A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story

Many years ago I received word from a Congressman that he had carried my complaint against the U.S. Peace Corps to the head of the agency in Washington D.C. It had taken months and a little Congressional help but I eventually received a personal reply from the top man and the gist of it was that I must be just another ‘disgruntled volunteer’ who had returned from his in-country assignment, in this case Jamaica, with a somewhat less than satisfactory experience.

So what and big deal would apparently be the end of it all. I remember the exact phrase the director used, perhaps because I have been ‘disgruntled’ most of my life about my country’s often less than exemplary foreign policy. Nothing else was going to be done, nor was ever done as I remember.

“What are you going to do when you get home?” I remember being asked by a young, female volunteer as she sat reading a magazine in the Peace Corps office in Kingston. I told her I might write a story about my experiences there, though I’d completed only one year of service.

“I’ve been reclassified and if I don’t go home now, I might be inducted when I finish my two years.”

“Oh,” she’d said, but I didn’t think she’d understood.

I was sure it was some sort of mistake. My draft board had put my name in behind all the 19 and 1/2 year olds scheduled to be taken into the Army that year. The war in Vietnam was still raging on and getting nowhere, or so it seemed. The word was out that because they most likely wouldn’t get through them all, I could get out of the Draft if I were there, back in the U.S. by a certain time and made myself eligible. Before that reclassification, I’d received a what they called a ‘postponement’ to go and serve two years in the Peace Corps, but I was scheduled to be inducted when I returned and I’d known that the whole time.

I remember there was just something strange about having to quit the Peace Corps early just to get out of the Draft, but that’s how it all happened for me.

“Don’t say anything bad,” she admonished me.

Several months later, I’d ignored her comments and sent a letter to the Peace Corps Director suggesting they needed to do something serious about their general lack of success in Jamaica. I was sure it had to be the same in other countries.

I’d thought about it a lot because I’d really cared what I’d done there and felt bad that I hadn’t had more success than I did. It seemed I had two choices, blame myself or blame the agency, and since I’d tried as hard as I knew how, I figured it had to be the agency.

One idea I’d suggested was that they create a position something like an ‘ombudsman’ who could investigate volunteer complaints in a country or particular region in order to and try to help create more realistic and survivable jobs for the volunteers to do. You couldn’t trust the people of the country to do it because they were mostly bureaucrats and their perspective was limited, especially in countries that were undeveloped. At the same time you couldn’t trust the directors in the country because it was their decisions that were on the line if the projects failed or went bad.

It also had occurred to me that from a country as wealthy as the U.S., the idea of not giving additional support to what few projects were actually succeeding in any given country, more than just the labor and personal commitment of the volunteers, was a bit of an ineffective strategy, if not downright embarrassing for the volunteers. Several European countries, for example, were doing a lot more at the time than the U.S. along those lines and there were apparently far fewer volunteers dropping out of their programs. In any case, there was probably just far too much political influence over the agencies direction in the country and far too little practical help.

Jamaica, I had been told, had one of the highest drop-out rates, if not the highest, in the Western Hemisphere. Simply put, fewer volunteers were completing their two years of service there than most other places. After ten years of Peace Corps volunteers on the ground there, what surprised me was that so little had apparently been done and that so little history had been recorded for the purpose of a long range plan of development.

The reasons so many volunteers left the program early, or at least so I was told during the training period, were largely psychological ones, and because I’d been a Guidance worker attached to the Ministry of Education, it hadn’t taken me very long, with a little extra effort and I have to admit, some snooping around, to understand why.

It was the contrast between worlds that seemed to be the hardest thing for most volunteers to deal with.

One day you’d be working with an illiterate farmer, trying to figure out how to help him improve his crop production, and the next you’d be sitting in a five-star hotel with a group of bureaucrats babbling generalities while they enjoyed a government conference. You’d be eating Brahman steak at some ‘big man’s’ great house one afternoon and the next you’d be having bun and cheese at a rum shop out in the middle of nowhere with little children who’d never seen a white man before, staring through the doorway at you. One day you’d be listening to the heaviest patois you’d ever heard and the next, listening to a Parliamentarian drone on in ornate circles of supposed elocution of the Queen’s English.

