To preserve and to learn

    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)

    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.

    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.
         The longer I was there the more I became involved with a nucleus of students, and the weaker became the impulse to disappear over the weekend on my motor cycle in search of external adventure. My social and professional lives slowly fused into one and the same thing. I shared an office with another Volunteer, and we were there almost every evening from supper until late at night, preparing classes and talking to students, who learned that we were always available for help on their work or just bulling around. We sponsored poetry and short story contests and founded a literary club which was the liveliest and most enjoyable organization I’ve ever belonged to, joyfully subject to the imperative of which all remote areas have the advantage: if you want to see a Chekhov play, you have to put it on yourself.
         In some ways I was more alive intellectually at Nsukka than I was at Swarthmore, due in part to the fact that I worked much harder at Nsukka, I’m afraid, than I did at Swarthmore; and to the fact that one learns more from teaching than from studying. But principally it had to do with the kind of perspective necessary in the teaching of Western Literature to a people of a different tradition, and the empathy and curiosity necessary in teaching African literature to Africans. It is always an intellectual experience to cross cultural boundaries.
         At the most elementary level, it is a challenge to separate thought from mechanics in the work of students who are not writing in their native language. Take, for example, the following paragraph, written, I would emphasize, not by a university student but by a cleaning man at the university in a special course:

    “I enjoy certain tasks in my work but others are not so enjoyable.”

    It sings a melody in my poor mind, when a friend came to me and said that: I enjoy certain tasks in my work, but others are not so enjoyable. I laughed and called him by his name, then I asked him what is the task in your work. He answered me and then added, for a period of five years, I have being seriously considering what to do to assist his self as an orphan, in that field of provision. That he should never play with the task of his work. But others who are not so enjoyable could not understand the bitterness to his orphanship. He said to those who are not so enjoyable that they have no bounding which hangs their thought in a dark room.”

    I regard this passage with joy, not to say a little awe, but beneath its exotic and largely unconscious poetic appeal there is a man trying to say something important, blown about in the wilderness of an unfamiliar language by the influences of the King James Version and the vernacular proverb. Where writing like this is concerned, it is impossible to be a Guardian of Good Grammar; one must try to confront the roots of language — the relationship between thought and word, with all the problems of extraneous influences and in many cases translation from a native tongue.

