Talking with Madeline Uraneck (Lesotho)

 

Madeline Uraneck (Lesotho 2007-09) is an educator and writer who has visited sixty-four countries through her role as International Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, several Peace Corps assignments, and her passion for world travel. Her writing has appeared in K–12 curriculum materials, educational handbooks on culture and policy, and publications including WorldView Magazine, Hotline, Global Education, WorldWise Schools, and Isthmus, for which she received a Milwaukee Press Club award.

Madeline, tell us a little about yourself.

I’m an Okie, raised by liberal parents in oil country and America’s Bible Belt.  My dad said I had to go to college out of state, so I ended up at Grinnell College in Iowa, then University of Wisconsin in Madison, both bastions of the Midwest, to study Psychology then Education. I’ve been in and out of Wisconsin for 50 years now, from the campus demonstrations of the late 60s to today’s Black Lives Matter marches.

What brought you to the Peace Corps?

In the 9th grade in Oklahoma, I wrote an essay about how I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer for my “career.” I didn’t understand that a two-year commitment is not a “career.” It took me three decades to finally pull it off. I entered Peace Corps Lesotho as the oldest trainee in my cohort, age 60 by the time I swore in.

The Peace Corps almost did become a career, as it has for our current Director Jody Olsen.

It might have, if I had joined a little sooner. After three wonderful years as a PCV in Africa’s Mountain Kingdom doing training of elementary school teachers at Lesotho’s (only) College of Education and in 27 elementary scattered about the Quthing region, I worked at Peace Corps HQ for a year. I left Washington D.C. to work as Education Director in Peace Corps Turkmenistan and Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan. Just as Southern Africa had been, Central Asia was a fascinating part of the world, too seldom visited or studied by most Americans.  In truth, I enjoyed being a Volunteer more than Peace Corps staff. In the middle of the night in my village, I was amazed to stumble out to the courtyard outhouse and see stars that met the horizon. As I left Lesotho, my village was celebrating the arrival of electricity in the first buildings (stores, school) which could afford it. If I visit again, I am certain the stars will have receded.

What did you do after your Peace Corps years?

I wandered slowly back to Wisconsin via more ‘Stans,’ Turkey and Iran. I began to write. Writing is its own journey, with as many mountains and frustrations as I found abroad. With women friends, I bike Wisconsin’s lush, unglaciated hills in the summers and cross country ski the same hills in the winters.  Wisconsin’s rivers and forests sustain me, no matter how far I wander.

Okay, tell us now about your wonderful new book. How did that come about?

Having chronicled my travels in 60 “public letters” that friends had collected over the (pre-Email) years, I planned to write travel essays. To my surprise, I began writing about one country I had never visited, Tibet. In 1992, a group of “displaced” Tibetan refugees were admitted to the US by a lottery drawing from settlements in India and Nepal. In Madison, one of the women became a friend. For the next 25 years we shared many ordinary, yet profound, cultural exchanges as she and the family that she eventually was able to bring to the US integrated into American ways. I thought it would be quick and easy to write a non-fiction account of challenges they had faced. Four years later, the manuscript had become a memoir, as I realized the story was as much mine as theirs.

The Peace Corps certainly helped me develop an eye for cultural transition, for traditions that morph, and for the myth of being able to “help” without oneself being helped and transformed. How to Make a Life: A Tibetan Refugee Family and the Midwestern Woman They Adopted is the story that resulted.

Publishing my first book at age 70 means that I have to step faster to finish the other four I’ve outlined – especially if each one takes four times longer than I expect! Maybe the travel essays will be next.

As someone who is deeply involved with development countries and the value of cross culture experiences, what would you tell someone about traveling and learning from the journey?

Genuine empathy and kindness go far in daily interactions.  For persons considering a career in international development, my sense is that it takes about seven years of living in country to truly get a sense of the culture and to become proficient in the language(s). Too many efforts are directed “at” a community, rather than “with” a community.  Genuine change takes time as well as resources.  In the west we are often resource rich but time poor.
Are there any Peace Corps books and authors who you have read and particularly enjoy?
 
I was deeply touched by Courtney McDermott’s How They Spend Their Sundays (Lesotho ’07) and Kristin Johnson’s Footsteps (Kenya ’82).
With all your wonderful experiences and “wisdom of life” Is there anything that you would tell the new Peace Corps Director to do that would improve the Peace Corps experience and the value of PCVs in a host country?
There is so much that Peace Corps IS doing right, especially the depth and extent of training of incoming volunteers.  In-country staff shine and deserve all the recognition they receive! I was intrigued, however, with the lack of continuity of projects from one PCV to another.  Often excellent work was dropped as one PCV morphed into another, revealing the necessity of Peace Corps to prioritize the needs of its Volunteers over the communities  they serve.  I understand how and why this happens, but I wonder if a means of evaluation of the quality and sustainability of ongoing projects may deserve more attention.

How to Make a Life: A Tibetan Refugee Family and the Midwestern Woman They Adopted
Madeline  Uraneck (Lesotho 2007–09)
Wisconsin Historical Society Press
April 2018
208 pages
$22.95 (paperback), $15.99 (Kindle)

 

3 Comments

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  • 64 countries!!!!! Such a life you are living. One persons like me can only dream of or maybe just imagine in reveries. Do keep writing.

    • Thanks, Edward. Accumulating countries goes much faster when it’s in one’s job description. Some of these were via work, others between jobs, others adventure travel or study. Not included in the count, however, are how many times I returned again and again to the same country. That would be revealing, and says much about a traveler’s passions. ~ Madeline

  • Hi Madeline … This is your old friend Jerry Mullins (Philippines I) writing to say hello and to get caught up with your very busy/rewarding life. How great to read about your book. I will look into getting a copy. … Wow! Have you ever soared to great heights since we first talked about your plans to join the Peace Corps! Wishing you all the best. Hope our paths cross one day soon. Jerry

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