Country Driving: A Journey Though China From Farm to Factoryby Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) made the The New York Times Book Review(December 5, 2010) list of 100 notable books for the year. This book, the third of Hessler’s “China books,” chronicles the effects of an expanding road network on the rapidly changing lives of individual Chinese.
Peace Corps Writers
From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer
by Michael L. Buckler (Malawi, 2006–08)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN CURRENT AFRICAN AFFAIRS, this is the book for you. Another valuable addition to Peace Corps Experience literature, it was written and published only two years after the author hugged his African family and returned. Not a timid soul, Michael L. Buckler describes his home in Malawi, and explores several controversial topics such as the overlap of services offered by the Peace Corps and non-governmental agencies, the U.S. foreign aid package, American subsidies and their effect upon other nations, Volunteer use of anti-depressants and Volunteer sexual debauchery. He does something else that reminded me of the infamous postcard incident so long ago. He published a book with an unflattering portrait of a current member of the Malawi Parliament, accusing her of abuse of power. This could have interesting repercussions.
Ironically, Buckler joined the Peace Corps after practicing law for a few years. At the age of 32, he was a bit older than the average Volunteer. He describes his difficulty learning a foreign language (Chichewi), adjusting to a new life cooking over an open flame, using an outhouse and riding a bicycle not for leisure but necessity. There were, of course, other nuisances like a black mambo snake and those pesky bats. A teacher assigned to a remote Khawala village (45 miles from Blantyre) usually reserved to punish undisciplined government teachers, he was befriended by the school headmaster who guided him with praise and sage advice (”None of this is your fault . . . You are full of blessings.”). Aside from teaching, Buckler coordinated a school campus reforestry program, planting fruit trees, and also began the construction of a girl’s dormitory on campus. The latter proved difficult.
Mr. Zimbota, the school headmaster, not only mentored the young Peace Corps Volunteer but literally welcomed him into his family (”If you need anything, I live next door.”). His own children called Buckler “uncle.” A government employee banished to the hinterland years before, he had personally supervised the expansion of a one-room school house to a campus. His wisdom not only guided the author but stimulated him to complete his service. At each stumble, Zimbota was there to lean over and whisper, “Are you ready to begin?” It was a bittersweet relationship. As a consequence to Buckler’s success, Zimbota was first demoted, then transferred to another post where he died.
Buckler was fortunate enough to create another African family when he invited three male commuter students to share his teacher’s house where they not only lived together but he also tutored them. Prior to Buckler’s service, no graduate of the Khawala school had ever passed university entrance exams. All three passed. One has aspirations to be a businessman, another yearns to be a nurse and the third a teacher. All they lack are the funds to continue their education. So, Buckler wrote and published this book. All royalties and reader donations will be used for that purpose. Don’t hesitate — buy this book!
To order From Microsoft to Malawi from Amazon,
click on the book cover or the bold book title
— and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate,
will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is an urban planner and author of eight books and seven pamphlets. His latest book titled Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010 will be released for Christmas, 2010.
Last week it was George Packer (Togo 1982-84) in the pages of The New Yorker.
This week (December 6, 2010), Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996-97), who wrote about his brief Peace Corps tour in Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, has a long, long piece (what else would be in The New Yorker?) entitled “A Simple Medium” that focuses on Chuck Lorre who produces sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men.”
Bissell is the author of five books, including Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, which orginated with a New Yorker piece published in 2008. My guess is that with this current piece in the magazine Tom has one-third of his next book already written.
[Extra Lives was reviewed by Bruce Schlein (Papua New Guinea 1990–92; Bosnia 1996; PC/Staff/DC 2003–05) earlier this year. Check is out at: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/pc-writers/2010/09/28/review-extra-lives/ ]
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Other Language: Poems, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. He is also the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, the novel that won the 2001 Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers.
Brazaitis served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala from 1990 to 1993 and as a Peace Corps technical trainer in the same country from 1995 to 1996. Currently, he directs the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
On December 7, 2010, Mark will be reading at the Kent State Student Center, Room 306, and answering questions about the Peace Corps!
