“Peace Corps Crown” — A poem by Ada Jo Mann (Chad)

 

Ada Jo Mann

Ada Jo Mann

In her retirement, RPCV Ada Jo Mann is writing poetry and participates in a Poetry Circle at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. Recently her writing group was studying the contemporary poet, Patricia Smith, who writes complicated “crown sonnet” poems. Ada Jo decided to write a crown sonnet poem about her Peace Corps experience. The poem is actually 15 sonnets with the 15th sonnet made up of the first lines of each of the previous 14 sonnets, and her whole poem is focused on just one topic, her Peace Corps country, Chad.

Peace Corps Crown

By Ada Jo Mann (Chad 1967-69)

The toughest job you’ll ever love, they say
And certainly a better choice than war
A two-year stint on some forgotten shore
So far from friends and family, should I stay?
Or say my sad goodbyes and fly away.
The choice is made-go forth and join the Corps
Soon to return with cases filled with lore
Let’s go to far off lands and seize the day
Who knows what lies in store for us to learn
Of tribal practices and foreign words
But first we have to train and make the grade
And wile away the days until our turn
Dreaming of exotic flowers and birds
As all we love and know begins to fade.

Goodbye to all our creature comforters
Farewell to family, friends and loving pets
To first run movies, and our TV sets
And all those things that frequently allures.
One last pat for cat who dutifully purrs
To a new life with only small regrets
So pack your bags and board those many jets
Be ready for adventures for two years
Bring lots of love and curiosity
And trinkets for the village boys and girls
But don’t forget your favorite photo book
Reminders of your friends and family
Keep safe your Granny’s rings and precious pearls
Survey your home and take one final look.

Hello to daily challenges and fears
To cloying heat and unfamiliar smells
The call to prayer, the ringing of the bells
The cooling breeze that comes as darkness nears
Raise up your glass and offer up three cheers
For we have found our peace instead of hell.
We draw our water daily from the well
And hope our friends don’t drink up all the beer.
If so, we’ll have to move to gin tonic
A better way to cure whatever ails
As water tends to come back to offend.
Times like these I wish I were bionic
Immune to all that tries to stop our sails
And tends to make me powerless to defend.

The heat, the bugs, so many thrills each day
The place is Chad which once was held by France
We find a simple house to make our manse
And buy a slatted bed on which to lay
Put on a net to keep the bugs at bay
Begin to learn the local song and dance
Every evening when we have the chance
We learn quite fast, at least that’s what they say
The local language, Sara, proves quite hard
It’s tonal and has not been written down
We charge a local student with the task
We sit with him each day in our front yard
And try to emulate these foreign sounds
Sipping homemade beer from a goatskin flask

Keep all your wits about, or hell to pay
That’s what the Baptist missionaries taught
A sermon that we never could have bought
Our idealism always ruled the day
An attitude based firm on come what may
Do what you want and not just what you ought
Ideals that prove so often to be fraught
With challenges that we confront each day
Like haughty Frenchman laughing at our goals
Or lazy bureaucrats who hold the key
Preventing us from getting on with work
And executing our new Peace Corps roles
To dig latrines to cover up their pee
Come on, I see you try and hide your smirk.

I close my eyes to dream as darkness nears
Mosquitoes humming just outside the net
Did I take my Aralen? Did I forget?
The thought of sickness plays into my fears
Touched off by constant humming in my ears
Remembering when they took me to the vet
Because I hurt my toe and seemed upset
I’ve chuckled over that for many years.
Or when I hadn’t pooped for days and days
The French doctor declared a crise de foi
Because of bumpy roads and mobylettes
The Peace Corps doctor laughed and turned away
And lectured to stop eating food that’s raw
Like oysters coming from afar by jets.

We celebrate this life with goat and beers
Turning the meat slowly above the fire
My hands and feet so hot begin to tire
At last its done and time for feasting nears
We share our bounty with more volunteers
The luscious scent of goat piques their desires
So soon they’ll leave us as their tour expires
They pack away their gear and souvenirs
They pass the torch to us to save the day
We’ll miss them round the fireside each night
Tales of joy and sorrow in this strange land
Unfinished work that makes them want to stay
Soon reconsidered under morning’s light
We say “Adieu” give kisses and a hand.

We travel slowly slogging through the clay
It’s rainy season and our truck is stuck
Back tires spinning in this deep red muck
No villagers in sight who we could pay
To help us make a speedy get away
To breakdown here is certainly bad luck
In times like these all we can say is FUCK!
For now all we can do is hit the hay.
The sun comes up and with it distant sounds
Could this be help for us or just a dream
Hurray! It’s the Italians in their Jeep
Strong arms, good company and food abounds
Their comfy compound lies across that stream
We find the water level’s not too deep.

