where returned Volunteers share their expertise and experiences
A Writer Writes
[Peace Corps Volunteers often have experiences that follow them throughout their lives. Such was the case with Habib Diatta, who came into Leita Kaldi's life in 1993 to tell her he taught at a school with 800 students and no latrines! She helped him to find funding and develop the project himself, in collaboration with local villagers, to provide sanitary facilities for his students. Habib didn't stop there. In his rural school with no electricity, he dreamed of providing computers and training to schools throughout Senegal. When he was recruited to a university in Indiana, he realized his dream, founding Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that ships computers to every corner of Senegal. Nearly twenty years after meeting Habib, Leita is compelled to share his story.]
Wings for West Africa
by Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96)
“At our school we have eight hundred students and no latrines!”
Habib Diatta spoke softly, with a rasp to his voice. He lowered his eyes as he spoke, then raised them to look into my face. His eyes were dark wells between furrowed eyebrows, intense, purposeful. His full mouth might have been pouting, if his jaws had not been locked. Tall and slender, his shoulders sloped with that Senegalese male grace so suited to dancing.
“Can you help us find a way to build latrines?” he asked.
I tried to imagine eight hundred kids, an army of kids at the town of Diofior’s middle school, kids who walked hours from surrounding villages to attend school, a school where there were no latrines. Did they all troop off into the fields at recess? Or did they slide out of their classrooms surreptitiously, one by one, hoping nobody would see them sneak into the bush.
My toubab voice whispered inside my head. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout buildin’ no latrines.” I’d been in the village of Fimela for six months. Fimela, in the Delta Sine-Saloum, a place where the Sahara meets the Atlantic, where baobab trees etch spidery shapes across the horizons, where the Sérère people dwell, people who fish in the lagoons and open ocean, people who live on isolated islands, practicing Pangool - ancient animism - the last stronghold in Senegal against Islamic jihad, a place that people from other parts of the country feared for its latent occult powers. Now, however, it seems that jihad is not an issue, as most people are Muslim. Leopold Senghor was an exception, the grand poet and first President of Senegal, who was raised Catholic in nearby Djilor. The people were the most beautiful I’d ever seen, especially the women, willowy tall, fine featured, almond eyed, silky skinned. The men weren’t bad either. I never tired of staring at them. As I was staring at Habib.
“What would you like me to do?” I answered.
“Find money to build latrines for the school,” he replied simply.
Here it was; the perpetual assumption that I was a fountain of funds. “Toubab! Cadeau!” But Habib interrupted my cynical thoughts:
“I’m not asking you personally. I know what Peace Corps Volunteers do, and I’m asking you to help us find a resource, a way to get our latrines.”
I didn’t really understand what this young man was asking me to do. I didn’t know who he was, if I should trust him, if he was trying to shake me down, if he would throttle me and search my little house for money and stuff. But I didn’t feel at afraid of him. There was a reassuring gentleness in his face. He held out his hands to me, elegant hands with long fingers and smooth skin; not a farmer’s or a fisherman’s hands.
“What do you do?” I asked, “and why do you care about the kids at the school?”
Habib jolted forward. “Oh! I forgot to tell you. I’m a teacher. I teach English and French. I’m the student council sponsor.”
I smiled. “Well, that explains why we’re not speaking in Sérère or Wolof. You speak English quite well.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I try.” The “yeah” sounded American.
“Well, I’d be glad to help you, Habib. God knows it’s a necessary cause … eight hundred kids with no latrines … I don’t even want to think about that. I wish I had enough money to give you. But perhaps I could help you to get it yourself.”
His brows creased. “How would I do that?”
I wasn’t really sure myself, but looked away, out the window, searching for an idea. “Let’s have a Coke while I think about this.”
I walked into my tiny kitchen, furnished with a hot plate, a rickety table and two chairs, a Peace Corps water filter and several plastic basins. I kept drinks in one of those basins which I half filled with well water, hoping they’d stay cool, which never happened for more than a few hours. I plucked two warm Cokes from the water and poured the foaming liquid into glasses. By the time I set them down in front of Habib I had an idea.
“Habib, do you ever go to Dakar?”
“Oh yeah, my parents live there. I visit them quite often. I was born and raised there. Teaching is what brought me here.”
“Great! I hate going to Dakar. Ten hours of bush taxis and all that hubbub in the city. Not for me. Tell you what. Next time you go to Dakar, you could go to the Peace Corps office and ask them for an application for a Small Project Assistance grant from USAID. I’ll give you a note saying that it’s for me. We could start there, trying to raise money for your latrines. You know English well enough to fill out the application, though I’ll help you with it. You’ll have to come up with a budget for the project, and raise 25%, I think, among the villagers, to get the grant.”
Habib looked at me for a long moment. “You mean you want me to do all that? I thought you might apply for a grant for us.”
“I think you can do it yourself, Habib. Do you want to try?”
“Yeah!,” he agreed. “I’ll try it.”
