One of the comments made by a panelist at the “Peace Corps and Africa” conference I attended in Madison, Wisconsin, in late March keeps reverberating in my mind.  At the Oral History session, Bob Klein (Ghana ’61-63), creator of the Archival Project (rpcvarchivalproject@gmail.com), said, “The best way to empty the room at a family gathering is to begin telling your Peace Corps stories.”

 

People laughed – as if this were a joke.  In fact, it struck me as an epiphany.  Ah, yes, I thought, this is precisely why literary agents, book editors and commercial publishers steer way clear of Peace Corps memoirs.  They know such predictable (read: “boring”) accounts of do-goodism (no guns, no gore) in places most Americans have never even heard of will cause prospective book buyers – even friends and family members — to empty the room.

 

 

But what if one’s true Peace Corps story included a rape?  That would hold people’s attention, to be sure.  Sadly, in our society, sex and violence (put them together and you have rape) sells.

 

This appears to be what the ratings-conscious media and some DC lawmakers have been focusing on this year of the Peace Corps’ Golden Anniversary:  Not the quiet good that has been done by the agency and the roughly 200,000 people who have served as Peace Corps volunteers in far-off lands over the past fifty years, but rather the incidents of rape and sexual assault of young female PCVs by host country nationals.

 

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not at all minimizing these horrendous and traumatic acts of violence.  My heart goes out to the brave victims who have come forward and to all victims of this unspeakable crime everywhere it occurs.  I applaud all efforts to improve the training and safety of Peace Corps volunteers, and I am sure such changes will be made immediately.

 

But I would also like to see this currently “hot” Peace Corps story put into perspective.  I would like to see a segment on “20/20” (similar to the one aired last January that kicked off this 50th anniversary year with a piece on rapes in the Peace Corps) — as well as Congressional hearings in Washington — on the subject of rapes in the U.S. military.  I suspect that the numbers that emerge from this investigation might even be higher.

 

Rape, tragically, happens everywhere in this world, wherever women (and young girls and even men and boys) are vulnerable to angry, aggressive, violent men – whether it’s an expensive hotel room in New York, a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, an American college dorm room, or even the seeming “safety” of home in Anytown, U.S.A.  Who is to blame?  What is the solution?  Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

 

When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near Columbia University for twenty years (before joining the Peace Corps) and jogged in Riverside Park every morning, I carried a set of keys in my right hand, with the points of the keys sticking out of my fist.  Fortunately, I never had to defend myself this way.  But I’m convinced that being prepared made me appear less vulnerable to possible attackers.

 

Right now, it seems to me, the Peace Corps itself is under attack.  At a time when we should be celebrating its achievements, we’re hearing, reading, and seeing only horror stories.  Why?  What’s really behind this, I wonder?  It smells politically fishy to me.

 

Since this is meant to be a food-related blog, I’ll try to draw a culinary analogy now:  A good, careful, thoughtful cook doesn’t buy smelly fish.  Similarly, I don’t “buy” that this current media frenzy over rapes in the Peace Corps is only about rapes in the Peace Corps.  I suspect a hidden agenda among some to undermine and malign the Peace Corps, perhaps militarize it, or do away with it all together.

 

Among the maxims I have taped to the face of my desktop computer is this:  “Silence is Acquiescence.”  We who have served in the Peace Corps and have positive stories to tell hold the keys in our hand.  We can’t be silent.  We have a responsibility to tell our truths, too, even at the risk of emptying the room.