A Volunteer's Life Enriched by Africa

Peace Corps member Donald Lawder began a new life in Mali at an age when many people retire

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HIS white hair, mustache, and goatee could well be the marks of a man retired.

But his bicycle rides to a local college where he teaches, the flow of students through his small home, and the two books he is writing about this West African nation are the marks of someone very much on the go.

Donald Lawder, at 78, is one of the oldest Peace Corps volunteers ever (the oldest now serving is an 85-year-old in Ecuador). The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 30.

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Mr. Lawder gave up the ``good'' life on Madison Avenue to study poetry about the time most people are thinking of retiring.

If he went back to the United States, he'd write poetry, he says. ``But the possibilities of finding a job would be negative,'' he said at an evening interview in his home. ``Playing checkers at the senior citizens center? It's not my idea of how I want to finish my life.''

He has no material aspirations, he says. He doesn't read the calendar anymore. And since coming to Mali, he's become more friendly, more loving, he says. He lives in a tiny three-room home often filled with the laughter of children or the voices of students discussing English literature.

Life for Lawder is not just an intellectual voyage, he says, it is a voyage of the heart. That view is part of ``a romantic notion that what's important is not the finding, but the looking,'' the idea that there is always something new to discover just beyond today.

Poetry has long been a part of his life, shaping it - and leading him to Mali.

One of three children, Lawder says he was ``raised on Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare. I studied them in high school, but mostly I read them obsessively.'' But it was the modern poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who ``really opened my eyes,'' he says. Lawder sold some poems to The New Yorker. But he had to earn a living, so he went to work for Advertising Age magazine. Eventually, he became restless.

``I had this itch to work in poetry, and I had it in the back of my mind I'd like to teach,'' he says. Twice divorced, and then living alone, he started going to poetry workshops and taking poetry courses at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

As his poetry writing increased, though, ``I found myself in a bind, trying to write freely as a poet and living a Madison Avenue lifestyle. I decided I had to organize my life around poetry. It was that important to me.''

He went back to college for a year, having dropped out of Dartmouth as a freshman. He took equivalency exams and got his bachelor's degree from Empire State College in 1977. He earned a master's degree in poetry in 1981.

But when he looked around for a job as a poetry professor, especially for someone of retirement age, things looked bleak.

``I could hardly bring myself to plunge back into the rat race. Then I remembered the Peace Corps had no upper age limit. So I applied. A little country called Mali was looking for English professors.''

Malians like to give foreign visitors or residents a Malian name. When Lawder was sent to a village near Bamako, Mali, in mid-1983 to live with a family for three months as part of his training, the family named him Namory Keita, names associated with early Malian emperors. (Mali, best known abroad for the Saharan desert trading town of Timbuktu, once stretched over a vast portion of West Africa.)

In recent years, Mali has known 23 years of dictatorship: Moussa Traore was toppled by the military in 1991. An interim military government gave way, in 1992, to Alfa Omar Konare, elected in a multiparty vote.

Lawder's tenure as a Peace Corps volunteer is one of the longest ever: He began in Mali in June 1983. He comes back to the US on paid leave for a month every other summer.

Don was assigned to the National Teacher Training College (ENSUP is the acronym in French) in Bamako, where today he teaches American studies and first-year English conversation. (He's the only native English speaker on the staff). He also helps senior students with their theses and has become an unofficial mentor to the teachers.

``He's a kind of technical adviser'' for the teachers, says Fafaran Keita, a Malian who is the Peace Corps' associate director for education here. ``This is something we appreciate greatly.'' Lawder recently was praised by the chairman of the English Department, the director of ENSUP, and a regional Peace Corps official.

Lawder is ``a sharp guy; he's not a doddering old man,'' says Howard Anderson, director of the Mali Peace Corps. ``He does a good job at the school. He's a very visible member of the community.... He's played a very critical role in the lives of his students.'' And, he adds, ``he's good for me.'' Lawder offers encouragement to Anderson in his challenging job overseeing some 150 volunteers - more than in any other African country.

Lawder's satisfaction with teaching helps keep him in Mali. Former students drop by his house regularly. ``You cannot judge your success in life in quantitative terms,'' he says. ``You help some highly motivated people in a big way, you fail to help many others. You pick out the nugget of gold. I get enormous satisfaction out of finding people in this terrible [economic] situation ... to help them get more out of life than they might have without me.'' Mali's per-capita annual income is about $280.

``Anyone who spends time with him likes him,'' says Rachel Stoler, a fellow volunteer who has been here four years and helps train new volunteers. And, she adds, as Lawder pulls up to the Peace Corps office on his bike, ``Bamako's not the easiest place to live.''

But despite the ever-present dust on the maze of unpaved streets here, despite the heat, the traffic, the noise, in some ways, life here has become easier for Lawder than life at home.

Awa and Adam, seven-year-old twins, stand on two chairs in front of a blackboard in Lawder's dining room, reviewing a lesson he has written for them in French.

A Snickers candy bar on the corner of his cluttered desk, next to a French-English dictionary and an ``American Reader'' literature book, will later be cut into thin slices for everyone. (Peace Corps volunteers' salaries are meager - only about $150 a month in Mali.)

In the small living room, some of Awa and Adam's eight siblings watch a black-and-white TV. The Malian family ``adopted'' Lawder. The childrens' mother lives across town, but most of them stay with their grandmother, who lives only a few doors away.

``Sometimes it's too much for me,'' says Lawder, as the children swirl around the house. ``It's probably good for me to try to keep up with them,'' he adds, smiling. ``They are very important to me.''

He pays school fees for several of the children and once took the twins on a visit to the US. They treat him like a father, or perhaps a grandfather. Lowder has four grown children of his own.

Once, when a young female Peace Corps volunteer was being followed by a Malian man near Lawder's home, she came into his house seeking his protection. Lawder went out to ask the man to leave. When the man pulled a knife on him, 15-year-old Ami jumped between him and the would-be assailant. The man left without attacking.

``It would be a pitfall to make me out to be too special,'' Lawder confides. ``I began as a mixed-up kid who dropped out of everything, including Boy Scouts and college. I was all my life an introvert, so wrapped up in myself I didn't know how to make friends. What I've been working at for quite some years is reconstructing myself. It's working....''

``It's not just how I'm changing Mali,'' he says, ``but how Mali is changing me.''

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