A Writer Writes

Hanging On (and Hanging Out) in Boston

by Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I CAME TO BOSTON ten years ago to return to graduate school. I was getting nowhere writing a novel in California and I fancied that a masters might pull me out of the swamp of my life in L.A. I came to my senses a few months after my arrival here on a chill December morning in 1995 at a T-stop across from Eastern Mountain Sports. As I looked around to see where I’d landed, I found myself in culture shock, not unlike what I’d experienced 40 years before when I first arrived in Addis Ababa in the last days of the rainy season of 1962 — one of 275 Peace Corps Volunteers, the first ever to go to Ethiopia.
     Thirty-five years before Boston, I set off with the Peace Corps to “save the world.” I thought (hell, we all thought!) that by sharing my knowledge and myself, I could bring a small part of the world to new understanding and new motivation and improve their lives. What did I know? I was young. There, in the fabled Horn of Africa, we were welcomed and greeted by the Emperor Haile Selassie, written about and gawked at as “Kennedy’s Kids.” We’d come to share our knowledge and skills and western ways in this remote highland kingdom of Africa.
     Like everyone else in the Peace Corps, I learned more than I taught, but I always felt, in that soft underbelly of my secret desires, that I would somehow touch others and help them grow. I believed, in my youthful ignorance, that American ingenuity could solve most of the problems of the world.
     I didn’t, however, solve many (or any!) problems of the world, but for me — as it has been, I’m sure, for most RPCVs — the Peace Corps experience was the seminal experience of my life, though for nearly four decades I kept trying to deny it.
     When I came home from Ethiopia and enrolled in graduate school in California, I quickly realized most of my fellow students couldn’t care less about where I’d been and what I’d done in Africa.
     Swallowed up by the California anti-war, free love, and psychedelic madness of the 1960s as sure as Jonah was swallowed by the whale, I found myself among strangers who, in the name of cool, maintained a distance from any sort of idealism, caring, or concerns about the world.
     I had also come home from Africa with the distinct knowledge that the Peace Corps had not prepared me for life as an RPCV. I returned “dumbed-down” by the experience of being away from American culture for two years. I lost something of myself in Africa. And my great hope for the world, that I’d clung to through Peace Corps Training at Georgetown University, had slipped away without my even noticing. Instead of sharing what I’d seen and lived through at the grassroots of the Third World — the suffering, deprivation, and ignorance, I couldn’t tell my story. Such tales scared people off. And the truth is the telling scared me off. I became jumpy and evasive and afraid of what I learned up close and personal in Africa. My memories of Ethiopia weren’t quite the trip to Disneyland I hoped to remember.
     So was it worth it? Living two years among the poor and unprivileged, planting the experience into the context of my life became a puzzle to me. I can still trace my footsteps along the crowded streets with honking taxis, donkeys and vendors hawking their wares, on my way to teach classrooms filled with barefoot kids. What did it mean to come home and shelve those impressions and memories away like photographs stashed and forgotten for years in a shoebox?
     I never solved that puzzle, and because I couldn’t solve it, I have always felt a vague sense that I failed as a PCVs, though I’ve come to own this sense of failure as my own shortcoming. I know other Volunteers from Ethiopia and elsewhere who have kept in touch with their host countries, who have brought barefoot kids back to America, and who have come home themselves and furthered the ideals of the Peace Corps agency. They fulfilled the Third Goal. Not me.
      Many of us have lived lifetimes since we came home. We’ve had our careers, our marriages, and our children. We’ve watched the world go through cycles of wars, political upheavals, and cultural fashions. For those of us who went to Ethiopia, we saw the decline and fall of one of the great emperors and empires of the world, and watched Ethiopia become a communist nation, and then not. Many of those barefoot kids we taught as children grew up to turn against America, and then turn against each other. They, too, are now old men in Addis.
     Thinking of my Peace Corps years through the decades, I have at times been discouraged, ready to hang it up and forget. After all, what had I done to change the world? Where was the good I dreamed of achieving back then in the Sixties when Kennedy sent us off to Africa from the lawns of his White House?
      But I had changed. I’d been transformed. The experience of the Peace Corps took me out of the backwaters of Ohio where I grew up and spun me off in another direction so that now when I glance back over the decades, I barely remember who I once was before the Peace Corps.
      Yet this riddle of what the Peace Corps meant to me has lain at my feet all these years. I’m beginning to understand how the culture shock of Ethiopia ripped apart my world. The puzzle is really me. I might have saved myself many sleepless nights if early on I’d grasped that instead of changing the world I needed to change myself.
      These days in Boston, I often drive past the T stop where I first realized I had left the warm climate of California for frigid Boston and I think about how far I’ve come, not only in miles and years, but also in my mind.
      Sometimes I think about Ethiopia and the kid I once was, and the hope I once had, and the good things that I did do in the Peace Corps. I’m happy to be reminded that a little is more than nothing. And with that little, there is always the hope of doing more.

Will Siegel lives and works in Boston as a technical writer. A former TV writer and guitar player, he counts himself lucky to be a husband and good friend of many PCVs who served with him in Addis Ababa and remember the work that he did as a secondary school teacher in the city, and with the Swedish Leprosarium on the outskirts of town. He is a survivor of his childhood in Ohio, Haight Ashbury’s cultural revolution of the 1960s, and since 1995, Boston winters. He continues to remember and to write.