The work isn't done yet with Ukraine and returning Volunteers to service. see more
Hopeful work, as Volunteers return to serve alongside communities overseas. And crucial work to ensure Ukraine survives.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Illustration by Anna Ivanenko
For so much of the Peace Corps community, the months since March have been brimming with optimism, bringing news of Volunteers returning to service in countries and communities across the globe. In Africa, they’ve returned to countries including Zambia and Madagascar, Ghana and The Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. They have returned to the Eastern Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. In Latin America, Volunteers have been welcomed in countries including Paraguay and Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica, Ecuador and Belize. In Asia, Volunteers have returned to the Kyrgyz Republic. In Europe, they’re back in Kosovo. The litany runs to some two dozen countries, and invitations are out for Volunteers to return to twice as many — as well as to launch a new program in Viet Nam.
At the same time, legislation has now been introduced in the Senate as well as the House to reauthorize the Peace Corps — and bring the most sweeping legislative reforms in a generation. That’s thanks in no small part to tremendous efforts by the Peace Corps community. All of those who took part in the Peace Corps Connect to the Future town halls and summit in 2020 played a role. Those who helped shape the community-driven report created a road map for the agency, executive branch, Congress, and the Peace Corps community. I know first-hand how hard colleagues worked as part of those efforts, some of us putting in 80- to 100-hour weeks for months on end to carry this effort forward; we understood that there would be a narrow window in Washington for these reforms to come to fruition in legislation.
That work isn’t done yet. (A familiar refrain, that. It comes with the territory for an institution charged with the mission of building peace and friendship.)
As Volunteers begin serving alongside communities once more, Europe is in the midst of its most horrific land war since 1945. The genocidal campaign launched by Russia against Ukraine continues to unfurl new atrocities day by day: In July, rockets fired on civilian infrastructure in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine — far from any front line — killed two dozen, including a young girl with Down’s syndrome. Grisly stories, photos, and videos of torture and mutilation of Ukrainian captives draw cheers from those backing the invaders.
Lies and disinformation, false accusations meant to obfuscate the truth and distract from misdeeds. As if we needed to say it, when it comes to countering those, the work isn’t done yet.
After apparently staging a mass execution of Ukrainian POWs in Olenivka, Russian disinfo serves up the claim that Ukrainian troops targeted their own. Olenivka lies just southwest of the city of Donets’k. Recall that not far to the northeast of Donets’k is where a Russian Buk missile downed the flight MH-17 in 2014, and the torrent of untruths about what had happened began.
Lies and disinformation, false accusations meant to obfuscate the truth and distract from misdeeds. As if we needed to say it, when it comes to countering those, the work isn’t done yet.
One of the cities under Russian occupation since the beginning of the war is Kherson, a port city in the south, not far from Crimea. In the wake of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine—which showed starkly the power of a democratic uprising as an existential threat to autocracy—I served as an observer in Kherson for the presidential election. When a polling place closes, the doors are supposed to be locked; no one is supposed to come or go until the counting is complete, the ballots wrapped up, and election protocols and ballots have been taken to the district electoral commission. It’s a good idea to come prepared with food and water to get you through a long night. The evening of that election, at the central grocery store in Kherson, just off Freedom Square, I stocked up: piroshki stuffed with cabbage and meat, along with smoked cheese, water, and some chocolate. The woman behind me was buying buckwheat, wrapped up in a clear plastic bag from the bulk foods section. She pointed at the credentials I wore on a lanyard.
“You’re an observer, yes?”
"The young people of Ukraine are smart and they deserve a chance. We need to bring an end to all this —”
“Thank you for being here,” she said. “We’ve been living under bandits for twenty years. They’ve all been bandits. Putin, too. He’s a bandit. It’s like slavery. The young people of Ukraine are smart and they deserve a chance. We need to bring an end to all of this—”
She waved her hands in the air over her head: the flutter and turmoil.
Railway Station: “In recent months, we have said goodbye and hello so many times,” writes illustrator Anna Ivanenko. “I don’t know how many more hugs there will be during this war, but I hope most of them will be greetings.” Illustration by Anna Ivanenko
I have thought of her often in recent months. Then, as now — and there, as well as here — one election does not make a democracy. Instead, though, what we have now is a politics of grievance in Russia that has fueled a war of aggression and lies. And the turmoil includes forced deportation of children and planned sham referenda in an attempt to expropriate yet more land and people from Ukraine.
When it comes to stopping that, the work isn’t done yet.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
These are the times that ask in stark terms what friendship means. see more
Peace, friendship, and a people whose anthem is “Ukraine Has Not Perished Yet”
From the editor of WorldView
By Steven Boyd Saum
In the summer of 2019, during early parliamentary elections in Ukraine, I served as an observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. With a fellow observer from Canada and a driver and interpreter from Kyiv, we visited polling places just northwest of the capital, around a pair of suburban communities — Irpin and Bucha. Irpin in particular had earned a reputation in recent years as a bucolic bedroom community, a place of fresh air and spacious green parks. It is not anymore.
If you have followed the war in Ukraine, you have heard the names of those cities. The battle for Irpin was hard-fought; Ukrainian forces stopped a Russian advance on Kyiv there, and the shelling was brutal. The carnage came into sharp focus with the image of a family killed while fleeing: Tatiana Perebeinis and her two children — son Nikita, 18, and daughter Alise, 9 — slain when a Russian mortar shell struck. Russian troops promised safe passage out. The mother was an accountant for a tech startup in Silicon Valley. In 2014, she and her family had fled their home in Donetsk after Russian forces invaded there.
At the end of March, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin. At the beginning of April, they liberated Bucha. It was not a time to celebrate. The scale of atrocities began to take hold: mass graves for hundreds. Bodies of civilians left in the streets, some with hands bound and hooded — victims of execution. It is a time for reckoning with conscience — for all.
When I first went to Ukraine with the Peace Corps nearly 30 years ago, it was in part because I wanted to understand the enormous changes taking place. This nation of more than 40 million was emerging from decades of authoritarian rule by the Soviet regime. That was after centuries of being colonized and partitioned by the Russian empire and others. With independence in 1991, its language and culture were no longer suppressed; stories long buried could now be told. I could bear witness and, as a writer, help others beyond Ukraine understand in a truly human way. As a teacher — at a university named for the poet Lesya Ukrainka — I could work with students to find their own voices. I understood how important it is to tell your own story, literally and metaphorically. Because there are always those ready to write that story for you — one in which your voice is silent. One in which they shape a cruel plot and ending that you do not want. A story, as we see now, about trying to reestablish an empire. A story based on lies that would literally kill whole families and burn their corpses.
When the education program for Peace Corps Ukraine was launched, it was managed by Olena Sergeeva. She has gone on to teach in MBA programs in Kyiv and is a partner with consulting firm Amrop. When the war began she was in the States; her teenage daughter had wanted to stay in Kyiv. Then missiles began to fly, and her daughter needed to evacuate. Olena’s elderly mother lives in Zhytomyr, in central Ukraine; she did not want to leave her home. Rockets hit there, too. Olena’s sister is staying to take care of her. The sister’s son enlisted in the military. They were trying to buy body armor for him. (Watch a conversation with Olena Sergeeva here, from the March 2022 Shriver Leadership Summit.)
