Talking with Gary Cornelius, author of Dancing with Gogos

Peace Corps Worldwide interviewed  Gary Cornelius about his Peace Corps service and his new book, Dancing with Gogos: A Peace Corps Memoir [Peace Corps Writers, 2014].

Gary, where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps?

cornelius-garyIn South Africa, from January 2012 to April 2013.

I was “med-sepped” after about 14 months because I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disorder. The symptoms were relatively minor, and still are, so I’ve not started medication. My only treatment thus far is participation in a monthly support group for “early onset” Parkinson’s people.

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What was your Peace Corp project assignment?

I was a health Volunteer and trained as part of a group of 36 — 30 women and 6 men. The official title was HIV Outreach Worker and we were all part of the Peace Corps South Africa Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project, or CHOP. There were about 100 health Volunteers in South Africa and an equal number of education Volunteers, who taught in rural schools.

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Tell us about where you lived and worked.

I lived in a collection of about 25 or 30 Zulu villages that comprised the Municipality of Imbabazane, a completely rural area in the foothills of The Drakensberg, a mountain range that separates the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal from the landlocked country of Lesotho. The population of the entire municipality was about 150,000, the same population as my home city in the U.S., Eugene, Oregon.

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Each village contained no more than a few thousand people. The group of villages where I spent most of my time was located in the southern part of the municipality and had about 60,000 people and my supervisor told me I was the first white person, ever, to live there. I lived in the village of Goodhome and volunteered at a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Masiphile Community Care Centre that was in a village called Shayamoya (“good air” in Zulu), about 4 miles from where I lived. Masiphile means “living healthy” in Zulu. Our primary mission was to help reduce the spread of HIV in an area with one of the highest rates of infection in the world.

Most roads were dirt and though some people had cars, foot and bush taxi — kombi — were the main forms of transportation. My “shopping town,” Estcourt, was about 25 KM away, a 30-min. taxi ride. Estcourt is on a major north/south highway about 2 hours north of Durban and 6 hours south of Pretoria.

* Gary drinking umqombothi [home-made Zulu corn beer] from the community beer tub at a family gathering to honor a loved one one year after the relative’s death.

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What kind of work did you do?

I had several projects, including:

  • enlarging the community garden that was part of our “food security” program;
  • working in the “creche,” a preschool for kids aged 1–5, some of whom were “orphans and vulnerable children”;
  • developing a website for Masiphile;
  • helping the gogos, or grandmothers, who were part of our organization, market their hand-made products like hats, bags and cell phone holders in the U.S. to help support their families;
  • writing grant proposals;
  • helping with an ambitious provincial program that identified needy residents and connected them with resources; and
  • designing a big sign to direct people from the highway down a long dirt road to our building, and finding a donor to pay for it.

I also looked for opportunities to talk with people, especially young people, one-to-one to educate them. I was invited to many public events and often sat on the stage and was asked to say a few words about my mission.
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What is your education background?

I attended Clackamas Community College near suburban Portland, Oregon, where I grew up, and attained an associate degree in criminal justice. Later I attended Portland State University, then eventually transferred all my credits to Marylhurst College, a private Catholic school near Portland and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications. I tried to become a police officer a few times in my younger day, but I always failed the psychological exam!

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Did you college training help you as a PCV?

My degree is in communications and before and after college I was a newspaper reporter and editor. Later I got into mental health work, and worked in Oregon’s public mental health system for 28 years before retiring at age 55 to join PC.

My education did not have much direct bearing on my work as a PCV, except to the extent it made me a better listener and able to write things, like grant proposals, that helped my organization.

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What are you doing now?

Occasionally I work part-time at various social service agencies to help out, but mostly I do a lot of volunteer work, including being on the board of the local returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization in Eugene, where I am board secretary. I spent a lot of time during my first year back writing my book. I’ve also traveled some.

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How do you describe Dancing with Gogos?

dancing-gogos1I call it a “Peace Corps memoir” since it’s a true account of my PC experience. I think my back cover blurb explains it well:

[It is] the story of one man’s effort to make a difference in a collection of Zulu villages in rural South Africa, while fulfilling a life-long dream of serving in the United States Peace Corps.

It’s the story of learning a new language, of immersing oneself in a different culture, of leaving a love 15,000 kilometers behind and discovering the unexpected chance to find a new one half a world away. It’s the story of South Africa’s history of apartheid and the effects of that sorry legacy on tens of millions of black Africans who to this day struggle to leave behind 500 years of oppression.

The book includes some South African history and a tribute to Nelson Mandela, one of my heroes. It even includes a little analysis/commentary about PC policy and philosophy at the end.

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What prompted you to write this book?

