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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 22, 2002

Peace Corps volunteer from Kailua makes a difference

 •  Journal gives glimpse of life in Peace Corps
 •  Bigger Peace Corps not the way to end poverty, deter terrorism
 •  The Peace Corps at a glance

By David Polhemus
Advertiser Editorial Writer

It's a long way from Hawai'i to the West African village of Saare Foode. About 40 hours by air, including layovers in Newark, N.J., and Paris, to Dakar, the seaport capital of Senegal. Then a hot, very uncomfortable ride of about 14 hours, over two days, to the southern town of Kolda.

Pulling water from the village well is women's work, and lone Peace Corps volunteer Betsy Polhemus is no exception.

David Polhemus • The Honolulu Advertiser

And finally, a four-mile bicycle ride to the village, where my daughter, Betsy (St. Andrews Priory '95), is beginning her second year as a Peace Corps volunteer. She's one of about 6,500 volunteers now serving in 72 countries. Forty-one years later, they continue to answer President John F. Kennedy's appeal to the idealism and patriotism of American youth.

But at the moment, I wasn't interested in numbers or ideals. This is my kid, and she's the only foreigner living in this village of 100 or so Pulaar-speaking Africans.

Although I wasn't yet aware that the Peace Corps policy of stationing lone volunteers in isolated villages is under serious debate in Washington, I was a bit concerned that Betsy's colleagues are scattered widely over the area surrounding Kolda; that the nearest next volunteer, Jesse, is in a village a couple of miles away. Betsy's village doesn't have electricity or a telephone line.

That concern, I think, is part of the reason Betsy planned my visit the way she did. We met the parents of another volunteer who were doing their visit the easier, softer way: good hotels, a $100-a-day (air conditioned!) car, visits to wildlife preserves. Betsy wanted me to see what it's like to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal.

The experience began when we left Dakar. We climbed into a sept place, a little French car modified to hold seven passengers plus the driver. The headroom in the rear seat, where I was stuck for most of the trip, was about 4 inches lower than where the top of my head wanted to be.

That position got even more awkward when the driver roared over the blacktop roads, always badly pot-holed and in many places reduced to rubble. At times, he drove next to the road because it was smoother.

The passengers disagreed over whether the windows should be opened because of the 100-degree-plus heat or closed because of the dust. The car had only one window crank, which the passengers passed around to make adjustments.

As we passed a withered Sahel landscape with sere scattered baobab trees and grass-roofed huts, I wondered, not so much about what inspires young Americans to give up two years of their lives in such conditions, but what prompts our government to send them there. And, more to the point, what made President Bush, in February, call for doubling the number of volunteers in the next five years.

The Peace Corps, in its first four decades, has operated under three goals:

  1. To provide technical assistance to poor countries.
  2. To promote better understanding of Americans in those countries.
  3. To bring the volunteers' experience of the world home to share with our own insular population.

The first goal has always presented a problem. Third World countries signing up for a Peace Corps presence usually have in mind trained, hands-on engineers, farmers and medics; and with some important exceptions, what they mostly get is a profusion of volunteers just like my daughter: a recent college graduate with a liberal arts degree and no obvious skills.

Attempts to professionalize the corps over the years have been resisted by those who believe that volunteerism is its signature appeal.

The third goal, bringing the experience home, was thought to be so important that an evaluation of the program after just six years recommended that returning volunteers be given preference in hiring by government, academia and business because of the valuable insights they had received. From what I've seen of the volunteers in Africa, I'd think that employers would value them highly for their demonstrated resourcefulness, out-of-the-box thinking and raw courage.

Yet somehow I can't picture George Bush as being especially interested in enriching (diluting?) American values with imported aspects of exotic cultures. It's the second goal that has his attention.

Beyond altruism, writes returned volunteer Saral Waldorf, who served in Africa and Turkmenistan in the early '90s, "the Peace Corps had a strategic, Cold War purpose: to flood the world, especially the Third World, with young, bright, well-educated Americans, who would aid development, plant the seeds of democracy and check the spread of Soviet Communism."

The Senegalese village of Saare Foode, with its mango and baobab trees. There are no power or phone lines linking it to the rest of the world.