Olena’s sister is staying to take care of their mother. They’re looking for body armor for her nephew in the military.
All this, because a tyrant declared their country did not exist. His army invaded, began to reduce cities to rubble, and is prosecuting a campaign of terror meant to bury a people and their history. That cannot be how this story ends.
What of us — will we protect the most vulnerable, challenge impunity, ensure that injustice does not prevail? My friends and former students and colleagues across the country are witnessing terror. They huddle in basements to escape shelling. One mother has seen a cruise missile streak overhead as she fled across the country in a car, a toddler in the back seat. Some are living in occupied cities, not permitted to leave, no humanitarian aid allowed in.
Words and deeds: To protect themselves when Russian rockets strike and shrapnel flies, some residents in photographer Lev Shevchenko’s neighborhood in Kyiv barricaded their windows with books. Photo by Lev Shevchenko
More than 3,400 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Ukraine — part of a mission to build peace and friendship. These are the times that ask in stark terms what friendship means. Ukrainian Peace Corps staff have been working to help their nation. The RPCV Alliance for Ukraine, founded by returned Volunteers, has been tackling advocacy efforts, sending first-aid kits, raising funds. The Friends of Moldova, along with staff in Moldova, are part of efforts to provide food and shelter to refugees.
In the past weeks, many have heard the national anthem of Ukraine for the first time. Its title translates as “Ukraine Has Not Perished Yet.” That is where this story we are all writing needs to begin.
This essay appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
Volunteers have begun to return to service. Yet millions in Ukraine are now in harm’s way. see more
Volunteers have begun to return to service. Yet millions in Ukraine are now in harm’s way.
By Glenn Blumhorst
This is a hopeful time for the Peace Corps: On March 14, a group of Volunteers arrived in Lusaka, Zambia. Just over a week later, on March 23, Volunteers arrived in the Dominican Republic. They are the first to return to service overseas since March 2020, when Volunteers were evacuated from around the globe because of COVID-19. The contributions of Volunteers serving in Zambia will include partnering with communities to focus on food security and education, along with partnering on efforts to disseminate COVID-19 mitigation information and promote access to vaccinations.
We’re thankful for the Volunteers who are helping lead the way, with the support of the Peace Corps community. And we’re deeply grateful for the work that Peace Corps Zambia staff have continued to do during the pandemic — work emblematic of the commitment Peace Corps staff around the world have shown during this unprecedented time.
Returning to Zambia: Two years after all Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19, in March the first cohort returned to begin service overseas. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy Lusaka
Invitations are out for Volunteers to return to some 30 countries in 2022. Among those who will be serving are Volunteers who were evacuated in 2020, trainees who never had the chance to serve, and new Volunteers. Crucially, they are all returning as part of an agency that has listened to — and acted on — ideas and recommendations from the Peace Corps community for how to ensure that we’re shaping a Peace Corps that better meets the needs of a changed world. Those recommendations came out of conversations that National Peace Corps Association convened and drew together in the community-driven report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.” We’re seeing big steps in the Peace Corps being more intentional in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion; working with a deeper awareness of what makes for ethical storytelling; and better ensuring Volunteer safety and security.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, NPCA has shared information and links to other ways you can help. One of the most important: Do not turn away.
At the same time, while we are buoyed by the fact that Volunteers are returning to work around the world building the person-to-person relationships in communities where they serve, we must not diminish the scale of the tragedy we are witnessing in Ukraine. More than 10 million people have fled their homes in the face of an invasion and war they did not provoke and did not want. Across this country and in Europe, thousands of returned Volunteers are working to help Ukrainians in harm’s way.
Thank you to all of you who are doing what you can in this moment of crisis: from the Friends of Moldova working to provide food, shelter, and transportation to refugees — to the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine putting together first-aid kits, leading advocacy efforts to support Ukraine, and so much more. Since the beginning of the war, NPCA has shared information and links to other ways you can help. One of the most important: Do not turn away.
At a time like this it’s important to underscore a truth we know: The mission of building peace and friendship is the work of a lifetime.
That’s a message we need to drive home to Congress right now. With your support, let’s get Congress to pass the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act this year. It’s the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in 20 years. Along with instituting further necessary reforms, it will ensure that as Volunteers return to the field it is with the support of a better and stronger Peace Corps.
President Biden will formally nominate Carol Spahn to lead the Peace Corps at a critical time.
It is becoming increasingly clear that we are entering a new era — one that desperately needs those committed to Peace Corps ideals. With that in mind, I am heartened by the news we received in early April that President Biden intends to nominate Carol Spahn to serve as the 21st Director of the Peace Corps. A returned Volunteer herself (Romania 1994–96), she began serving as acting director in January 2021 and has led the agency for the past 14 months, one of the most challenging periods in Peace Corps history.
We have been honored to work with Carol and her strong leadership team over the past year on collaborative efforts to navigate this difficult period of planning for the Peace Corps’ new future. We have full confidence in her commitment to return Volunteers to the field in a responsible manner and offer the next generation of Volunteers a better, stronger Peace Corps ready to meet the global challenges we confront. The continuity of this work is key. We are calling on the Senate to swiftly bring forth this nomination for consideration and bipartisan confirmation.
Glenn Blumhorst is president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Guatemala 1988–91. Write him: email@example.com
The Friends of Moldova is currently spending $20,000 weekly to provide for Ukrainian families. see more
With the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Friends of Moldova has stepped in to provide crucial support to thousands of refugees.
by David Jarmul
Logo by Friends of Moldova
Until this past February, Friends of Moldova was like many “Friends of” groups within the Peace Corps community: a loose organization of returned Volunteers sharing news and supporting small grant programs in the country where they served. Then Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and everything changed.
As millions of Ukrainians fled the fighting, nearly half a million refugees came to Moldova — a small, crescent-shaped country with a population of about 3 million, bordered by Ukraine on the east and Romania on the west. Formerly occupied by the Soviet regime, Moldova itself has dealt with the reality of a breakaway enclave backed by Russian forces since the 1990s.
Within a matter of weeks of Russia’s invasion, most of the refugees who had crossed into Moldova had moved on—but more than 90,000 remained. They needed food, shelter, clothing, and more. And they needed support immediately. The Friends of Moldova raced to help. They supported the work of RPCV David Smith, who still lives in Moldova’s capital, Chişinău, and his local partner to convert their American-style barbecue restaurant, Smokehouse, into a refugee assistance center. Within days, Ukrainians lined up daily to receive free supplies.
Food and shelter: In the city of Bălți, Friends of Moldova responded quickly to help Ukrainian refugees in need. Photo courtesy Friends of Moldova
Local Peace Corps staff and others volunteered at the center. Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn, who has since been nominated to serve as agency director, flew there from Washington, D.C., to help prepare meals. President of Moldova Maia Sandu and others also came to show their support. The PBS NewsHour and others covered this critical work. During its six weeks of operation, the center served 38,198 Ukrainians, including 7,847 individual or family walk-ins. During its last day alone it served 1,863 people.
