Talking Story about PCV Service
Prof Willis H A Moore
Chaminade University of Honolulu
Perhaps a brief sharing from "the beginning," BOLIVIA I, about Christmas 1963 - - - - -
I arrived into Bolivia in mid-1962; President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. A member of Bolivia I, Robert Fergerstrom was from Hawai'i. He was taken captive by angry tin miners and held for a time in Oruro. Unharmed, he and three other USAID prisoners, were released after considerable international pressure from labor organizations in other countries. These four prisoners were free ahead of Christmas 1963.
The Peace Corps is not dedicated to doing for the Bolivians. Perhaps this "doing for" is another part of Bolivia's basic problem. The Peace Corps is trying to do things with the Bolivians. This idealism has much frustration, disillusionment, and disappointment to be sure. Nevertheless, some progress is definitely being made. People pay for medicine and consultations given by Peace Corps nurses. People are being shown that through cooperatives they can prosper." Peace Corps volunteers report no terrible hardships. Some, like teachers, even wear suits and ties when they work. They report "no mountains being moved." When asked if they had misspent two years with the Peace Corps, members of Fergerstrom's class, Bolivia I, all said they had not misspent a day. BOLIVIA I concluded its work in April 1964.
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I am from PAK VII, which included two groups, one went to West Pakistan, the other, mine went to then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in September 1963, and yes, we were there to experience the murder of President Kennedy whose words inspired me to apply to the Peace Corps.
Of 22 arriving in Dacca, only 18 stuck it out for more than a month or two. Most of us were young men, perhaps all who remained were men, and our task was to build bridges or other things like community halls. Because we had assignments which were physical and material (concrete bridges) and our program was funded by "free" money (money paid by Pakistan in the form of Rupees to the US, and which was sort of worthless outside of the country, this money could be accessed by local leaders to fund the construction of the projects for which we would provide "expert" guidance). And as inexpert as some of us thought about our "guidance" it was far and above the poor quality of concrete and foundation work being done by many contractors....often due to the baksheesh which had to be paid up and down the line to various politicians or local land owners or what have you.
I think we had it better than did some of the other PCVs who were teachers, nurses or public health types. We just got on our Honda 50's and went out into the country to build bridges, to watch over the process and to keep the work fair and square so that the structures would hold up. The projects were pretty simple in design and scope, but capable of handling the few trucks or bullock carts. Bangladesh is a gigantic river delta and during the monsoon rains, 75% of the country is under water, so people would travel by small boat/canoe and simple ferries, and if we could get a bridge built to cross certain critical rivers, kids could get to school, farmers to market, people to the doctor and to towns.
For some of us, our careers seem kind of built upon these experiences of working with people on some form of infrastructure projects. In my case I became an environmental planning consultant with specializing in water resources (think monsoon flooding!) and a writer of environmental impact statements. All in the Hawaiian and many Pacific Islands.
I encourage people to join the Peace Corps or at least to look at it. It does take you out of two years of the "earning curve" of economic life. But I know I did not suffer a loss that way. In the long run, my experience really formed, and grounded me in ways I could never have anticipated.
The Peace Corps is the best!
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RPCV Colombia '64-'66
Reading Willis' and Gene's essays about their Peace Corps experience provokes me to share a little about Colombia Peace Corps in the mid-60's. Training for my group was at Columbia University and I was assigned to a couple of tenement buildings in East Harlem to organize rent strikes. Surreal for a well-scrubbed white kid to be immersed in Black culture for the first time in his life. Somehow, I was successful in organizing tenants of both buildings to agree to pay rent to City of New York in return for heat and services, which the slumlord was not providing.
That was a great way to build confidence for my first assignment in Cali. Attached is a recent submission to Friends of Colombia, the RPCV Colombia group. It terrifies me to think of what life might have been without the lucky event of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. That experience set the path for the duration. In the early days, Peace Corps was still a seat of the pants operation and we just went out and invented projects. Only half of my group stayed the full two years and for me it was a lucky experience. The bridge project still amazes me. My site partner and I were in the right place at the right time and everything just fell together.
Something that came along was setting up an adult literacy program in the Cali prison. That synced into going to Bogota to work with a country wide literacy program. Through civic groups, schools, prisons around Colombia I did courses teaching a literacy technique to volunteers who in turn taught adults to read and write. The estimate was that as much as half the population was illiterate, so it was seen by many Colombians as a patriotic duty to volunteer. Fifty-four years later the project survives at University of Antioquia, where it was taken on from the Peace Corps.
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet and the Colombian people, who have suffered much, have great dignity.
I was very lucky to get one of the best possible assignments. After not being able to return safely for 34 years, I went back for five weeks to a country I no longer recognized. The emerald green hillsides around Bogota are now slums with one of the largest refugee populations in the world. That due to the violence of the last fifty years. There are also now well over a million Venezuelan refugees, who have been generously accepted by the Colombians.
By the early 80's FARC and narco-trafficking ended Peace Corps in Colombia. Sam Farr, who was in my group, became a US Congressman and was responsible for re-establishing Peace Corps again. We hope that once Covid is under control that all the folks who were so abruptly pulled out of their sites all around the world can return.