Cold Hand of History, The Peace Corps Part 9
Ethiopia I Volunteers were as hard on each other as they were on the Ethiopians. At the Completion of Service Conference the Final Report filed in the Peace Corps Office read: “Many (PCVs) spoke openly about volunteers who they thought should have been sent home: the males who lived with prostitutes; the woman who was “obviously mentally disturbed; the “opportunist” who was unable to teach so was given a sinecure in the Ministry of Education. The Peace Corps,” one volunteer stated, “is not a goddamn rehabilitation center. ”
Carol Miller Reynolds, who was a PCV in Debre Berhan, where students in early 1963 went on strike, would tell May-and May would tell me-that her comment was the most insightful of all he heard from PCVs. May interviewed Carol in 1987 and she told him, “The basic issues were deep seated and antagonistic to easy resolution. It had to do with us imposing what we considered to be reasonable academic standards. From the students’ point of view our requirements were unreasonable. None of this had ever been done before. We thought our standards were just dandy and ought to be met. But we could not fully appreciate what devastation our demands could bring about in their lives. They could. We couldn’t….We thought: ‘We certainly can’t pass these kids because they don’t deserve to pass.’ We weren’t thinking. ‘Gee, if they don’t pass this means they’re going to have to go back to their villages in failure and disgrace, every avenue of opportunity shut off to them.’ We weren’t thinking along these lines. We mishandled it. Wofford mishandled it. The Peace Crops mishandled it.”
“The besetting sin of the New Frontier….was the addiction of activism,” Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. later observed, as Gary May notes. He then goes onto write, “Nowhere in Kennedy’s Washington was this addiction greater than in the Peace Corps.”
May then quotes Harris Wofford, writing in 1963 about the Peace Corps. “It is an invitation to the imagination, an invitation to large action, to moving fast, to thinking, big, an invitation to its volunteers and to all Americans…to extend themselves. This extension…of ourselves into citizens of the world may be needed not just for our survival but for our salvation.”
May points out that for Ethiopia I, “reality rarely conformed to such passionate rhetoric. After just eight weeks of inadequate training, almost three hundred Americans were sent abroad-not just to teach but to be agents of change. The result was tension between the Ministry of Education, which wanted classrooms filled with teachers, and the volunteers who dedicate themselves to bring Ethiopia into the twentieth century.”
None of that stopped the PCVs from doing more. In Debre Berhan, for example, nearly every volunteer initiated some extracurricular activity. Lynn Linman sponsored a science club; Fran Fisher taught French; Carol Miller planned a new library; Bob Savage coached basketball; Ron Kazarian coached soccer and baseball and created a service organization for civic improvement; and John Rex taught drawing and established a drama club.
At the completion of his tour when no Ethiopian or Indian teacher was willing to supervise the library that Carol Miller had started with its 500 books and magazines, Rex would write home, “It’s the kids who suffer.” Rex decided to create his own library system, dividing the books and magazines into groups which would be given to “responsible students” to start permanent reading centers in thirteen isolated areas. These would be, he wrote home, “the first grass roofed libraries in Ethiopia.”
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Maybe being in a two-man town, as I was, was a good thing. I didn’t come away from Ethiopia feeling angry or critical of my fellow volunteers. They remain, in my mind, the finest group of people with whom I have ever associated. Sure there were a few jerks, but they were a small minority.
Interesting that after 50 plus years we are learning that our two years was really a waste of time. Where is this coming from? Were there no positive comments in that report. John seems to be critizing the extra good deeds volunteers did outside the classroom. Really?
Sure, we were very young with little to no teaching experienced but my experience was filled with daily reminders that we opened up some minds, gave them an awareness of what else there might be in the world, among other things. Granted our school was a boys boarding school in Addis where we had very good fellow teachers and most supplies.
Given the times of the early 60’s, I would not trade those two years for anything and still feel connected after all these years. No new movement will ever be perfect but imagine this world without the peace corps volunteers!