Do you remember this 1984 PCV tragedy? (Togo)



Published: July 4, 1984
New York Times

Twelve months into her tour as a Peace Corps volunteer, Jennifer Lynn Rubin, a 23-year-old from Oneonta, N.Y., seemed finally to have come to terms with the loneliness of being the sole volunteer in the village of Defale, population 500, in the West African country of Togo.

Her letters home told of her trouble adjusting to her relocation from upstate New York. In some letters, Miss Rubin repeatedly mentioned a villager she had befriended, a 19-year-old woman named Gieselle who helped her adjust to the culture in northern Togo, a former French colony.

On June 11 Miss Rubin was bludgeoned to death in her home, and the police in Togo have charged Gieselle with the murder. The police say they believe Miss Rubin was killed in revenge for telling Gieselle’s father that she had stolen clothing and other items from Miss Rubin’s home. Gieselle’s last name has not been made public.

The killing was the ninth of a Peace Corps worker in the organization’s 23- year history, according to Hugh O’Neill, its director of public affairs, and has raised the question of how volunteers can protect themselves and their belongings.

The last Peace Corps worker slain was a 52-year-old woman from Palm Desert, Calif., who was shot on a bus in Manila while resisting a holdup, according to Mr. O’Neill. Before Miss Rubin was killed, there had been no reports of violence to volunteers in Togo.

There are 146 Peace Corps volunteers in Togo and about 5,200 around the world, Peace Corps officials said. Togo was one of the first countries to receive volunteers and programs there include agricultural and educational projects.

Volunteers Cautioned on Theftsjennifer-rubin

Mr. O’Neill said volunteers were told in training sessions that thefts were a problem in many countries and that they should not take ”anything extravagant.” He said an 80-pound limit on luggage restricted what volunteers could take. He said there were no formal procedures for reporting thefts.

Because of her friendship with Gieselle, according to Peace Corps officials and Steven H. Rubin, her father, Miss Rubin decided not to report the theft to the authorities. She went instead to Gieselle’s father, from whom she rented her house, a one-story building with several rooms.

Miss Rubin told her parents in letters that she and Gieselle spent many hours together in the house and that she did not suspect her friend until she visited a market in late May and saw a woman wearing a necklace of hers. She questioned the woman and traced the necklace to Gieselle.

According to the report the police gave to the Peace Corps, Gieselle’s father turned his daughter in to the police. After Gieselle repeatly denied the thefts, the police beat her in front of Miss Rubin, according to the Peace Corps account, and Gieselle later admitted taking the items and returned those she still had. One Man Is Arrested

Several days later, according to the account, Gieselle was released, went to a neighboring village and returned with two young men who visited Miss Rubin’s home and killed her. No autopsy has been conducted, according to Mr. O’Neill, but the wounds indicated that Miss Rubin was struck repeatedly on the head with a blunt instrument.

Miss Rubin’s body was found June 13 by William Piatt, the Peace Corps director in Togo, when he made a scheduled visit. The police in Togo have arrested one man in the killing and are seeking a second. The suspects could receive the death sentence if found guilty of murder.

Miss Rubin was born in New Orleans but soon after her family moved to Oneonta, where she attended public schools through her sophomore year of high school. She attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., for her last two years of high school and while there volunteered to work with handicapped children.

In May 1983, Miss Rubin received a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. She flew to Togo only weeks after graduation.

”By the time they had killed her,” Miss Rubin’s father said in a telephone interview from Oneonta, ”she had come to terms with that sense of dislocation and was writing that despite the problems she was exactly where she should be and she knew it.” Concerned by Women’s Plight

Mr. Rubin, a freelance writer and a retired chairman of the English Department at the State University of New York at Oneonta, said his daughter had decided she wanted to extend her stay past the two-year volunteer period and apply for a staff position with the Peace Corps.

Miss Rubin immediately took an interest in the plight of women in Togo and was having some success in reducing their work load when she was killed, her father said.

When she arrived in the small village in the north of the country, women spent two days each week gathering wood for stoves and the time was increasing because of a shortage. So Miss Rubin taught the women to build more efficient stoves from local materials, mainly mud.

Miss Rubin told the villagers that for each stove she built for them, they would have to build two stoves for others in the village and in neighboring villages.

”It was a nice stroke, and it was starting to pay off with women walking to other villages and building two stoves,” Mr. Rubin said. The new stoves cut wood-gathering time in half, he said. ‘A Tremendous Impact’

Mr. Piatt, the Peace Corps director in Togo, said of Miss Rubin’s stove- building idea: ”She synthesized it from talking to other volunteers about what had been successful for them. She was always looking to where she could have the greatest impact.”

Miss Rubin, he said, had ”a tremendous impact” on the village, where the residents make their living from small farms or subsistence agriculture,

”If you accept the fact that it’s hard for rural people to accept new ideas,” he said, ”you can get a sense of how she was able to win the town’s confidence. She even learned the local language, Lamba.”