There’s a Facebook page for the reading: http://en-gb.facebook.com/event.php?eid=150186528348926&index=1
Check it out!
Often when an RPCV book is reviewed on this site and receives a negative review I get an angry email from the irate author who says something to the effect, “I wrote it, therefore, it is good!”
Well, having published something like twenty-five books and received more than my ‘fair share’ of negative reviews, I can understand the feeling. But if a writer — especially a ’self-publishing writer — has the audacity (yes, audacity!) to publish anything and then put the book out into the market place for others to buy and read, then, well, they have to suffer the slings and arrows, and perhaps praise, for what they wrote. That’s what publishing is all about.
But if you are George W. Bush and you write your memoir and it gets into the hands of George Packer (Togo 1982–83) to review it for The New Yorker . . . well, watch out.
Packer does a job on Bush’s book, Decision Points (which naturally is a runaway best seller), in the November 29, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.
All books — fiction or non-fiction — tell you who the writer is if you read between the lines. Here is just one short excerpt from Packer’s long review of Bush’s confessional tome. Early on he (Packer) makes the point why Bush’s Decision Points will not endure, as did, for example, The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, considered by most as the only great ex-President tale. Packers writes:
Here is a prediction: Decision Points will not endure. Its prose aims for tough-minded simplicity but keeps landing on simpleminded sententiousness. Bush credits no collaborator, his memoirs reads as if they were written by an admiring sidekick who is familiar with every story Bush ever told but never got to know the President well enough to convey his inner life. Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages are not self-serving.
There is much more where that came from. Packer goes onto write,
Every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion; memoirs by public figures are especially unreliable. What’s remarkable about Decision Points is how frequently and casually it leaves out facts, large and small, whose absence draws more attention than their inclusion would have.
I suggest you read Packer’s review in The New Yorker and skip the 493 pages of Bush’s Pablum.
Or as Clemenza said in the Godfather, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
Reviewed by Thomas Coyne (Morocco 1981–82)
SAUDI ARABIA IS A HARD PLACE TO WRITE ABOUT. The western mind gets easily distracted by such cultural flash points as hijabs and theocracies. The Saudi sensibility seems clannish; not so interested in advertising its lifestyle to the rest of the world. So surprise, Learn Thai With Me, the second novel from RJ Huddy, (a nom de plume of a Moroccan RPCV) is a rare example evoking the Saudi Arabia of the 1980’s.
Of course, this is really a book about Americans — Degenerates Abroad perhaps — and not so much about Saudis or Thais. There are some other caveats. For one thing, Learn Thai With Me will not teach you much — if any — Thai. In fact, we are given not a single peep into the eponymous book of the title. For another, at some point, reader, you will have to take a willing-suspension-of-disbelief pill to get through it. Learn Thai With Me is like a phoropter — that gadget the optometrist uses to learn what eyeglass lenses you like. “Click . . . click . . . Now which one is more in focus?” In this case, Huddy takes you to Jeddah, Bangkok, an Appalachian hamlet, and Afghanistan to check out his vision.
The central story follows this narrative arc: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Loses Girl. Boy Meets Boy. Boy Meets Other Girl… No, really Learn Thai With Me contrasts Saudi society with that of Bangkok’s red-light districts. No . . . really . . . Learn Thai With Me juxtaposes western and eastern philosophies . . .
“Click” — our hero Jack meets Nigel in the Jeddah airport Customs Lounge. Taciturn, isolated, Jack is in Saudi to get his head straight. Nigel is there to play — Saudi being marginally more gay tolerant than America of the 1980’s. Jack and Nigel have baggage of the sort that doesn’t get inspected by Customs officials. Jack is a crooked man, in a downward spiral of despair over a thwarted romance; his relationship with his mother and the faith of his father has also ruptured. Nigel is the wealthy heir to a Chicago pizza-empire, but his sensibilities are too thin-crusted, too sex-addicted. He is an insomniac, but too tired to quit while he’s ahead.
