All the reflection on the Peace Corps as it nears its 50th Birthday spurs me to consider my own experience. As I have said on many occassions I believe the Corps’s main goal was to better understanding between Americans and peoples of other lands. And of course one of the hoped for results of that better understanding was to improve the image of Americans abroad.
For better or for worse I became the face of the Corps in the town where I served, Asmara, then part of Ethiopia, now the capital of Eritrea. This was not a small village of Peace Corps legend but a large city of some 200,000 people. I did not become a household word in that town because of my work as a teacher but because I was the coach of the school’s soccer team.
Soccer or football was the top sport in the town and the high school league was the top show case for the talents of the best players. Sort of like a small town in Texas where the Friday night football (American) game is the main event of life. Everyone knows the top players by name and the coach is the most important man in town.
At first I was greeted with considerable skepticism, “How can an American teach our sport,” was the typical question. In fact I knew the game having played as a kid. And I knew something of how to train a team having played football for one year in college (U. of Maryland).
All questions ended when my team won the league championship. “Hey, the foreigner knows the game.” I became a celebrity. The local press had no problem spelling my surname since it was still mostly written in Italian.
I recall reading an article about the coming year (my second year of service) in the league. The writer talked about this player and that player and the strengths and talents of the various school teams. He praised the coach at our major rival who had been a member of Ethiopia’s national team. However, after extolling the virtues of the players and other coaches he concluded by saying, “But Haile Selassie High has Cecchini as its coach.” There it was, I was a sports legend, at least in that city in Africa.
True to the prediction in the article, my team went on to win a second championship. We even played the top teams of the Ethiopian Army, Air Force and Navy. We beat the Army and Air Force but lost to the Navy.
The legend grew. Everyone in town knew my name. Wherever I went youngsters would gather and call out to me. I was the name and the image of America to thousands of people. This was not just the close personal relationship of a teacher to his students, this was relating to an entire city.
I know all this sounds like so much blowing my own horn and of course it is. But it was real and I was happy to know that I had come to relate to another people on a wide basis and in the process improve the image of Americans.
Would the team have competed in the league and perhaps win the championship without me or another PCV? Of course, but the important thing was that we achieved this together, the American and his Ethiopian kids.
I could be called smug in my conviction that I left a favorable image of Americans in Asmara. But at the suggestion of John Coyne some 30 years later I called the Eritrean Ambassador to the UN while living in New York. I started to explain to the Ambassador who I was when he cut me short by saying, “Leo Cecchini needs no introduction to the Eritrean Liberation Army.” You see, the Ambassador and his comrades in the army that eventually won Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia had been young boys in Asmara whose dream was to one day play on the team that I coached. I definitely left an image of America and it was good.