Miss Rubin’s father said of her decision to join the Peace Corps: ”Jennifer wanted to have an effect on her environment. Togo was as much her environment as upstate New York was. That’s what she was doing when she was murdered.” ”Togo is a safe country, despite what happened to my daughter,” Mr. Rubin added. ”It had nothing to do with the Peace Corps or with Togo.” He said he was satisfied that the Togo Government was aggressively investigating the death. Her body was returned to Oneonta for burial.

”She was a happy young woman when she died,” Mr. Rubin said. ”She had come to terms with the problems she had. They didn’t become invisible, but she was able to cope with them.”


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  • This remains a tragic event, and a reminder, esp to PC staffers, that ultimately a PCV is reaching across a sometimes complex cultural value system, and even an orientation during training may not be sufficient to cover the nuances. When I was in Ghana, in the early 1960s we had an event which crossed cultural sensitivities, caused a ruckus in the local village, but happily no violence resulted. Bad judgement transferring American values to someplace very different. I wonder still today the amount of damage that subtlely resulted from that mistake by a male PCV.

    I always have had doubts about assigning PCVs in solitary locations, esp young female PCVs, rather than place them together with if not another PCV, then somebody, even a host country professional family or teacher. I believe a lot of that is NOW being done, with host families.

    Having grown up in culturally plural New Mexico, I started with an advantage when I arrived in West Africa, and after three years had a pretty deft touch when communicating across cultural lines. Always sensitive to perceived “class”, and realization that Africa maintains a strong tribal identification, and one part of that is a dual moral system. How you treat someone of your own group, vs how you treat an outsider. Then the matter of the perceived “class”, or strength, of the outsider.

    Interestingly, I didn’t leave all of that in Africa. Only a couple years ago we had a ghastly example of this, resulting in three deaths, right in the middle of Albuquerque — hardly a remote location. I wrote a letter to my State Senator, suggesting that in a racially and culturally plural society maybe we needed an enhanced penalty for violent crimes committed across cultural divisions. Just to preserve order. I could tell by his response that he “didn’t get it”. JAT

  • I had never heard of this tragedy. Also, the article said this was the nineth killing in the Peace Corps’ 23 year history.
    I only knew of one other that of Deborah Gardner in 1977 in Tonga. Does anyone have more information?

  • I had read the blog and the account and I think such an event was also fictionalized in your novel, Long Ago and Far Away. I hope I don’t have that wrong. However, the husband, who was a PVC , was tried and not convicted and so I didn’t think that death was in the tally.

    • He was not convicted. The judge said there wasn’t enough evidence. He came home and worked for the Peace Corps for about six months, then went to grad school. He remarried and living in Europe and is a college professor.

  • Replying to E Mycue’s question, an enhanced penalty is a more severe sentence than what might be given in the normal case — of certain specified things are present, to make it more serious. An example. firearms enhancement. A stick-up in which a gun is employed often carries a more severe sentence than the same crime committed without a gun. The logic is the potential degree of harm (i.e. deadly force) that the gun implies. Lately, we’ve had this same question come up with the secondary social upset that happens as a result of police violence against minorities vs non-minorities. JAT

  • I was a volunteer in Togo from 90-92 in the southern area and was shocked to read about ’94 tragic incident . I loved my time , but unfortunately was robbed in the first few months, causing me to move to a more Northern town. The Peace Corps thought this village would be a bit more conducive for me because other PCV’s had been there in the past. Never wanted to press charges because I could never say EXACTLY who was involved. More importantly I knew what HUGE consequences this could pose.

    I have always believed that being vigilant and thoughtful about those around you is the best way to be. Unfortunate things could happen to you any where, any time.

    Elizabeth Bissonette

  • I knew Jennifer as a teen in Oneonta. She was a truly remarkable person and I think about her often. Her kindness during her life and the tragedy of her death had a great effect on my life. I miss her.

  • I met Jennifer while on a program visit as Associate Peace Corps/Benin Director for Rural Development to my volunteer, John Magistro, who was building an efficient cookstoves demo center in northern Benin.

    Jennifer had learned of his work and she came from her site in Togo to help him while learning at the same time how to build the stoves.

    I remember seeing how happy she and John were that sunny day to be painting the outside of the center. My thoughts of the time were that it was nice that she had traveled over from Togo with such dedication and wanted to help work on the center. I recall that I thought she brought some new energy to motivate John to complete the demonstration center.

    Her loss later was additionally painful because I also had been a volunteer in Northern Togo. Later I found in the PC/Togo’s Associate Director’s office a handmade dulcimer that I had made in Kansas and brought over during my service years before. It had made its way to Jennifer and had been brought back with Jennifer’s possessions from her site after her passing. I’ve always hoped that she got some enjoyment from playing it during her time as a Volunteer. I honor her service still with these memories of her that come back from time to time. Like her father said, I hope he hears of moments like mine that said that she was very happy and where she wanted to be when things were good for her in Togo with the Peace Corps. May she ever live on in the hearts of our Peace Corps family. 🙏
    Bill Ferguson, RPCV/Togo ’76-’79
    APCD/RD, PC/Benin ’83-’86
    Santa Fe, New Mexico

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