    They spoke what was in their heads
    At another level, the intellectual excitement came from a kind of freshness of thoughts and expression in minds that have not become trapped by scholastic conventions, or the fear of them. I remember times at Swarthmore when I kept a question or thought to myself because I feared it might be in some way intellectually out of line. But most of my Nsukka students had no idea what was in or out of line, what was a cliché and what was not, what critical attitudes were forbidden or encouraged (though I did my share, I confess, of forbidding and encouraging). They were not at all calculating, in a social sense, in their thought. They spoke what was in their heads, with the result that discussion had a lively, unadulterated and personal quality which I found a relief from the more sophisticated but less spontaneously sincere manner of many young American intellectuals. It was also a little infuriating at times. I am, after all, a product of my own culture. But one has only to look at a 1908 Phoenix (the Swarthmore student newspaper) to realize how much sophistication is a thing of style and fashion, and how little any one fashion exhausts the possible ways in which the world can be confronted and apprehended.
         In Nigeria literature became the line of commerce between me and my students as people, a common interest and prime mover in the coming together of white American and black African. Ours was a dialogue between equals, articulate representatives of two articulate and in many ways opposing heritages. Because literature deals more directly with life than other art forms, through it I began to know Nigeria as a country and my students as friends. An idealized case history might read something like this: A student brings me a story he has written, perhaps autobiographical, about life in his village. I harrumph my way through a number of formal criticisms and start asking questions about customs in his village that have a bearing on the story. Soon we are exchanging childhood reminiscences or talking about girls over a bottle of beer. Eventually we travel together to his home, where I meet his family and live in his house. And then what began, perhaps, as a rather bookish interest in comparative culture becomes a real involvement in that culture, so that each new insight does not merely add to a store of knowledge, but carries the power of giving pain or pleasure. If there is any lesson in this, it is simply that no real intellectual understanding can exist without a sense of identification at some deeper level. I think this is what the Peace Corps, when it is lucky, accomplishes.
         This sense of identification is not a mysterious thing. Once in Nsukka, after struggling to explain the social and intellectual background of some classic Western literature, I began teaching a modern Nigerian novel, Achebe’s No Longer At Ease. I was struck by the concreteness of the first comments from the class: “That place where the Lagos taxi driver runs over the dog because he thinks it’s good luck . . . it’s really like that.” It seems that the joy of simple recognition in art is more than an accidental attribute — not the recognition of universals, but of dogs and taxicabs. Before going to Africa I read another book by Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I enjoyed it and was glad to learn something about Ibo culture, but I thought it a mediocre work of art. I read the book again at the end of my stay in Nigeria and suddenly found it an exceptional work of art. It was no longer a cultural document, but a book about trees I had climbed and houses I had visited in. It is not that I now ignored artistic defects through sentimentality, but that my empathy revealed artistic virtues that had previously been hidden from me.
         We in America know too much about the rest of the world. Subjected to a constant barrage of information from books, TV, photographers, we know how Eskimos catch bears and how people come of age in Samoa. We gather our images of the whole world around us and succumb to the illusion of being cosmopolitan. We study comparative literature and read books like Zen in the Art of Archery and think of ourselves as citizens of the world when actually vast reading is simply the hallmark of our parochialism. No matter how many Yoga kicks we go on, we still interpret everything through the pattern of our own American existence and intellectual traditions, gleaning only disembodied ideas from other cultures.
         If, as the critics have it, ideas are inseparable from their style of expression, it is equally true in the cultural sense that ideas are inseparable from the manner and place in which they are lived. This to me is the meaning of the Peace Corps as a new frontier. It is the call to go, not where man has never been before, but where he has lived differently; the call to experience firsthand the intricacies of a different culture; to understand from the inside rather than the outside; and to test the limits of one’s own way of life against another in the same manner as the original pioneer tested the limits of his endurance against the elements. This is perhaps an impossible ideal, surely impossible in the narrow scope of two years; but it was an adventure just the same. It was an adventure to realize, for instance, to what extent irony is an attribute, even a condition, of Western life and thought; and to live for nearly two years in a society in which irony as a force is practically nonexistent. But that is too complex a thing to get started on right now
    Hundreds of 23-year-old spies
    Life at Nsukka was not always the easiest thing in the world, and the friendships I talk of so cavalierly were not the work of a day. Our group arrived at Nsukka shortly after the Peace Corps’ first big publicity break, the famous Post Card Incident, which was still very much on Nigerian minds. We were always treated with a sense of natural friendliness and hospitality, but there was also quite a bit of understandable mistrust. Nigeria became a nation only in 1960, and the present university generation is one bred on the struggle for independence and the appropriate slogans and attitudes. I tended to feel guilty rather than defensive, except when the accusations were patently ridiculous, such as the idea that we were all master spires — hundred of 23-year-old master spies — or when facts were purposefully ignored, as in the statement that the Peace Corps was run by the CIA. America is a large, rich, powerful, feared and envied nation; Nigeria is a new country naturally jealous of its independence and autonomy. All things considered, I am a little amazed at the openness and frankness of our receptions.
         There were other problems. Many Nigerians have an overdeveloped sense of status and found it hard to believe that we were paid practically nothing. Many reasoned that because we lived in the dormitories with the students instead of in big houses as the rest of the faculty, we must be second-raters, or misfits that America was fobbing off on them. But insofar as we made names for ourselves as good teachers and made ourselves accessible as people (something that few of my friends had ever known a white man to do), our eventual acceptance into the community was assured. Shortly after our arrival a petition circulated among the students asking the administration to dismiss the Peace Corps. Months later student grievances erupted into a riot that forced the school to close down for more than two weeks, but in the long list of grievances, the Peace Corp was not now mentioned.
         I do not wish to imply that we “won them over”; indeed, I think they won us over in the final analysis. It’s just that the intransigence of our preconceptions of ourselves and others gradually dissolved into a kind of affectionate confusion. Ideas often try to live a life of their own, independent of and separate from the people and objects with which they supposedly deal. In the intellect alone they are self-proliferating, like fungus under glass, without regard for what the weather is doing outside. But the kind of personal contact we had with Nigerians helped break up the false buttressing of formal thought, and when that happens, personal friction creates a warmth conducive to further understanding and not a heat with which to light incendiary fires. A glass of beer can make the difference between families and worthy opponents.
         I was at first surprised by how little I felt the presence of any racial feeling in Nigeria. What little I did notice had a kind of second-hand quality, as if it were merely a principled identification with the American Negro or a historical commitment. Though well-informed about civil rights events in the United States, most Nigerians I talked to showed little understanding of the state of mind of the American Negro as differentiated from themselves. Most Nigerians have had little contact with hardcore prejudice backed by social force. They have good reason to resent, sometimes to hate, the white man in Africa, but they have never been subjected as people to the kind of daily and life-long injustice that confronts the American Negro.
         Racial feeling sometimes crops up in strange circumstances. A friend writes me, “Before Nsukka, the only whites I had ever known were reverend fathers in school who interpreted everything I did as a sure sign of fast-approaching eternal damnation . . . .” In Africa as in America all whites are to a certain extent, guilty until proven innocent, but in a very short time we were joking about our respective colors with a freedom and levity which is not always possible in America. Color has its own pure power, too; and I soon felt ashamed of my chalky, pallid skin against the splendor of the African’s.
         Much has been written recently about the contradictory feelings of the Negro toward the white man — hating him and yet buying facial creams to be more like him — and I think the same sort of contradictory relationship exists in Nigeria, but with a cultural rather than a racial basis. The African stands in a very delicate psychological position between Western industrial culture and his own. He is driven to a comparative evaluation and must build a society out of his decisions. America is not so much interested in changing as exporting its society; Nigeria is interested in change and is of necessity much less parochial than ourselves in the source of its inspiration.

