Dancing with Gogos is the story of one man’s effort to make a difference in a collection of Zulu villages in rural South Africa, while fulfilling a life-long dream of serving in the United States Peace Corps. It’s the story of learning a new language, of immersing oneself in a different culture, of leaving a love 15,000 kilometers behind and discovering the unexpected chance to find a new one half a world away. It’s the story of South Africa’s history of apartheid and the effects of that sorry legacy on tens of millions of black Africans who to this day struggle to leave behind 500 years of oppression.
Gary Cornelius was nearly 55 when he realized that he was weeks away from being the age at which Oregon public employees could retire early and get a modest pension, so the month he turned 55 he retired — after a 28-year career working in Oregon’s mental health and developmental disabilities systems. (He had started as a receptionist at a mental health program and “worked my way up,” he says). Along the way he tried several times to become a police officer and, later, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, but never succeeded. He did manage to return to college part-time, while working, and earned a degree. He also became the single father of a four-year-old.
The same month Cornelius retired he applied to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, planning to fulfill a lifelong dream that had been back-burnered by life. The process took 19 months, thanks to some medical issues that concerned Peace Corps, and in 2012, he and 35 other would-be Peace Corps Volunteers were off to Africa. They found themselves in a remote village in Mpumalanga Province located in northeast South Africa. They were there for nine weeks of grueling training before they could be sworn in as Volunteers in “CHOP” — Peace Corps/South Africa’s Community HIV-AIDS Outreach Program — and assume front-line positions in the battle to reduce spread of the disease in a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world. It’s an adventure none will ever forget.
Cornelius served as a Volunteer from 2012 to 2013. Ironically, the medical issue that nearly kept Cornelius out of Peace Corps service was never a problem. But, 14 months into service he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and medically separated — “a fancy term for getting kicked out of Peace Corps,” he humorously tells friends.
But his 14 months — nine weeks of training and a year in his village — were long enough for him to have experiences that afforded plenty to write about. He kept a detailed journal while serving in South Africa, something he’d done off and on his whole life. The journal, along with recollections gleaned from fellow Volunteers, provided most of the source material for Dancing with Gogos. Independent research enabled him to write chapters about some interesting tidbits about Zulu culture, South Africa’s history of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s role in ending it.
Mandela died in December 2013, just a few months after Cornelius returned to the U.S. He says Mandela was “one of my heroes” long before he learned he would be moving to South Africa to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Zulu village in the foothills of a mountain range where Cornelius lived was just a couple hundred miles from the village where Mandela was born.
Cornelius’s daughter, Megan, is now 35 and is a graphic designer who designed the cover and interior for Dancing with Gogos. She has provided Cornelius with three grandchildren.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s that got Cornelius sent home a year early are no worse than when he was diagnosed nearly a year-and-a-half ago. He reports that he is not taking medication since symptoms remain relatively minor, but has joined a support group for people with “early onset” Parkinson’s.
Dancing with Gogos is Cornelius’s second book. In 2011 he published Crashing Through the Underbrush, a novel based “not so loosely,” he says, on his career in mental health, and it was also designed by Megan.
He continues to live in Eugene, Oregon, where he volunteers a lot, including being active in his local returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization, West Cascade Peace Corps Association, which raises money to support projects of Oregon Volunteers in their countries of service.
Now when people ask Gary what he does, he says he’s a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a writer.
Dancing with Gogos: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Gary P. Cornelius (South Africa 2012–13)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
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