* * *
A few weeks later, I was sitting on a bamboo chair outside my house in the evening, watching the sun pour liquid gold over the darkening tree tops, when I heard a knock at my gate. Habib stood there, smiling widely as he greeted me. He was wearing a handsome cotton shirt and neat, belted slacks; a brief case dangled on a strap from his shoulder.
“I got it,” he announced excitedly. “The application. I even started filling it out. They were very nice to me at the Peace Corps office. Wow! It’s like being in a little piece of America over there, isn’t it. All those American people!”
I supposed that would be my impression, too, if I were Senegalese. He looked rumpled and dusty after his long trip from Dakar. He proudly pulled out the application from his briefcase and handed it to me. He had filled out most of it in pencil, including figures for labor and materials, a budget that he had already worked out. Villagers would fulfill their 25% contribution by in-kind labor, some materials, such as sea shells and sand for building blocks, and some cash. I corrected a few grammatical errors in his proposal in pencil, and handed it back to him, telling him he was good to go, as far as I could see, that he could fill it in with pen and take it back to Dakar. I loved it; he was doing the whole job.
It took a month or so for the money to be transferred to my account, but the villagers had already begun work, clearing ground in front of the school near the road, collecting crushed seashells and sand to mix with cement that they would purchase with the grant money. A technical assistant from USAID arrived to advise the villagers on the proper construction of latrines, while students were taught how to properly maintain them.
Habib invited me to have lunch with the other teachers at the school. They lived together in an old house with many small rooms, each containing a cot, a small table and whatever other piece of furniture the teacher might be able to afford. They all came from other places, and had been assigned by the Ministry of Education to Diofior. Habib showed me around and introduced me to half a dozen teachers sitting in the courtyard, where women were preparing ceeb u jeen, the tasty fish and rice dish of Senegal. The women wore brightly colored wrap-around skirts, T-shirts and patterned head wraps, below which tiny gold earrings twinkled, while delicate bracelets slid clinking up and down their slim wrists. One of the teachers was a petite young woman with a sweet face and shy expression. Her name was Korka; she was Habib’s fiancèe. We all sat on a mat around the bowl and dipped up the spicy, oily rice and chunks of fish that had sizzled in hot peppers and tamarind.
Conversation lagged while we ate. We leaned back only when the bowl was nearly empty, and satisfied burps punctuated the silence. After a while, one of the profs boiled water for foaming green tea, and the young men began to talk about their work, their families, their ambitions. Habib longed for computers in the school, which seemed like a far-fetched dream, because there was no electricity in the village. Unfazed, he insisted that one day there would be electricity and computer classes, and he wanted to teach them. He had taken a college computer course that had planted the seed of his ambition. He had learned Windows and Office programs and bought technology manuals from the United States and France. As he spoke, his brows pleated with intensity. I doubted the viability of his wishes, unable to imagine that such progress would come to this backroad town for a very long time. I didn’t say anything, though, because to dash dreams is to dash hope. I didn’t know, however, what a powerful dreamer Habib was.
* * *
Work began on the latrines. I expected a lot of noise from the construction site, but when you have no machinery and are building by hand, shoveling and mixing cement, forming blocks, then laying them in place to form walls, the sound of hammering and sawing is rare. People worked in the evening, after returning from their farms, women fetching and hauling alongside their men, children running and tumbling around this unusual activity, as if it were a fair that brought all the village people out. The buildings went up slowly, but people persevered until one after another latrine was built: six latrines on one side for boys, six on the other for girls. Finally, the bright sunny day arrived when the last touch was applied to the project: a hand-painted, round sign on the wall facing the road that read in a circle of letters, Association des Parents d’Eleves de Diofior. In the middle were the flags of Senegal and the United States with the caption in large letters, SENEGAL USA.
The village chief presided over the grand latrine opening ceremony, standing next to Habib, who looked on proudly and followed the chief’s speech with his own, expressing on behalf of all the teachers and students their gratitude for this essential sanitation facility. As I stood there grinning, he turned to me and declared that this great achievement would not have been possible without my help and that of Peace Corps and USAID. I responded that I had done nothing, actually, but just offered the people a way to do it themselves. At that moment, I was so overwhelmed with pride and joy, I felt ten feet tall.
But that’s not the end of the story. Within five years electricity came to Diofior, and Habib got donations of used computers to set up his class from two friends and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer at Intercultural Dimensions, a non-profit organization in Boston.
“I started at my own school,” Habib told me years later, “teaching word processing. I trained one or two teachers at each school, and they trained other teachers and the students. They were very curious. It was my life. I remember spending the night at the school.”
Then in 2002, following an invitation from a University in Indiana to talk about technology in West African schools, Habib was hired to teach and coach soccer in Indianapolis mostly thanks to a longtime friend and exchange partner Kathy Lattimer. He brought Korka, who had become his wife in 1996, to live there. He teamed up with Kathy Lattimer, who had travelled to Senegal with a Peace Corps group in 1998, when she first met Habib. Kathy encouraged Habib’s dream of providing computers to Senegalese schools, and together they set up Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that started delivering computers and other technology tools to Senegal in 2001. Habib sent me the web site he designed. When I saw it, tears welled into my eyes as I read my name there. “Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior. She taught me how to develop a project. She opened the path for me.”
“Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior. She taught me how to develop a project. She opened the path for me.”
The Indianapolis based school district’s technology department donated older computers, as did some churches. Word of mouth also helped the project grow. The Ice Miller law firm donated all of the legal services to get the nonprofit organization off the ground. Kathy and Habib used her two-car garage as a warehouse to collect computers, other technology equipment and even boxes for shipping for their one shipment per year. Today, Wings for West Africa’s computers have reached every corner of Senegal.
Recently, I received a surprise phone call from Habib. He was at Disney World in Orlando with Korka and their children. Though I could not drive over to see them, I was very touched that Habib had remembered me. I remembered my doubts about his ambitions that day in Diofior, when I thought his greatest achievement would be the building of latrines. I had underestimated the great ambition, determination and vision that would unfurl into wings for Habib.
Wings for West Africa has three goals:
To promote and support education in rural schools in West Africa — beginning with Senegal.
To create educational and cultural exchanges between American and African school.
To foster respect for the environment by recycling used computers and keeping hazardous materials out of landfills.
How to help
To donate computers or other equipment, contact Kathy Lattimer or Habib Diatta. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (317) 407-8289. Visit their Web site, www. wafwings.org
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal from 1993-96, then worked for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. Kaldi published a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com/Publishamerica) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.
Every morning when I wake up to make coffee I flip on Morning Joe and wait for the failed congressman to stop yapping so I can see if new rioting has taken place in downtown Cairo, and find out what’s new in Peter Hessler’s (China 1996-98) world.
Where’s Peter, I’m thinking, as I watch the rioting in Tahrir or Abbasiya. Peter, I know, lives within blocks of city central, and I know he is just a crazy enough RPCV to get close enough to the action to get into real trouble.
Well, the new New Yorker (June 18, 2012) has him alive and well and reporting on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and what it means for Egyptians and the rest of us. The long article (it wouldn’t be a New Yorker article if it wasn’t long) has Peter and his translator Mohamed calmly walking toward another demonstration in Abbasiya where there were no cars in the streets, and the shutters on most buildings are drawn. Gunfire crackles in the distance, and men on motorbikes speed past, their shirts soaked with blood. Another summer evening in Cairo.
Still Peter writes,….”And yet it was rare to feel unsafe. My wife and I both spent a lot of time out in the city, often separately, and neither of us had problems; the same was true of almost all my friends.”
So after reading his current piece in The New Yorker, I feel better about his situation, and finishing my first cup of coffee, I think: Well, at least he doesn’t have to endure Joe Scarborough early in the morning back here in the good old U.S.A.!
The winners of the 24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards were announced on Monday night, June 4, 2012, during a sold-out gala ceremony hosted by comedienne Kate Clinton at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. RPCV writer Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64) writing at Richard Stevenson, won the Gay Mystery award for his novel Red White Black and Blue, published by MLR Press.
Taking place the same week of Book Expo America — the book publishing industry’s largest annual gathering of booksellers, publishers, and others in the industry — the Lambda ceremony brought together over 400 attendees, sponsors, and celebrities to celebrate excellence in LGBT literature.
As “mastress” of ceremonies, Clinton treated the audience to her brand of topical, political comedy. She joked, “If you’re here to buy a Big Gulp or smoke a cigarette in a park . . . you’ll have to go to New Jersey.”
Later she described Michele Bachmann as “the SkyMall of useless ideas.” Clinton also set her target on the conservative right and their attack on women’s reproductive rights.
Presenters included Olympia Dukakis, Charles Busch, Frank Bruni, Ally Sheedy, and Ross Bleckner.
Awards were presented in twenty-four categories. Among the other winners (besides Lipez) were Farzana Doctor for her novel, Six Metres of Pavment, Justin Vivian Bond for Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels, and Rahul Mehta for his debut collection of short fiction, Quarantine.
Once again, congratulations, Lipez!
Bill Hemminger (Senegal 1973-75) published African Son in April and will be reading from his book at Barnes & Noble Bookstore this Saturday, June 2, 2012, at 2 p.m. B&N is located at 624 S. Green River Road in Evansville, Indiana.
Today Bill is Chair of the English Department at the University of Evansville where he also teaches French, translates African writers, writes poetry, plays classic music, and authored “Friend of the Family” that won the 1994 Syndicated Fiction Project competition sponsored by National Public Radio. This is his first book.
Bill started out in life by getting his B.A. from Columbia University. Next he studied piano at Juilliard in Manhattan, French at the Sorbonne, and then he went to Senegal. Later he got his Ph.D. in literature at Ohio University and followed that with Fulbrights to Madagascar and Cameroon.
Bill wrote me recently to say, “My memories from my Peace Corps years–a long time ago now–are vital and vivid and (mostly) wonderful. I can now say with certainty that those years changed my attitudes and my look on life, in a good way.”
