When the Right Hand Washes the Left

A Volunteer who served in Nigeria looks back on his Peace Corps experience

by David Schickele (Nigeria 1961-63)

David G. Schickele first presented his retrospective view of Volunteer service in a speech given at Swarthmore College in 1963 that was printed in the Swarthmore College Bulletin. At the time, there was great interest on college campuses about the Peace Corps and early RPCVs were frequently asked to write or speak on their college campuses about their experiences. A 1958 graduate of Swarthmore, Schickele worked as a freelance professional violinist before joining the Peace Corps in 1961.

After his tour, he would, with Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63) make a documentary film on the Peace Corps in Nigeria called “Give Me A Riddle” that was for Peace Corps recruitment but was never really used by the agency. The film was perhaps too honest a representation of Peace Corps Volunteers life overseas and the agency couldn’t handle it. However, the Peace Corps did pick up Schickele’s essay in the Swarthmore College Bulletin and reprinted it in its first “Point of View,” a short-lived series of discussion papers that they published in the early days of the agency. This series of monographs were devoted, “to the Peace Corps experience and philosophy by members of the staff, current and former Peace Corps Volunteers and qualified observers.”

What is impressive about Schickele’s essay is that what he said in 1963 is still valid today.

The favorite parlor sport during the Peace Corps training program was making up cocky answers to a question that was put to us 17 times a day by the professional and idle curious alike: Why did you join the Peace Corps? To the Peace Corps training official, who held the power of deciding our futures, we answered that we wanted to help; make the world a better place in which to live; but to others we were perhaps more truthful in talking about poker debts or a feeling that the Bronx Zoo wasn’t enough. We resented the question because we sensed it could be answered well only in retrospect. We had no idea exactly what we were getting into, and it was less painful to be facetious than to repeat the idealistic clichés to which the question was always a veiled invitation.

I am now what is known as an ex-Volunteer (there seems to be some diffidence about the word “veteran”), having spent 20 months teaching at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in West Africa. And now I am ready to answer the question.

My life at Nsukka bore little resemblance to the publicized image of Peace Corps stoicism - the straw mat and kerosene lamp syndrome. The university, though 50 miles from anything that could b e called a metropolis, was a large international community unto itself, full of Englishman, Indians, Pakistani, Germans, Americans and, of course, Nigerians. I lived in a single room in a student dormitory, a modern if treacherous building with running water at least four days a week and electricity when the weather was good. I ate primarily Western food in a cafeteria. I owned a little motorcycle and did my share of traveling and roughing it, but the bulk of my life was little different from university life in the States, with a few important exceptions.

In the first place, the university was only a year old when I arrived, and a spirit of improvisation was required at all times and in all areas, particularly the teaching of literature without books. The library was still pretty much a shell, and ordered books took a minimum of six weeks to arrive if one was lucky, and I never talked to anyone who was. The happier side of this frantic coin was that in the absence of organization many of us had practically unlimited freedom in what and how we were to teach, and we made up our courses as we went along according to what materials were available and our sense of what the students needed. This was tricky freedom which I still blame, in my weaker moments, for my worst mistakes; but it allowed an organic approach to the pursuit of an idea with all its nooks and crannies, an approach long over due for students trained in the unquestioning acceptance of rigid syllabi.

The longer I was there the more I became involved with a nucleus of students, and the weaker became the impulse to disappear over the weekend on my motor cycle in search of external adventure. My social and professional lives slowly fused into one and the same thing. I shared an office with another Volunteer, and we were there almost every evening from supper until late at night, preparing classes and talking to students, who learned that we were always available for help on their work or just bulling around. We sponsored poetry and short story contests and founded a literary club which was the liveliest and most enjoyable organization I’ve ever belonged to, joyfully subject to the imperative of which all remote areas have the advantage: if you want to see a Chekhov play, you have to put it on yourself.

In some ways I was more alive intellectually at Nsukka than I was at Swarthmore, due in part to the fact that I worked much harder at Nsukka, I’m afraid, than I did at Swarthmore; and to the fact that one learns more from teaching than from studying. But principally it had to do with the kind of perspective necessary in the teaching of Western Literature to a people of a different tradition, and the empathy and curiosity necessary in teaching African literature to Africans. It is always an intellectual experience to cross cultural boundaries.

At the most elementary level, it is a challenge to separate thought from mechanics in the work of students who are not writing in their native language. Take, for example, the following paragraph, written, I would emphasize, not by a university student but by a cleaning man at the university in a special course:

“I enjoy certain tasks in my work but others are not so enjoyable.”

It sings a melody in my poor mind, when a friend came to me and said that: I enjoy certain tasks in my work, but others are not so enjoyable. I laughed and called him by his name, then I asked him what is the task in your work. He answered me and then added, for a period of five years, I have being seriously considering what to do to assist his self as an orphan, in that field of provision. That he should never play with the task of his work. But others who are not so enjoyable could not understand the bitterness to his orphanship. He said to those who are not so enjoyable that they have no bounding which hangs their thought in a dark room.”

I regard this passage with joy, not to say a little awe, but beneath its exotic and largely unconscious poetic appeal there is a man trying to say something important, blown about in the wilderness of an unfamiliar language by the influences of the King James Version and the vernacular proverb. Where writing like this is concerned, it is impossible to be a Guardian of Good Grammar; one must try to confront the roots of language - the relationship between thought and word, with all the problems of extraneous influences and in many cases translation from a native tongue.

They spoke what was in their heads
At another level, the intellectual excitement came from a kind of freshness of thoughts and expression in minds that have not become trapped by scholastic conventions, or the fear of them. I remember times at Swarthmore when I kept a question or thought to myself because I feared it might be in some way intellectually out of line. But most of my Nsukka students had no idea what was in or out of line, what was a cliché and what was not, what critical attitudes were forbidden or encouraged (though I did my share, I confess, of forbidding and encouraging). They were not at all calculating, in a social sense, in their thought. They spoke what was in their heads, with the result that discussion had a lively, unadulterated and personal quality which I found a relief from the more sophisticated but less spontaneously sincere manner of many young American intellectuals. It was also a little infuriating at times. I am, after all, a product of my own culture. But one has only to look at a 1908 Phoenix (the Swarthmore student newspaper) to realize how much sophistication is a thing of style and fashion, and how little any one fashion exhausts the possible ways in which the world can be confronted and apprehended.

[End of Part One]