My Peace Corps Report Card

by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966–68)

A FEW MONTHS AFTER RETURNING to the States in 1968 I got a letter from the Peace Corps  stating that I had “satisfactorily” completed an intensive nine week training program in the Virgin Islands and then served “satisfactorily” as criso-b-2a Volunteer in Nigeria and Somalia. The letter briefly described my teaching responsibilities and community projects. At the time I wasn’t sure if “satisfactorily” was a judgment on the quality of my performance or if it was just a standard form letter. Later I learned that the Peace Corps doesn’t comment on how the job was done, nevertheless I wondered how I would have graded myself.

I was the third PCV teaching at St. John Bosco Secondary School in Ishiagu, Nigeria. The first Volunteer was talked about with such reverence and admiration by the principal, the students and the local villagers that I felt I would never measure up to him. He seemed like one of those early sixties pioneers who were exceptional and carefully selected, not one of the masses, like me, who joined in the later sixties when the Peace Corps ballooned to 15,000.

I was told that the second guy was a careless teacher, had problems with the principal and was unhappy in the remote setting. He was transferred to a more urban school. I’m not sure how it worked out. No one ever mentioned him in Ishiagu while I was there.

In the sixties PCVs seemed to range from the free-wheeling, adventurers with a wild streak on one end of the spectrum to the more clean-cut, missionary-like types on the other. I thought there were exceptional Volunteers at both ends of that spectrum. I figured I fell somewhere in between; I had my occasional escapades for sure, but I just tried to do my job. I got along with the principal, a Catholic priest, although I know he was upset when I left my comfortable house on campus and moved into the village. Despite this, we worked well together and occasionally shared meals.

I liked the students and got to know as many as I could. The other teachers became my best friends. Some of my fondest memories are of drinking palm wine around the glow of a kerosene lamp and exchanging stories with them. I got to know some of the locals and broke a lot of cola nuts in their mud huts, even went to a couple of weddings. I worked on building a school library, did some extra tutoring and tried to market the beautiful pottery that the local women made. I was responsible, but always felt I probably lacked the dynamism and depth that the first Volunteer had.

One morning, a few months after arriving in Ishiagu, the Assistant Director of Eastern Nigeria and the Education Coordinator showed up at my front door. They sat attentively in the back of a couple of classes and took some notes. It was a pretty typical day and the students hardly noticed. The visitors were friendly, but said little and left by midday. I assumed it was routine.

Right from the start, there were Peace Corps Volunteers around the world who had problems that became larger administrative issues. You’ve probably read about the famous postcard sent by a disgruntled Volunteer in one of the first groups abroad. It became a major incident that threatened both our image and future of the whole program. Another Volunteer who later became a famous writer was terminated early when he was accused of getting over-involved in the country’s politics. During my two years in two different countries I knew or heard about a number of Volunteers who ran into difficulty when their girlfriends or boyfriends slept over on school grounds. One Volunteer was sent home pregnant after a scandal, another had a breakdown. And I’ll never forget the Volunteer who threatened suicide in the Peace Corps office one day if they didn’t get him out of “this fucking country” within twenty four hours.

I left Nigeria abruptly in 1967 during the Biafran War. I had five minutes to pack, and never got a chance to say goodbye to anyone. It was a sadness that remained unfinished business in a corner of my mind whenever I thought about it. It took forty-one years before I found closure.

In 2008 I returned to Ishiagu, not expecting, but secretly hoping to find someone who remembered me.

Fabian Nwachukwu turned his car around on a highway when he got the call on his cell phone that I was there. Someone in the village that I spoke with knew him and remembered that he went to St. John Bosco. Fabian embraced me so enthusiastically and affectionately when we met, I felt like I was being welcomed home by a relative. In a way, I was.

Many of the students and villagers were killed during the war. Two of my teacher friends were dead, two were missing. Fabian called two surviving students, Patrick Ogozi and Leonard Okeke, who were living in other parts of the country. The comments from the three of them overwhelmed me.

“After you left, all of the Roberts at the school became Bob.”

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

“I think you were working very hard for us.”

“You were a hero to us.”

Within minutes Fabian, Patrick and Leonard had penetrated forty one years of walled-off, compartmentalized emotions. I was flooded with feelings that forced me to reevaluate my experience in Nigeria as well as my overall opinion of myself.

It was the best report card I ever got.

After returning from the Peace Corps, Bob initially worked as teacher in New York City then later as a psychologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Princeton University. In 1997 he took a year off and boarded a freighter going around the world and started writing about the Peace Corps, Parkinson’s disease and his family. He currently lives in New York City. (bobcriso@gmail.com)