Jim McCaffery Makes A Case For Second Generation PCVs (Ethiopia)

I got the attached PDF from Jim McCaffery (Ethiopia 1966-68) recently. It is an article by Jim published in the old Volunteer Magazine. It is a terrific article and I’m glad Jim sent it. Jim is from Wisconsin and went to Ethiopia in 1966. Later he worked at a Trainer in Addis Ababa and then went to Botswana as the Deputy Director. (I’m indebted to Jim for when I was traveling through Africa for a year in 1969 he put me up for several weeks and never charged me rent!)

After the Peace Corps Jim got a PhD from the University of Wisconsin and in 1981 he and a couple others founded TRG, an organization development consulting firm that has been very successful and well respected.

Now semi-retired Jim is the process (as we all are) of tossing away most of the Peace Corps files we have in the attic and he came across this article he wrote years ago.

It is entitled, “The Legends of Volunteers Past”

As Jim wrote me, “I haven’t seen it for years, forgotten I had written it (almost 50 years ago).  So I reread it, hoping it wasn’t too cringeworthy. Wow, it was fun…it took me back to those years, where I was talking about a legacy of the Peace Corps that was barely 5 years old.”

There are two major issues discussed in the article: student support and language learning,  and both were interesting at that time.

In retrospect, he wrote, he missed one aspect of student support: “Some students, whether poor or not, were simply entrepreneurial in a positive way, and managed the volunteer support ‘system’ in much the same way they were smart in working various systems to get an education, and then to move on to the work world quite successfully.  For example, the student I supported in Wolliso that first year, eventually made his way through high school, then to college, then somehow to the US for a master’s degree. He drove a bus in Chicago to help his finances, eventually got a job with GM, and then rose to become a chief financial officer for one of the major divisions. He worked in Janesville, Wisconsin just 10 miles from where I grew up. Talk about a full circle.”

In terms of language–and here Jim is speaking about Ethiopia–he says. “I think the fact that most PCVs at that time didn’t learn Amharic tended to lead to a number of Peace Corps mini-communities in a lot of towns that had 2-6 volunteers and did produce an inward looking sub-culture.  Most were teachers, and in fact could get along at school with English, and many of the students wanted their teachers to speak English.  So all the incentives were in place to view Amharic as nice but not necessary.  With a broader level of Peace Corps experience, I subsequently learned this was the case in many countries where English was seen as being present or prominent.  This was not true in French or Spanish speaking countries where PCVs tended to be better at addressing the language issue.”

Jim goes on to say that he was “a little too optimistic” about the future of the Peace Corps in regard to language in his article, thinking of the “positive changes in Peace Corps language programs that began in the late ‘60’s.” He now knows that a person can get along in a country without learning the language, and there are so many other cultural and work issues to address, then most didn’t learn the language.

Here is Jim’s article

McC article 1968

(By the way, in the “Old Days,” Jim would have been classified as a Low Risk/High Gain PCV.)

Here’s a photo of Jim hard at work in Wollisso, Ethiopia.

6 Comments

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  • John, thanks for the great article. I served in Mekelle from 1963-1965 and completely related to the analysis of the statements. Mekelle had thirty volunteers my first year which decreased to about twenty the second year due to completion of service or transfers. I disliked so much being around Americans that I requested a transfer to be by myself or with one other volunteer. My request was denied probably because some nurses were transferred because they did not like the medical practices of the Bulgarian doctors and two teachers were transferred to Eritrea.
    I never learned Amharic beyond the basics but even my limited language skills were
    challenged in Asmara by dissidents . They called it a dirty language. I was asked in a hostile tone “Anta, Amhara nuh?” Are you an Amhara.? A big smile was on the face of the accuser when I replied in Amharic that I was an American. Regretting so much that I did
    not learn Amharic and envious of those in
    other countries who had to learn the local dialect, I studied Amharic weekly with a tutor
    for a year in 2010-2011. As for needy students,
    I gave a begging one the chore of cleaning
    several windows once a week in addition to
    having another run errands for me