The two are assigned as villa-mates at a Saudi army school compound and begin lucrative-but-dreary contracts as language instructors. Their students study English as the prerequisite to learning modern warfare. At first an odd couple, Jack and Nigel start to accommodate each other’s frailties. They explore, amazed and amused, a Saudi cultural landscape composed of petro-dollars, religious police, censored comic strips, prayer rugs with built-in compasses pointing to Mecca. They work together on a book called Learn Thai With Me.
“Click” — Nigel is deported and Jack goes on a red-light holiday to Thailand. He finds comfort with Bar Girl Number 27, Tia, and learns from her that his heart can be repaired. Tia espouses a philosophy of acceptance — of unbearable but undeniable linkages between good and evil, health and sickness, hope and heartache. Life is this duality; so abnegation must be the true goal.
“Click” — Jack refocuses on Appalachia. He goes home to Cob Creek, finds the lyrical woods and streams of his youth, finds a best friend, finds a mother who still loves him; finds — again — all the reasons he had run away.
“Click” — the penultimate stop is Afghanistan where Jack’s life comes full circle and finally comes into focus. Jack is who he is. He does what he does.
Author Huddy, a former PCV and long-time ex-pat, captures the texture and tenor of work-in-Saudi/play-in-Bangkok quite realistically. In the Saudi chapters, he clues the reader in to the unique Saudi caste system for its guest-workers: Filipinos = laborers, South Asians = domestics, British = accountants, Americans = instructors. In the Thai chapters, Learn Thai With Me doesn’t conceal the grubbiness of the sex trade, but also doesn’t diminish the giddy, burlesque-and-booze atmosphere of those times. [N.B. a contemporary echo of Bangkok-80s-nightlife can be found simply by googling "Amy G" & "kazoo."] Learn Thai With Me narrates the sweetness that could be found there — Huddy calls it “charming the loneliness off.”
If anything, Huddy understates what is really a startling dichotomy between Saudi attitudes towards women and sex, and Bangkok’s opposite approach. Saudi culture puts women on a metaphoric pedestal and then surrounds, shrouds them with such restrictions on free expression as are found in few other places in the world. Meanwhile, in the bars and massage parlors of Bangkok, women and sex are commercialized to extremes.
For scenery — for the way people talked and behaved in Saudi or on Patpong St. in the ’80’s — Learn Thai With Me is a good primer. Huddy’s narrative never plays to stereotype. His Saudi characters are not sympathetic, but they are never buffoons. His Thai and Kentucky characters likewise escape any number of possible, dreadful representations. Unfortunately, the high road is a narrow one. His supporting cast of ethnics serve merely to voice the plot. We never get enough of their words to really understand their point of view in the circumstances. It’s only when Huddy returns his story to Kentucky that the rhythms and pitch of dialog ring true to the ear.
I will report here that Jack strikes me as either self-deluded or a misogynist. Given opportunities to man up, he bails. About this Huddy says: “Jack is principled.” I say — phooey. A secondary plot makes multiple cameo appearances in the narrative, only to fade away. Likewise, a clever ruse to expose a secret leaves the secret still hidden. Huddy uses his characters as if directing a stage play on a budget — too few actors/too many roles. This produces only a deflating sensation — it’s a small world after all. A final criticism is Huddy’s use of a narrative feint — a trick — to make the reader think much more highly of a central relationship in the book than it actually merits — quite like hearing the TV/film music swell when two lovers begin their romantic talk, instead of hearing the love talk itself.
Full disclosure: RJ Huddy and I were stagiaires together in the Maghreb. I had well and truly lost touch with him these past three decades. Learn Thai With Me was the opportunity to get reacquainted with both the old and new RJ. He is now two books and more into the writing life. Huddy’s debut novel Verse of the Sword (reviewed elsewhere on this website) is a true delight, ambitious and articulate. Read it! Go on and read Learn Thai With Me too. Then join me in hoping for some future reviewer’s tweet: “Legions of RJ Huddy fans welcome his third book — in which he returns to the assured authorial voice of VOTS and ties up threads left loose in LTWM - to create a new classic.”