David Polhemus • The Honolulu Advertiser

It seems obvious that it's this strategic thinking, retooled for the war on terrorism, that's the attraction for President Bush. It explains why most of the new countries he wants to expand into are Muslim.

Harnessing earnest young volunteers to a somewhat cold-blooded political cause may be cynical, and in that sense, perhaps a distortion of the second goal. But it works. It was an effective tactic for the Cold Warriors as it will be in the war on terrorism.

Washington is mistaken, however, if it expects these young emissaries to act as propagandists. Independent-minded to begin with, they very rapidly lose their innocence in the eye-opening conditions in which they find themselves.

What volunteers have found over time, writes John Rude, another returned volunteer (Eritrea, 1962-64), "is that the problems addressed by volunteer efforts have been immense — in fact, far beyond their capacity to solve, in nearly every case. This discovery alone has been worth the venture."

The mantra of returned volunteers — "We made a difference!" — suggests Rude, "is a frank admission that making a dent was all that volunteers had a right to expect. Hunger, poverty and disease have grown immeasurably worse over the past 40 years. Peace Corps volunteers have witnessed these tragedies, but for all their passionate caring, they have done little to avert them."

It's even more shameful than that, writes Rude: "Because they were sent as emissaries from the world's wealthiest nation, a nation perceived as having the capacity (but not the will) to alleviate global suffering, Peace Corps volunteers were viewed as complicit in the very problems they tried to solve."

Most volunteers, of course, haven't been exposed to such dark thinking when they get off the plane in their assigned country.

But most of them aren't there long before it begins, intuitively, to occur to them. And this, in the long run, I think, is what makes the experience valuable beyond price: They have come, in a fundamental way, to understand the world as it really is.

After a time, I think, the volunteer and his or her villagers come to an equilibrium of expectation: While they won't be able to change things as much as they'd hoped, the villagers can count on them to stay anyway, sharing whatever comes.

"Late-night conversations in dimly-lit courtyards, wailing chants at weddings and funerals, and tears of loss, shared with friends who happen to be from different cultures — these humble experiences define humanity for all of us," writes Rude. "This has been a life lesson granted to few Americans, seldom even to the best-educated Americans: that what binds people together as human beings is far more important than what tears them apart."

Rude's purpose in writing was to support a proposed fourth goal for the Peace Corps, now being considered in Congress: "To help promote global acceptance of the principles of international peace and nonviolent coexistence among peoples of diverse cultures and systems of government." Good luck getting it past the White House.

With the above realities firmly in mind, I think the Peace Corps is perhaps the most wonderful thing the United States does. I guess Betsy does, too: She's thinking about extending her commitment.

That commitment amounts to three months of intensive training in the northern Senegal city of Thiès, followed by two years in her village.

Her intensive language training at Thiès gave her a smattering of French and Wollof, and a command of Pulaar, a language spoken from Senegal to Nigeria, and she is approaching fluency.

She also received training in some farming practices that can make a difference in her village. One day, she tells me, one of the villagers approached her. "Betsy," he said. "We're losing our bean crop." The field was infested with thrips, a leaf-munching insect.

Betsy was able to show them how to make a spray from the neem tree, of which they have plenty. It saved their beans.

Her biggest problem at first was to make it clear that she was an ag specialist, and not just another body to help with endless women's work: pulling water, pounding millet, planting rice. Her biggest achievement may lie in cracking open the door to new possibilities for women. The hardest thing she will have to do, perhaps ever, is say goodbye to the family she's lived with.

My own stay in her village was unforgettable. You might say I had found humanity's lowest common denominator. These people have very little, and their prospects, jeopardized by a disappointing rainy season this year and, long-term, by a Sahara moving steadily toward them, are not encouraging. Yet what I found was a very warm, giving people, stoic but quite happy. In particular, these Muslims could show Americans a thing or two about tolerance.

I found that there's a degree of risk in Betsy's undertaking, but in many ways, she's safer than she would be in an urban American setting. And the undertaking is, in so many ways, worthwhile.

In Saare Foode, I dipped a toe into the surging river of common humanity that most of us are scarcely aware of. Betsy and many of her colleagues are totally immersed in it. I think it does make a difference. It makes the world a better place.

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