The equatorial sun slid slowly behind the giant okoume trees as I headed back to the work site to make sure we had not left behind any tools after our daily labors building a school in the jungle.
When I got there, I found Nze Bilon, from the nearby village, poking around.He was searching for nails, he told me, bent nails that we had thrown aside. He took them home, straightened them out, and used them.
That was the day I learned about waste.
It happened in the African nation of Gabon in the 1960s, but, clearly, it has stuck with me. I learned other things during those Peace Corps years.
I learned that people in different cultures who speak different languages and have different customs nonetheless can share their humanity — their warmth, humor, generosity.
I learned about poverty and people who do without, and what real problems are. That has colored my view of people who complain about what I now know is, in the larger context, trivia.
Talk to any ex-Peace Corps volunteer and he or she will have a personalized list of ways in which the experience changed him or her.
Starry-eyed no longer
I’ve been thinking about the Peace Corps a lot this year because it is right up there on the list of Big Anniversaries, that is to say anniversaries that can be divided by five or 10. The Statue of Liberty, 125 years; Sept. 11, 2001, 10 years; the Birmingham freedom riders, 50 years; women’s right to vote, 100 years; the Peace Corps, 50 years.
Usually when I write or speak about the Peace Corps, I put on my starry-eyed persona: Oh, what a wonderful organization, isn’t it noble of us to go help the less fortunate people of the world?I’m not saying that take is fraudulent. But, you know, some not-so-noble things have been happening and in fact always have been present in Peace Corps history. You don’t hear about them because they conflict with the upbeat narrative.
For example, a volunteer in her 30s was recently murdered in the country where I served, Gabon. In South Africa, a volunteer was charged this year with child molestation.
There have been unfortunate actions and statements by individual Peace Corps volunteers. I have a couple of cringe-worthy deposits in my own memory bank, episodes where my callow younger self said or did something that insulted the culture of those who had invited us.
And there always has been an overarching condescension in the very notion of the Peace Corps, a sense of noblesse oblige that is felt keenly by many people in the nations where we send volunteers.
(It troubles some volunteers as well. I still recall one of my Peace Corps pals, over-primed, standing in the back of a dump truck as we rumbled through the red-earthed streets of N’Djole and shouting at the bemused Gabonese, “We’ve come to save you!”)
I often wonder if that American feeling of growing from the experience is a two-way street. Do the villagers or city dwellers whose paths have crossed ours feel any sort of aftermath, profound or otherwise? Do they have a sense of change in their lives that runs as deep as the change in volunteers’ lives?
In the context of 200,000 volunteers in 139 countries over 50 years, should the less savory and occasionally troubling occurrences frame a new narrative about the Peace Corps?
Of course not. But I do think that they should be part of the discussion as we ask, in its middle age, is the Peace Corps an anachronism?
A different age
To answer that question, you need to look at the organization in context. When you do, you can see clearly that the Peace Corps was born at a different time in the United States.
In 1961 we were another country, full of hope and optimism. We were Camelot. Our young president, John F. Kennedy, promised a bright future. He famously asked young people to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Ads on buses showed the Statue of Liberty pointing her torch off-camera and saying, “Do something for your country; leave it” and join the Peace Corps.
(Ominously and presciently, I recall seeing one of these posters on a bus in San Francisco under which someone had scrawled, “Stay and Fight!”)
Today, of course, we are not like that. We too often comport ourselves like a people who are fearful and pessimistic. We seem to fight one another with levels of vitriol and mendacity that preclude us from taking care of our own people in distress, much less worrying about people overseas who are suffering.
We are, at least on the surface, neither bold nor visionary.
The Peace Corps also was born in another context, a geopolitical one: the Cold War.
My own Peace Corps training classes included an anti-communist component. More importantly, many people in the countries we had come to help saw us in that political context.
Add to all that the organization’s changes in nuance. The initial cadres of volunteers were idealistic college kids, many of whom (mea culpa) could barely hammer a nail. They were followed by less culturally sensitive hard hats who could build bridges. Later, volunteers went into Eastern Europe to teach capitalism to would-be small entrepreneurs.
Today, it is in 76 countries doing all kinds of stuff that have moved beyond the mud hut stereotype.
So, then, it’s not quite the rosy-hued history that people associate with the Peace Corps, is it?
Obsolete? Au contraire
And now to answer my own question: No, the Peace Corps is not obsolete. It has problems, it has changed, it may or may not be appreciated, and in some ways it may have helped the volunteers more than the locals.
But I think the world always has a place for people seeking to help others, whatever hindering vines wrap themselves around that help.
I think of three people I either met or learned about this year who give me hope for the future and for the Peace Corps.
A Cal Poly professor who, speaking about the small village in Morocco where he did his Peace Corps time, mentioned that he is still in touch with the folks who live there — via cellphone! That is a serious positive statement about the future of interpersonal and international relationships.
Another ex-volunteer from Grenada, who was sent there for other purposes, telling of how he made surfboards for and with his young friends from Grenada. I think we could call that cross-cultural progress without stretching the truth.
A young woman from Nipomo, Erica Reyes, 22, who embodies everything the codger generation would like to embrace about those who will follow us. Reyes spent time with the Semester at Sea program, served in AmeriCorps, and was just named to the Lucia Mar school board. What is next on her list? Joining the Peace Corps.
Circle back for a moment to that paragraph in which I gloomily wrote that the U.S. persona seems to have become one that lacks vision and compassion.
I believe that is changing now, at long last. These folks are proof of it, as are the 200,000 of us who already have served and are back acting on and sharing our lessons, for decades in some cases.
So are the thousands of individuals in other small movements across the country who are beginning to tap the basic decency and concern for others that dwells in our national character and that runs much deeper than the cynicism that seems to have taken us over in recent years.
The Peace Corps rightfully belongs in that larger context. In fact, you could argue that it is more needed now in these pessimistic times than in the bright-eyed days of John Kennedy’s young presidency.
Perhaps, in its middle age, the Peace Corps’ time is coming around again. That would be lovely.
Facts about the Peace Corps
Officially established: March 1, 1961
Total number of volunteers and trainees to date: 200,000+
Total number of countries served: 139 volunteersand trainees
Current number: 9,095
Gender breakdown: 61% female, 39% male
Marital status: 93% single, 7% married
Percent minority: 20%
Average age: 28
Older than age 50: 7%