American volunteers in Malawi: they're the cream of the Corps

EARLY last year, Mark Schuch was still running a profitable gardening company with his brother in Kenosha, Wis. But as a born-again Christian, he felt the need to do something else with his life. So he sold his part of the business and his house and joined the Peace Corps. Six months later, he was appointed chief horticulturist of the city landscape department in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi. . . .

It is 8 o'clock in the morning at the Lilongwe civic sports stadium. The weather is already hot.

Texas-born Monica MacDonald raises her hand: ``Ready, go!'' A pack of Malawian runners, many of them barefoot, take off down the road on a 10-kilometer race. A physical education graduate, Peace Corps volunteer MacDonald was named national athletics coach late last year. Her job: to encourage sports awareness and organize countrywide events. . . .

``To tell you the truth, I didn't know what I would be doing,'' says Joe Lucas, a 29-year-old electronics technician from Carrollton, Ohio. ``I didn't even know where Malawi was.''

Since coming out here last July, the bearded Peace Corps volunteer has been maintaining audiovisual equipment at the University of Malawi's Chancellor College in the southern town of Zomba. The object, he explains, is to train a Malawian understudy who will eventually take over the job.

A total of 74 Americans involved in rural development, education, programs for the handicapped, and positions where technical skills are needed are serving in Malawi as Peace Corps volunteers.

This is the third time since 1963 that the program has operated in this country. Twice before it was forced to leave because of political reasons and differences of opinion on how programs should be approached.

Currently, however, America's ``new'' Peace Corps enjoys a close working relationship with the Malawian government. More than a quarter of a century has passed since President Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, symbolizing his ``new frontier'' spirit.

Imbued with enthusiastic idealism, thousands of young Americans headed off to distant lands -- from Nepal to Yemen -- to dig wells, teach school, or build huts. Since then, some 120,000 volunteers have served under its auspices in 92 countries.

Basically, Peace Corps officials point out, the program's goals have remained the same: to promote peace and understanding with the developing nations and, as Kennedy said, to help them meet ``the urgent needs for skilled manpower.''

Nevertheless, a great deal has changed.

From its height in 1967, during which there were over 15,500 volunteers, the Peace Corps program soured during the Vietnam war. Numerous volunteers bitterly criticized the US role, often becoming politically involved against the regimes of their host countries.

In 1969, Malawi, a shirt-and-tie country, kicked the Peace Corps out. ``The government didn't like the way a lot of the hippie types were dressed -- long hair, living in villages, and spreading radical ideas,'' one Western observer said.

By the late 1970s, enrollment and congressional funding had dropped so dramatically that many Americans scarcely knew the program still existed.

It is only over the past five years that the Washington-based agency has made a substantial comeback -- much of it a result of the energetic rejuvenation efforts of director L. Loret Ruppe.

Now, with a $124.4 million budget (fiscal year 1986), the Peace Corps boasts some 6,000 volunteers in 62 countries throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Over half of these volunteers serve in Africa, where Malawi ranks as a medium-sized program. But it is very much a program in its own right, sometimes known as the ``Cadillac corps'' by volunteers elsewhere.

According to one Peace Corps director, ``Malawi probably has the most sophisticated program in the world outside of Belize. We have a lot more specialists like engineers and business managers.''

About one-third of Malawi's volunteers are over 40, he adds, the oldest being a 75-year-old hospital nurse. ``A lot of our people are early retirees who don't see why they should stop working, or mid-career professionals who are saying to themselves, `There must be something more to life than just making money.' ''

The question of whether to concentrate on generalists or specialists has been a perennial issue with the corps.

``During the 60s, most of the volunteers were rah-rah generalists, liberal arts people in their early 20s,'' said a Peace Corps public affairs officer in Washington. ``Now, they're a lot older, more mature, and they ask more questions about the countries they're going to. About 85 percent come with skills, but we still want generalists. It depends on the country.''

Malawi, which maintains one of the best economic growth rates in black Africa, is very particular about demanding candidates with degrees or top-notch experience. ``They roll out the organizational charts. They know who is where and what they need,'' said Mr. Faulkner. ``It breaks a lot of stereotypes when one thinks of the anarchy elsewhere.''

Not everyone agrees with this policy. Some Peace Corps volunteers, who have left well-paying career jobs back home to do the two-year stint, have found themselves overqualified for what was promised and left disenchanted.

``As it turns out, from the horticultural point of view the Malawians don't need that much help,'' comments Mr. Schuch.

``But it is still a worthwhile experience because I have found other areas where I can be of use, like helping plan better management or teaching them accountancy,'' he adds. Indeed, ingenuity and initiative are decisive factors. As most volunteers will tell you, the Peace Corps is what you make of it.

``It's not necessarily your project which is satisfying. It's the things you do on the outside,'' comments Schuch. ``Things can get very frustrating, but you learn a lot about yourself. To be more tolerant, more patient.''

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