Friends of Moldova also provided flexible funding to help Moldova for Peace, a national organization based in Chişinău, get its own operations off the ground. It assisted 175 community centers, nonprofit organizations, and shelters across the country. Funds enabled a team of volunteers to transport hundreds of Ukrainians daily from freezing conditions at the southern border to shelters around the country.
As other organizations ramped up their work in Chişinău, Friends of Moldova pivoted to open a new assistance center and programs in northern Moldova. The group’s president, RPCV Bartosz Gawarecki, left his business in Michigan to oversee the effort there. Other RPCVs joined him. Friends of Moldova members across the United States assisted as well, drawing attention to Moldova’s situation and raising more than $700,000 — an extraordinary outpouring of support. All team members with Friends of Moldova worked for free, serving the country they came to love as Peace Corps Volunteers.
The Friends of Moldova is currently spending $20,000 weekly to provide food and hygiene products to Ukrainian families and individuals across northern Moldova. Since the war began, it has assisted nearly 60,000 refugees. It cannot sustain this life-saving work without more support from fellow RPCVs and others—so it welcomes your support in this crucial work.
Learn more and donate to the Friends of Moldova on social media and at thefriendsofmoldova.com.
David Jarmul served in Moldova 2016–18 with his wife, Champa, whom he met during his initial Peace Corps service in Nepal, where he served 1977–79.
Two dozen countries have welcomed them back. And more than fifty countries have issued invitations. see more
Two dozen countries have welcomed them back. And some fifty countries have issued invitations for Volunteers to return.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Two years after all Peace Corps Volunteers were brought home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they began returning to service overseas in March 2022. We shared the exciting news in the previous edition of WorldView that the first Volunteers had returned to Zambia and the Dominican Republic.
In the months since, posts around the world have been busy welcoming back Peace Corps Volunteers and Response Volunteers to work alongside communities. As of August 2022, Volunteers have returned to some two dozen countries — more than a third of the posts where Volunteers were serving in 2020. That includes nations in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. There will be more Volunteers beginning service overseas in the months ahead, in those countries and dozens more. By our counting, invitations are out for Volunteers to return to 51 countries — more than three quarters of the posts where Peace Corps Volunteers had been serving in 2020.
In order for the agency to issue invitations for Volunteers to return, each post must meet robust reentry criteria which involve health, safety, and other logistical factors. Living with COVID-19, a horrific war in Europe and consequent economic mayhem, as well as other regional turmoil, it’s crucial to ensure safety of Volunteers and communities alike. Indeed, despite global tumult, this is a hopeful time for the agency, with this return also representing a rededication to the mission of the Peace Corps.
Despite global tumult, this is a hopeful time for the agency, with this return also representing a rededication to the mission of the Peace Corps.
Earlier this year, a group of departing Volunteers met with First Lady of the United States Jill Biden. On July 19, the first cohort of Volunteers to return to Panamá met with Second Gentleman of the United States Doug Emhoff at the White House. Emhoff also hosted the soon-to-be Volunteers and Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn for a roundtable. “It’s always incredible to meet with young people dedicated to changing the world,” Emhoff posted on Twitter afterward. And, to the Volunteers, he wrote: “I know you’ll bring great passion and energy to your projects.”
Based on conversations and leadership that has shaped the return of Volunteers to service overseas, humility and a spirit of cooperation in a changed world are a crucial part of the mix, too.
Sendoff from the Second Gentleman: Doug Emhoff, center, with the first Volunteers returning to Panamá, as well as agency leaders. Photo by Lawrence Jackson / The White House
Where Volunteers Have Returned
These include 23 posts and 26 countries — since the Peace Corps post in the Eastern Caribbean includes four countries.
Zambia | March 2022
Dominican Republic | March 2022
Colombia | April 2022
Namibia | May 2022
Uganda | May 2022
Mexico | May 2022
Ecuador | May 2022
Eastern Caribbean | May 2022 (Includes four countries: Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, and Grenada)
Belize | May 2022
Peru | May 2022
Paraguay | May 2022
Togo | June 2022
Senegal | June 2022
The Gambia | June 2022
Benin | June 2022
Rwanda | June 2022
Kyrgyz Republic | June 2022
Ghana | June 2022
Sierra Leone | June 2022
Costa Rica | July 2022
Kosovo | July 2022
Madagascar | July 2022
Photos courtesy Peace Corps posts
Invitations Are Out
Here are the additional posts that have met safety criteria and for which there are invitations for Volunteers to begin serving in 2022 and beyond. Including the countries to which Volunteers have already returned, invitations are out to 47 posts and 51 countries. Take note of the last post on this list: Viet Nam. In summer 2020, the Peace Corps formally signed an agreement to launch that new program. It is one that, needless to say, is loaded with tremendous historical significance and a long-term sense of what it means to build peace and friendship.
These posts are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order to which Volunteers will be returning in 2022. As the past two years have taught — with lessons sometimes repeated again and again, to the frustration of would-be Volunteers and host communities alike — there may be contingencies that push back planned dates for Volunteers to return.
Albania and Montenegro (Includes two countries: Albania and Montenegro)
By October 2023, Volunteers are expected to be back in most of the 60 countries where they were serving in 2020. In addition, programs will be reopened in Sri Lanka and Kenya.
This story appears in the Spring-Summer 2022 edition of WorldView Magazine
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
A collection of tales covers the brief moment in the 1960s when Volunteers served in Libya. see more
101 Arabian Tales
How We All Persevered in Peace Corps Libya
Edited by Randolph W. Hobler
Reviewed by D.W. Jefferson
Randy Hobler has taken on the herculean task of writing a comprehensive history of the Peace Corps in Libya, in the form of a collective memoir of 101 Volunteers. He interviewed as many Libya RPCVs as he could find and asked for journals and letters. The result is a collection of tales covering the brief span Volunteers served in Libya, from the training of Libya I to the termination of Libya III before they left their training sites in the U.S. Hobler served in the second group of Volunteers, arriving in October 1968 to teach English to fifth graders. He was traveling in Lebanon when, on September 1, 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi seized power from King Idris in a military coup. Within a matter of weeks, Qaddafi had kicked out the Peace Corps. Qaddafi’s own rule would last for 40 years.
One year after the Peace Corps program in Libya began, Muammar al-Qaddafi seized power from King Idris in a military coup. Within a matter of weeks, he kicked out the Peace Corps. And he ruled the country for 40 years.
Hobler includes maps and more than 200 photographs. Many stories are humorous, though there are sad, tragic, shocking, and scary ones. Hobler’s group of Volunteers trained in Utah, because it was hot and dry — like Libya. Shocking is when Peace Corps trainers decided that 30 of the trainees should ride little Suzuki motorcycles — which they were learning to use in-country — 500 miles to another site in Arizona, without helmets. The trainees talked them out of it. Frightening is when, in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s coup, Volunteers in Libya find themselves confronted at checkpoints and in airports by teenagers toting automatic rifles.
In a conversation for Tulsa Public Radio about the book, Hobler spoke of how Peace Corps taught him humility when it came to the place of the United States in the world. He also came to see “the sort of demonization of the Arab that we saw that we never were aware of inside our own media bubble inside the United States.” And, he said, “It gave me a deep appreciation that I try to convey in terms of my civic responsibilities.”