At last we bind our lessons in a book
Translated into French for use in class
We train the eager teachers here en masse
And hope they have the time to take a look
Use the clean water from the well to cook
Recite each lesson well and you will pass
Our work is nearly finished here at last
So many fun-filled days and nights it took
We travelled near and far to test it out
And laughed and cried and started over twice
But in the end were proud of what we made
Its use for better health left not a doubt
A worthy goal that surely will entice
Long after we have gone and memories fade.

The secret is we had the most to learn
Brought up with love served from the silver spoon
Sung to each night beneath bright stars and moon
A perfect childhood spent mongst flowers and fern
When winter came we watched the homefires burn.
But here the children’s lives end much too soon
Unending heat, no rain brings so much ruin
We pray to local gods the tide will turn
And all at once the skies dump endless rain
Small leaves of green peak through the soaking sand
Now soon the empty bellies will be full
Laughter and dancing will emerge again
Good food for all is taken from the land
The celebratory drinks make our heads dull.

So pleased to turn our sights from war to love
Each day spent here has well-increased our sight
We thank our lucky stars each brilliant night
While astronauts walk round the moon above
And we sit round the fire, nothing to prove
Rejoicing of our choice to shun the fight
Embracing peaceful days and sunny light
Slow down the pace and get into the groove
Life lessons no fine school can teach as well
It’s village daily life that holds the key
To inner peace and meaningful pursuits
This truth we know, but only time will tell
The choice to serve has surely set us free
We’ve sandals on our feet, not combat boots.

Say our goodbyes and savor each last look
The children’s smiles and curiosity
Won our hearts and drove away our pity
We shared with them our music and our books
What fun we had exploring foreign souks
Learning how to navigate each city
Made us feel exceedingly quite giddy
Winding throughout the alley ways and nooks
One time we slept behind a noisy bar
Knouri music playing all night long
Bathroom was locked, we had to improvise
Still far superior than found in war
We chose the Sara tribe and not the Cong
Forsook the constant lows, embraced the highs.

Our memories that we’ll hold as each year turns
Of mango trees and very pungent smells
Of pit latrines and digging small bore wells
And don’t forget the Chicken Pili burns
So tasty that we never seemed to learn
The spices they used seared as hot as hell
Even some icy water couldn’t quell
Yet frequently we found ourselves return.
Each day at noon all creatures took a nap
The blazing sun forced everyone to rest
We climbed inside our net with a good book
If not, the heat our strength would surely sap
A good siesta helped bring out our best
Three hours or so and then it’s time to cook.

Go home at last, pay homage to the dove.
Hello to family, friends and each old place
Not ready yet to join the old rat race
For now enjoy the outpouring of love
Wrapped in the lovely quilt your Mother wove
Bathe in the sweet relief shown on her face
For very soon you’ll have to change your pace
And figure out the path for your next move.
As you left Chad they warned of culture shock
But here we are in such an altered state
No one prepared us for our new found sight
Or those who’d think us strange and try to mock
Too bad for them, we cherish our fine fate
We chose the path of peace, refused to fight.

The toughest job you’ll ever love, they say
Goodbye to all our creature comforters
Hello to daily challenges and fears
The heat, the bugs, so many thrills each day
Keep all your wits about or hell to pay
I close my eyes to dream as darkness nears.
We celebrate this life with goat and beers
We travel slowly slogging through the clay
At last we bind our lessons in a book
The secret is we had the most to learn
So pleased to turn our sights from war to love
Say our goodbyes and savor one last look
Our memories that we’ll hold as each year turns
Go home at last, pay homage to the dove.

positive-family-dynamicsIn Chad, Ada Jo Mann was a health Volunteer. She later worked at Peace Corps headquarters in the Program and Training Support Section. In 1983 she co-created, and was the first Director of, the Small Project Assistance Program (SPA), a USAID-funded program that provides small grants to Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts. The program has endured for 30+ years and is still going strong. She spent many years as a USAID contractor and grantee and is best known for introducing a strength-based approach to change called Appreciative Inquiry to NGOS around the world. She is a co-author of  Positive Family Dynamics.

5 Comments

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  • Congratulations Ada Jo Mann on capturing some of the wonders of Chad in your sonnets. Fun to revisit so many oh-so-Chadian aspects. Not as poetic as you, I tried to capture what Chad taught me (“we who had the most to learn”) in my Peace Corps novel, Under Chad’s Spell. Chad was clearly a country that touched us deep and left lasting impressions.

  • Thanks, Michael. I’ll check out your novel. Have you read the novel, Native Intelligence, written by my brother Raymond Sokolov in the 70s stimulated by tapes we sent to our family from Chad.

  • Fantastic – resonates even tho I was in India at that same time. Captures so much of the experience. And a crown sonnet is every bit as adventurous as we were back then!

    • Grateful forever having the honor of being a fellow business partner with you. Thanks for inviting me to be an appreciative inquiry apprentice practioner. I am confident in my craft because I learned from one of the great masters. thanks

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