African Son is fifteen essays about Africa based on Bill years overseas. In her review of the book, Christine Djockoua Manyaka Toko, professor of American literature, University of Yaounde, writes, “The book skillfully blends honesty and realism: the author’s feelings and attitudes towards the people and the land, as well as his scathing satire of human flaws…. African Son is a great contribution to travel literature, African literature, and nature writing.”
In Senegal, Bill taught ESL in Dagana, a town in the north, and when he came home he went and lived for a dozen years in a log cabin in rural southern Ohio. During those years he and his wife supported a Senegalese friend–brother of former students–as the young man made his way through graduate school.
That “student” has worked with the United Nations now for more than 20 years. “Who could have imagined,” Bill writes, “that this skinny kid with tuberculosis might someday return to his country as a diplomat. Who could have imagined that the skinny kid from northern Ohio would teach school on the fringes of the Sahara.”
If you are driving through Evansville in southern Indiana this Saturday, June 2, (and aren’t we all, if only metaphorically) stop off at Barnes & Noble and hear Bill read at 2 p.m., and if you are not on the road, check out African Son on Amazon.
Before Peter Hessler was awarded a “genius” grant by the MacArthur Foundation, and before he was a PCV in China (1996-98), he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Of that time, he writes in the current issue of The New Yorker, (May 21, 2012). He found part-time work standing in police lineups.
At the time he was reading, as they say at Oxford, English Language and Literature, and his courses included tutorials on Middle English, Spenser, Shakespeare, the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth century. At the start of the Michaelmas term, he saw a notice that the St. Aldates Police Station was looking for volunteers to stand in identity parades. They paid ten pounds per parade.
So Peter went down to the station and signed up. His first parade was for stealing bikes. The station hadn’t finished constructing its viewing room, which would feature a one-way mirror. For the time being, the parades took place in a room where nothing separated the witness from the suspect and the volunteers.
In his piece, Peter writes how he didn’t like the witness nor the way he took his role so seriously. This seemed to be a small matter, stealing bikes. The witness stared hard at Hessler when he walked past the first time. Peter stared back. When he returned, Peter looked in his eyes, holding steady for a moment, and then he glanced away. The witness paused.
The next time he walked past, Peter does it again.
The witness walks through five times.
And then the witness points at Hessler and identifies him.
Peter goes back again in another line up at the police station. Besides himself, the lineup if for an arson crime and included volunteers from southeast Oxford; most of them seemed to be unemployed. The arson case revolved around someone setting fire to a building which housed a family of Somali refugees who lived close to Cowley Road. The authorities suspected that the arson had been racially motivated. All of the volunteers wore fake mustaches. The suspect was standing next to Peter and something about the man’s eyes told Peter that he might be mentally disable. He could hear the suspect breathing hard beside him.
Now the station has a one-way mirror, and Peter can’t see clearly through the glass, but it was possible to tell if there was a presence behind it. A shadow behind the glass passed five times, each time more slowly than the last. After the fifth time, another officer walked into the room. “The witness did not make an identification,” he announced. The suspect exhaled loudly. All the volunteers filed out of the room.
The entire article is in the current issue of The New Yorker, May 21, 2012. Check is out.
Peter left Oxford and went to China, falling in love with the place, he returned later as a PCV and would write about it in his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Today he is living in Egypt with his wife and their young twins.
The Independent Publisher Book Awards (the “IPPYs”) are intended to bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university, and self-published titles published each year. The awards are open to all members of the independent publishing industry, and to authors and publishers worldwide who produce books written in English and intended for the North American market. Since the inaugural contest in 1996, over 4,500 books have received IPPY Awards, and all the recognition, credibility, and increased sales that a book award can bring. Independent spirit and expertise comes from publishers of all sizes and budgets, and books are judged with that in mind.
Entry for the 2012 IPPYs closed on March 15th. The results were announced last week.
Among the winners was a Peace Corps Writers book:
Peacemaker of the Year
Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines
edited by RPCVs who served in the Philippines from 1961 to 1963
Parker W. Borg
Maureen J. Carroll
Patricia MacDermot Kasdan
Stephen W. Wells
Peace Corps Writers, 2011
Also winning, was:
A Silver Medal In the Travel Essay category
A Small Key Opens Big Doors: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume 3 — The Heart of Eurasia
Edited by Jay Chen (Kazakhstan 2005–08)
Travelers Tales, 2011
Congratulations to all the RPCV Writers!
Just to give you an idea about the size of this competition, here are the number of entries in a few categories:
Photography - 41 entries
Literary Fiction - 126 entries
Wartime Fiction (new this year) - 38 entries
Autobiography/Memoir - 213 entries
History - 87 entries
Poetry - 81 entries
Science - 18 entries
Southeast Non-Fiction - 50
West-Pacific Non-Fiction - 65
Aus/NZ Non-Fiction - 52
On Monday, June 4, 2012, the 16th Annual IPPY Awards will be presented in New York, kicking off the annual BookExpo America convention.
