[In the May 2005 issue of Peace Corps Writers, we published this “A Writer Writes” essay “The Boy on the Back of the Bike” written by Terry Campbell (Tanzania 1985-87; Dominican Republic 1989-92; Crisis Corps El Salvador 2001-02). We haven’t heard from Terry in some time, not sure he is following our site or the workings of the Peace Corps, but this piece he wrote shows where his heart is.]
The Boy on the Back of the Bike
By Terry Campbell
IN NOVEMBER November 2004, I returned to Tanzania where I had served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987. I had been wanting to go back for a long time, but as everyone knows, it’s expensive. Then I saw this deal on the internet and I grabbed it. After hitting the final “purchase ticket” button, I panicked a little. It had been seventeen years since I’d left Tanzania! What was I thinking? Where was I going to stay? What was I going to do? What exactly was my motive for going back? I really had no answers to these questions.
I first went to Tanzania in 1985, at the height of the African Drought, during the time of Live Aid, the Concert for Africa, the song “We Are The World,” Bob Geldof’s consideration for the Nobel Prize, Loret Ruppe’s TV commercials, “I want to put ten thousand Volunteers in the field!” The Drought was one of the greatest human tragedies of the ’80s. So many Americans responded, young and old, male and female, idealistic, altruistic, from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
My group did stateside training in Frogmore, South Carolina, at Penn Center, on the campus of the first Black college in the United States, established, 1862. We trained to be agricultural extension agents. We raised small animals, had garden plots, lived with local families, went to Baptist church services, heard a sermon by Julian Bond, laughed, loved and lived with some of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. It was a fantastic experience!
In September, we went to Tanzania. To be sure, it was not easy. There were many hardships and disappointments. Our ET rate was over sixty percent.
But it was the kind of experience that never leaves you. There are such things in life as defining moments, and Tanzania for me was just such a moment. I made friends, people who became like family. Why? Because the situation called for it. Because the circumstances were such that other Volunteers were the only people I could seriously relate to. I remember once being in a room of expatriates, just one other Volunteer and I. Everyone in the room was wearing a watch, except us. Why? Because we were Peace Corps Volunteers. Because we did not live by watches and schedules. I met people from other organizations, volunteers from England, Holland and Ireland. They were nothing like us. No foreigner in Tanzania spoke better Swahili than Peace Corps. Why? Because Peace Corps Volunteers actually lived with the people. Other volunteer organization didn’t see it the way we did.
It was the philosophy of the Peace Corps that set us apart from all others. We weren’t there just to work, although work was a part of our assignment. We weren’t there just to build a resume, or prepare for a job in the foreign service. We were there to teach and to learn and to become a part of another culture.
I WENT BACK TO MY SITE last November – 36 hours on a hot, overcrowded, broken down bus, just like before. When I arrived, some things were still the same. I was still the onlymzungu, white man, in the area. The climate was still the same. People were still doing the same things they were doing when I was there before. But in other ways, Igunga had changed. A paved road now runs through the heart of town where once only a dirt road existed. A mill now grinds the corn that was once ground by hand. There is electricity.
I searched for people who might remember me, but I was looking for one in particular, his name was Abdallah. In 1985, Abdallah was a boy about seven years old. He was an abused child, forced by circumstances beyond his control, to beg on the street. His father was dead, his mother an alcoholic.
When I first met him, he had no shoes, and barely a shirt on his back. I helped him out with food, clothes and education for two years. He became like a son to me, and used to ride on the gas tank of my motorcycle all over town. People laughed and called his name, whenever we passed. After a while, people started calling him Abdallah Mzungu, as if that name made him my son. When I was getting ready to COS, the local people said, “Take him back to America” ; but I knew that was not the answer. Abdallah did not belong to me, he was not my son. I made arrangements to have him cared for, arrangements I’m sure lasted about as long as a good African rainstorm. But it was the best I could do.
On the second day of my return visit, I started asking around. “Do you know someone named Abdallah?” I recounted the circumstances of his life. Quite a few people shook their heads. Finally, one man smiled and said, “Oh, Abdallah.” He did know him. The man said to go by the bus stop. Ask for him there. “Ask for Abdallah Mzungu,” he said. I felt a shiver up and down my spine when I heard that name.
I did find Abdallah. Funny, when I first saw him, I felt like a father who abandons his son, then tries to make up for it 20 years later. Of course my situation was not like an eighties sitcom, or a Michael Jackson illegitimate pregnancy song. Abdallah didn’t belong to me, he was not really my son. When he came up to me, he looked exactly as he had twenty years before, no shoes, clothes dirty with soot. And I did exactly as I had done before, bought him new clothes and shoes, and after a shower at the guest house, we went for lunch.
We talked. His mother is dead; he works making charcoal, living in a room, three months behind in his rent. All that I took care of, naturally, that’s what I do best. I did the same things I did twenty years ago. In some ways, I haven’t changed, and neither have they.
THERE ARE MANY lasting changes Peace Corps Volunteers make, and there are some things that can’t be changed. And there is good and bad in everything we do. Igunga has a big paved highway running through it now. Development is great, but in many ways the town has lost its soul. Igunga, at one time, was like the Old West. It had character, a jail which looked like a Mexican hooskow, a bank which always made me feel like I was Jesse James. Now, Igunga is not much different than one of those overhead Howard Johnson’s restaurants you see on highways in cities like Chicago. And I helped to make it that way.
Change can come on a big level, like a highway, a mill or electricity. Change can also come on a small, personal level, like helping someone, like Abdallah.
The highway is good, it gets people around better and faster, the mill is more efficient, it eliminates a dull and laborious task. I did some good too, but not as much or in the way I would have liked. I guess that’s true on just about every level. I guess that’s why you have to keep going back.
Terry Campbell worked as a construction PCV in the Mwamapuli irrigation project in Tanzania. The project involved clearing sixteen hundred acres of land for growing rice. In the Dominican Republic he worked in the Appropriate Technology Water program, and as a Crisis Corps Volunteer in El Salvador, responding to the earthquakes, he supervised the construction of fifty houses. Campbell was also in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam from 1968-70. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English Language and Literature and lives in the Chicago area where he is a self-employed landscaper.