One day some tourist family from New Jersey would wonder why all those young men were trying to wash the perfectly clean windscreen of their rental car at what only appeared to be a Texaco filling station and an hour later some young handsome hustler would be seriously asking you to get your family back in the States to sponsor him so he could immigrate successfully.

The list of contrasts, contradictions, and enigmas went on and on – Jamaica was indeed, beyond the tourist scene, some kind of unusual place, to say the least.

Not only were the typical experiences of a volunteer often difficult to integrate into their understanding of the world around them, but they were socially as diverse as anything you might imagine. The men, regardless of their age, would often be unsophisticatedly wooed by any local girl with dreams of having little mixed-race children and watching them grow up in the suburbs of some great American city and the young, college-educated white girls would be sought after by every half-educated young stud who could carry on a conversation at a beach hotel bar.

I remember one young friend of mine, African American, a volunteer from Pennsylvania, who said he felt perfectly normal walking down the street until he stopped someone and tried to have a conversation. Then, he told me shaking his head in frustration, he didn’t understand what they said at all, and those around him seemed to be having as much trouble understanding him as well because he “didn’t talk like a typical white man.”

On my part, I had a good ear for the patois and picked up a lot of it rather quickly. To me it was just British sounding English with a lot of idioms thrown in, a sort of “cockney in the Caribbean.” As for their understanding me, I knew a secret many other volunteers hadn’t learned to appreciate and take advantage of. The ordinary Jamaican had been listening to formal or standard English on the radio and in music all their lives and understood the vast majority of what I was saying, especially since I had very little of any regional U.S. accent.

If what I was saying was too complex, I would get the usual “mi nah hundastand you” but it didn’t mean how I was saying it. As for my not understanding some idiom, I was the first to ask what a phrase or word meant, without any shyness at all. But that was how I was back then, something of a fearless type.

Being fearless however, could sometimes get you into trouble, especially there in Jamaica. In fact, I remember all too well – it could get you killed.

One morning I’d decided to go down to a local spot on the north coast where I’d heard there were lobster to be taken close in and you didn’t have to swim a quarter mile out to a reef. Packing my snorkeling gear and spear gun in an old canvas bag, I’d caught a ride and made it down to a small, rough cut, dirt road that led to the shore. It was sometime about mid morning.

The reef was right there at the shoreline, just as I’d been told. I’d been excited at the thought of dropping right onto what promised to be shelf upon shelf of the little, tasty critters, nesting there with their pairs of long, antenna, like feelers, waving and sticking out, just waiting there for the taking. I’d suited up and dropped in to a deep pool when right below me, nearly twenty feet down, there was a school of six or more, white-tipped shark. Apparently what was easy for me was just as easy for them, so I decided then and there to give up the quest, get out of the water, get dressed, and head back to the north coast road.

Halfway back down that same, small dusty road, I found myself walking along, thinking of my bad luck with the shark, when suddenly there was a rush in the bushes and a pair of arms came up, knocking me to the ground. When I looked up, there was a young man with dreadlocks and a serious face holding a machete in the air above me. There were several others around him in the bush. No one spoke.

“Where di money mon?,” he said coldly.

“Cha, mi nah no nuttin ’bout no money” I yelled at him, “yah fool, a mi a teacher mon, a Peace Corps!”

“Hoy now man, hole up” said another. “Yeah, mi know ‘im. Him a Peace Corps, a true.”

Now I hadn’t gone around talking the patois on purpose, or to show I could, that wasn’t my way. But it never occurred to me that I could really speak it until that very morning, when at the point of a cutlass, which is what some of the locals called a particular kind of machete, I’d discovered just how good I was at it.

Apparently, the group had just delivered a load of ganja to a man in a plane and were waiting for another man to come and pay them for it. They’d taken me for the man by mistake and now that they’d learned I was a teacher, their whole attitude changed.

They were, of course, immediately sorry and most apologetic. I was the wrong white man.

They asked me to come and sit with them in a little camp they’d made near by in the bush and even offered me some of their ganja. I thought it best not to seem standoffish so I took a few puffs and later found myself alone, standing back on the north coast road, eyes red, stomach aching and empty, but not the least bit worried about catching lobster.

     

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