Peace Corps Take Two — Recollections of an RPCV


I remember trying to bathe in the musky dankness of the African outhouse at sunset during the dry season. Naked, dripping cool water onto the hot earth, I doused myself and listened to the sounds of the village just beyond the palm-frond privacy wall preparing for night to fall. I perched thin brown toes in rubber flip flops and tried to avoid sliding into the red mud floor of the makeshift bathhouse. I watched the cockroaches watching me. Neither of us minded the other much.



The winged, three-inch roaches were everywhere in this part of Central Africa: burrowing their hard, shiny bodies in the muck underfoot; breeding and feeding in the woven grass roofs of the village huts; flying through the humid equatorial air on brown paper wings. Because they were everywhere, they didn’t bother me enough to interrupt my long-awaited bath. I continued pouring cupfuls of the murky well water from a Chinese plastic bucket, in an effort to keep the stink and sweat from conquering the last bits of Western propriety which remained after 23 months of living in the African bush as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).



During most of my tenure as a PCV, I led a mundane existence, spending more time struggling through lesson plans than hacking my way through the tangle of jungle vines in the nearby rainforest.  This bath was one of the few times during my two years in the Central African Republic (CAR) when I felt like I was having the ‘real Peace Corps’ experience. Here, on my bare haunches in the middle of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, surrounded by the singing market ladies trudging homeward with empty bundles bobbing on their heads to the rhythm of the evening drums, and the cries of the children playing, I saw myself as one of those young idealists in the public service announcements: sun burnt, sandaled on a Nepalese elephant, proudly exclaiming: “Peace Corps, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I did love the fact that at 23, I was so far from my Indiana home. And yet, in many ways my time in Africa wasn’t quite real – or at least, the reality that I lived was not completely my own. All through my two years, I was a sojourner with one eye on the calendar; a spectator in some surreal psychodrama; an observer in another world taking notes and snapshots for the folks back home. It seemed that I never quite figured out why I was there – and I was always trying to figure out what I could do to better help.



Don’t get me wrong, mine was a fourth world existence. I lived in an African village, though not in the prototypical mud hut, as did some of my fellow PCVs. I inhabited a functionary’s home, with concrete, not dirt floors, and a prestigious tin roof. I taught high school in the same overcrowded classrooms using the same limited materials, teaching the same insane number of hours as my Central African colleagues, but I never really got to know them beyond a handshake an a polyglot greeting.

Instead of collaborating with them about teaching methodologies and appropriate technology, I spent my time trying to grade and record the hundreds of pages of bad English that always seemed to be piled around my house – a reminder of all that I still had to do. I was always the visiting foreigner treated politely, representing something that I didn’t understand. I was the stranger kept at arm’s length, allowed to teach class and live in the village. I was regarded as a rich, young American whose time was limited, but whose gullibility was without parameters.



My attitude upon arriving in the CAR was one of naïve arrogance. I came with outstretched arms, saying: “Here I am! I am young. I’m educated. I want to help.”

The Africans, more sophisticated than I expected, answered: “Give me your watch.”

“But I came to live and work with you,” I protested, unstrapping my Timex. “I am here because I care.”



“Then why don’t you spend your life with us?” They asked. “Two years is a very small piece of time.” They were right, of course.



Even after living in my community for a year, I would attract stares whenever I walked to the market to buy supplies, stepped into a bar to drink a warm beer, or otherwise left the sanctity of my teacher’s quarters on lycee grounds. Little children would follow me down the dirt roads pointing, laughing and singing, “Munju, Munju” – the Sango world for white man.



Beggars and lepers came to my door, eyes averted, pink stubs pleading for a spare ‘pata’ – the CAR’s smallest coin. Houseboys and vendors came seeking more than the going rate (which still amounted to very little); villagers and students stepped out of my way to let me pass, and just about everyone called me ‘patron’ or French for boss.



By the time I had learned the language, and had begun to understand the culture well enough to become effective at my job, it was time to return home. The overly optimistic expectations and the inevitable sense of subsequent frustration that made my stint go slowly would also make my readjustment to American society more difficult.



Like every middle class mother’s son, I was brought up to believe in the American Dream. I was weaned on Horatio Alger. My mother schooled me that I could do anything that I put my mind to; achieve any goal with enough earnest effort. If I studied hard, I would get into a good university. If I applied myself in college, I could make it into graduate school, maybe study law and get into politics. Who knows, with a little luck and clean living, I might even become President of the United States.