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. It is adapted from a review originally published by Peace Corps Worldwide. Story updated May 2, 2022.
D.W. Jefferson served as a Volunteer in El Salvador 1974–76 and Costa Rica 1976–77.
Understanding New Diasporas and Transnationality Through the Voices of African Immigrants to KentuckyUnderstanding identities through oral history interviews with 50 Africa-born immigrants in Kentucky see more
Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky
Migration, Identity, and Transnationality
By Francis Musoni, Iddah Otieno, Angene Wilson, and Jack Wilson
University Press of Kentucky
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
The heart of this book is based on oral history interviews with nearly 50 Africa-born immigrants in Kentucky — of which there are now more than 22,000. From a former ambassador from The Gambia to a pharmacist from South Africa, from a restaurant owner from Guinea to a certified nursing assistant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, every immigrant has a unique and complex story of their life experiences and the decisions that led them to emigrate to the United States. The geography of stories reaches from Algeria to Zimbabwe, Somalia to Liberia, grouped together with stories of origins, opportunity, struggles, and success, and connecting two continents.
Within scholarship on migration and identity, this book “offers a refreshing step away from existing research on major urban centers that host large populations of African immigrants,” notes a review in the Journal of Southern History. “It is especially relevant to the study of ‘new African diasporas,’ which focuses on African diaspora communities who have arrived directly from Africa in recent decades and whose sense of history, race, and identity is understandably different from the many other African diaspora communities in the United States.” And at a time when migration continues to roil U.S. politics, the book also offers new insights into transnational identity. With that in mind, the final chapter takes as an epigraph an Igbo proverb from Chinua Achebe’s novel Arrow of God: “The world is like a Mask dancing. You do not see it well if you stand in one place.”
The project brought together Angene Wilson and Jack Wilson with historian Francis Musoni, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe and teaches the University of Kentucky; and Iddah Otieno, a professor of English and African Studies who teaches at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and is originally from Kenya.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated May 2, 2022.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who returned see more
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who left family and home for work across the border — and returned. Conversations from a time before COVID.
By Paul Theroux
On a sojourn in pursuit of understanding, writer Paul Theroux set out five years ago to travel the length of the U.S.–Mexico border. Then he drove his old Buick south, visiting villages along the back roads of Chiapas and, here, a mountain town near Oaxaca. An excerpt from On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey.
In the small Zapotec-speaking town of San Baltazar Guelavila, I asked Felipe, a local man, the meaning of “Guelavila.”
“It means Night of Hell, sir,” Felipe said.
“And this river?”
“It is the River of Red Ants, sir.”
“That hill is impressive.”
“It is the Hill of the Nine Points, sir,” Felipe said, indicating the separate small peaks of the ridge with a dabbing finger. “Our soul goes there when we die.”
“The maize in the market is colorful.”
“Our maize has four colors,” he said with pride. “Red, white, purple, and blue. It is from ancient times.”
“That big snake painted on the side of the house,” I said, “it’s unusual.”
We were in the center of town, near the plaza and the market. The town itself was off the main road south of Oaxaca, at the end of a potholed track three miles into the mountains. A mural painted on the flat, high end-side of an adobe building near us depicted the blue archway entrance of the town, a man plowing a field, a woman making tortillas, and another man digging a chopped agave plant to cook in an oven for mezcal.
But the largest image in the mural was a sensuous snake, coiled around one upright of the blue archway. The snake’s singular feature was a rose blossom attached to — apparently growing from — the top of its greenish head.
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. “We believe that local people hunted this snake with the rose on its head day and night, because capturing it would bring us good luck.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to capture a snake that size?” It was thick, with a darting tongue, and in the mural about thirty feet long.
“No danger, sir. Because no one ever caught the snake, and as a result they never had good luck.”
Felipe was a cotton weaver who made scarves and caps, his looms located in a two-story building at the edge of San Baltazar. Making adobe and distilling mezcal were the town’s other industries. Felipe had been to the States. He gave me the most succinct version of a border crossing.
“I crossed the border. Everyone was kind. My bosses were good to me. The thing I missed most was eating with my family. It’s very lonely in the United States. So I came home.”
All this time, whenever I arrived in a town like this, I was under the influence of my memories of the people I’d met — many Oaxacans — on the border. Many of the men in San Baltazar had been to the States, including a certain man who Felipe, clearing his throat with an awkward cough, warned me had a superior attitude as a result of having spent a lot of time over the border. That sometimes happened. A person went across, spent years in the States, then returned presumido (stuck-up).
I asked Felipe whether he could round up some returnees from the States and meet me under a tree near the weaving operation, the building with the looms. It was a lovely morning in San Baltazar, finches flitting in the boughs of the big shade tree. We sat on folding chairs, the men, young and old, sitting or standing, and the dog of one of the older men lay snoring at his feet. The sun streaming through the boughs gave them shadow-carved faces.
From his tone, I was sure the first man to speak was the stuck-up one. He was not conceited, but he was the loudest, the most reckless, and in a society where modesty was valued and boasting frowned upon, he might have seemed intimidating. But he was funny in the way of a person wishing to take charge, so humor took the sting out of his bluster.
“My name is Nilo,” he said. “Like the river.”
A big man in a dirty red T-shirt, he reclined on the thick up-raised roots of the tree, wagging a sandal on one foot, and rather than facing me, he shouted his answers to the fifteen others gathered there.
“It’s an adventure!” he shouted. “You leave your family — you don’t know whether you’ll live or die!”
This dramatic opening seized the attention of the others, and hearing the shout in his sleep, the dog twitched one of his ears.
“Where did you cross?” I asked.
“Tecate — I walked across,” he said. “It was easy then. I was with twenty-six people, four from this town, the rest from Mexico City. I paid 450 pesos, which is nothing, really” — about $25 that morning. “Now they charge 15,000” — $830. “But you can always get someone to pay, and then you pay them back. Listen, if you work hard, you can pay it all off in a year.”
“I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
Nilo’s confidence and his casual way with sums of money impressed the younger men. And they must have noticed, as I did, that Nilo was the grubbiest man in the group, with squashed sandals and dusty trousers, now and then lifting his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, exposing his rounded belly.
“Doing what sort of work?” I asked.
“Construction. I was in roofing.”
“How do you get hired?”
“Not a problem!” he yelled, enlightening me. “The guys doing the hiring are from here! Oaxacans. My brother’s in Utah — he’s been there twenty-seven years. I was in the States for fifteen.” He nodded with authority.
“I would have stayed, but my mother was getting old.”
As though to puncture Nilo’s bluster and give it a sense of reality, Felipe said, “It’s dangerous. All sorts of bad things can happen if you go with a stranger to the border. They might kidnap you and force you to get money from your family. You say, ‘I can’t pay.’ So they make you take drugs across.”
Nilo shrugged and made a face, as if to convey the thought, Hey, bad things happen everywhere.
“My brother,” Felipe went on, “the coyote dropped him at a house near the border. The people at the house robbed my brother of everything he had. It was obvious they were in cahoots with the coyote.”
