Malawi -- a Peace Corps memoir

WHEN, as a young Kansan, I entered the Peace Corps at the age of 24, I found myself getting involved with an endeavor that was barely a year old and was hardly what you'd call a typical government institution. It had been only a few months since I had filled out the forms, taken the lengthy examination at the Lawrence post office, and almost immediately gotten a telegram invitation to spend two years teaching in a place called Ghana. I still had some grad school to do, so I turned down the offer. And anyway, I didn't know what to think of this fly-by-night outfit, the Peace Corps, which was sort of a standing joke around KU. But by that fall, I had changed my mind, and before I knew it, I was in Syracuse, N.Y., being prepared to go to yet another place, somewhere in East Africa, called Nyasaland.

In the 10 weeks or so of training which we spent in Syracuse that winter of '62, the 47 personalities in the Nyasaland I Project got to know one another better than they would have wished. After all, one of the purposes of the training process was to determine the fitness of inexperienced young people for duty overseas in a strange culture, in situations of extreme challenge. This meant that a complex evaluation and selection process was going on almost constantly.

We were being watched, and we were acutely aware of who had been ``de-selected'' and who was likely to be. The 42 who finally made it overseas to our posts were intended to be a chosen few. But, in hindsight and with all due respect to our staff, I don't think anyone really knew what they were looking for in a volunteer at that point.

Neither were any of us really prepared to address the notion of volunteer foreign service, or what two years in Africa might mean to us in the future. After all, this was our first real job.

During those 2 months in Syracuse, we were given 48 hours of language training, 100 hours of area studies, 100 hours of American studies and communism, 150 hours of education principles and teaching techniques, and some physical training. Then we were packed off on a plane to Africa with all our second thoughts.

As we had sensed all along, we seemed to be crossing an uncharted river where there was no bridge and you had to ask directions in an unknown language. The acceptable term for that kind of reaction was culture shock. We were told everything about culture shock except how to deal with it.

The project was being sent to a place where the people were called Africans, not natives. When you spoke about them to a staff person, they were called Host Country Nationals, or HCNs. So we, the volunteers, also sometimes called Warm Bodies, were going to some unknown place in tropical Africa to teach something to HCNs. At that time the place was called Nyasaland, but in a few months it was to become the self-governing country of Malawi. It was no wonder I was the last one on the bus to the airport.

During the first year of my project, I taught at a mission secondary school having about 250 teen-age boys, some of the selected few who would go beyond a primary school education. I was their only science teacher and started out teaching 24 classroom hours per week of English and general science, in addition to a share in sports supervision. THE first day of class was an exercise in mutual tact, with the students trying to show off what they knew and me trying to show off the confidence gained from my two-weeks' experience at the teaching trade in Syracuse. Neither of us got anywhere at first, and I made up some pretty incredible lessons in sentence diagramming. But later, the chorus of ``ah-ahs'' at my science demonstrations, when they worked, made it all worthwhile.

From the point of view of some later volunteers, mine wasn't a very exciting experience. I didn't see anybody get beaten up or even molested, and I never got thrown out of the country or into jail. Whatever our feelings were toward politicians, we all took our jobs seriously and tried as hard to stay clear of country politics as we did of Peace Corps administrators. It's a fact that Peace Corps volunteers were pretty independent in those days and were even encouraged to be so.

The essential reality of those two years was the pile of 80 exercise books to mark every night, the science experiments to create for the next day, the English lessons to prepare, and the evening film to narrate carefully so the students would understand it. For later projects it was developing dairy herds and training teachers and lawyers.

But, aside from doing your work, there were some other very special things about being there. There was the Malawian subsistence culture itself, which fostered an odd mixture of long-suffering stoicism and a kind of Greek wit. There was unexpected hospitality, often from people who could scarcely afford a teapot, and the landscape like a Chinese painting. And there was the signed thank-you-and-carry-on letter we each got from John Kennedy the week after the Voice of America told us he had been shot. But the most wrenching thing of all was, after two years, having to leave my dear friends in Malawi.

My project had a 23-year reunion last summer, and I must say that most of the people there seemed to be still searching for another Peace Corps project, something ultimately worth spending life-time on. Some of the ex-volunteers spoke almost with awe of their experience and how it had changed them personally. No one could decide which was more important -- changing things or being changed.

In principle, the Peace Corps is designed as a three-way proposition -- to help us understand them better, to help them understand us better, and to provide the client country with appropriate skills to fight ignorance and poverty. And, hopefully, these add up to the best anti-despotism prescription our country has ever come up with.

But it's difficult to estimate the lasting benefits our project may have had on Malawi. The country is still poor, with an average income of $210 per year, and it is still technically a despotism, ruled by the same Hastings Banda who took the helm at independence in 1964.

On the other hand, most of the schools are now staffed by Malawians, TB is no longer the problem it was, and there are tarmac roads throughout the country instead of a few miles here and there. Some ex-Peace Corps volunteers have returned to Malawi in recent years to find former students working as businessmen, teachers, and government officers. One was given a speeding ticket by a former student.

But if one were to talk about a bottom line, it would be that the government of Malawi has itself perceived the benefit of Peace Corps projects to the extent of requesting more volunteers for some 20 of the past 23 years.

Back in our country, we have also changed people around us, by design and otherwise. In addition to leading to jobs involved with education, world trade, and government, the Peace Corps experience has put uncounted conversations, club presentations, and friendships in an entirely different light. As Steinbeck said, it's a kind of trip that keeps on going long after movement in time and space has ceased.

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