This is the sort of nonsense that American mothers feed to their precocious youth like so many Wheaties “breakfasts of champions” to keep them out of trouble. I grew up setting goals and challenging my capabilities. I was brought up to strive for greatness. I longed to make a difference.

And so it was natural enough that I applied to join the Peace Corps while a senior in college – a journalism/English major who had spent his whole life in the safe, suburban Midwest, dreaming of more. I wanted to write; knew that I could string together a coherent sentence, but felt equally sure that I didn’t have anything new to say. I needed experience. I had to get out of Indiana. I longed for travel and adventure, so I sent off my application forms and waited.



After graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I moved back to my hometown of Indianapolis, where I sold cars for a while, edited a small Indianapolis pop culture magazine, and wrote songs for a rock & roll band. Finally, nearly 18 months after I mailed in the paperwork, I got a call inviting me to teach English as a Foreign Language to French- and Sango-speaking Central Africans.

Three jet rides and as many continents later, I found myself approaching Africa. As I sat in my seat on the aging Air Afrique DC-10 about to land in the CAR’s capital city, Banqui, a liquid sickness sapped me. My stomach felt tight and I breathed out fast as the tires jerked hard on the steamy tarmac. Peering out of smudged plastic portals, I saw my first Central Africans: soldiers, not students.

Camouflaged in leopard-spotted desert fatigues, the soldiers stood legs astride at combat rest. Automatic weapons hung loosely, but eyes were sharp as they gripped the new arrivals with suspicion and menacing stares. Adventure was one thing, but as we came to a stop in what would be my home for the next two years, it occurred to me that I had gone too far.



I landed knowing virtually nothing more about the CAR than that it had once be led by a mad military dictator who had crowned himself ‘Emperor for Life’ , a la Napoleon, in an elaborate coronation that wasted much of the country’s borrowed budget. Jean Bedel Bokassa was eventually overthrown by the embarrassed French, but only after he massacred a group of demonstrating high school students who had had the audacity to challenge his authority.



Their crime: they refused to buy, or wear, the very expensive school uniforms Bokassa mandated. The uniforms, emblazoned with the Emperor’s image, were made and sold by his garment company. They marched because they could not afford such a costly display of patriotism, so the Emperor sent in his soldiers. Even for the French, killing high school kids was too much, so they staged a ‘bloodless coup’ while he was in Libya on a begging mission, and replaced him with a more easily controlled marionette. The students discovered that their martyred co-freres had earned them a say in how the young country would be run.



The CAR is a nation in transition. In one generation it had grown from French colony to independent nation state. Independent in name, anyway, yet it remained as economically and militarily dependent upon France as when it was a part of the French Equatorial Africa. The difference is that now the Central Africans must beg for the same (or less) assistance that was once their right as a colonial territory. Their independence has meant a steady deterioration in the standard of living of the average citizen, not to mention the complete absence of basic public services. Hospitals, schools and roads are in a terrible state of disrepair – most having been left to crumble after the colonialists who built and ran them left in 1958. I often thought while traveling over dangerously cratered dirt roads that transportation was the country’s worst barrier to ‘progress.’



The US Ambassador to the CAR once told me that when it cost a sack of potatoes to transport a sack of potatoes from farmer to market, there can be no progress. There are ruins of abandoned development projects everywhere in the country, and every year the grasses grow higher.



“But at least we are free men, and not rich slaves,” my students tell me one day as we were discussing the challenges of development.



“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” I wrote the words from Bobby McGee on the blackboard another morning. My students dutifully copied the phrase into their notebooks, and asked for no explanation.



Independence is not easy for a people raised under a foreign boot. How can those who have always been given orders suddenly plan strategy? The French (like other colonial masters) acted in much the same way as did our American slave owners: they begrudgingly set their colonies (slaves en masse) free when the African Independence movement proved unstoppable in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, but did nothing to smooth the transition from servitude to sovereignty. They did not train a cadre of Central Africans to take over as leaders of government or industry; instead they left abruptly, knowing that they would be invited back on more favorable terms. They were.