“The polleros come here all the time,” the old man with the dog said, using the variant word for coyote. “They look for people who want to cross. I went with one — it was ’93. I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
I said, “Given the fact that there are dangers, and it costs money to go across, is it worth it?”
“Yes,” Felipe said. “If all you’ve got is a roof and nothing else, you go there. I was twenty-three when I went. I didn’t even have a roof. And there’s more work now than before. I went across, worked in construction and tree trimming, then got a job in a Chinese restaurant — doing dishes, then I was an assistant chef.”
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. The mural of San Baltazar Guelavila, near Oaxaca. Photo of mural by Thomas F. Aleto
“Why did you come back?”
“I couldn’t save enough money,” Felipe said. “Even after eight years I was still struggling.”
Nilo tugged at his grubby shirt and howled in contradiction, saying, “If you know how to save, you can save 8,000 in six months.” I took this to mean pesos, about $440.
“At the Chinese restaurant I was making $150 every two weeks,” Felipe said, and raising his voice, added, “I got into debt. I ate Chinese food for a year and a half. I never want to eat Chinese food ever again.”
I asked him the name of the restaurant.
“Chow Mein House,” he said. “In Azusa.”
Azusa is just off the 210 Freeway of Pasadena, on the way to Rancho Cucamonga, though Felipe lived in a house with other migrants in Covina, and took the bus to Citrus Avenue and Chow Mein House.
“How about you?” I asked a young man who’d been listening in silence.
He said his name was Isaac. “Have you been to the States?”
“No. But I’d like to see another place. To see how they live there. To know it.”
Another man piped up, “I’d like to leave here and find markets for my work.”
“What is your work?”
“Weaving,” he said, and explained, “Making rebozos and ponchos and shawls.”
“You should go. It’s amazing,” Nilo said, talking over the man. “It’s like being a goat in a green valley! You see it and you want to eat it all! You drink and eat and spend money!”
The old man with the dog said, “The work is hard. The pay is low. And sometimes there’s no work.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
“You can’t say there’s no work!” Nilo said. “There’s always this” — and he began gesturing — “you go into a department store, pick up some things, rip off the security tags, steal the things, and sell them on the street.”
Encouraged by the men’s laughter, he went on, “Or go to a grocery store, fill your shirt with shrimp” — he lifted his shirt and bunched it with his fists, the imaginary shrimp, to make his point — “and you walk out and sell the shrimp.”
I said, “By the way, that’s against the law. You can go to jail.”
“He’s joking,” one of the men said, in case I got the wrong idea about Nilo.
“Here in San Baltazar I was a rebellious young man,” Nilo said. “My father was gone. I broke windows. My mother was useless. Mothers can be weak! I was always drunk and getting into trouble. I needed my father.”
“Where was your father?”
“In California! He went when I was nine,” Nilo said. “It was the most beautiful time of my life.”
“I had no free time,” Felipe said, protesting. “I worked. I was tired. I slept. Then I worked again.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
Two women and two young girls walked from behind a one-story adobe building, the women carrying pitchers on their shoulders, the girls carrying clay bowls, a sudden biblical glimpse — attending women in long skirts, bearing drinks.
Men with stories to tell: Men of the town of San Baltazar Guelavila flank writer Paul Theroux. Photo courtesy Paul Theroux
“Tejate,” Isaac said. “It tastes good.”
The liquid poured into the bowls was gray, with a grainy texture and a scum of bubbles on the surface, and it tasted sweetish, a thick soup of — so they explained — maize, flor de cacao, peanuts, coconut, and roasted mamey seeds, or pixtle in Zapotec. Because of the extensive grinding, kneading, roasting, and toasting of ingredients, this pre-Hispanic concoction is called one of the most labor-intensive drinks on earth.
“Important people used to drink this,” Felipe said, and by important people, he was harking back six hundred years, because (in the long memory of Mexico) he meant Zapotec royalty, for whom tejate was reserved.
“Drink, Don Pablo! You are welcome here!”
Except for Nilo, the rest of the men were weavers, spending all day at a loom. Nilo explained that he had diabetes and was no longer strong. “Because of my diabetes they wanted to cut my leg off!” But he had refused, and stubbornly, defiantly still walked, though he had no work.
Felipe guided me into the nearby building and upstairs to the weaving room, where there were seven head-high wooden looms, some of the weavers sitting, thrusting the shuttles at right angles through the tight threads, pulling the beams down, working the treadles, and in all that effort — the rattle of skeletal frames and the stamping of treadles — lengthening the cloth by one thread.
(Recalling that, it seems a fit image for what I am doing now, fussing with my fingers and hesitating, then tightening the line and starting again, minutes passing, this memory of weaving enlarged by one sentence.) Some of the men who had been seated under the tree, talking to me, took their places on benches at looms and resumed weaving. With the clacking and chattering of the wooden machinery in this upstairs workshop, it was hard to hold a conversation, yet I noticed that the men were speaking in a language that was not Spanish.
I beckoned Isaac to a balcony and said, “Are you speaking Zapotec?”
“Yes,” he said. “We speak Zapotec among ourselves.”
A man listening said, “It’s like having a secret language! You can talk about someone who doesn’t speak it and say anything you want while in their presence.”
The town of San Baltazar was completely bilingual, the school taught in both Spanish and Zapotec. But Isaac’s son Alejandro, who was fourteen and said he was a student, was not in school that day, though school was in session. Alejandro was sitting at a loom, weaving lengths of black cloth.
“How’s business?” I asked Isaac.
“Demand is unstable,” he said.
“Yet we keep working,” Felipe said. “We work twelve hours a day. It’s hard. It’s like working in the States.”
This excerpt appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated April 30, 2022.
Paul Theroux began teaching English as a second language in Nyasaland as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963. During the nation’s transition to independence as Malawi, Prime Minister Hastings Banda accused Theroux of supporting one of Banda’s political opponents. Theroux was expelled from Malawi and was early terminated from the Peace Corps in 1965. He is the author of more than 30 books of fiction and 18 travel books including The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari, and Figures in a Landscape. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Peace Corps Community members testify for RPCVs to receive Maryland in-state tuition. see more
It’s a change long overdue. And advocacy from NPCA and dozens of returned Volunteers ensured support for bipartisan legislation signed into law in April.
By Jonathan Pearson
Far too often, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are left behind at the state government level when it comes to benefits that are afforded others for their service to our nation. In the state of Maryland, a bill was just signed into law to address one of those inequities: who qualifies for in-state tuition.
Marylanders seeking in-state tuition have to prove they have lived in the state for the past two years. Because returning Peace Corps Volunteers serve overseas, they have been found to be ineligible for the tuition benefit once they come home—because of the residency requirement. This is despite the fact that other forms of public service, including military service and AmeriCorps, have an exemption to this rule. Now RPCVs do, too.
In January of this year, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst and former Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen appeared (virtually) at a public hearing before the Maryland State Senate’s Education Committee to testify on legislation for RPCVs to receive in-state tuition. One of NPCA’s goals was to have Peace Corps service treated on par with other forms of national service. Jody Olsen, who was on the faculty of the University of Maryland–Baltimore School of Social Work prior to becoming the 20th director of the Peace Corps, spoke to lawmakers about her personal experience as an educator in Maryland: “I watched the value that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers brought to their graduate education,” she said. “They offered so much in the classroom, they offered much with the faculty. In fact, faculty would tell me they are some of the strongest students they had in their master’s degree program.”