All medalists and their guests are invited at no charge.
What do IPPY winners receive? All IPPY Award medalists will receive a medal, a certificate, and 20 awards seals. Those medalists not attending the New York event will receive the above items by mail.
Here is the results listing PDF:
Interview by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
WHILE MOST OF US STRUGGLE with our own Peace Corps memoir, Jane Albritton undertook a herculean task: to gather enough Peace Corps personal experience essays to fill a multi-volume anthology. After four years of intense work, she completed the task in 2011 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception. The four volumes include more than 200 essays that describe the Peace Corps Experience in 88 of the 139 nations served during the past half century. The principal and founder of a writing and editing firm (as well as a university writing instructor), Jane began the Peace Corps at 50 Project with the posting of a very unusual website and an all-call for personal experience essay submissions. As the series editor, she recruited editors, oversaw editing, negotiated publication, supervised formatting, cover design and finally manages marketing.
What on earth inspired you to undertake such a colossal project, Jane?
Volunteers who served in the ’60s are pushing 70 (or more) and I am getting older by the minute. I come from a family of storytellers. It was through stories that I learned where I had come from and who I am. We all come to know who we are through the stories, our cultural memory. It seemed to me that stories of Peace Corps service tell us much about ourselves at our best. My fear was that we were already losing those stories.
Your Peace Corps @ 50 website went online in May, 2007. How did you recruit a computer wizard to set it up for you?
This project has been visited by a host of little miracles. I knew I couldn’t afford an agency, so I asked an old editor friend of mine if there were any young artists working for his company who did side work. He gave me Chris Richardson’s name. Based on a single 45-minute meeting, he sketched out a site design that nailed the spirit of the project. He took the text supplied by me and the other three editors and turned it into an invitation. He also created a beautiful video and brought the books to life with his cover designs.
Almost simultaneously, you were involved with a Peace Corps reunion in Fort Collins, Colorado (August, 2008) which included sponsored speakers, writing workshops, books sales and even music. How did you get involved in this?
Fort Collins is soaked in Peace Corps lore. The Colorado State University Research Foundation was contracted to prepare a Peace Corps feasibility study only one week after Kennedy’s election. Two of the three founding members of the team that prepared the study, Maury Albertson and Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, were to be honored in 2008. By that time, I had I had a whole stack of amazing stories from all over the world and had become aware that there was lots brewing in the world to preserve Peace Corps lore. For instance, Jill Vickers and Jody Bergedick were just completing a documentary about a PC group of small pox vaccinators — all women — who tromped beyond the beyond in Afghanistan helping eliminate that scourge. What better place to premier Once in Afghanistan? They came and blew people away.
When the story project was just a glimmer of an idea in early 2007, I visited Maury (then in his late 80s) to ask him what he thought. “Marvelous idea! Have you talked to Pauline?” I had not, but I just happened to be on my way to Tucson, where she lived independently. What a pistol she was even as she closed in on 90. A few years before at the age of 80, she had published her memoir, Peace Corps Pioneer, or The Perils of Pauline. It’s an important document and it confirmed for me the value of collecting and publishing our stories.
The sad note of the reunion was Pauline’s death. As hard as she tried to make it to Fort Collins for the event, she died just days before. Members of Pakistan 1, the group she trained and looked after as Pakistan’s first Peace Corps Country Director (can women really direct in Muslim countries?) gathered to honor her work and tell stories about their adventures in Pakistan.
How did you decide to publish four volumes based upon geographic regions?
The old saying that “Volunteers come back from Africa happy, from the Americas impassioned, and from Asia philosophical” had stayed with me as a Peace Corps truth. I had no idea how those who had served in post-Soviet countries came back, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t happy or philosophical or even impassioned.
Of course agents and publishers did not know that old saying. When I said “Four books of Peace Corps stories from four regions of the world” (thinking the reasons were perfectly obvious), they replied, “How’s about one book of inspirational stories? We might sell some of those.” Most Peace Corps stories are not Hallmark moments.
How did you recruit the other editors to help you? Who were they?
From the beginning, I knew that the editor of each book needed to have served in the region it represented. While I might have been able to judge the literary merit of stories from, say, Ghana or Honduras or Kazakhstan, I was pretty sure I could not choose or edit them as well as someone who knew those worlds by heart.
I asked my friend Dennis Cordell (Chad), a prominent historian and Africanist at Southern Methodist University to help me create the text for the website, and edit the Africa volume. I discovered that Bernie Alter (India 1967–69), a career foreign service officer who had been in my group had married a woman he had persuaded to go into the Peace Corps in Paraguay (1970–72). Bernie was retired; Pat, a librarian, still worked. But in 2007, her job was not excessively demanding. Check for the Americas.
That left the mostly newer Peace Corps countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia: All those post-Soviet countries (plus Iran and Turkey). It occurred to me that Dennis, Pat, and I were roughly the same age so I started looking at the blogs of Volunteers serving in Eurasia who could write and were near the end of their service. Bingo! There was Jay Chen (Kazakhstan 2005–08), writing like a dream and due to come home in 2008. He liked the idea.