From my point of view as a high school teacher, what was needed to transform former slaves into statesmen was simply education. As an English teacher, I did more than lecture on grammar, syntax and vocabulary of a foreign language. I tried to use my classroom as a forum for a broader discussion. I wanted my students to put their village lives into a global perspective. We compared their culture with those of the US and France; we spoke (in English) about South Africa and how racism affected them as Africans. We debated the values of traditional African society versus those of the so-called modern one. They wrote of the same concerns of high schoolers everywhere: sex, marriage and religion. However, there were certain cultural twists that added an exotic flavor to our discussions: polygamy, bride prices and the circumcision of women. We debated the value of the various forms of government, a very hot issue in a land of ancient tribal disputes and regional political pressures (The CAR has a military government with socialist tendencies and a favorable attitude towards the West and any other nation willing to provide aid).



For the most part, my students were very curious about America and the ‘first world’. They were much more eager to embrace the developed world with its material benefits than I was prepared to see their traditional emphasis on the values of extended family, the oneness with nature disappear.

In our discussions, I was the one who usually advocated retaining the spirit of the tribal ways, while my students preferred automobiles, western garb, and French cuisine. For having as little access as they did to foreign media, my students were surprisingly well-informed and took our discussions of the world seriously. Many asked me if I could help them come to America to study English, I looked for the sarcasm in their requests, but found only sincerity (sarcasm being a typically Western trait).

It became obvious to me that I was making a statement by my very presence in the classroom. I represented American concern, Western aid, and modern education. It brought up an interesting point about my value as an educator and development worker. Kids who had grown up on subsistence farms in rural villages were being exposed to a teacher who wore Levis and carried a Walkman. They saw what I wore and decided that they would look good in the same. They were shown pictures of my suburban home and car, and they thought that capitalism must be a pretty good thing. I was a walking/talking billboard for the American way of life – the same life I was so eager to leave behind when I began my search for adventure and fulfillment.



I ended up teaching my students the same things that I had been taught, the same things that had made me join the Peace Corps, those lessons of my mother’s that brought me to the CAR. I told them that if they studied hard they could pass their exams and make it into university. I taught them that if they graduated with good marks from college, they would be given good government jobs, where they might, if they worked hard and kept their noses clean, effect real change in eh society. Like me, they bought it. Horatio Alger would have been proud.



There was a student strike the first year that I was in country that closed down schools across the nation for a month. The student union, still feeling cocky from its now legendary role in removing Bokassa, called for the walkout after being informed by the current president, General Andre Kolingba, that all college graduates must now pass a civil service exam before being integrated into the ranks of government service. By implementing these tougher standards, the president was simply trying to comply with the stringent guidelines set down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), two of the most critical sources of the country’s all-important development loans. The IMF and the WB insisted that there were already too many civil servants to be fiscally prudent. Students saw their one avenue out of the poverty of the villages closing, and revolted. Schools from university down to primary level were shuttered, while students armed with slogans of solidarity and a growing dissatisfaction with their future prospects, demanded a reversal of policy. They stayed away, returning to class after lengthy negotiations feeling triumphant, but having earned little more than vague promises.



Two years later, the students would go back on strike. The IMF/WB guidelines did not change, and neither has the resolve of the students to get all they have grown to expect from their ‘independent’ government.



During the strike, I felt guilty, as if somehow I were to blame for helping to create artificially high expectations in my students. The more that I thought about my role – as a teacher of English to poor African students who already spoke more languages than most American teachers, who had very little need for another foreign tongue but a great deal of need for a more practical and technical education – the more I felt like a pawn in a great imperial game that I didn’t support. If anything, I was perpetuating a system of education that I believed was totally inappropriate for the local situation. I was helping to produce more functionaries (exactly what the IMF/WB said the country did NOT need), rather than more artisans, entrepreneurs or better trained farmers. I was creating over-educated fourth worlders who would grow up to demand a better standard of living than their society, in its present form, would be able to provide. How would they resolve this cognitive dissonance? Would they end up changing the society or their expectations? In the volatile political climate of Black Africa, where coups are more common than elections and regimes are only as powerful as their last rally, the answer seems obvious.



Did Peace Corps send me to this faraway corner of the world to stir up the locals and foment dissent? Whey did the CAR request more English teachers rather than volunteers with more technical skills? Did they reject industrial education because they felt these disciplines were designed to keep them subservient? It is true that the more educated Central Africans preferred to speak a foreign language as a symbol of their class status, but is that reason enough?



