Reviewed by Ruth Alliband (India 1966–68)
I read Patrick O’Leary’s Peace Corps memoir From Freeborn To Freetown & Back with special interest. Both Patrick and I were accepted into Peace Corps training in 1966. We trained at roughly the same time. I left for India in late October of 1966 after two months’ Peace Corps stateside training in Albany, NY on a chartered Air India flight. In addition to two training groups of India Volunteers on board that plane, there was a contingent of Volunteers who had trained for Tanzania. They left the Air India flight in Brussels to make connections for their flight to Africa.
Patrick’s experience of being reassigned and repurposed is a variation of my own. It seems to me that the uncertainties of an indefinite assignment and the struggles to find something useful and meaningful to do account for feelings of failure. That and having idealistically/unrealistically bought into the Peace Corps mythology of making a difference. I believe we HAVE made a difference, but it has taken many years to realize just how, when and why that has come about.
Patrick’s many stories of the friendships and connections he made during his Peace Corps service and his remarkable tenacity at staying in touch over the decades since is the strongest “making a difference” story line. I also live in Patrick’s home metro area; I saw Patrick shortly after he got back from his 2004 trip. It was clear that the return to Sierra Leone had greatly affected him and that he had difficulty articulating the immensity of what he had just experienced. Of course! It’s not often that a person has the opportunity to compare “before” and “after” recollections of people and places that have suffered a horrendous civil war. It is remarkable that Patrick was able to find so many of his past acquaintances. He was witness to the senseless destruction of the war that leveled much of the visible post-independence progress.
On a country-to-country comparison of Volunteer amenities between India and Sierra Leone, we also were receiving “half” a used “booklocker” in 1966. We were allotted bicycles, but no kerosene refrigerator. I don’t believe I ever saw one. Patrick’s 3-burner kitchen is also an object of envy — we had a 1-burner kerosene stove. And the Indian roads were much too crowded for a westerner to navigate. Peace Corps/India wisely did not allow Volunteers to drive vehicles. Our Northern India Peace Corps drivers were skilled — I believe they were all Indian Christians.
We were destined to be outsiders in our Peace Corps countries. Occasionally that provided a useful, even corrective perspective. But more often it left us grappling for the most useful and least invasive approach in unfamiliar, even dangerous, situations. I’m sure we all are now curious about some of the “roads not taken.” But the Peace Corps did provide us with the infrastructure and support to be in places we never dreamed we’d live in or see and to come away with tools to continue to interface with our old neighbors and communities. Patrick lifts up his continuing journey as a Sierra Leone RPCV. It’s remarkable what he’s remembered and reclaimed it after all these years.
Reviewer Ruth Alliband served with the India 34 group, as a community development Volunteer in Uttar Pradesh.