Along with verbal testimony, NPCA submitted written testimony that included comments and statements of support collected in a 24-hour period from more than 50 members of the Maryland Peace Corps community. And the news is good. The Maryland State House and Senate both passed their versions of the bill overwhelmingly, and Gov. Larry Hogan signed it into law the week of April 11.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years and we haven’t moved the needle very far. see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Howard Dodson
By Howard Dodson
Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador 1964–67 | Director, Howard University Libraries
I wanted to join the Peace Corps the day Kennedy announced it was going to happen. I was a junior in undergraduate school — first on both sides of my family on the verge of graduating from college. I took the idea home to my parents. My father’s response was: “Let me see if I understand this. You’re going to finish a college degree, go away overseas for $125 a month for two years. What?” I got talked out of it the first time. The second time I decided that’s what I was going to do.
I had read The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick, about foreign service people working overseas who were, frankly, embarrassing representations of what Americans should be. I knew I could do a better job of representing America than that.
I was offered a job teaching, and I coached a basketball team. I was the only African American in my training group — and one of about three with Peace Corps in Ecuador. But I managed to travel around South America, getting to know people of African descent. It led to my professional training and study of the African diaspora in the world. I hope that there will be opportunities for more African Americans to have meaningful, substantive experiences with peoples of African descent and others around the world, especially in this time when America’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by our public presence in other parts of the world.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years that we’ve been in this conversation. We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things. I know, from my period as a Volunteer, recruiting officer, director of minority recruitment, and training officer: What we call structural racism was present in Peace Corps from day one. The solution was find three or four more people so we don’t look bad. That doesn’t solve the problem. Because of the transient nature of people’s engagement with Peace Corps as an institution, you spend two years and what you’ve gained is gone; whatever was working has not been re-created in the structure.
There were assumptions about who made good Volunteers, what you look for — and they don’t have anything to do with Black people. The diversity and inclusion framework is at the center of public conversations now. I think it gets in the way of finding real answers, because nine times out of ten they’re looking for racial representation rather than a systemic problem solver. Simply putting some Black faces in places does not change any damn thing.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Howard Dodson is the director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which he led for 27 years.
A Life-Altering Detour — And a Summer Camp Project That Became Part of National Educational Curriculum in JordanThey wanted to understand the world through action, and to serve. It changed their lives. see more
We wanted to understand the world through action, and we wanted to serve. That changed the path of my life.
By Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Photo: Students in Jordan work with Shaylyn Romney Garrett on critical thinking skills and activities — a summer project they launched that turned into a national initiative. Courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
My husband, James, and I had been married for a little over a year. We were on track to create careers as academics — he in psychology, me sociology, anthropology. We love to study the world, but we also wanted to be in the world to try and understand it through action. We had wanted to do service together. And we had lived through the Bush years, which for us were really hard, especially watching the destructive influence the U.S. was having in the world.
In thinking about how to serve, we deliberately chose a program sponsored by the U.S. government — to participate in something our government was doing that we really believed in. So we joined the Peace Corps. Anybody who has joined the Peace Corps knows it’s an arduous application process. That gave us a lot of time to sit with that decision!
Brain Camp: Girls in Jordan undertake projects in critical and creative thinking, whyle Shaylyn Romney Garrett and her husband, James, look on. Photo courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
We were ultimately placed in Jordan. I was a TEFL Volunteer, my husband a youth development Volunteer. I taught in a government girls’ school, he in a boys’ youth center. As part of our program, we were required to create a summer camp. We created a camp around critical and creative thinking; that was something that the Ministry of Education was really buzzing about. Particularly Queen Rania, a champion of efforts to transform rote-memorization learning into education for critical thinking. We built an experiential game-and-activity-based critical thinking program called Brain Camp.
It sort of caught fire. We ended up training other Volunteers to do it all over Jordan. By coincidence, we met Queen Rania, because she showed up at a community center where we were putting on a summer camp. She loved what she saw and invited us to partner with her foundation to bring the program to more students.
Power and skill: What started as a project to help students develop critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills also changed the path of Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s life. Photo courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
After our Peace Corps service, we came back to the U.S., founded a 501(c)3 called Think Unlimited, raised enough money to get back to Jordan, and then worked with Queen Rania and the foundation for a year to get the program into public schools and to train local teachers to implement it as an after-school program. Ultimately, we transitioned into working directly with private universities. We ran a two-semester credit-bearing course in multiple universities that was marketed as a critical thinking and social entrepreneurship curriculum. The first semester was a kind of self-exploration journey. In the Middle East, kids aren’t given a lot of opportunity to think about Who am I? What’s my contribution? What am I passionate about? The second semester was all about applying that learning in the world, and how to be a citizen and an active builder of society.
That ended up being a six-year journey — a couple of years in Peace Corps, four more years as private citizens in Jordan. What started as a desire to serve ultimately altered the path of my life, opening up incredible opportunities for service and growth.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
READ MORE: “We Can Do It! Again!” Shaylyn Romney Garrett on the research that shaped The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
Mirror the Face of Our Nation: Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International CareersThe program you may not know that inspired JFK. And how we change what America looks like abroad. see more
The past: The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. The future: How we change what America looks like abroad.
Photo: Rep. Karen Bass, who delivered welcoming remarks for the event, part of the Ronald H. Brown Series, on September 14, 2021.
On September 14, 2021, the Constituency for Africa hosted, and National Peace Corps Association sponsored, a series of conversations on “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers.” Part of the annual Ronald H. Brown Series, the event brought together leaders in government, policy, and education, as well as some key members of the Peace Corps community.
Constituency for Africa was founded and is led by Melvin Foote, who served as a Volunteer in Eritrea and Ethiopia 1973–76. In hosting the program, he noted how the Peace Corps has played an instrumental role in training members of the U.S. diplomatic community. “Unfortunately, the number of African Americans serving in the Peace Corps has always been extremely low,” he wrote. By organizing this forum, he noted that CFA is attempting to build a community of Black Americans “who served in the Peace Corps in order to have impact on U.S. policies in Africa, in the Caribbean, and elsewhere around the world, and to form a support base for African Americans who are serving, and to encourage other young people to consider going into the Peace Corps.”
Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, delivered opening remarks. “I have traveled all around Africa, as I know so many of you have,” she said. “And we would love to see the Peace Corps be far more diverse than it is now. Launching this effort now, diversity and inclusion has to be a priority for all of us, including us in Congress. And we have to continue to try and reflect all of society in every facet of our lives … I am working to pass legislation to diversify even further the State Department, and looking not just on an entry level, but on a mid-career level. This effort that you’re doing today is just another aspect of the same struggle. So let me thank you for the work that you’re doing. And of course, Mel Foote as a former Peace Corps alum, and I know his daughter is in the Peace Corps. You’re just continuing a legacy and ensuring the future that the Peace Corps looks like the United States.”
“You’re continuing a legacy and making sure that in the future the Peace Corps looks like the United States.”
