by weeds. A fortunate contact at the Agricultural College led to a man who connected me with one of my former students, Fabian Nwachukwu. A phone call led to Fabian’s message, “Tell Bob to wait for me, I will turn my car around and be there.”

Fabian embraced me warmly as if I were family, but the news he delivered was grim. Many of my students had been killed during the war. Of my four teacher colleagues, my best friends in Nigeria, two had been killed and two were missing since the war. That one hit me like a sledgehammer and I took a short walk to collect myself. Fabian called two other students who had also survived, Patrick Ngozi and Leonard Okeke. The conversations I had with all three students have had a lasting impact on me.

“Do you know how hard we tried to find you after you left?”

“All of the Roberts at the school changed their names to Bob after you left.”

“I’m still writing letters the way you taught us.”

“You were a hero to us.”

I’m moved again, just to write these words. I had no idea. What planet had I been living on when I was there?

A few months after returning home, I told Princeton University and my private-office patients that I would be leaving. The following year I moved to New York City to pursue my interests in writing, theater and photography.

So, does it really matter that I didn’t know who I was back then? Not really. I did some good work and eventually found a road, however rocky, that led to where I needed to go. Going back was a key element in my journey of discovery. Through it all, I’m reminded of a line from Martin Buber’s I And Thou, “All journeys have secret destinies of which the traveler is unaware.”

On the Yangtze River in China

On the Yangtze River in China (click)

 

5 Comments

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  • This is a beautiful essay that completes the Peace Corps circle, in time and space. Thank you, Bob Criso for your service and for writing and sharing this. Thank you, John, for publishing it. Again, I hope so much that a copy has been archived in the Friends of Nigeria Peace Corps Community Archive at American University.

  • Congratulations, Bob, on distilling what your Peace Corps experience meant to you in terms of uncovering a destiny only clarified in the unfolding. Many of us had very similar epiphanies of discovery, and although each PCV has a unique experience, what remains is that a desire to be of service opened windows into our own authentic being. That is the great gift of Peace Corps service.

  • Bob, so happy to read this account of your PC service. You may recall meeting my husband and me one day on the street in Tbilisi. We served as PCVs in GE from 2013-2015. There on the street the three of us had a most interesting conversation, and we learned some things about your adventures. Nice to learn more. We have been back in the states for almost a year now. Glad we had the opportunity to serve, but also glad to be back!

    • I remember it well, Mary. I think some kind of PC radar brought us together that day in that intriguing city. I wish I could have visited you and Your husband at your post but my schedule at the time didn’t allow it. Thanks for the note.

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