To Preserve and to Learn

Then & Now
by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962–64; Namibia 2003–04)

    ON AUGUST 30, 1962, after eight weeks of training at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I was one of 285 men and women inducted into the Peace Corps to serve as the first group to go to Ethiopia. After a brief visit home and my first overseas flight, I had two weeks of orientation in Addis Ababa before traveling with eleven other Volunteers to Debra Berhan, where I taught English as a second language in Haile Mariam Mamo Secondary School to grades nine and ten for the next two years.
         On January 9, 2004, after ten weeks of training based at the Andreas Kukuri Conference Centre in Okahandja, Namibia, I was one of 39 men and women sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers to serve as the twenty-second Peace Corps group in that country since it gained independence from South Africa in 1991. That same day, the principal of Ebenhaeser Combined School drove me and my worldly possessions to my new home in Karibib, where I taught English as a second language to grades eight, nine, and ten for one full trimester, until the end of April, 2004, when I decided to terminate my Peace Corps experience.
         “Then” I was twenty-one years old, and “now” I am sixty-three. However I might remember these two experiences, I realize that much is personal and subjective, and that many years of life experience have given me a very different perspective from what I had in 1962.

    The invitation to serve
    The differences between then and now were immediately evident in the application process. As a senior at Bowdoin College in 1962, I filled in a form on my trusty portable typewriter, and then traveled from Brunswick to Portland, Maine, to take a written examination, and later to the nearby Naval Air Station for a physical examination. That spring, I received a telegram informing me that I had been chosen to train to go to Ethiopia — at which point, quite honestly, I had to check a map to be sure of just where Ethiopia was.
         Applying in 2003 put me in immediate contact with the massive bureaucracy that is now the Peace Corps. After retiring, I had been inspired by returned Volunteers in South Florida, some of whom had gone back into the Peace Corps in later life and spoke very positively of their experience. I labored through the many pages of the initial application that included being fingerprinted at the local police station, and then a lengthy telephone interview. I was told I would be put on the “fast track” as my qualifications for teaching were much needed, but before being accepted I had to be medically and dentally “cleared.” That was not so easy for a person my age. For any medical problem that I may have had in my long life, I had to have a doctor testify in writing that I am now fit, and that there is little or no chance of a recurrence within the next two years.
         For a few specific matters, this meant seeing specialists and being retested, a process that dragged on for many weeks. In my case, because of a heart irregularity, it cost me thousands of dollars — not covered by either the Peace Corps or insurance — to “prove” that I was in excellent physical condition and fit to serve.
         The day the final piece of my medical data was finally faxed by my doctor to Washington, I received a phone call that I would be welcomed as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) in Namibia. Once again I had to find a map, this time to see where Namibia is.

    Off to training
    In 1962, I packed my bags, and my parents drove me to the airport from our family home. In 2003, I was faced with selling my car, putting my condo up for sale, and packing and storing a lifetime of accumulated possessions, all that in about a month’s time. That done, I flew to Philadelphia where I joined 45 other PCTs for a two day orientation “staging event” before our flight to Namibia.
         In 1962, Peace Corps had authorized sea freight, a trunk that we could send from home full of personal items that we could not carry on the plane. In 2003, what we carried on the plane was all we could take: two suitcases, or, in most cases, duffel bags and back packs. Struggling to haul my overloaded suitcases into the hotel, I met a Namibia 22 trainee on a Philadelphia street, with her backpack and duffel, a woman just the age I was forty-two years ago, who greeted me with a big smile and affirmation that we were in this together.
         Most of our group of 46 trainees were in their twenties or thirties. I was the third oldest, with our senior member being 77, another who was returning to serve again at 73, and just a few close below my then 62 years. We senior citizens were warmly welcomed by everyone and never, to my knowledge, given any sort of special treatment because of our age.
         The staging was handled by Peace Corps/Washington staff members who spoke with authority about what we were about to encounter in another culture. Upon arrival in Namibia, after many hours in the air, we were greeted at the airport by a large, enthusiastic group of Namibians who were to be our trainers over the next ten weeks. That first, late, dark, jet-lagged evening, we were bussed to a hotel on the outskirts of Windhoek, the capitol, where we were given two days of orientation before traveling to our training center in Okahandja.