To order Learn Thai with Me from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Thomas Coyne finished his Peace Corps tour as a TEFL teacher in Morocco, then spent 18 months in Saudi teaching English to naval cadets. Today he commutes daily to a large office building in the Loop in downtown Chicago wherein he works as a grants manager. In his (scant) spare time, he studies the mysteries of saxophony. His travels, expressed as a Venn diagram, would overlap nearly 80 percent of the locations and times narrated in LTWM.
Bill Stein (Niger 1990-93) President of the Columbia River Peace Corps Association sent out a notice on upcoming meetings with RPCV authors. Bill and his group are supporting our writers. Thanks, Columbia River!
Monday, December 6, 2010: Tinker, Irene: Crossing Centuries: A Road Trip Through Colonial Africa (2010). The website now contains transit directions to Irene Tinker’s home in the Mirabella Portland.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011: Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle (1969). Note that this book was earlier slated for discussion in February.
Mid-February 2011 (date TBA): Peter Hessler (China 1996-98): River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001). Peter Hessler will be at Powell’s City of Books on 2/15 reading from his latest book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (2010), and he’s graciously offering to meet with us some time during his Portland visit that’s not booked by his publicist. We’re aiming for before our 2/13 potluck, our normal time (6:30-8:00 pm) on Valentine’s Day or Wed 2/16, or after his 2/15 Powell’s appearance.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011: Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996): Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2004). Tom Bissell lives in Portland a good part of each year, but he’s presently working hard on his next book. It’s possible we could yet change the March book if he names a future month (in 2011 or 2012) he’d be willing to meet with us.
Monday, April 18, 2011: Robert Textor (PC/HQ 1961-64) (editor): Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps (1966). This book is out-of-print, but thanks to Bob Textor and the Multnomah County Library, 4-5 copies will be circulating between December 6 and April 18. Happy reading!
Westport author David L. Meth [Korea 1971–72] reads from his new novel, “A Hint of Light,” at the Westport CT Public Library.
Written by Nancy Burton for Patch.com
When Westport writer David L. Meth was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s in Seoul, Korea, he “walked the streets” to pick up the cultural vibes.
Now he has self published his first novel based on real characters who have haunted his psyche ever since.
Meth gave a reading from his book, A Hint of Light, at the Westport Public Library on Monday, sharing passages of prose of sometimes exquisite piquancy.
The main character is a street urchin named Byung-suk, who is 9 years old when the book opens.
Byung-suk is the product of a tryst involving a Korean prostitute and a black American soldier stationed in Seoul. Byung-suk’s mother died in an alleyway during childbirth and he grows up a child of the streets, abandoned by an unknown father and despised by Koreans as a living stain on their racial purity.
Meth describes the curse in the following passage:
“He flaunted the worst of their sexual and racial humiliations directly in front of them . . . like a rash that would not go away, he and others like him spread throughout Korean society fouling their national sense of purity.”
Byung-suk’s life is one of desperation as he has to steal rotting vegetables to eat and seek refuge in dingy unlit basements, living with the rats. His survival depends on “The Boss,” a sadistic character who gets his comeuppance in a scene of brutality, one of many in the book.
But Byung-sik has a will to survive the harrowing conditions.
“By the age of nine, he ran with the street: fast and lonely, his body caked with layers of an unnatural black that defied identification with anything human. He followed the years through Seoul’s inhospitable marketplaces like a shadow, always present, but just beyond the hint of light.”
“Byung-suk moved with the wind, a small gust caught in the doorways of the night. He was a breeze beneath the cover of a vegetable stand, a vision out of the corner of an eye, always in chase, always in flight.”
He finds himself in Seoul’s red-light district where U.S. military are drawn to the bars, clubs and sex. Byung-suk becomes a pimp wise to the ways of depravity; the vocation is useful as he develops his language skills.
Eventually he finds a soulmate, Miya, a girl with a gimpy leg, who’s also the product of a Korean and African-American union and who does not speak.
