Review | JUST KEEP PEDALING by Connie Ness (Uruguay)

Reviewed by Chuck Haga
columnist for the Grand Forks Herald
Grand Forks, ND

Connie Ness Uruguay 1994-96

Connie Ness (Uruguay 1994-96) and I may have talked about the Peace Corps when we worked together on the Dakota Student, the UND student newspaper, in the late 1960s.

Maybe, maybe not. Memory fails.

But those were heady, hopeful times, despite the war, the assassinations and the riots. The idea of the Peace Corps intrigued us, and we were young. We were among Dakota Student staffers who drove to Washington, D.C., to participate in a national student convention. One day, I spotted Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate from Minnesota, alone in the hotel lobby. I walked up to him and proudly showed my blue and white “McCarthy for President” button.

A moment later, Connie joined us, and Gene turned his attention to her. She was always fond of reminding me that the senator spent much more time discussing politics with her than with me, even if I was wearing his campaign button.

I never did apply to the Peace Corps. It’s one of my great regrets, that I didn’t try to spend two years in some struggling country in Africa or Latin America. The regret often rose in my chest when I wrote about or talked with returning Peace Corps volunteers, seeing the pride and sense of achievement most of them felt, even if they had doubts about just how effective their service had been.

In the early 1980s, I traveled to Burkina Faso in West Africa to see a friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer working there, in forestry. One day, I went with her to plant neem tree seedlings – to hold back the encroaching Sahara Desert. I’ve rarely felt so purposeful. (I like to think some of my trees grow still, though my friend told me the thin seedlings were often pulled by locals for firewood for cooking.)

Connie didn’t join the Peace Corps, either – not right out of college. She had been intrigued by the idea of living an adventure and helping people in another land since she was in grade school in Fargo when President John F. Kennedy started the program.

In fact, she didn’t get around to joining until 1994, when she was 45. She spent two years in a small pueblo in Uruguay, where she used her experience in corporate America to help residents start, manage and grow small businesses. She kept journals and wrote letters and reports and figured she might write a book.

Waiting 25 years

That idea percolated for more than 25 years, until the publication this year of Just Keep Pedaling: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Uruguay.

Maybe it’s partly because I knew Connie, could see and hear her as she struggled with Spanish, wrestled with impatience and frustration — and adopted six cats, a flightless parrot and two lambs — but I love her story, even if it’s a quarter-century old.

As I read, I really felt I was living (indirectly) the Peace Corps experience.

In a fine storytelling style, Connie describes the people of Baltasar Brum pueblo, population about 2,000, their daily rituals, her efforts to improve their lives — and the recurring doubts that she was achieving much. A local radio program, for example, where she offered advice on planning and starting a small business, wasn’t as successful as she had hoped.

“I was very discouraged at first,” she wrote in her book, “but I didn’t abandon the program.” She talked with her neighbors, took their advice and adjusted, with better results. “More importantly, this reinforced something we had been told during training. A lot of what we do in the Peace Corps, we have to do on faith. We have to believe it is the right thing to do – that it will bear fruit someday, somehow – and continue to do it, even if we don’t have crowds of people cheering our every move.”

She regretted that her less-than-perfect Spanish, cultural differences and other factors kept her from developing close relationships with more people.

But she clearly made a difference. Among the items she took home when her two-year assignment was over was a letter written by one of her Uruguayan friends, a man named Elio. It was a message, translated from Spanish, to Connie’s parents.

The message

Connie arrived in this town one day in a truck covered in dirt so that we could only see her eyes and teeth, but when she moved she seemed to be human — which proved to be true after she took a shower.

“She came not knowing anyone and having difficulty with the language, but with an unbreakable desire to help her fellow man. Today she’s finishing her work and there are many families and friends of Connie, because of the way she is, who want to gather to demonstrate their love and affection. It was a lot of work to teach us but she can be assured that we learned a lot from her.

Across the miles we want to tell you that you can be very proud of your daughter. If we could have more Connie Nesses, the world would be better and the cats, lambs and other animals would be happy.

Well done, Connie.

Just Keep Pedaling: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Uruguay
By Connie Ness (Uruguay 1994-96)
Independently published
159 pages
March 2023
$14.80 (Paperback), $6.50 (Kindle)


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