— Karen Bass, Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Read and Explore
The 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine includes some keynote remarks and discussions that were part of the event.
Reverend Dr. Jonathan Weaver | Pastor at Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church; Founder and President, Pan African Collective
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley | Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, U.S. Department of State
Aaron Williams | Peace Corps Director 2009–12
“First Comes Belonging”
Watch the Program
Remarks were also delivered by Melvin Foote, founder and CEO of Constituency for Africa; Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association; Dr. Darlene Grant, Senior Advisor to National Peace Corps Director; and Kimberly Bassett, Secretary of State for Washington, D.C., who welcomed participants on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Watch the entire event here.
The Constituency for Africa was founded in 1990 in Washington, D.C., when a group of concerned Africanists, interested citizens, and Africa-focused organizations developed a strategy to build organized support for Africa in the United States. CFA was charged with educating the U.S. public about Africa and U.S. policy on Africa; mobilizing an activist Constituency for Africa; and fostering cooperation among a broad-based coalition of American, African, and international organizations, as well as individuals committed to the progress and empowerment of Africa and African people.
CFA also founded and sponsors the annual Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series, which is held in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Legislative Week each September. The series honors the late U.S. Commerce Secretary for his exemplary accomplishments in building strategic political, economic, and cultural linkages between the United States and Africa. More than 1,000 concerned individuals and organizational representatives attend each year, in order to gain valuable information and build strategic connections to tackle African and American challenges, issues, and concerns.
Invitations have been sent for Volunteers to return to five countries see more
Eight posts have met criteria for Volunteers to return. Invitations are out for five: Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Zambia. And the agency is recruiting returned Volunteers for the Virtual Service Pilot.
Colombia mural: one of the countries to for which Peace Corps has sent out invitations for Volunteers to return in 2022. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
By NPCA Staff
It’s the news that thousands of us have been waiting to hear since March 2020: The Peace Corps has begun issuing invitations for Volunteers to return to service overseas. Eight posts have met the agency’s criteria when it comes to “robust health, safety, and security standards that must be met prior to Volunteers returning to countries of service.” And invitations have begun going out for Volunteers, both new and returning, to serve in Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Zambia. More invitations are forthcoming.
Volunteers have been invited to serve beginning in late January to March, “so long as conditions allow,” the agency notes. “As part of the Peace Corps’ return to service, all Volunteers will be expected to contribute to COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. In addition, Volunteers will be required to accept the additional risks associated with volunteering during a pandemic and comply with agency standards for mitigating these risks, wherever possible.”
“Regardless of sector, every Volunteer will be involved in mobilizing for vaccination response, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, recovering educational gains that were lost … We are very inspired to get out and be part of the solution as we recover from the isolation and the impact of COVID-19.”
—Carol Spahn, Acting Director of the Peace Corps
In a conversation hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California on December 2 — the same day Peace Corps announced the news on its website — Acting Director Carol Spahn underscored that COVID-19 “has impacted each and every country we serve. So regardless of sector, every Volunteer will be involved in mobilizing for vaccination response, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, recovering educational gains that were lost … We are very inspired to get out and be part of the solution as we recover from the isolation and the impact of COVID-19.”
As country director for Peace Corps in Malawi, Spahn has seen “the real importance of Volunteers’ contributions at the last mile” when it comes to controlling HIV/AIDS — a scourge that has been with us 40 years now. Likewise, Spahn cited Volunteers’ historic work to help end smallpox in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, part of global efforts that led to the eradication of smallpox more than four decades ago.
Green field: flag of Zambia, one of the posts Peace Corps Volunteers have been invited to return to in 2022. The nation first hoisted this flag in 1964. Since Volunteers first arrived in 1994, more than 2,400 have served. Photo by Mykhailo Polenok/Alamy
Virtual Volunteering Positions Are Open, Too
The agency is seeking participants for a new and expanded round of the Virtual Service Pilot program as well. Partners from 28 countries and more than 230 returned Volunteers have participated since October 2020. The new round is open to any Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is prepared to spend 5 to 15 hours per week working with a host country partner.
This story appears in the 60th anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated December 19, 2021 at 2 PM Eastern.
Steven Saum posted an articleNews and updates from the Peace Corps community see more
News and updates from the Peace Corps community — across the country, around the world, and spanning generations of returned Volunteers and staff
By Peter Deekle (Iran 1968–70)
Pictured: Children’s Literature Legacy Award Winner — author Mildred Taylor
Marieme Foote (2018–20) has been awarded a Payne International Development Fellowship for graduate study. In Benin, she served as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Agent until evacuated due to COVID-19. Upon her return to the United States she accepted a position with the National Peace Corps Association where she has worked on advocacy and issues pertaining to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Peace Corps Agency and community.
Natalie Obaldia (2019–20) is the Southern California Regional Volunteer Coordinator for California Volunteers, the governor’s and State Legislature’s continued investment in service and volunteering.
Jerome Siangco (2019-2020) taught News Listening and Spoken English to first-year, sophomore, and junior English majors at Liupanshui Normal University until his pandemic-impacted evacuation. He now serves as COVID-19 contact tracer with the National Peace Corps Association’s Emergency Response Network.
Mildred (Milly) D. Taylor (1965–67) is the winner of the 2021 Children’s Literature Legacy Award honoring an author or illustrator, published in the United States, whose books have made a significant and lasting contribution to literature for children. Her award-winning works include “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” which won the 1977 Newberry Medal and the Coretta Scott King Honor Award; “The Friendship,” “Road to Memphis,” and “The Land,” all recipients of the Coretta Scott King Award. Her most recent work is “All the Days Past, All the Days to Come” (Dial, 2020). In addition to numerous awards for individual books, Mildred Taylor is the 2020 recipient of the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Meghan McCormick (2011–13) co-launched OZÉ, a Ghana-based financial tech startup that helps small to medium enterprises to record their daily activities ranging from expenses to sales. And in January 2021 news stories noted that OZÉ had raised $700,000 for micro, small, and medium enterprises in Ghana and Sub-Saharan Africa. The startup then combines these data to offer insights useful for recommendations. She also co-founded of Dare to Innovate. McCormick is committed to ending unemployment in West Africa through investments in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Norma Royale Wilder is the author of “The Longer I Live the Wilder it Gets: A Memoir of Adventure.” Wilder’s adventures have taken her around the world. She was interviewed on the radio about her book and life experiences on February 10, 2021.
Sandra Adounvo has been awarded a Payne International Development Fellowship for graduate study. She will pursue a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Global Health and Humanitarian Assistance. She intends to join the USAID Foreign Service as a Health, Population, and Nutrition Officer.
John Fleming (1967–69) has a lengthy career in museum management. He has served as president of the Ohio Museums Association and the Association of African American Museums. He is currently writing a book about his Peace Corps service in Malawi.
Austin Fraley (2017–20) has been awarded a Payne International Development Fellowship. He will attend the University of Wisconsin to pursue a master’s degree in international public affairs in preparation to join USAID as a crisis, stabilization, and governance officer. Prior to his experience in Malawi, Austin worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries as an ESL intern and a driver. He also worked at Quest Farm, a Kentucky non-profit that works with people with intellectual disabilities.