Then Jay decided that he needed to stay longer in Kaz to finish work already in motion. So he re-upped for a year and, in the process, was discouraged from actively engaging in the story project. So, I filled in and kept in touch with contributors.
Pat got a new, more demanding job at a bigger library as the acquisitions librarian. Luckily, Bernie was willing to step in and take up the slack. That’s how the Americas volume came to have two editors.
Then as Dennis rose in the university’s administrative ranks, it became clear that he would simply not have the time to edit the Africa volume, the biggest of the four. That was in the fall of 2009, just as we were getting ready to go full tilt boogie on editing. I knew several RPCVs who had served in African countries, but they were all squeezed with work and feeling the crunch of the economy.
If ever there were proof that this project was destined to live, it arrived as an email from one of the first contributors to the Africa book, Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988–90). It said, “Just checking in. Is there some way I can help?” Aaron had just finished up his book on and thought he could fit editing the volume into his teaching schedule at the New York City College of Technology.
I need to add another name, Susan Brady, to this list. She had never been a Peace Corps Volunteer, but she intuitively understood the value of this project and has worked for something akin to a “subsistence allowance” for four years, serving as our guide through the thicket that is the world of publishing. I do believe she is the reason that Travelers’ Tales decided to take us on. They knew her and trusted that she would make sure we delivered a quality quartet of books.
While reading so many personal experience essays from around the world over a 50-year period, what were some of your impressions?
I don’t think there are many US citizens who are clear on what our presence in WWII has meant in the Pacific. If we visit battlefields, we go to Europe. My mother was living on Oahu when Pearl Harbor was bombed. So I grew up with those stories from the Pacific theater and knew what they were all about. Today, we are still a powerful presence in the Pacific, regarded as much a liberator as a colonizer. Volunteers who served there know these things.
Regarding the Americas volume, I sensed that there must have been some ambivalence on the part of Volunteers and maybe a reluctance to recount stories. The US has meddled in the affairs of South and Central America in egregious ways, and Volunteers who live and serve in those countries hear the stories. They must have sometimes wondered if they were somehow being “used.” You can feel it in the love the contributors to this volume have for the places they served while simultaneously, you can feel the restraint.
The Africa volume is the fattest book in the set, partly because there are so many countries on the continent and because Volunteers have been going to some of them since 1961. I also think that many African cultures are story-telling cultures. So Volunteers fall into the habit of passing on important information in a public way via stories.
As for the stories from the Heart of Eurasia, I was struck by how they seemed on the edge. Border crossings were a cause of great unease. Collapsed economies and the public evidence of want and hardship show up in story after story. Volunteers worldwide have certainly been no strangers to alcohol, but in the old USSR, booze was a problem. It’s part of the harshness that is still working itself out. I imagine many Volunteers who have served in this part of the world are of Eastern European descent. Seeing where they came from in shambles must be unsettling.
By contrast, the stories from Turkey, an early Peace Corps destination, are uniformly upbeat. Today tourists who visit the Cappadocia region are the beneficiaries of the work PCVs did with the local restaurateurs to spruce up their menus to attract foreign tourists.
You continue to collect and post Peace Corps stories online. Can you tell us about that?
Luckily, we live in a time when technology allows us to keep on receiving, editing, and publishing stories in an infinitely flexible digital universe. We can keep current as forces reshape countries and cultures, as well as the Peace Corps itself. It would be folly to imagine that the experience of Volunteers in a 21st century Colombia will resemble that of the 4,600 Volunteers who served there between 1961 and 1981. What a terrific opportunity to look at the dynamics of culture and power through the eyes of the Peace Corps Volunteers who serve, have served and will serve.
Fort Collins has a dream to build a Peace Corps museum to house art from around the planet. What exactly is the Peace Corps connection to Fort Collins?
Peace Corps and Fort Collins/Colorado State University hooked up when Professor Maury Albertson, a professor of civil (hydraulic) engineering and internationalist to his core, and his associate Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, sought and got a contract to conduct a feasibility study for the Point Four Youth Corps, renamed the Peace Corps. Colorado State became one of the first training sites for Volunteers and Pauline became the first director in Pakistan. Check it out. In 1961 a Farsi-speaking woman ran the show in Muslim Pakistan where the first group included three Black Volunteers.
Recently, a few hearty souls have created the Global Village Museum of Arts and Cultures. Fort Collins is loaded with RPCVs and Peace Corps lore. Trees, Water and People was founded by RPCVs who decided to locate in Fort Collins because of the forestry program for which Colorado State University is well known. Carl Hammerdorfer (Volunteer in Mali and country director, Bulgaria) arrived in 2007 as first director for the new Master of Science in Business Administration degree in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise. His work is matched by that of his wife, Kathleen Lynch, founding member and Executive Director of Isla, the International Service Learning Alliance. The list goes on.
