November 1, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Problems arise when volunteers get caught up in Cape Verde culture
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November 1, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Problems arise when volunteers get caught up in Cape Verde culture
Problems arise when volunteers get caught up in Cape Verde culture
Young Cape Verdeans party at a nightspot in Praia. Between 1993 and 1999, volunteers in Cape Verde reported the highest rate of rape among 41 African Peace Corps countries, fourth highest worldwide.
Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News on the Peace Corps Program in Cape Verde where between 1993 and 1999, volunteers reported the highest rate of rape among 41 African Peace Corps countries, fourth highest worldwide; from 1997 to 99, reported the highest rate of minor sexual assaults in Africa, and the fifth highest rate worldwide; in 2000 and 2001, reported the second highest rate of "alcohol problems" worldwide, a rate at least seven times the average across the world; and in 2000, the Peace Corps inspector general reported the highest rate of new cases of sexually transmitted diseases worldwide six times the average for all of Africa.
By 2001, the way volunteers dressed and behaved in Cape Verde had caught the attention of Congress. "The post permitted volunteers to dress and behave unprofessionally, affecting both performance and safety," Peace Corps Inspector General Charles D. Smith told a Congressional committee. Read the story at:
Volunteers in Cape Verde many having just left college found it easy to embrace the unique people and culture of the islands, where heavy drinking, intimate dancing and all-night parties are a way of life. "It's like a little Brazil," said Mike Rupp of Boise, Idaho, a volunteer in Cape Verde from 1997 to 2000. "It's a very sensual, sexual culture: the dancing, the conversation, everything the way of dress. "I just think it's just easy to get into that, and Americans get a lot of attention. They (female volunteers) get caught up in the attention and the smooth lines and all that stuff, and it's a problem."
Trouble in paradise*
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Trouble in paradise
Problems arise when volunteers get caught up in Cape Verde culture
By Russell Carollo and Christine Willmsen
Dayton Daily News
ISLAND OF SAL, Cape Verde | European tourists dressed in the latest swimwear tan along the wide Atlantic beaches.
At an outdoor club in the capital of Praia, on the island of Sao Tiago, men strumming acoustic guitars entertain customers sitting atop a cobblestone patio, a scene from a waterfront cafe in Seattle or a jazz club in the New Orleans French Quarter.
This series of islands, which together are about the size of Rhode Island, sits 300 miles off the African coast, but it's nothing like the rest of the continent: The literacy rate is 77 percent, nearly double that of the nearest African country, Senegal, and health standards are considered the highest in West Africa.
Yet in this former Portuguese colony, where the culture is spiced with drinking and late-night parties filled with sensual dancing, the rates of sexual assaults, alcohol-related incidents, mental health visits and sexually transmitted diseases have been among the highest in the Peace Corps.
"The other volunteers on the continent come to Cape Verde for vacation," said James Polachy of Largo, Fla., a volunteer in Cape Verde from 1997 to 1999. "It's like a Peace Corps Club Med type of thing."
Between 1993 and 1999, volunteers here reported the highest rate of rape among 41 African Peace Corps countries, fourth highest worldwide. From 1997 to 99, Cape Verde also reported the highest rate of minor sexual assaults in Africa, and the fifth highest rate worldwide.
In 2000 and 2001, Cape Verde volunteers reported the second highest rate of "alcohol problems" worldwide, a rate at least seven times the average across the world.
In 2000, the Peace Corps inspector general said that Cape Verde volunteers reported the highest rate of new cases of sexually transmitted diseases worldwide six times the average for all of Africa.
As part of its 20-month examination of Peace Corps, the Dayton Daily News traveled to four of Cape Verde's nine inhabited islands and interviewed volunteers, police officers, prosecutors, attorneys, crime witnesses, a judge and met with two of the men accused in attacks on volunteers. The newspaper also examined hundreds of pages of documents, including police and court records obtained in Cape Verde.
Though young female volunteers appeared most vulnerable to attack, the examination found, almost 90 percent of the volunteers sent to Cape Verde in recent years were females, many of them young and recently out of college.
"This is a situation where female volunteers being posted alone might be putting them at risk," said Michael O'Neill, the Peace Corps' security director from 1995-2002.
A Daily News analysis of the Peace Corps Assault Notification and Surveillance System database found that females were identified as victims in 41 of 47 assaults in Cape Verde since 1990, and the average age of the female victims was 24.
"The mentality of the men there is that the women are there for their benefit, to take care of them, to satisfy their needs," said Elaine Taylor of Pueblo, Colo., whose 23-year-old daughter, Kirsten, was injured in an apparent rape attempt in Cape Verde.
The newspaper examination also found that some attacks were linked to relationships between female volunteers and local men. In other cases, in which the attacks were random, the Peace Corps or local authorities were unable or unwilling to pursue charges against men accused of assaulting female volunteers.
The Peace Corps' chief representative in Cape Verde, Country Director Barbara Stahler, refused to meet with a Dayton Daily News reporter and also refused to answer questions on the telephone.
In a written response, the Peace Corps says volunteers were sent to the islands in response to the country's needs and not because of the sex of volunteers. Currently, the response says, males make up 52 percent of the volunteers.
Volunteers in Cape Verde do community development work, promote information technology and teach English to thousands of children, the response says.
Peace Corps volunteer Michelle Ervin shops at a market in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde. Ervin, a 1998 University of Dayton graduate, thinks the Peace Corps should take security more seriously. 'I think they could be doing a lot more as far as the security and safety is concerned with the volunteers here,' she said.