Over time, the pair finds work in ever more hospitable environments and Miya emerges from her self-imposed cocoon of silence. Each becomes fluent in Korean, Japanese and English, the last being their ticket to the promised land, America.
Meth, who is also an award-winning playwright, taught English at a prestigious university in Seoul when he was in the Peace Corps. His term coincided with the imposition of martial order and the closing of schools and universities by the government. Freed of teaching responsibilities, he immersed himself in the culture.
He returned to devote several years to researching the lives of street children of mixed race and conducted hundreds of hours of taped interviews.
To order Hint of Light from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Visions of Place: Regionalism and Architecture
Edited and co-authored by William Bechhoefer (Tunisia 1967–69) plus colleagues and former students
University of Maryland School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning
$17.95 + $4.00 shipping (contact RoseMarie Tate firstname.lastname@example.org)
Controlled Crash: An Airline Odyssey from Eels and Ethics to Blimps and Drunken Bears
by Eldon Brown (Gabon 1962–63; Jamaica 1963–65)
From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer
(Peace Corps experience)
by Michael Buckler (Malawi 2006–08)
La Ranfla and Other New Mexico Stories
(new paperback edition)
by Martha Egan (Venezuela 1967–69)
A Wedding in Samar: A Memoir of an Early Peace Corps Experience, Philippines 1961–1963
by John Francis Halloran (Philippines 1962–63)
Edited and introduced by John Durand (Philippines 1962–63)
Sixteen Months of Mutton: Meat-Eating Journeys Through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia
(Peace Corps experience)
by Stu Lamb (Kazakhstan [nom de plume]
by Mark Lewandowski (Poland 1991–93)
All Things That Matter Press
Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas: A Personal Journey
Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963–65)
A Hint of Light
David L. Meth (Korea 1971–72)
The Etatist Turkish Republic And Its Political And Socio-Economic Performance From 1980–1999
by Dora [Glidewell] Nadolski (Turkey 1962–64)
University Press of America
The Atlantic Slave Trade (Problems in World History series)
edited by David Northrop (Nigeria 1965–66)
The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader
co-authored by David Northrop (Nigeria 1965–66) with S Behrendt, AJG Latham
Oxford University Press
Chess Child: The story of Ray Robson, America’s Youngest Grandmaster
by Gary Robson (Philippines 1987–89)
Nipa Hut Press
Misadventures in Maasin
(Peace Corps experience, humor)
by Gary Robson (Philippines 1987–89)
Nipa Hut Press
by Mark Salvatore (Paraguay 1989–91)
$4.99 — Kindle edition
The Winter Line: A Memoir and Observation of Asia
by Ken Winkler (India 1964–1966; Czech Republic 1995–96)
Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory
by Jonathan Zimmerman (Nepal 1983–85)
Yale University Press
RECENTLY I INTERVIEWED STANLEY MEISLER, the author of the forthcoming book When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years. (The book will be published in February but you can go on-line now to Amazon.com and order your copy.) I asked Meisler in this season of thanksgiving to give his view of agency, and asked him what he learned doing his research for this important book. Here is what Stan had to say.
From the advantage points of time and distance how would you sum up the value (if any) of the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps has created an incredible resource of 200,000 Americans who know the developing world intimately. Take Africa, for example. In 1960, who in the US knew anything about Africa? Some missionaries. Some academics. When the Peace Corps was starting, I received a phone call from Berea College.
They were going to train PCVs to go to Senegal, and they asked me to run the program. I had just come back from ten months or so of travel in Africa under a Ford Foundation grant and had spent three months in Senegal. I turned them down, explaining that I did not know much about Senegal: I had only spent three months there, mostly in Dakar. Almost two years later, I went to work for the Peace Corps and flew to Senegal to do an evaluation. When I found some PCVs who had trained at Berea, I told them how I had almost run their training program but declined because of my limited experience in Senegal. They laughed at me. “Your three months,” I was told, “were three months more than anybody on the Berea training staff had ever spent in Senegal.”