So that’s why it is entirely appropriate for Fort Collins to have a Global Museum with a Peace Corps room in it.
Where can interested people send donations?
Global Village Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, so any donation made to the museum is tax deductible. The museum is also in the Enterprise Zone, meaning donors receive an additional 25% tax credit from the Federal government on all monetary gifts. For more information on donating and the Enterprise Zone tax credit contact Erik Hofseth, the Coordinating Director, at (970) 221-4600 or email: info@globalvillagemuseum (http://www.globalvillagemuseum.com).
Thank you, Jane, for putting together such a valuable contribution to Peace Corps history.
The Peace Corps at 50 Project includes four volumes of personal experience essays available on Amazon.com. They include:
Former Volunteers and staff who wish to share their stories may do so at PeaceCorpsat50.org.
Published at Coloradoan.com
By Stacy Nick
IN 1967, 21-YEAR-OLD JANE ALBRITTON traveled to India as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. It was an experience that changed her life and how she saw the world around her. Forty years later, it motivated her to tackle another adventure: putting her experiences, and those of other Peace Corps volunteers, on paper.
With the help of fellow Peace Corps volunteers, Albritton put together a series of four anthologies featuring 200 stories from Volunteers who served all over the world to celebrate and honor 50 years of the Peace Corps.
“I started getting old, actually,” Albritton joked as to why she decided to start the project. After years of “pestering” others to record their histories, it occurred to her that her and her fellow Volunteers’ stories might be lost if they weren’t written down.
Albritton, a Fort Collins writer and editor who teaches online courses for Colorado State University in business writing and magazine writing, worked with other Volunteers to launch a website asking for Peace Corps Volunteers to share their stories. And share they did.
Soon came a flood of Volunteer stories — some sad, some inspirational, some funny, enough to fill four volumes covering the regions of the world where Volunteers have served: Africa, the Americas, the heart of Eurasia and Asia and the Pacific. Like most things worth doing, putting together the books did not come easy.
“It took every bit of the four years (leading up to the 50th anniversary in 2011); I could not have imagined how much work it would be,” Albritton said. “If the stories hadn’t been so incredible and so moving — I think I know them all by heart now — I could have said this is too hard but they were just too good.”
On Friday, Albritton will host a special reading at the Global Village Museum of Arts and Cultures to celebrate the Peace Corps at 50 Anniversary Project.
“The museum is just a really fitting place to bring the books home; Maury would have loved this museum — he was an internationalist to the core,” Albritton said. In 1961, CSU researchers Maury Albertson and Pauline Birky-Kreutzer published one of the original feasibility studies that led to the creation of the Peace Corps.
Local actors Chris Jeracki and Nikki Gibbs, who is joining the Peace Corps, will read the stories, breathing new life into them.
“These stories are meant to be read out loud,” Albritton said, adding that having younger actors read the stories gives them a better sense of time and place. “Most of us were so young when we volunteered — I went to India when I was 21; if I read my story now, it wouldn’t have the same impact as if a 20-year-old woman read it.”
Albritton’s story, found in “Even the Smallest Crab has Teeth” — which chronicles the tales of Volunteers in Asia and the Pacific — is about her path to awareness.
“India is a complicated place and it was a real struggle for me to try to understand what it all meant,” she said. “Hinduism is so wildly different from our Judeo-Christian beliefs. Volunteer work doesn’t factor in for them, and it seemed like such a heartless place . . . it was a holy man at a tea stand on the road that just cracked it open for me.”
When Albritton approached her to write a story about her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Melissa Basta already had the first part done.
“I had written it down years ago in my journal,” said Basta, who volunteered in Haiti in 1996. Outlining the start of a new adventure was easy, it was writing about her second trip to Haiti — six months after the 2010 earthquake — that was tough.
“That was pretty emotional,” she said. “The first trip — you’re excited for a new adventure — and the second was really out of a need to make sense of the destruction and to identify ways that I could help.”
One thing Albritton said she learned from the project was how deeply Peace Corps Volunteers’ lives are affected by their experiences, particularly in their willingness to continue giving and helping others later on.
“They see needs differently,” she said. “They see a challenge and say, ‘well, I can do that.’ I think that’s how I felt about this publishing project. I felt like, ‘well, I can do that.” I had no idea how but I asked for help and after four years, there they are.”
Additional Facts PEACE CORPS AT 50 ANNIVERSARY PROJECT READING
When: 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 2
Where: Global Village Museum of Arts and Cultures, 200 W. Mountain Ave., Fort Collins
Cost: (special First Friday admission) $2.50 for adults; $1.50 for seniors and students; 50 cents for children ages 3 to 12 and free for children ages 2 and younger
Information: (970) 221-4600 or GlobalVillageMuseum.com.
For more information about the story project, visit PeaceCorpsat50.org.
