Join The Peace Corps! Never Leave Home

I spotted this note on the Net earlier today:

Until fairly recently, joining the Peace Corps usually meant living in a remote location and leaving behind family, friends and way of life. But mobile devices and the Internet are changing how volunteers serve — and how they keep in touch with home. This connectivity is helpful for the volunteers, but not always for the Peace Corps staff.

Parents today know their kids never leave home, even when they are off at college, what with texting, emails, and Skype. Whatever happened to separation? Growing up? Out on your own?

Still, there are advances of these strong family connections. I saw that when I was running the New York Recruitment Office. The whole family joins the Peace Corps when a child goes overseas. That’s not a bad thing.

Shriver always said it would be the children of RPCVs who would benefit the most as they would be raised differently because their parents would have a new view of child-rearing based on having lived two years in the Third World.

Also, young people today are more engaged in the world than we were at their age. They have traveled more, been there, done that.

Still, with technology it seems they still haven’t left home.  The cord has not been cut. This isn’t good or bad. It is just the way things are. I remember in the early Sixties when it took 4-5 days to get an aerogram from Africa to the Mid-West. We never thought of calling home. And ‘official Peace Corps business’ was done by cables.

Now, of course, the Peace Corps staff doesn’t want ‘mom’ dropping in to make the boy’s bed while the PCV is on the job. But the Peace Corps does let PVCs go home after 12 months overseas.

When I was in Africa, we weren’t allowed to go to Europe, let alone home. I do remember an Ethiopian PCV getting permission from Shriver to meet her mother in Greece because the widowed mother wrote Shriver a hand written letter saying how this was her only child, and her husband had passed away, and she couldn’t bare to live two years without seeing her daughter.

Even Sarge couldn’t deny that request.

In Ethiopia, in the old days, we couldn’t have refrigerators, a car, or use the PX that was around the corner from our house in Addis Ababa. I remember when I was an APCD in Ethiopia and the Empire was being mapped by the US army and driving up the Dessie Road I stopped at Kombolcha, which was about 375 kms north of Addis Ababa. There was a small grassy field airport just beyond the town and set up at the end of the runway, in a grove of eucalyptus, was a US army field camp.  I stopped off  to say hello to a handful of young GIs, and being friendly, and wanting a chance to talk to another American, they asked me to stay for lunch. We had basically an  American picnic of hamburgers and hot-dogs and cold Buds, all from home.

It was a real treat, but I felt slightly guily, not eating off the economy. Where was the injera and wat and the tedj and tela?  These soldiers would never know any local food. They hadn’t left America really, regardless of how far they had traveled away from home.


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  • I too remember a similar experience while I was in Somalia from 64-66. An American naval vessel had parked off the Northern coast and invited PCVs on board, A small group of us made our way to the coast, went out on a lighter, and had a great ‘American’ meal. Guilty feelings? Not that I remember.

    They had a phone connection (was it called ship-to-shore?) on which they offered to connect us with ‘home,’ but as I recall no one took them up on the offer. I’ve often thought of that incident and wondered why none of us wanted to make the call home. We all had perhaps a year left of service, and even for myself, I can’t explain why I did not call, other than to say I felt that after the call my folks would be more upset than happy.

  • At the beginning of my second year in Cameroon, I decided I should try to call home on my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. The Peace Corps secretary helped me by reserving a line for a certain time at some government minister’s house. (The minister’s son was her boyfriend who told his father it was a big American emergency.)
    She sent someone to get me when the line was available, and I zipped over there on my Honda 50. The connection was through France. My French was really limited, but the operator got through to my mother who didn’t hang up on her because she figured it was one of our Canadian relatives calling. She could hear the conversation between the operator and me which went something like:
    “Etes-vous Monsieur Tirone?”
    “Main, non. Vous ete MADAME Tirone.”
    So my mother intuited what was going on and shouted at the operator in far better French than I could manage that she was going to get Monsieur Tirone and to please wait.’
    She ran to my neighbor, called my father at work (I forgot my father would be at work), told him I was on the phone whereupon he raced home with all his fellow workers yelling at him to say hello to me and and to tell me not to get eaten by cannibals.
    Long story short, I got to wish my parents a happy anniversary, the best gift and the biggest surprise gift they’d ever received, quote, unquote.
    Endnote: Five years later I got a telephone bill from Cameroon for 2000 francs. I sent a check. It was never cashed.

