The Peace Corps and Us (Ethiopia)

 

 

Wayne and Laurie Kessler (Ethiopia 1964-66)

We first learned what impact we had on students when we made a quick unannounced return visit in 1969 to the Eritrean village where we taught three years prior as Peace Corps teachers.

 

On our way to the  “Peace Corps house” we surprised a small group of students who started to run away. They thought we were ghosts.  After our Tigrinya greetings settled them down, we asked them what they remembered about our teaching. To our surprise and dismay, they remembered how we dealt with small clouds of flies buzzing around our heads in stuffy classrooms stuffed with 40 to 60 students. They demonstrated how Mrs. Laurie blew at them out of the side of her month and Mr. Wayne waved his hand like a car window wiper.  Laughingly, we asked, “Is that all you remember?”  No, they said in unison, “Follow directions!”  You never know.

Wayne and Laurie

Beings in an educational system where teachers were expected to chalk lessons on a rough blackboard for students to copy into their notebooks so they could memorize it all, we adjusted by adding extracurricular activities. A summer typing class with one typewriter, a weekly after-school health club, a chicken club project, a Girl Guide group, and the building of a medical clinic in a nearby village. A story could be written about each, as these activities had the most impact on us, our colleagues, and our students.

When we returned to Eritrea decades later, we kept coming across former students who told us how they were influenced by our presence and by other volunteers. A man came up to us and said that as a crippled boy he learned how to type in Mrs. Laurie’s summer class, a skill that led to a career government job, saving him from becoming a beggar, a fate of many cripples. A nurse told me that the Health Club, in which the main medicine was soap, led him into medicine. One student who liked the way Mrs. Laurie taught English became a university English professor and was Laurie’s colleague when she later taught at the University of Asmara. Walking along the main street of Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, a fellow shouted across the street, “Mr. Wayne, remember me? Mebrahtom came over to remind me that he had learned how to keep chickens safe by helping to build the Poultry Club’s pen in Adi Teclesan, “our” village.  Formerly a High Court judge in the new Eritrean government, he helped form and became a partner in an American/Eritrean business enterprise named N’Fetn. We were so pleased that he came across the street to renew our relationship.

During our seven years in Eritrea from 1995 to 2002, former students kept telling me how they appreciated their Peace Corps teachers. When I went around to several Eritrean Ministries to set up a program to bring short-term RPCV consultants to Eritrea, more than a dozen high-level officials told me the same thing and now wanted them to help rebuild their country after the 30-year War of Liberation.

Impact and appreciation work both ways. We can easily say that our Peace Corps experiences profoundly influenced the directions of our lives. For example, it moved me down the road of non-governmental development work rather than joining the Foreign Service. It reinforced my preference to do things rather than teach. I spent those seven years in micro-enterprise development, micro-credit projects, and refugee relief work during the border war with Ethiopia. In addition, my fascination with everyday life in Eritrea led me to document it photographically which, back in the States led to professional photography.

Another example of a two-way benefit was the building of a village clinic. I was asked by a teaching colleague on the Woki Development Committee to see their plans for a health clinic. The Committee had raised most of the money for the building but lacked funds to finish it. I learned that PC volunteers could apply for grants from the American Ambassador’s Self-Help Funds. I applied and the village got enough to finish and furnish it. In addition, I went to the Minister of Health, whom I had already met, and explained that a new clinic was about to open but lacked medical supplies. He came through and stocked the clinic. Built-in 1966, the clinic was expanded in 1996, and plans are underway in 2021 to add a third building. This experience taught me an important lesson in development. If a project is started and worked on by the people themselves, it will have a good chance to succeed.  I’ve seen many projects fail because they were pushed onto communities by well-meaning outsiders.

Laurie cites the three profound influences of PC: Preparing to teach English as a second language in Peace Corps training prompted Laurie to earn a master’s in TESL setting her course in elementary, adult, and university education. With her special friend, Mhret, she felt an intense connection wherever she was, recalling Mhret’s demonstrations of Tigrinya vocabulary, the hand-slap games they enjoyed, lessons in cooking shuro, our favorite local dish, and Laurie’s promise to name our daughter after her, which we did. Mhret was Laurie’s Eritrean sister, Haftei.  On a bus en route to Addis Ababa in 1965, an Eritrean man introduced Laurie to the Baha’i Faith. Eleven years later, she enrolled and was able to find him in Asmara because she had written his name in her journal.  During our seven years, she was an active Baha’i in Asmara, and he and his American wife were our neighbors. They now live in Virginia, so it’s easy to stay in touch.

Our initial two-year stay teaching in an Eritrean village started lifelong friendships with five families—two fellow teachers and three former students. We carefully corresponded with two of the teachers during Eritrea’s 30-year war of independence, avoiding any mention of politics. As time passed we met wives, children, and grandchildren. Several families now introduce us as atsmi siga (bones and meat) meaning “part of the family.” Imagine how that feels.

We are very grateful for our Peace Corps experiences which profoundly impacted us. Some PCVs may have learned of how they affected others, but others may never know. We were lucky to learn of some.

Wayne and Laurie returned to their home in Shingletown, California, in 2002 after living and working for seven years in Eritrea. Currently hunkered down in Mount Shasta, California, enjoying the fruits of a large garden.

 

One Comment

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  • Nice memoir. The mention of US Embassy Self-Help funds reminded me of that very program I administered in Togo in the 1970s. As the embassy’s Economic Officer, I provided such funding to PCVs in rural Togo for small-scale infrastructure and animal husbandry projects. As a former PCV myself, I thought it a neat way to foster a productive working relationship between the embassy, local PCVs, and Togolese communities.

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