Vishakha Wavde (2018–20) is currently a physical therapist in Illinois. With a health services career in progress, she sought a two-year assignment in Malawi, focused on HIV and Malaria prevention, youth capacity building and working with HIV support groups.
Molly Mattessick (2002–04) is Managing Director of Project Delivery at Forum One, an organization that amplifies the impact of mission-driven organizations through transformational digital solutions. In fall 2020 she led the team at Forum One to collaborate with National Peace Corps Association to launch and publicize the NPCA Emergency Response Network.
Aydin Nazmi (1999–2001) since early 2020, has served as the Cal Poly Presidential Faculty Fellow for COVID-19 Response and Preparedness. He is a professor in Cal Poly’s Food Science and Nutrition Department and is one of four faculty members from across the California State University (CSU) system to earn the Wang Family Excellence Award. He earned the award in the Outstanding Faculty Service category in recognition of his achievements and contributions to the CSU.
Paige Beiler (2018–20) has served since November 2020 as a COVID-19 contact tracer with National Peace Corps Association’s Emergency Response Network. During her Peace Corps service she started a library at the local youth center through a USAID funded grant.
Emily Wood (2019–20) has been awarded a Payne International Development Fellowship for graduate study. She will use her fellowship to continue her education and foster her dedication to public service as a Foreign Service Officer. She hopes to work with indigenous communities, helping them regain their self-reliance after centuries of marginalization.
Leala Rosen (2014–15) is a program officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Conservation Leadership Programme.
Jennifer Leshnower (2007–09) is volunteer director for California Volunteers — a statewide organization building critical connections and partnerships between public, private, and community-based organizations in order to mobilize human and social capital to eradicate California's most pressing social and economic injustices.
Carolee and Art Buck (1968–70) have been invited by the president of Senegal, their original Peace Corps host country, to return for a visit, which they both anticipate occurring later in 2021. The invitation resulted from Carolee’s pandemic writing project (a record with photos) documenting their years in Senegal. The self-published book impressed the Senegalese president so much that he extended an invitation
UKRAINE AND GUINEA, BURKINA FASO, SENEGAL, SIERRA LEONE, MORROCO
Doug Teschner (1971–73; 2008–17) is the president of Growing Leadership LLC, which supports nonprofits, governments, and businesses by partnering to strengthen their capacity to achieve the highest level of performance. Services include leadership training, coaching and mentoring; public speaking; organizational development and strategic planning; public policy support and legislative advocacy; resource development, communications and public relations.
RPCVs bring forward their rewarding experiences following Worldview see more
Letters, emails, LinkedIn and Instagram comments, Facebook posts, tweets, and other missives: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in the winter 2021 edition of WorldView. We’re happy to continue the conversation here and on all those nifty social media platforms. One way to write us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Retool, then reengage
The pandemic offers a unique opportunity for Peace Corps to critically evaluate programs. It’s tempting to just send back returned Volunteers to previous assignments—and probably easiest from utilizing appropriated funding. But I hope there will be a pause, and a rethinking about how best to use the skills and idealism of some of America’s best.
WorldView is spectacular! I just received the winter issue. Wow! I get a lot of magazines, but WorldView is just head and shoulders above all of them.
Country Director, Liberia 1976–77
Important connections — the NPCA email newsletter, WorldView. Connections make a difference! My Peace Corps experience 55 years ago has strengthened in my perspectives and actions over the years. Always learning, always valuable.
After perusing the latest WorldView, I was wondering if you had considered a letter to the editor campaign in which returned PCVs would highlight Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary and explain the current status of the program and plans to return Volunteers to the field.
In addition, have you considered contacting current and past presidents and their spouses, inviting them to become patrons of the Peace Corps and advocates of its work, while requesting their support with Congress and the public at large? Many thanks for your great efforts in keeping alive and well the ideals of the Peace Corps that inspired me and so many others to serve.
Dominican Republic (1962–64)
“Ask not…” Annotating JFK’s Inaugural address
I watched and heard the words while working as a nurse aide in January ’62. In April I sent an inquiry, sent in the application, trained that summer, and was in country by fall. Still the best thing I ever did. Would do it again, but I’m 77!
I am dumbfounded why you did not include this paragraph from the inaugural in your article:
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
Within an inaugural address that people would parse as if it were the Gettysburg address, it would be difficult not to read Kennedy’s pledge as a statement to the world of why he would be creating a “Peace Corps” … which he did by executive order about 45 days later. Within the confines of two sentences, Kennedy spoke directly to what many then called the “Third World” and set out the principles of the pledge he was making and what would govern a Peace Corps: We would come not as “helpers” but as equals, “to help them help themselves,” not limited by an arbitrary time requirement, but “for whatever period is required”… and most important we come not out of some self-interest but out of the moral responsibility that comes from being a citizen of the world … because it is right.
Malawi 1968–70; Training program director, Western Samoa 1979
Excellent point and taken. Check out the full address here, along with more annotations by Gordon Radley, Editor Emeritus David Arnold, and others. —Ed.
How Peace Corps inspired Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Love her: She swore in our L4 group in Peace Corps Response Liberia! She will be a fantastic U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., bringing compassion, intelligence, experience, down-to-earth warmth, talent, and a diverse perspective.
Staff and consultant; associate director in Nicaragua 2014–19
I served in Somalia 9. We did our initial training at Leland College in Baker, Louisiana — probably when Linda was a little girl. I’d like to think we might have left an impression on her about Peace Corps.
She was Chief of Mission in Liberia when I was there serving as director of management and operations for Peace Corps reopening the post. She is an extraordinary person and I am glad she is in the position she is in now.
Darren D. Defendeifer
Peace Corps HQ Staff
I worked for her at State and she is one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met.
Anne Rimoin: “A matter of life and death”
Thank you, Anne, for your informative and thoughtful article. Thank you for articulating so eloquently not only the significance of learning to listen to our community, but also how the Peace Corps experience teaches us that vital lesson.
Peace Corps Connect to the Future
After reading the section of the report focused on “Reexamining the Peace Corps’ Second and Third Goals,” I find myself in complete and enthusiastic agreement. I’ve served three complete 27-month tours as a PCV. Being an educator by profession and assigned to the education sector, the First Goal was for me pretty much routine. I loved it — but the real excitement and life-changing experiences were reflected in the Second and Third Goals, which profoundly reflect the humanitarian values of our society.
I have an everlasting love for the language, the culture, and the people of Colombia. Why? The Second and Third Goals of the Peace Corps and the friendships I made. My two-plus years in Morocco gave me an even deeper awareness of our human commonalities. And living in Quito, Ecuador, opened up new perspectives for me on what it means to be human, thanks to lasting friendships with many Ecuadorian Indigenous people, organic farmers, and vegan restaurant owners.
I can’t emphasize enough the immense value of the Peace Corps as a human endeavor, especially in light of the technological dehumanization which we all are having to deal with.
At the present time, I’m waiting and hoping for a clearance from the Office of Medical Services and another assignment. I know we’re all in a sort of limbo until COVID subsides.
Colombia 1966–68; Morocco 2000–02; Ecuador 2017–19
These comments appear in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org