Cold Hand of History, The Peace Corps 10 Final Blog

Gary May’s chapter on the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, the final essay in this collection about JFK’s foreign policies, was also meant to “tell the story of the Peace Corps world wide” and it summed up with two final points.

May writes:  “Despite their difficulties, the volunteers considered their Peace Corps service personally invaluable.”

He quotes Carol Miller Reynolds, “I still think the Peace Corps is one of the most valuable forms of foreign aid, despite its inadequacies….I still think it’s a good basic way to approach problems-at the grass roots level-unlike the policy makers who never understand things at the grass roots.”

And Ron Kazarian told him in 1987, “I learned a lot about people, life, myself. Where I live [in central California] I’m an authority on one part of Africa. Every day, someone asks me about Ethiopia.”

May then quotes Arthur M. Schlesinger’s book Robert Kennedy and His Times, where Schlesinger attacks the Kennedys and the Peace Corps lead to “action diplomacy,” meaning that “American diplomats tried to do things in foreign countries that the people of the country ought to do for themselves.”

Gary May agrees. The Peace Corps was “guilty of a similar cultural imperialism,” sums up May. “Wofford believed that the volunteers—whom he called optimistic, energetic, and arrogant–could inspire the Ethiopians to shed their traditions as a snake sheds its skin….that it is time to change, and that peaceful, intelligent, responsible change is possible.”

May continues, “But Wofford’s dreams foundered on the rocks of Ethiopian culture. Cultural values, the product of particular historical experiences, are not easily transferable, and foreign affairs is not a form of therapy designed to cure personal or national ills. The volunteers’ efforts had unintended consequences: the ‘torch’ that Kennedy passed to a new generation lit fires no one expected or desired.”

But Gary May is wrong. And I’ll let an Ethiopian woman tell you why.

Last fall I received an email from one of the students I had fifty years ago in Addis Ababa. SineTsdik Berhanu was my English students–a student as well of other PCVs–at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa. Sine and I  had a reunion–after fifty years–in Washington, D.C. when she was on her way to Ethiopia for the first time in years. She lives today in St. Louis and is a mother and a grandmother.

Sine wrote me after she returned from Ethiopia and told me about the “new” Ethiopia. I believe Peace Corps Volunteers teachers–who doubled the size of the student populations in Ethiopia since 1962,  and who have taught in-country all these years–can take some credit for  what SineTsdik had to say.

Sine saw last fall a change in Ethiopian attitudes and proved  Harris Wofford and Peace Corps Volunteers were right. Proved that Gary May and Arthur Schlesinger were wrong.

This is what  Sine Tsdik Berhanu had to say about Ethiopia and Ethiopians in her email.

Dear John:

In early September, I went to the real Ethiopia and stayed there until December 1st, and I was hard pressed to leave.

Sine as a teenager

Sine as a teenager

I found Ethiopia to be in the process of re-birth –fraught, like all births, with the accompanying pains: the city streets are mangled; tall buildings going up everywhere produce mist-like dust that blows all over; choking clouds of blue car-emissions-haze fill up the atmosphere; and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of people and beasts of burden criss-cross the already overwhelmed and vehicle tangled streets; but as the saying goes, “no pain, no gain.” It is all for good.

The mental, the spiritual, and the awareness-shift of the Ethiopian psyche is obvious. One can see how the belief in poverty and humility (the former national credo) has been replaced by a belief in hard work and prosperity. The phrase “chigher yelem”  (meaning there is no ‘lack’/problem) is uttered by everybody everyday. I saw it as a wonderful thing to say. Words have power!

Yes, Sine is right. The power of words:  The Peace Corps.

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