  • John, I urge you and others as a historian not to throw away Peace Corps material regardless of how out dated it may appear to be. Find a library or historical archive to accept them. Too much of institutional history is discarded on the mistaken belief that it is no longer relevant. All my historical writings happened because some one had the vision to preserve them for scholarly interpretation and analysis

    • I echo this request. The American University has a Peace Corps Community Archive and does accept original materials from RPCVs. The Archives are in the process of relocating, but should be answering email soon.
      Here is that contact information and address: archives@american.edu
      (202) 885-3256

      The JFK Library has an RPCV Oral History project. They also receive materials from RPCVs who served during Kennedy’s administration. You should check with them to see what the guidelines currently are:
      https://www.jfklibrary.org/~/media/assets/Reference/RPCV%20Collection%20Policy.pdf
      kennedy.library@nara.gov

      Please do not toss out your Peace Corps records. There is no official Peace Corps Library and most of what is in the National Archives is official administrative paperwork. Your material is invaluable.

  • As Joanne Roll points out “The American University has a Peace Corps Community Archive and does accept original materials from RPCVs. The Archives are in the process of relocating, but should be answering email soon.
    Here is that contact information and address: archives@american.edu
    (202) 885-3256

    The JFK Library has an RPCV Oral History project. They also receive materials from RPCVs who served during Kennedy’s administration. You should check with them to see what the guidelines currently are:
    https://www.jfklibrary.org/~/media/assets/Reference/RPCV%20Collection%20Policy.pdf
    kennedy.library@nara.gov

    Please do not toss out your Peace Corps records. There is no official Peace Corps Library and most of what is in the National Archives is official administrative paperwork. Your material is invaluable.”

  • John–thanks for the excellent article and historic perspective on the issue of language as learning the local language is so important to being a catalyst for change. Fortunately by the early 70’s language was an invaluable part of our training starting with classes in Ponce Puerto Rico–and living with a family and even working part of the day (I loaded trucks from a warehouse to distribute in stores throughout the town). Then we were sent to Liberia, Costa Rica where we lived with a family and then were sent to Guatemala for site surveys a week or so. After my first year the Peace Corps even sent me to Antigua to clean up my grammar (or lack of–linguistically my specialty was dirty words).

    I didn’t learn much of the 23 indigenous languages in Guatemala as my site changed several times and I could barely learn Spanish but I could greet someone and ask for a beer in any one of them. We also dealt with the tendency of PCV’s forming sub-culture”groups” which I avoided by choosing the most isolated site available (Ixchiguan) where nobody spoke English. Learning Spanish allowed me to connect with the locals on so many levels since I used their slang (modismos) which they loved but even more important it allows one to get a real glimpse and appreciation of the local culture.

    In the end my ticket to success was marrying my favorite teacher Ligia and insisting we speak Spanish at home which we do to this day. All these experiences and more are related in my new book, “Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond.”

  • Good article but a too damning of the first PCs, including me. Sure we helped students by giving them household jobs and insisting they do the work or no pay. And few of the 300 PCVs with whom I trained learned Amharic well, if at all. But we were teachers teaching in English. If the emperor had not chosen English for the language of education we would not have been there, e.g. if he chosen French I am sure there would have been French volunteers teaching there as there were Italian teachers teaching in Eritrea.

    I was lucky, outside school I used my marginal Italian to converse with those who did not speak English. At the time the Italians had been in Eritrea for 100 years and had spread their language around liberally. I was also lucky to be the coach of the school soccer team and through this formed my strongest friendships, the 100 or so students who tried for the team and those who were lucky enough to be selected.

    As for my legacy, this foreigner, who did not know “our sport” (soccer), led the team to two league championships, a feat the school had never done before and never done since. I understand that some in the Eritrean government still refer t me as “coach.”

    The Peace Corps is an organism that is always growing and adapting. I am sure the Peace Corps of 50 years from now will be very different from what it was 50 years ago.

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