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“When the Right Hand Washes the Left”
A Volunteer who served in Nigeria looks back on his Peace Corps experience

by David Schickele (Nigeria 1961–63)

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David G. Schickele first presented his retrospective view of Volunteer service in a speech given at Swarthmore College in 1963 that was printed in the Swarthmore College Bulletin. At the time, there was great interest on college campuses about the Peace Corps and early RPCVs were frequently asked to write or speak on their college campuses about their experiences. A 1958 graduate of Swarthmore, Schickele worked as a freelance professional violinist before joining the Peace Corps in 1961.
     After his tour, he would, with Roger Landrum make a documentary film on the Peace Corps in Nigeria called "Give Me A Riddle" that was for Peace Corps recruitment but was never really used by the agency. The film was perhaps too honest a representation of Peace Corps Volunteers life overseas and the agency couldn’t handle it. However, the Peace Corps did pick up Schickele’s essay in the
Swarthmore College Bulletin and reprinted it in its first “Point of View,” a short-lived series of discussion papers that they published in the early days of the agency. This series of monographs were devoted, “to the Peace Corps experience and philosophy by members of the staff, current and former Peace Corps Volunteers and qualified observers.”
     What is impressive about Schickele’s essay is that what he said in 1963 is still valid today.
 

For other articles on Peace Corps history 

THE FAVORITE PARLOR SPORT during the Peace Corps training program was making up cocky answers to a question that was put to us 17 times a day by the professional and idle curious alike: Why did you join the Peace Corps? To the Peace Corps training official, who held the power of deciding our futures, we answered that we wanted to help; make the world a better place in which to live; but to others we were perhaps more truthful in talking about poker debts or a feeling that the Bronx Zoo wasn’t enough. We resented the question because we sensed it could be answered well only in retrospect. We had no idea exactly what we were getting into, and it was less painful to be facetious than to repeat the idealistic clichés to which the question was always a veiled invitation.
     I am now what is known as an ex-Volunteer (there seems to be some diffidence about the word “veteran”), having spent 20 months teaching at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in West Africa. And now I am ready to answer the question.
     My life at Nsukka bore little resemblance to the publicized image of Peace Corps stoicism — the straw mat and kerosene lamp syndrome. The university, though 50 miles from anything that could b e called a metropolis, was a large international community unto itself, full of Englishman, Indians, Pakistani, Germans, Americans and, of course, Nigerians. I lived in a single room in a student dormitory, a modern if treacherous building with running water at least four days a week and electricity when the weather was good. I ate primarily Western food in a cafeteria. I owned a little motorcycle and did my share of traveling and roughing it, but the bulk of my life was little different from university life in the States, with a few important exceptions.
     In the first place, the university was only a year old when I arrived, and a spirit of improvisation was required at all times and in all areas, particularly the teaching of literature without books. The library was still pretty much a shell, and ordered books took a minimum of six weeks to arrive if one was lucky, and I never talked to anyone who was. The happier side of this frantic coin was that in the absence of organization many of us had practically unlimited freedom in what and how we were to teach, and we made up our courses as we went along according to what materials were available and our sense of what the students needed. This was tricky freedom which I still blame, in my weaker moments, for my worst mistakes; but it allowed an organic approach to the pursuit of an idea with all its nooks and crannies, an approach long over due for students trained in the unquestioning acceptance of rigid syllabi.

  
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