#12 More Mad Women at the Peace Corps (Washington, D.C.)

Two real power-house-women in those early years of the Peace Corps were: Cynthia Courtney, English-speaking Africa Division Director, and Francesca Gobi, French-speaking Africa Division Director. Both were recruited from the Africa American Institute (AAI), which years later was exposed by Ramparts magazine as being a CIA front. (Sorry, Sarge!)

I met Cynthia Courtney in the late summer of ’64 when I returned from Ethiopia and went to work in the Office of Volunteer Services (DVS).

Cynthia was one of the original ‘characters’ at the agency. She was a tall, demanding presence in the African Region, a woman of experience within Africa. One of her favorite tricks in the early years to get the very best PCVs for her countries (at the expense of other countries) was to go downstairs to the Selection Division late in the day, pull up a chair, and thumb through the files of new PCVs, and pick up the best candidates. She was looking for ‘the best and the brightest’ for English-speaking African countries. So if you are wondering why you went to teach English in Africa, or why CDs in other sections of the world think Africa got the best Volunteers, think of Courtney.

But my story of Cynthia has to do with a novel, The Zinzin Road, written by Fletcher Knebel and published by zin-zin-roadDoubleday in 1966. It was the first “Peace Corps Novel” and came about because Charlie Peters hired Knebel, a journalist who had a syndicated newspaper column called “Potomac Fever,” to do an evaluation for the Peace Corps. (Knebel also wrote popular novels. You might have heard of them: Seven Days in May, Night of Camp David, etc.)

Well, Knebel did a quick consultant evaluation of Liberia for the Peace Corps and out of that came, The Zinzin Road. It is a novel about a PCV who travels a road in the country of Kalya bringing supplies to Volunteers. A “page turner’ as they say. You can read it almost as fast as Knebel typed it. And because they printed so many hardback copies you can still find it at yard sales and used bookstores.

One of the treats of the book is to try and identify the real Peace Corps Staffers and PCVs who “made it” into the novel as ‘characters’. One of them is Cynthia Courtney.

Here is how Knebel describes the PC/W character ‘Maureen Sutherland,

“….a slim, willowy young woman, stylishly dressed…She wore elongated dark glasses, and a sheaf of black hair fell loosely over one eye. Her skin, as creamy as enameled china, hinted of regular facials and a variety of expensive oils and ointments.”

Knebel goes on to describes her as someone who would frequently fly into a West African country for a brief, whirlwind fact-finding trip, which she breezily referred to as a “look/see.” And while overseas, at staff meetings, she would dominate the room by talking.

He writes: “Miss Sutherland lilted on for half an hour, festively dropping names from Lagos to Washington…she gave a glittering panorama of the world of great affairs, its intrigues,  its grand policies an even its illicit loves….She concluded on a pitch of finishing-school breathlessness and looked about brightly as though waiting for applause.”

While the Peace Corps in the early ’60s was certainly dominated by Mad Men, there were a lot of talented and clever and strong Mad Women  who could hold their own with the best of them. Cynthia Courtney carried their flag.

At the Peace Corps, she held her own and beat the men at their game of passing notes across the waxed conference table. And Cynthia did it right under Shriver’s nose.

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  • I think I’m remembering accurately that Cynthia Courtney wanted Peace Corps to eliminate refrigerators from the furnishings of PCVs in English-speaking African countries. Our PC doctors wrote to Washington that if the fridges were taken away the docs couldn’t properly do their jobs of looking after PCV health … and it didn’t happen. I thought at the time that Ms. Courtney who had never served as a volunteer and had never lived in Africa didn’t have the vaguest idea of conditions there. Native Nigerians organized into their extended families were able to go to markets every day and always have fresh foods for their meals. PCVs couldn’t do that and also do their jobs. I though Ms. Courtney had a totally … and dangerously … unrealistic idea of what service as a PCV was supposed to be.

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