THE Peace Corps should be at the very heart of today's debate about the relevance of national service for young (and older) Americans. For nearly 26 years, the Peace Corps has given volunteers an opportunity to help others and learn about foreign nations and peoples. Fortunately, as a recent visit to the remote vastness of an African country made clear to me, the Peace Corps continues to provide model opportunities for individual growth and the kind of service which ought to remain a goal of US policymakers. As the example of one poor, proud country in the middle of Africa confirms, the predominantly young people of the Peace Corps are as dedicated, energetic, and excited about attempting to do good overseas as their predecessors were during the more heady, more glamorous, and better known 1960s.
The Central African Republic, where the confused ex-Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa is now on trial for 38 murders, rape, pillage, cannibalism, sadism, embezzlement, and other unspeakable crimes, is a desperately deprived but nevertheless vibrant country. It may be the extreme case that demonstrates the purposefulness and tenacity of Peace Corps volunteers, both male and female, in the face of extreme adversity.
Central Africa relies on France to pay 80 percent of its regular budget and on France and other Western nations for developmental aid. Its exports of cotton, coffee, and diamonds hardly pay import bills, particularly when nearly everything the landlocked 3 million Central Africans import and export must move overland by road across Cameroon or Congo, or by slow boat along the meandering Ubangi River. The roads, primarily narrow, pitted, dirt stretches that turn treacherous in the rains, are an added obstacle. An asphalt road leads northward 120 miles from Bangui, the capital. After that, trucks, buses, and Peace Corps vehicles of all descriptions are essentially on their own.
Bangui, a sprawling town of 500,000 on the north bank of the Ubangi River, has a working telephone system, several modern hotels, and a thin veneer of modernity. Beyond, in the countryside that stretches eastward 500 miles to the Sudan, 200 miles northward to Chad, and 200 miles westward to the much more developed borders of the Cameroon, there are hardly any telephones and an erratic postal service. In the eastern half of the country, one gets a distinct impression that the nation still suffers from the aftermath of the Emperor Bokassa's destructive reign from 1965 to 1979.
The Central African Republic is a challenge to which Peace Corps volunteers seem equal. A few women are working in small village hospitals, weighing babies, observing operations, and assisting the local surgeons and nurses. They teach local village midwives how to deliver babies in a sanitary fashion. Other volunteers are seeking to establish village dispensaries so that simple medical supplies can be sold to people hundreds of miles distant from medical care.
Some Peace Corps volunteers teach biology, mathematics, or English as a second language in the regional secondary schools. Classes of 90 students or more are not uncommon. Textbooks, blackboards, chalk, and other materials are scarce, and the syllabus and the examination system are rigid. But the volunteers counter their difficulties with enthusiasm and initiative.
Another comparatively numerous group of Peace Corps men and women are attempting to establish fish farming as a viable peasant endeavor. They show villagers how to construct ponds and nurture protein rich tilapia, bream, and other fast-growing fish to maturity.
The volunteers - and they think of themselves in that way - proudly live at the local level, eating on the economy. They buy their food daily in outdoor markets, and feed themselves cassava (tapioca) gruel, vegetables, and indigenous meat and fish. A spicy mixture of cassava leaves and peanut sauces is a tasty national specialty.
Upcountry, the Peace Corps workers live cheek to jowl with local villagers in small mudbrick houses without running water or electricity. They use pit latrines. Many must communicate constantly in Sangho, the local lingua franca; the best of them quickly establish a comfortable fluency, permitting them to consider a small town or village in the very heart of Africa their home.
Most Peace Corps workers in the Central African Republic spend up to 27 months on the job, receiving mail from home only sporadically. A telephone call requires a two or three day trip to Bangui.
The ethic of public service has infected the volunteers who now seek to improve the lot of ordinary Central Africans in modest ways. They welcome the opportunity to teach, to establish an inland fishery, or to modernize the practice of midwifery. Those who may campaign for a national program of public service will find ample support from the Peace Corps experience in deepest Central Africa.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.