Then & Now
Two African nations
Ethiopia in 1962 was an ancient land, the oldest independent country in Africa, most of which had been occupied by Italy from 1935 to 1941. Except in a few cities, Ethiopians lived in isolated villages of mud and stone and thatch houses without electricity or running water, most accessible only by foot. They wore with pride the traditional white shawls with colored borders. We PCVs found ourselves living in a distinctly African medieval setting, that had both a unique ambiance and immense problems. As Americans, we were welcomed warmly, and we established many close bonds with Ethiopians.
Prior to independence, Namibia was South West Africa, a land where apartheid was strongly enforced. Blacks were relocated from the towns to areas called locations. The infrastructure of the country overall was established then, and today it is modern. I drank water from the tap everywhere I went and never suffered any consequences. I received all Peace Corps allowances through my local ATM. Electricity works most of the time. The roads are modern. The buildings you see along the roads appear modern. This seems to be a modern country.
But, hidden away out of sight, are the humbler rows of houses the shantytowns where many black and colored people continue to live today though, if they can afford it, they can move. In this country of about 1.7 million people, many are unemployed and spend their days hanging out. In the town where I did my CBT, the main industries are alcohol, both home brew and national brands, and coffins, the latter being largely for the 23% of the population that is HIV positive.
Since the 19th century, Namibian history includes white genocide against blacks, coloniziation, apartheid, and war for independence. Namibians are very much aware that the U.S.A. supported South Africa through the early years when Namibia sought independence, and the American government is most often pictured today in African media as aggressive, self-serving, and untrustworthy. Understandably, it is a special challenge for PCVs to establish warm relationships with Namibians.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer
On January 9, 2004 my principal deposited me at The Peace Corps House, a green three bedroom ranch on the distant edge of Usab, Karibibs location. Two previous PCVs had lived there in successive terms of service.
There were essentially no greetings or introductions, either from the community or the school. I was there, filling a post that had been filled before for a set period of time, after which I would leave, and there was very little interest in who I was or what I had to offer. I was assigned to teach English to 160 eighth, ninth, and tenth graders each day under dreadful conditions: few books and desks, broken windows, holes in the floor, excessive heat and noise all of which I had anticipated somewhat as a normal Peace Corps challenge. What I had not expected was the ongoing disruptive and disrespectful behavior of the students (in Namibia called learners) and the extraordinarily detailed and unrealistic requirements of the government educational bureaucracy that, in my opinion, guarantee failure.
I was the only PCV in Karibib, and I found the isolation to be difficult. Although my neighbors houses were much smaller than mine, most had color TVs and some had satellite dishes bringing in many South African channels. Many neighbors and teacher colleagues had cars.
Forty-two years ago in Ethiopia, TV was not an option. The Peace Corps issued drivers licenses and during our first year even supplied a vehicle for each town to enable PCVs to travel into Addis Ababa for meetings, and shopping. For a PCV in Namibia, TV is not within the budget, and driving a car is strictly forbidden. As a PCV in Ethiopia, I owned a horse and often rode in the countryside. As a PCV in Namibia, PC/N does not allow ownership or use of horses as a mode of transportation. This quotation from the Peace Corps Namibia Volunteer Handbook, updated in January, 2004, is just one example of how the Peace Corps today manages the lives of PCVs.
Volunteers are expected to be working on site 24/7 and to be subject to all rules promulgated by the bureaucracies of Washington, D.C., and Windhoek. They are required to check into the PC office whenever they visit Windhoek. That checking in includes guidelines for Greeting the Staff, Dress Code, and even Eating Lunch at the Office.
In addition: Volunteers may write articles for publication; however, they must receive prior approval from the CD or their APCD to ascertain whether they might cause problems which the Volunteer may not have anticipated.
In 1962, I perceived Peace Corps to be supporting my work. In 2004, I perceived Peace Corps to be managing just about every aspect of my life and not providing the support I hoped for. We PCVs heard repeatedly that Post must know where we were every minute of every day so that if our parents contacted their congressperson asking of our whereabouts, Post could account for us immediately. And, both in writing and in face-to-face meetings, we were told, that the final consequence of non-compliance with rules would be administrative separation we would be sent home.
In 1962, we Volunteers received weekly overseas editions of Time and Newsweek, allowing us to keep up, however belatedly, with world events. In 2004, I received three old issues of Newsweek in my first ten weeks in Karibib. When I called Post, I was told that budgetary cutbacks due to the war in Iraq had led to magazine cutbacks and the few magazines sent out from Washington were being distributed to PCVs in a fairly random fashion.
In 1962, the Peace Corps provided each household of PCVs with a trunk loaded with paperback books that gave us many hours of valuable reading. In 2004, there were no such book lockers, but we could fill in forms for job related books that might be sent weeks or months later, if available.
Then and now.
So much is different. What remains the same for me are the wonderful people whom I have met as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sadly, the challenges today seem even greater than ever before, yet I still hope and dream that, working together, we can make the world a better place. So much remains to be done.