Main Street: The Peace Corps turns 40

Rich Wandschneider

I'm somewhere over Michigan - or Illinois or Iowa - stuffed into the middle seat on a 757, thinking and writing about a weekend in Washington D.C. at the Peace Corps' 40th birthday celebration.

The party was supposed to have been late last September, but was of course postponed. The events of September and the nine months since cast their own mood on this celebration. We honored over 200 volunteers who died while serving, and hundreds more who have passed on since completing their tours. There were smiles and laughter and tears of joy, but in all we were a more somber and serious lot than we might have been.

It's too soon for me to make sense of all this, too soon to organize the thousands of faces, conversations, and impressions of the weekend into a statement of any kind. I do know that there have now been over 165,000 volunteers in the 40-plus years, and I know that there were 135 flags - representing most of the countries of the world - in the Sunday parade from the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington Cemetery. Many of the marchers were gray and limping. They wore hats and scarves from African and Asian nations that have changed names and politics in intervening years. Younger ones came with flags from Poland and Bulgaria and former Soviet Republics. There were thousands of Americans saying that these Peace Corps years were defining times in our lives.

I heard some of their stories, and I'll share a couple with you now, while they are raw and vibrant in my mind. This is not an attempt to "explain" the Peace Corps, but the stories might explain some of its attractions. Maybe they will help you understand why Gardner and Tappy Locke, John Dawson, and Hedwig Zorb left Wallowa County for Africa and Latin America years ago, and why Rob and Bridget Anderson are now in Armenia. Maybe they will cause you to look at a map and find Armenia. To think about doing something like it yourself.

* * *

First, I want to tell you that President Toledo of Peru is an ethnic Indian from a poor Andean family. He had been destined to join a dozen siblings shining shoes and scrabbling for enough money to support each other and an extended family, but he wanted more. Two Peace Corps teachers came to his town, and eventually helped convince his parents that he could attend high school and still help the family. Eventually they helped him find scholarships and an education in the United States. After years of study and international work, Toledo came home to lead a surprising reform movement.

Things are not easy now in Peru. There is much poverty and class division, and there has been political trouble, but this Peace Corps mentored reformer is getting a shot at governing that no Indian and no poor peasant has had in the nation's history.

* * *

Thirty-five years ago, Mimi Sanders was teaching English in the somewhat remote provincial capital of Gaziantep, Turkey, while I was working in a small village a day's journey east. Although we never met in Turkey, we have seen each other a couple of times at functions in Portland, where Mimi now lives.

After she had been in country for a year, Mimi convinced the Peace Corps to hire a teacher at her school to come to America to teach Turkish in a Peace Corps training program. Her Turkish friend was successful, and the two have stayed in touch over the years. Eventually, the Turkish woman married, and one day her husband became the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. This year Mimi's 15 year old daughter, a student at Portland's Wilson High, lived in Turkey with her mother's Turkish friend. She came to the party in Washington, joined us for Turkish history, culture, and food at the Turkish Embassy, and looks forward to future trips to Turkey - and maybe to the Peace Corps.

* * *

There were many stories of friendships stretched over miles and decades, surviving personal upheavals and political revolutions, but the story that hit me the hardest was one told by a volunteer just home from the Ivory Coast. Her book isn't out yet, isn't even finished, but I'm going to be first in line when it is published. It starts with a small poor Moslem village, where men routinely take two and three wives, and where, if a brother or an uncle dies, a man might be obliged to take on that wife and those children. It's a custom that works like social security and medicare rolled into one, and it has been perfected over eons.

Our young volunteer was working in a child nutrition program, where one of her favorite people was a young wife and mother who had two sister wives. One of the other wives had a physical deformity, and the other was barren, so the first wife and child were the apples of the family's eye.

When an uncle in a nearby city died, the family took in his wife and child, and the Peace Corps volunteer began monitoring this child as well. She drew the story out slowly, telling us about the exuberant wife and robust child, and the new wife and her beautiful but delicate child. Each week they came to be weighed and monitored for growth and childhood diseases. The one child thrived; the other failed, and eventually died.

It soon became apparent that the cause of the child's death was AIDS, and that AIDS must have been the cause of the father's death as well. And then she and we knew that this is how the AIDS virus enters a conservative traditional village. A man is obliged by custom and tradition to look after a relative's widow. The practice has grown to accommodate the tough climate and buffer harsh times for thousands of women and children over hundreds of years. And now this glue that has served so well will capture the healthy wife and the robust child and begin the unraveling of another village.

The Peace Corps once had a recruiting slogan that went something like this: "The toughest job you'll ever love." That's what I saw on a thousand faces in Washington D.C.   

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