I knew the day I received my acceptance letter telling me I was going to South Africa that I would write a book. How could you not if you’re a writer? What an opportunity! I told my group during orientation in Philadelphia, the day we all met, that I planned to write a book. I probably made some of the other trainees nervous with all my note-taking, though I tried to be discreet. Most of my writing things down so I wouldn’t forget them occurred in the evening, when I was alone, recording the day’s events in a journal.

crashing-underbrush2(Dancing is my second book. I wrote a novel — Crashing Through the Underbrush [Lulu, 2011] — 4 years ago that was based not-so-loosely on my mental health career).

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How long did it take for you to write Dancing?

I wrote the first chapter within days of arriving back in Oregon, while staying with my daughter’s family until I found a place to live. (I bought a modest mobile home in an over-55 park with my resettlement allowance). My goal was to finish it by the time I would have been home had I not been “med-sepped” — March 2014 — and I beat that goal by about 2 weeks. So it took about a year.

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Tell about your writing process.

I wrote the book on the small laptop, an Acer, that served me well in the village. I bought it at Costco for $350 a few weeks before I left for Africa. I wrote mostly in the afternoons and had a goal of writing 500 words a day. Some days I made it, some I didn’t. Occasionally, I wrote a couple thousand words in a day! Days I found it difficult to be creative I might read back through earlier work and edit as I went along.

There was also a fair amount of Internet research along the way to make sure I had dates, and information about Zulu culture and South African history correct.

I’ve belonged to writing organizations, including critique groups, off and on for years, but did not for this book. When I was finished I had several people, including editor friends from my newspapering days, read the manuscript and offer suggestions. One of the friends who “read” the manuscript, a therapist, has been blind since birth. I would send her a chapter in an email and she has a machine that would then read the email aloud to her. She would reply to the email to offer feedback.

When I completed my own edits and any suggestions from readers I agreed with, I hired a professional freelance editor from Eugene I know from taking his workshops. At first I was annoyed that I had to hire a pro — it cost $572 — but in hindsight I’m glad I did and I believe his thorough editing job made it a better book. In addition to all the readers I used, my own and the professional edit, I read the manuscript aloud to myself 3 times and each time found typos missed earlier. Now that the book is published, I’ve found one typo, a rate I can live with!

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How are you promoting you book?

In addition to pursuing all the avenues available through Peace Corps Worldwide, I’ve been promoting the book on my Facebook page for months — even before it was finished. Along the way I posted three excerpts for people to read.

I’ve also sent copies of the book to local newspaper feature writers and book reviewers I know, or know of.

I have a formal book release party scheduled at Tsunami Books on Willamette St. in Eugene for Saturday, Sept. 13th that I’ve promoted on FB and that will be announced in local media. I invited the local PC recruiter from the Univ. of Oregon to come and speak about PC service.

I’ve also had, or have scheduled, smaller events at other local book stores.

People I know who are supportive and interested, but are not on FB I’ve sent individual emails to, or a written note via USPS inviting them to the event on Sept. 13th. (Yesterday I mailed 3 books to 3 different cousins in 3 different states after getting emails from them).

The book is the next selection for my local returned PC Volunteer organization — the West Cascade PC Assn. — book group, so each of them will buy one, and I’ve connected with the RPCV group (Columbia River PC Assn.) in the Portland area — Oregon’s largest city — and arranged to speak at an upcoming meeting. I will probably also arrange a reading at the local library and, maybe, try to get on one or two of the local radio stations (though that’s a little harder).

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Are you planning to write another book? Do you have one in the hopper now?

I started another book, a murder mystery, about 4 years ago, just after my first book, as part of attending a writer’s workshop. I wrote about 8,000 words. The main character is a graveyard shift taxi driver who relocates from Oregon to Anchorage, Alaska and accidentally gets involved in a murder by being an unintended witness. When I was in my 20s I really did live in Anchorage for a year-and-a-half and really was a taxi driver on the night shift. Met many colorful characters!

After that workshop I got distracted by the PC application process and put that project aside. When I returned from Africa last year I attended that same annual workshop again and wrote a few thousand more words. So, the short answer is — maybe! After I’ve devoted an appropriate amount of energy to promoting Dancing. I am planning a 2-week trip to Baja, Mexico in February to visit a writer friend who winters there and summers in Boston. I hope to get some writing done there.

On the back cover of your book there is a photo of you with your little dog Carly who didn’t get to go to South Africa. How did she react when you returned?

Carly tends to be pretty low-key most of the time, but when she saw me at my daughter’s house
after more than a year apart, there was no mistaking that she recognized me and was very excited for several minutes, jumping into my arms, wagging her tail and barking up a storm. I’ve had her since she came from a shelter when she was about two-years old in 2002. She has always been very devoted to me and reacts the same way when I’m gone for just a few days.

Thank you very much for sharing, Gary, and good luck with promoting Dancing with Gogos.

Dancing with Gogos: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Gary P. Cornelius (South Africa 2012–13)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
July 2014
282 pages
$13.00 (paperback); $3.99 (Kindle)
To purchase either of Gary’s books from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title, or the publishing format you would like — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support our annual writers awards.

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