THE PEACE CORPS: IT CAN GET IN YOUR BLOOD
by Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68)
The Reverend Nana Yaw Amponsah Antwi is pastor of The Presbyterian Church of Ghana, half a block away from my apartment. Every Sunday the street buzzes with women dressed in those resplendent West African prints and stylishly-sculpted head-wraps. Some of the men walk with obvious pride in their traditional robes, others just wear suits. The kids look like American kids but everyone looks so spiffed up as if they were going to a wedding. I overhear their melodic Twi which sounds similar to the Igbo that I studied for hours every day during Peace Corps training. Sometimes the women set up tables in front of the church after services and sell traditional foods like garri, yams and palm oil. These were the very staples of my diet in Ishiagu, Nigeria. If I get a craving for any of it, there are Ghanian and Sengalese restaurants nearby.
Next to the church is New Tops African Braiding, the name emblazoned in red block letters on the yellow awning overhanging a line of glass front windows. This place hums with activity, from early morning to late at night. West African hairdressers perform their magic and turn unruly heads of hair into designs that look like a new art form. It turns my head every time I walk by those windows. For a few seconds I’m in Lagos.
Two blocks North of my apartment is a major intersection called African Square. Take a walk along the crowded commercial blocks any day and you’ll see a mixture of locals who have been there for generations, African immigrants who have been around for maybe two months or two generations, tourists from around the globe in open-air double-decker busses and American visitors snapping pictures as if they were in another country. Vendors line the wide sidewalks selling DVD’s, watches, clothes, souvenirs and food while music blasts from boomboxes. It’s a sidewalk flea market every day. Walking tours are popular and gospel services on Sunday a must for many. Tourists line up early on Sunday mornings, waiting to get in. I hear languages from around the world whenever I pass by.
I’m talking about Harlem, of course. I moved there after I retired ten years ago. I rent an apartment in a brownstone on West 123rd Street. The owner is a retired Harlem elementary school teacher. There are four apartments in the building; I’m the only non-family resident. It was a bit of a culture shock after having lived in leafy Princeton for fifteen years, but then again, I’ve had some prior experience with culture shock and being a minority in town.
Gentrification is moving along rapidly in Harlem, as it is in every corner of the formerly-less-expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan. It’s more controversial in Harlem became of its history as the center of black culture. Long-timers are being pressured out by developers eager to build condo towers. Frederick Doulass Boulevard (an extension of Central Park West) now has a new condo tower on almost every block form 110th Street to 123rd Street. Add the fancy, expensive restaurants, Whole Foods, W Hotel, all just a block or two away from my place. Seventeen acres were leveled on the west end of 125th Street to 133rd Streets to build the new futuristic Manhattanville campus of Columbia University.
I left Africa over fifty years ago but Africa hasn’t left me. I seem to find it wherever I go, sniff it out as if it’s an indelible a part of me. In Princeton, I would find the African students, the African professors, the African-related cultural events. One female colleague in Psychological Services, an African-American, wore West African traditional dress on a daily basis. Every day, without fail, I will find something in the New York Times that brings me back to Africa.
Over the years I’ve visited twenty something African countries, so reading the news always has more meaning when I’ve been to that country. It’s alarming how many of those countries would be too dangerous to visit today. (My second Peace Corps experience was in Somalia.) I’m also alert to African names, not only in the newspaper’s political coverage but in the rapidly growing number of African, often Nigerian, often Igbo, sometimes Yoruba names in the I theater, movie, book, style, sports, food and business sections of the paper. I review plays in New York and interview playwrights for articles. Recently, I interviewed a female Igbo playwright, Ngozi Anyanwu, definitely a future star. There are many up-and-comers in these fields, too numerous to list, often second generation Americans, some of whose parents left during the Nigerian civil war. They are so thrilled when you know the names of towns like Okigwe and Arochuku where their grandparents still live. Often the conversation will lead to, “What was it like during the war? My parents don’t talk about it.”
Joining the Peace Corps dramatically changed my life and pointed me in the right direction. Going back with a Peace Corps group in 2008, visiting Ishiagu and talking with three former students was, again, a life-changing experience. The 2008 group was in Kano when Obama was elected. Nigerians beamed with pride and we all became Obama representatives.
I wonder what the more recent Peace Corps experience is like. Does it still have the same kind of impact on one’s life? Does it endure as the years pass? I wouldn’t want to generalize but I wonder if the new breed share the same values and feelings as the pioneers or is it a fundamentally different kind of Peace Corps now? What’s it like being a Volunteer abroad with Trump as President? Was there something special, something so unique and revolutionary, about the sixties and being one of Kennedy’s children that has been lost, something that might also be lost from American culture overall?
Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68) was a psychotherapist at Princeton University and also had a private practice. He lives in New York City, writes memoir, does theater reviews and has had six photography exhibits. firstname.lastname@example.org