Nothing like that can ever happen now. Our embassies and AID missions in Africa today are chock full of RPCVs with enormous and intimate knowledge of Africa. There is no shortage of people who know Africa, and that’s because of the Peace Corps.
The question of the impact of the PC on other countries is harder to measure. Much of what Volunteers do is just not quantifiable. PC annual reports can recite the numbers of fish ponds built or the kilos of honey created, but I have never been satisfied with those recitations. I feel the impact is so much greater. How do you measure the impact of the PC when two Volunteers befriend a poor adolescent boy and he grows up to become President of Peru? Or how do you measure the impact of a PCV teacher who inspires a young Filipino? Or how do you measure the impact of a Volunteer nurse who shows Afghan nurses that demonstrating love and concern to a patient is part of the job? I simply have never doubted the enormous impact of PCVs on their hosts.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman makes the point in her 1998 book on the agency All You Need Is Love that the “idea” of a Peace Corps was in the air and that other nations, even before the United States, were fielding corps of volunteers. Since then, all of these projects and programs have been branded ‘peace corps like.’ Why did the US claim the movement of young people going to the developing world to help others?
Most of the early Volunteer programs that I came across were private and very small like the British and Quaker programs. The French had a program that allowed military conscripts to chose alternate service in French foreign assistance. So you could not really call them Volunteers. (I remember running into a young French conscript happily living in Harrar because that is where Rimbaud lived after writing all his poetry.) What made the Peace Corps different was that it was big, fully supported by the government, and cheered on by many prideful Americans. I think it was first in this regard.
Of course, there was a special confluence of events for the Peace Corps: a dashing President, his dynamic brother-in-law, and a great outpouring of enthusiasm from young Americans. I remember, when I was the Paris correspondent of the L.A. Times, wondering why that wonderful organization, Doctors Without Borders, had started in France, not the US. I had the feeling that young educated French still had that powerful urge to serve while most young educated Americans had given that up for a powerful urge to make money. Then again, perhaps I was wrong, because a lot of young Americans still joined the Peace Corps.
Leaving Shriver off the table, what Peace Corps Director made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the agency, in the United States and overseas?
I guess it was Loret Ruppe. Everyone feared that she was some kind of Reaganite hack. But she turned into a beloved leader. She pulled the Peace Corps out of ACTION, and she defied her Republican Party by ruling that the appointment of Peace Corps directors overseas would be made without any suggestions or interference from the White House. She also had no doubts in her mind that her main job was to help the PCVs and their work. The right-wing Heritage Foundation issued a report calling her a thorn in the side of Reagan. That didn’t influence Reagan. He, just like the PC staff and Volunteers, loved her.
Having said this, I would like to throw in a word for Jack Vaughn as almost as important. Jack knew that he was taking over a highly successful agency but one in need of improvement. So he made the improvements — more intense training, better site selection, smaller programs — while making it still seem like Shriver’s Peace Corps.
Going back to your old job, how important was the Evaluation Division in making sure that the Peace Corps was kept on the straight and narrow?
I consider it a key factor in pointing out all the early problems of the Peace Corps. Originally Shriver set it up with the idea that he would become informed of scandals and failures before Time magazine got hold of them. But Charlie Peters turned it into far more than that. Time, in fact, never had any trouble finding scandals. But Evaluation gave Shriver and Vaughn an insight by a neutral source into how well the Peace Corps was doing overseas. If you are in Washington creating a program or overseas running the program it is very hard to find anything wrong with the program: programs all seem well above average to those creating and running them. But Charlie sent journalists, lawyers, RPCVs and even novelists who knew little about the programs and instructed them to come up with an honest and unbiased view of what was going on overseas. And an evaluator came to every country every year. The evaluation reports now in the National Archives are an incredible store house of well-written, anecdote-filled pictures of the early PC. Evaluators soon found that PCVs were the best people to let them know what was really going on. But Evaluation ended with the Nixon Administration. Now the Inspector-General’s office sends evaluators out when word seeps back that there is some problem overseas. There is no periodic evaluation. I sometimes wonder how the director of the PC can really find out what is going in so many different countries these days without periodic evaluations by outsiders.