    Training — how different can it be?
    In 1962, 340 of us men and women gathered at Georgetown for training. The first day, our pictures were taken for a mug book, complete with brief background sketches of all trainees, which served us then and helps me even now to identify Peace Corps colleagues. Many of us were greeted personally as we arrived by Harris Wofford, who was to be our country director, leader, and source of inspiration not just through training, but for the next two years of service.
         Along with Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, Harris spoke and wrote eloquently again and again, instilling us with idealism and enthusiasm, affirming that we were special and that the work that we were doing was important. With such a very large group of trainees preparing to do what had not been done before, all on fairly short notice, inevitably there was much chaos, but overall for me training was a positive experience.
         Even then one high priority was language training, but that was especially problematical and attempts to teach us Amharic, the official language, fell short. The Ethiopians who were brought in to teach Amharic became our friends, our genuine Ethiopian presence. One was my roommate throughout training. However, they were not in charge.
         In Namibia, just the opposite occurred. Every part of the day-to-day training program was planned and controlled by Namibians, twenty-one of whom are listed in the welcome packet for our group of forty-six trainees. Although the language trainers stayed at the same locations where we trained, we did not share rooms with them, and there was always for me a sense of separation between us and them.
         The official account of training in 1962 claims 480 hours of work in an eight-week period, from July 9 to August 30. Included in the eight components is “Physical Education and Recreation,” 60 hours, which many of the group remember as the exhausting, early morning calisthenics and runs, and afternoon game playing, all in the midst of intense classroom experiences.
         The official account of training in 2004 claims 241 formal hours of work along with various informal seminars over a period of ten weeks. Completely absent from this training was any required physical activity. What was amazing and quite wonderful to me as a participant was that most of the younger trainees were up and running mornings and actively playing games afternoons, doing on their own what was required of us forty-two years ago — while we oldsters chose our form of exercise, which for most of us meant a lot of walking.
         Language training in Namibia was greatly emphasized, with trainees divided into three different language groups that related in some way to expectations of where individuals would be sent as Volunteers. Our language trainers had been prepared to present a kind of “say it, read it, write it, repeat it, know it” system that worked to some degree with some people, but it didn’t work for me and left me far behind from the very beginning. However, as English is the official language of Namibia and the language of instruction in the schools, my lack of skill in a local language did not prevent my serving as a PCV.
         The Peace Corps today is a world of acronyms, sixty-one of which are listed in the Namibian Volunteer Handbook. Not just in writing, but in everyday speech, Americans and Namibian trainers alike spiel off lists of letters in place of real words: “See your APCD.” (That’s “Associate Peace Corps Director” to the uninitiated.) Or “The PCV VAC will meet to consider SPA.” (PCV you know; “Volunteer Advisory Committee,” “Small Project Assistance.”)
         One key acronym not included in the list of sixty-one is “CBT,” Community Based Training, which is a major component of Peace Corps training today. In Namibia, trainees are sent to live for a two- and then later a three-week period with host families. Ideally this is a wonderful opportunity to learn and practice language while immersing oneself in a very different culture. In practice, there were great problems. When we were entirely dependent on others for food, water, lodging, and security for a period of time, and when the others have very different ideas about what can and should be done, great problems could and did exist. My situation was difficult, but that difficulty was not mine alone. When our group of trainees reassembled after the first two weeks of CBT, the word was that we had “survived.”

    Inspiration vs. perspiration
    In 1962, we trainees were given special treatment from the very beginning. President John F. Kennedy greeted us at the White House. Various high government officials met with us during training. His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie shook hands with each of us individually at a reception in His palace in Addis Ababa. The U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia met with our group. Bill Moyers flew in to trouble shoot. The governor of Debre Berhan hosted a banquet for us twelve PCV’s who had just arrived to serve in two schools there.
         In 2003–04, we trainees were left alone. We never saw the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, though lesser U.S. officials visited us with words of warning and wisdom. The emphasis today clearly is on perspiration, not inspiration.

    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, Karibib’s “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 driver’s 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.

    After serving in the Peace Corps, John taught high school English in Akron, New York, for twenty-seven years. He raised two children with his former wife, who served as a PCV in Liberia from 1964 to 1966 and whom he met at an RPCV event. In 1991, John left teaching to pursue a calling in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, to which he was ordained in 1995. Subsequently he served congregations in Virginia and Florida, and spent many months studying and working in India. Today he lives in Buffalo, New York, where he may be retired . . .