Interview: Richard Tillotson, Author of Acts of God While On Vacation
By April Pohren, BLOGCRITICS.ORG
Published 09:00 p.m., Sunday, February 12, 2012
Richard Tillotson has been a Peace Corps volunteer, a playwright in New York, a copywriter in Hawaii, and is a relative of an English Lord, all of which helped him write Acts of God While on Vacation, a National Semi-Finalist for the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and named “Hawaii’s best fiction book of 2011″ by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He works in Honolulu and vacations in Washington DC.
Please tell us a bit about your book and what you hope readers take away from reading it.
The novel begins with a death threat received by a philandering general manager of a lavish Hawaii resort, jumps to an anthropologist researching headhunters in the jungles of Borneo, then to a demonic, scandal-mongering paparazzo in New York, and on to a gorgeous, party-loving English aristocrat in London. The characters are all drawn to Waikiki, where their arrival coincides with an international conference on shamanism and a catastrophic, force-five hurricane. I only discovered what was to become of these people while I was writing (and reading) about them, and I found their various adventures alternately desperate, thought-provoking, and hilarious. I hope readers will be able to take away a smile and some new ideas.
Who are your favorite characters in the story?
This of course is like asking a mother or father which one of her/his children she/he loves most, which is an impossible question. The best answer I ever heard to that question was by a mother who said “The one who hurts or who needs me the most.” For an author — at least this one — it is the character someone is asking me about. In the last few days, I’ve received several questions about Kip Stallybrass, the character who is a graduate student anthropologist researching the spiritual beliefs of the Iban, one of the indigenous peoples on the island of Borneo. In decades past the Iban were known as headhunters. I know something about all this because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo and worked with the Iban myself. (Doesn’t mean that Kip is me, however.) I have also received several questions about Glynis Mortimer, another character in the novel. She’s a remarkably competent Englishwoman, known in her circle as “the world’s foremost executive secretary.” (I’m not her either.)
Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?
Another impossible question. The first thing that popped into my head was a line that quotes a subway poster attempting to combat the problem of illiteracy. It reads, “Illiterate? Can’t read? Call this number!”
If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?
I’ve actually had a number of people come up to me with their own ideas on this subject. I think Matt Damon would do a great job as Gordon Coburn, General Manager of the Earl Court Waikiki Hotel. He has a wonderful range and would be able to move from the comic to the serious, making both sets of circumstances entirely believable. Meryl Streep would be terrific as the above-mentioned Englishwoman, Glynnis Mortimer, “the world’s foremost executive secretary.” But of course, Meryl Streep can play anything. Gwyneth Paltrow would be excellent as Glynnis’ boss, Lady Gloria Ryder. Kip Stalleybrass the graduate student in Borneo . hummm . Maybe Jesse Eisenberg who played Mark Zukerberg in The Social Network. And for Mislov Ropolovitch, the “demonic, scandal-mongering paparazzo,” how about Wily E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons? Getting him is not a great deal more unlikely than actually getting the rest of that cast.
What are your favorite aspects of writing?
Discovering what’s going to happen. Discovering what I didn’t know I knew.
Your least favorite aspects of writing?
When I’m not writing, I find I become generally dissatisfied and progressively more and more inefficient. So I think my least favorite aspect of writing is not writing.
Who are some of your favorite authors/books?
I’m very eclectic. I still enjoy browsing bookstores and library shelves, pulling down a book that looks interesting, and I’ll wind up reading it for the very reason that I haven’t read anything like it before. I enjoy comic novels (I wrote one, after all), but I also greatly enjoy authors like Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and - moving over to our continent, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and - moving back to the UK of the present day - David Lodge, Michael Frayn, David Mitchell, and - moving back over here - Alan Furst, Tom Wolfe. You get the idea. Those are the writers who floated through my top of mind at the moment. I also enjoy reading The New Yorker every week, and I’ve got a complete collection of all the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished The Untouchable by John Banville and I’m starting Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. I’m looking forward to Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve. I usually read poetry for a while before going to sleep, and at present I’m working through Garrison Keillor’s latest collection, Good Poems, American Places.
If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors — dead or alive — who would they be and what would you serve them?
I guess it would be a few of the authors mentioned in the earlier question, but I’d want to add Chaucer and Shakespeare. So those two plus Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and David Lodge. Since I would be terrified to sit at that table, I’d go hide in the corner and take notes, giving up my place to Rex Stout. I’d serve take-out from a really good Thai restaurant. (What a bizarre evening!)
What is the one book that you wish you could say that you wrote?
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and will probably return to it several times more in the course of writing my next novel. In addition to being witty and charming and containing enormously useful advice on how to write novels, the book also demonstrates an intimate knowledge and appreciation of dozens of classic novels, many of which I’ll probably never get around to reading myself.
What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?
For writing, see above: The Art of Fiction. For living: “Be brave, giving due honor and respect to every person.”
All Peace Corps, all the time — book reviews, author interviews, essays, new books, scoops, resources for readers and writers. In other words — just what we’ve been doing with our newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers from 1989 to 1996, and our website Peace Corps Writers from 1997 to 2008! — John Coyne, editor; and Marian Haley Beil, publisher (both Ethiopia 1962–64)