Might the dissatisfaction that I was helping to propagate one day lead to a radical political swing to the far right or left, or even a return to a more traditional or fundamental society? Was I helping anyone by my presence in this remote country? Did anyone expect me to?



The longer I stayed in the Peace Corps, the more unsure I became about the benefit of my influence. I became depressed with the depth of the development quagmire, and uncertain that modernization was what the villagers really needed. Add to this a series of minor health problems (malarial attacks, parasites, diarrhea, etc.) and a severe case of homesickness and isolation, and you begin to understand the plight of the PCV. I often thought of leaving early (as a volunteer, I could have asked to leave at any time) but I couldn’t or rather would not bring myself to go home.



On long hot nights, sweating under my mosquito net and thinking about the loved ones I left behind, I struggled to figure out why I remained in country. At one point, I convinced myself it was out of loyalty to the woman PCV with whom I lived who kept me from ‘Early Terminating’ the not so appealing Peace Corps appellation, usually cosmically abbreviated to ‘ET’ in PCV speak, but even after our relationship fizzled and I no longer had that excuse, I stayed on. Later, I thought it was the awkward questions that would greet me from friends, family and future employers if I were to ‘quit’ that kept me keeping on. But when a medical situation towards the end of my two year stint provided me with an honorable alibi, I still opted to stick it out. What I discovered was some deeply-entrenched strength of will that propelled me to keep my promise, even though I was dissatisfied, unhappy and sick.



I had made a commitment, not just to the Peace Corps, or even to my African students, but to myself, to the Midwestern mother’s son who could do anything. I had challenged myself, and I had to succeed. I was simply unprepared to admit that I couldn’t hack the two years. The fact that I had reached – nay, exceeded – all of my limits; that this was the most physically, mentally, and most of all spiritually exhausting test that I had ever undertaken only made me more determined NOT to fall short of my goal.



I had bought the dreams I had been sold as a child. I discovered that what my mother had taught me, and what I had in turn passed onto my pupils, was true. There is no limit to what you can do if you are willing to pay the price. Having paid the fee required to meet the challenge, I can now justify what I have endured – like frat boys after Hell Week, or GI’s after Basic Training, the fact that not everyone who begins the course completes the challenge only makes the struggle more worthwhile.



Now back home, I face another daunting challenge. I must now use the skills that I have developed to master another culture: my own. I must now readjust to the same world from which I originally fled. Now I am older (26 as I write this), and the pressure to settle down, find a proper career and get married has grown serious.



I find that I fit in even less well now than before I left. I have missed two years of music and movies and fashion trends. Fads have come and gone without me. I’m no longer hip to what’s cool – or whatever it is that the kids say nowadays. I still want to write, but I’m still not sure that I have anything new to say – despite the travel, adventure and experience.



At parties I now find myself watching everyone with a detached, sociological eye, searching for clues to unlock the culture. I study my fellow Americans just as I used to observe the Central Africans. I still feel very much like the stranger in a strange land.



At a recent get-together of old friends, I am asked, “So, how was Africa?”

I pause.



What should I say? That it was fine?



It was two years. It was a long way from Indiana.



3 thoughts on “Peace Corps Take Two — Recollections of an RPCV

  1. Quite a nice write-up of your experiences. I admire your strength and sympathize with the idea that the only opportunity for a better life is government service.

    It seems that your secondary projects should have run directly counter to that.

  2. Thanks for the post, John. I do believe in the power of service — government, yes, but perhaps more so in a private, personal commitment to make the world a better place, beginning with all of our personal interactions.

    Too much faith in government, bureaucracy and institutions ignores the fact that we are a globe populated by individuals who share more commonality than differences. Oft-times, government, religion, creed, political party and other artificial labels tend to isolate and alienate us from our neighbors, wrongly suggesting that we live in an ‘us against them’ zero sum game world.

  3. Ignorance truly is bliss. I have been looking into joining the Peace Corps with much ambition and hope to be a change, and your blog was very touching. I’d just like to let you know that you’re an admirable writer, and unveiled a truth that many other volunteers haven’t been able to give me.
    And it’s really what I’ve been searching for–not just a shallow, “Everything was great” tale, but the emotional, and-well, physical truth of your experience.
    And so I thank you for your interesting epiphany, it was clarifying.

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