  • One of my roommate was allowed to return to the US; only because, his uncle, who had really been a father to him, died. When he returned, he brought a meat grinder, because the meat was tough; however, all that we got was tough hamburger! MAG would fly to Kenya to supply meat to many Americans stationed in Ethiopia.

    Fortunately, we did live in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, down the street from John. We pooled enough money in our house to get a full-time housekeeper who cooked lunch and dinner for us as well. We did not have the time to buy, let alone prepare our meals. We had to teach all day long with no break, except for morning tea and two hours during the middle of the day when all schools were closed. The housekeeper shopped for us as well. We ate well, because there was an Italian butcher who had his own animals and they were excellent.

    We did hang out in an Italian-owned bar across the street from the school, which was where our fellow Ethiopian teachers hung out. As an aside, the child of the bar owner just visited me and gave me a cd of photos of Ethiopia, which he has turned into a book. All of my pictures were 8mm movie film, most of it overexposed. His cd had given me the tours that I was unable to take when I lived there!

    We learned that all of our fellow teachers had studied in the United States or Europe, Eastern and otherwise. They knew how we lived and were embarrased to have us visit them at their homes because a number of them did not even have indoor plumbing (90 percent of Addis did not have indoor plumbing!). And, they refused to come to our home because they could not reciprocate. So all of our socializing with Ethiopians had to occur outside of home and naturally in bars and clubs. However, our stipends did not allow us to spend a lot of time in clubs, so the local bar had to do.

    While the PX was verboten (even our country staff was not allowed to use it), when Americans stationed in Ethiopia learned that I was an auto mechanics instructor, they brought their cars for my students to repair. They offered money, but I said that I could not accept it. If they insisted, I had them give it to the school (afterall the school did need money for supplies with which to teach). On one occasion, someone gave me a carton of cigarettes from the PX, when they noticed that I smoked.

    Those American connections did benefit our students as well. Some of our students really wanted to work in the technical repair field, rather than contiune on to college (which many of our students did because they had not scored high enough on the leaving exams to qualify for an academic high school educaiton, only a technical education, which presented our greatest challange in teaching unwilling students). When the Americans working with Ethiopian Air Lines heard that we were in country, they contacted us. We were able to convince them that those students had a good basic understanding of their particular trade including a technical command of English. As a result, they were hired by EAL. So our contacts with some of the Americans did pay off, at least in students placed and cigarettes smoked!

  • The quote comes from a story on NPR last evening, I think, from a reporter in Rwanda. One of the PCVs interviewed regularly skypes family, friends, etc. A mother who had also visited her daughter said that the ability to communicate regularly made the absence tolerable. A point made by the Volunteers–and staff–ws that the connectivity provided a major means of Volunteer support–being able to talk to family and friends when frustrated somehow helps them through.
    I see the many advantages of the technology but really question the degree of cultural immersion that takes place under such circumstances–and one of the great learning experiences of being a Volunteer is finding “support” from local friends–host country nationals. After all, it’s the experience learning deeply about the host culture that is the hallmark of Peace Corps. And whatever happened to the pride and joy from learning to live independently and successfully within another culture, without benefit of the home support system!

  • I confess!

    One Thanksgiving in Manila I arranged to buy a turkey from the US PX so we five could celebrate in a proper way America’s best holiday. I should feel guilty, but I don’t.

    On the other hand, I really can’t image what instant communication back home has done to the experience of being in another culture. I think we had it best.

  • First PC site 1961: small village in coffee region in NW Colombia. No post office, no telephone and telegrams take 2-3 days to arrive. I learn Spanish and write long letters home. Today they provide outrageous memories of hunts for ravenous rats and hints of decadent escapades.

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