by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)
My site as a Peace Corps Volunteer was in a village in the foothills of the Andean Mountains, called La Plata. It was located at about the 4,000 ft. level, and had about 3,000 residents. One afternoon, there was a knock at my door. When answering it, I was greeted by three campesinos dressed in traditional garb with ruanas over their shoulders. They said that they were from the village of La Union, which was accessed only via a three hour bus/horseback ride up the mountains, and that their Mayor had recently given them permission to build their first school. Would I come up to see its potential site? We agreed to meet in one week’s time if they could provide a horse for me. On the appointed time and date, we met at a road-head and rode up a steep mountain trail to the village.
Upon arriving, it was obvious that La Union was a village populated by people of rather limited economic means. They quickly showed me the parcel of land that had been set aside for the school. Smack in its center was a huge boulder, making it obvious that unless it was removed, construction of the school could not be initiated. I was handed a mallet and I used it to strike the boulder right at its upper-most point. The resounding effect made it clear that, like an iceberg, only 5% of what one sees constituted the mass below it. I casually remarked that the only way to remove it was by the use of dynamite. Satisfied with my assessment, I saddled up and left.
About a week later, there was another knock at my front door. When opening it, one of the three compesinos, throwing the ruana over his shoulders to reveal an industrial sized stick of dynamite, asked: “like this, Geronimo?” I had no idea how they got it nor did I ask. So, I commented, “well, yes, but now you need blasting caps and a line of fuse,” with the full belief that this would get me off the hook.
About another week later, the same three campesinos knocked on my door, repeating the same line of “like this, Geronimo?” throwing back his ruana to reveal blasting caps and a length of fuse line. I was now hooked and agreed to go back to La Union and dynamite that boulder.
I returned in about a week’s time. Someone produced a four ft. long hand operated Starr Drill. Again, I had no idea how they had gotten hold of such an instrument. I instructed them to drill two holes in the boulder, initiating the drilling on the top most point and then angling the lines to meet as far down as they could drill. I then cut the stick of dynamite into two even sections, stuffed them into the holes, tied them into a fuse line, with a heavy packing of mud, topped off with the heaviest timbers they could find over the two holes.
I then warned everyone to take cover and set the fuse. Within less than a minute, there was huge blast running down the valley, with the timbers going sky high. We waited until the air had cleared, then approached the boulder. Upon doing so, it appeared no differently than before. I asked one of the campesinos to strike the bolder at the points between the two holes. He gave it a mighty whack but nothing happened. I asked him to repeat it once again, which he did. Again, nothing! I asked him to strike it one more time which he quickly did. But … this time, the bolder began to shatter like a month old cookie! Now, they could go ahead and easily ply it apart and begin construction of their school.
During the construction process, one of my site partners from La Plata, Lee Arbuckle, went up to see how it was going. He was met at the trail-head by a young man who had a waiting horse for Lee. As they got up the trail, after about 20 minutes or so, the young man turned around in his saddle and asked Lee “where are you from?” When he responded “I’m from the United States of America,” the young man turned his head forward. Then, after 20 seconds or so, the young man once again turned to face Lee, saying “Is that as far away as Bogota?”
About 5 years ago, one of my other site partners, Bob Dietz, retuned to see if anything we had initiated was still in operation. He went up to La Union and to his surprise, found that the school was still fully operational. He asked the principal: “Do you know who helped get this school built?” She replied: “We forgot their names but they were Peace Corps Volunteers”.
Thus, it was upon this rock that a door was opened for its students to enter a wider world of possibilities.
After his Peace Corps tour, Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65) worked at PC/HQ. Later he was a Senior Consultant to Harvard Medical School’s international programs; and was Director for International Affairs for Project HOPE. When the Berlin Wall came down, he joined USAID and managed the U. S. Government’s response for social investments in the former states of the USSR and Central & Eastern Europe, then served as Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Science in Public Policy.