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A presentation for Peace Corps Sunday
First Universalist Unitarian Church
May 7, 1989
I was a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, from June, 1971, to August, 1973 -- and also an in-country trainer for a period in 1976 while between other jobs.
Why did I become a volunteer?
I never went with the idea that I could do anything for the downtrodden of the world. My motives were purely selfish.
Senior year in college I started wondering what to do with my life. I was a Geology major, but had no idea whether I wanted to take on Geology as a profession, or what that would entail. Then one day I noticed a sign on the departmental bulletin board asking for three geologists to serve in Botswana with the Peace Corps. Here was what I was looking for. I knew a bit about Botswana from an Anthropology class film, “The Hunters”. Botswana was the land of the Kalahari desert, of the bushmen, and all the great African wildlife, like giraffe. I also knew that I was unlikely to ever get to such a far off place on my own. So, here was my chance to travel to an exotic land, and try out Geology as a career at the same time.
The experience was truly a major turning point in my life. I can remember my first day in Botswana as if it were only yesterday. A simple smell is all it takes to bring back a burst of memories.
It was June 4th when my Peace Corps group, all ten of us, landed in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, after an exhausting 8,000 mile flight with stops in London, Zurich, and Johannesburg. We were met at the single gate of the airport by a small group of in-country Peace Corps staff and whisked away in the backs of Chevrolet pick-up trucks. It was only a little disconcerting to realize that we were driving on the left -- a hold over from British colonial days.
This was my first time in a desert land. The capital city was brand new, hardly more than a town, with sparkling white buildings rising from the orange sand. The sky was an endless blue. Balancing these vivid colors were low trees of a gray-green hue.
Now, June in the southern hemisphere is mid-winter, and the day was crisp and cool. The smell of dust was in the air. We stopped at a cluster of long, low white-washed buildings marked with the sign, B.T.C. -- the Botswana Training Centre. School was in recess and we had use of the dormitory buildings for the few days we would remain in the capital. I can recall carrying my duffel bag up the front steps next to a large bush that I couldn’t identify. And it was filled with little flitting birds the size of wrens, only they were sky blue (blue waxbills)! Truly I had left behind all that was familiar.
The floor of the dormitory was painted and polished cement, smooth and cool. I was struck by the door handles; they were shiny chrome levers instead of knobs. And the locks were of the old skeleton key type. I later learned that nobody bothered to lock their houses or cars. Botswana still retained a good measure of its traditional sense of honesty and trust. In the room I shared with the other single men, we were given flannel sheets to help ward off the chill. I also used my new towel as a rug on the cold cement floor. Central heating was a luxury not widely found in this young nation. I also remember that first night, a meal of roasted goat in the dining commons. For subsequent meals we had goat ribs, then goat stew and, finally, goat soup. In a poor country, nothing is wasted.
These were my first impressions. Later I would go on to meet the people of this exotic land. I found the Batswana to be a happy, healthy, and caring people. They were receptive to the values of a young American fresh out of school and without a lot of pretenses. The Batswana liked Americans because we were pleasantly different than the typical British expatriate they were used to dealing with. Our language instructors put their fingers on the difference...Americans are always asking “why?”. I also felt the difference. At the university, I had attended weekly Peace Corps indoctrination sessions designed to expose new volunteers to aspects of African culture, history, and values in an attempt to reduce the culture shock we would experience when we got to our destination. Maybe as a result of these sessions, I never had a problem accepting and working with the traditional African way of life.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the rigid class system of the British community in Botswana. This was exemplified by the Botswana Meat Commission, the great slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Lobatse, the town where I was stationed. The senior managers were all British, and all the professional staff were given housing on the company grounds. A large hill overlooked the meat packing plant, and on top of the hill was the home of the plant manager. Immediately below were the homes of the assistant managers, and so on until around the base of the hill you found the houses of the lowest technical staff. Life within the meat commission was an unceasing struggle to move uphill.
Being both a volunteer (lowest of the low) and a geologist (highly regarded), people didn’t know what to do with me.
These are some of my early experiences. The telling of two years’ worth of tales would carry us past the sunset. Yes, I saw my giraffe in the wild. I traveled extensively about the Kalahari Desert, pitching camp beneath the brilliant southern constellations , and seeing my shadow cast by the light of Venus! I traded with the bushmen, and crawled by lantern light through unexplored caves. I found that I enjoyed life as a geologist. Being low paid in a poor country, I learned to live cheaply, to be self sufficient. Even to this day I have difficulty throwing away an empty glass jar -- they’re so handy.
But perhaps most importantly, I met people who had a different perspective on life, and from them I learned that there is more than one correct way to live, and to satisfy basic human needs. The trick is to live in the culture, and not be just a tourist.
Who got the most benefit out of those two years -- me or Botswana? I’ll never know. Perhaps those two years are best summed up by an article in Volunteer magazine which we received regularly. A group of former Peace Corps volunteers had been invited to fill out the statement. “Being a Peace Corps volunteer means ___________?” My favorite, and the one which has stayed with me these past 25 years was:
“Being a Peace Corps volunteer means... you’ll never be the same again.”