You have heard a lot of stories about PCVs and overseas staff, as well, as HQ. Take a few great stories from the books, or tales that didn’t make your book?
One good story that didn’t make my book centers on an Evaluation failure. Charlie Peters invited the novelist Mark Harris to do an evaluation in, I think, Liberia. Harris had written the wonderful baseball novel, Bang the Drum Slowly. Before he went out, Harris, who had a nebbish manner like Woody Allen, asked me if I thought it was a good idea for him to take his typewriter along. I told him it wasn’t. You are so busy listening to PCVs and taking notes all day that you barely have time to read them before you fall asleep each night in your hotel room, I said. There’s no time for any other writing. Harris thanked me and said he would probably take his typewriter anyway.
Soon after he finished the evaluation, Harris published his memoir, Twenty-One Twice, about his time in Africa. He took his title from the fact that he was now twice the age of most of the PCVs. His memoir is full of meanderings about his own feelings and full of scenes with PCVs banging on his hotel door to talk to him while he yells at them to leave him alone so he can work on his typewriter. There is a great scene in the book in which Harris hands Charlie his evaluation which says that everything is wonderful in Liberia. Charlie glares at him and asks, Are you sure you went to Liberia? This was not considered a successful evaluation.
RPCV Michael Schmicker’s memoir about his Thailand days, Land of Smiles, which he wrote under the pseudonym A. A. Maytree, is full of good anecdotes. One that I didn’t use because of space problems involves the US military. During the Vietnam War, there were 50,000 US military based in Thailand and another 6,000 came every month for R&R from Vietnam. The military had pressured Kevin Delany, the PC director, to let the big US general talk to the incoming PCVs so that the Peace Corps and the US War Corps would understand each other better. Delany reluctantly agreed. The general welcomed the PCVs and offered them his insight into the people of Thailand. “You may find the Thai people are not very swift,” he said, “but they’re great little people.” Delany never allowed a general near the Volunteers again.
Warren Wiggins, when I interviewed him in the mid-nineties for Peace Corps Writers said that the Peace Corps couldn’t be started today, that it came about at a perfect moment of time and opportunity. We have had, however, other creative ventures, Teach For America, for example, and lately Charter Schools. If you were reinventing the Peace Corps, what would it be?
I have always felt that the Peace Corps can only be reinvented by the Volunteers themselves. All the good changes that I have seen over the years — in-country training, intensive language study, isolated assignments — have come about through pressure from the Volunteer community. All the best ideas of the evaluators in my days were put into our heads by the volunteers. The dumbest ideas — like sending Volunteers into Eastern Europe to spread capitalism — have come from directors and other policymakers who really did not understand the Peace Corps. So I’d like to leave the reinvention question for RPCVs. I wasn’t a Volunteer. Besides, I don’t think the PC needs reinvention. The original format — enthusiastic Volunteers, with strong and wise support, spending enough time at their site so no one can call them tourists — still makes a lot of sense to me.
Have you ever read “A Towering Task,” the concept paper by Wiggins & Josephson that launched the Peace Corps?
Oh, yes, I’ve read it several times. I always marvel at how nonsensical much of it was. It envisioned sending 50,000 teachers to India and 17,000 to the Philippines. That would have been madness. But the report had two vital suggestions: the Peace Corps needed to be large enough to make an impact and it needed to be created quickly by executive order. Harris Wofford and many others these days like to say that JFK envisioned a PC of 100,000 Volunteers. That may have been true later, but, at the beginning, he envisioned a Peace Corps of a few hundred Volunteers closely supervised by AID. He was afraid these inexperienced young people running around the world might cause him a lot of headaches. But starting with a few hundred would have been just as disastrous as trying to send 50,000 PCVs to India. What “A Towering Task” did was give Shriver the rational to create a large Peace Corps as quickly as possible. I think Donovan McClure was very right when he said that if the report hadn’t reached Shriver, he would have ordered something like it through his hotel’s room service.
About Peace Corps Writers
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)
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