    The only thing that cuts a little ice
    “Africa caught between two world” — it is a cliché, but it is no joke. To the race problem it is at least possible to postulate an ideal resolution: racial equality and the elimination of intolerance. But in its cultural aspect — the struggle between African traditions and the heritage of the West — there is no indisputable resolution, not even in the mind. If I have learned anything from living in Nigeria, it is the unenviably complex and difficult position in which the young Nigerian finds himself; and if I have learned anything from the poems and stories written by my students, it is the incredible grace, honesty and sometimes power with which many Nigerians are examining themselves, their past and their future.
         I don’t know how friendship fits into all this, but somehow it does. My instincts revolt against the whole idea of having to prove in some mechanistic or quantitative way the value of the Peace Corps. If the aim is to help people, I understand that in the sense of the Ibo proverb which says that when the right hand washes the left hand, the right hand become clean also. E. M. Forster had said that “love is a great force in private life,” but “in public affairs [it] does not work.” The fact is we can only love what we know personally, and we cannot know much. The only thing that cuts a little ice is affection, or the possibility of affection. I only know that when I am infuriated by some article in a Nigerian newspaper, I can summon up countless images of dusty cycle rides with Paul Okpokam, reading poetry with Glory Nwanodi, dancing and drinking palm wine with Gabriel Ogar, and it suddenly matters very much that I go beyond my annoyance to some kind of understanding. That my Nigerian friends trust me is no reason for them to trust Washington or forgive Birmingham; but something is there which was not there before and which the world is the better for having.

    After a long career as a songwriter, musician, filmmaker and teacher, David Schickele died of a brain tumor in 2000.