Volunteer Michelle Ervin of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, said volunteers were warned not to speak to a Dayton Daily News reporter visiting the islands.
"I'm not a big fan of Peace Corps policy," said Ervin, a 1998 University of Dayton graduate who served in Cape Verde from 1999-2002. "I think they could be doing a lot more as far as the security and safety is concerned with the volunteers here."
'I DON'T LIKE LIVING IN FEAR EVERY SINGLE DAY'
Temby Caprio of Norfolk, Va., was washing clothes when a would-be burglar who had scaled the wall of her building tried to get inside her home.
That was the first of four burglaries at her Peace Corps site in Praia. The second came early the next morning, when she awoke to find someone cutting through a window screen.
"I was sleeping, and I woke and scared him away," said Caprio, who was in her early 30s when she arrived in Cape Verde in July 2000.
Like other female volunteers, Caprio and Ervin were subjected to sexual harassment almost daily on the streets, where they were easily recognized as Americans.
"I have so much anger pent up inside me that I really think I would kill someone if they touched me," Ervin said. "I have this anger and rage that is pent up inside of me every time I get hissed at and touched. I don't like that. I don't like the person that I have become from living here.
"I don't like living in fear."
The Peace Corps' presence in Cape Verde was problematic from the beginning.
Its entry into the islands in 1988 was "not adequately planned," says a 1993 report from the Peace Corps inspector general, who is charged with identifying waste, fraud and abuse in the agency. The report says that in an attempt to cut costs, Peace Corps accepted a local government request and initially sent no permanent supervisory staff.
A year after the first group of nine volunteers arrived, the inspector general reported that a volunteer was sexually assaulted twice by a local man. In 2000, 12 years after Peace Corps entered Cape Verde, the inspector general still found a need for additional staff to supervise volunteers and cited "the health and safety of the female volunteers as the primary issue at this post."
O'Neill, the former security director, said one assistant Peace Corps country director in Cape Verde was trying to supervise 52 volunteers scattered across different islands.
"Volunteers were not being properly supported, but the country director was praised because he saved money the year before," O'Neill said.
Ronit Levine of the Washington, D.C., area recalled that the safety training didn't prepare volunteers for the reality they faced.
"He showed us this map of areas which you should never go to around the capital city," said Levine, a volunteer in Cape Verde from 1996-1999. "They should have taken us in a car and driven us around showing us instead of just making a red triangle on the map of the city.
"We gave them feedback about that."
Cape Verde's own statistics show that the rates of crimes against persons and against property more than doubled from 1984 to 1998, the last year statistics were available.
Though the rates of some serious types of assaults against volunteers have gone down in the past couple of years, problems remain.
In 2002, Cape Verde still had the second highest rate of minor sexual assaults against volunteers, and volunteers reported the second highest rate of burglaries worldwide.
In 2001, the latest year this data was available, Cape Verde had the fourth highest rate of mental health problems and the second highest rate of "alcohol problems," defined as "situations in which a volunteer's behavior is altered or physical/mental acuity is impaired because of alcohol intoxication."
The actual crime rate against volunteers is higher, according to a 2000 report from the Peace Corps inspector general. The report found that crimes "frequently" are not reported and that half the volunteers who were crime victims said they didn't report the cases to the Peace Corps.
The unique architecture in the country made some volunteers more vulnerable.
Many of the houses have a "quintal," an open area at the end or even in the middle of the house an ideal place for intruders to enter.
Also contributing to the problem was the sexual makeup of volunteers: Almost 90 percent female, according to 2001 Congressional testimony.
"I am very white and blonde, and it was a shock because the culture is very Latin. I was terrified of the men," said Branda Scott of San Antonio, Texas, a 1994 Purdue University graduate who served in Cape Verde from 1996-2001. "There was a lot of attention. You would walk down the street and they'd hiss."
Concerned about what appeared to be an alarming number of assaults on female volunteers, a volunteer advisory committee in 2001 asked the Peace Corps to rethink the types of volunteers it was sending to Cape Verde, Temby Caprio said.
"In my time here, we specifically made suggestions, written suggestions to Washington and to the administration here to stop sending young, single women here fresh out of college," Caprio said. "And that's exactly what they sent here last year was a group of predominately young, single, just-graduated-from-college women."
SENSUAL CULTURE GETS SOME INTO TROUBLE
Like many volunteers, Jennifer Helton of Chula Vista, Calif., became enamored with the people and culture of Cape Verde.
And like some volunteers, her interest got her in trouble.
Helton was attending an outdoor festival when an intoxicated man she had refused to dance with followed her to a balcony. Helton, wearing a tank top, raised her arms as she moved away from the man, who then buried a lit cigarette into her armpit, causing minor burns to her arm and breast tissue.
About two months later, Helton was attending another party and was dancing with a local man she knew when a woman attacked her, grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the ground.
"I was dancing next to (a) man that had an interest in me, and they were dating or involved, and it was some fit of jealously," said Helton, who was sent to Cape Verde after being evacuated from Albania during political turmoil in 1997.
Helton and another woman at the party left the Peace Corps after the incident.
Volunteers in Cape Verde many having just left college found it easy to embrace the unique people and culture of the islands, where heavy drinking, intimate dancing and all-night parties are a way of life.
"It's like a little Brazil," said Mike Rupp of Boise, Idaho, a volunteer in Cape Verde from 1997 to 2000. "It's a very sensual, sexual culture: the dancing, the conversation, everything the way of dress.
"I just think it's just easy to get into that, and Americans get a lot of attention. They (female volunteers) get caught up in the attention and the smooth lines and all that stuff, and it's a problem."
Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, Mormon missionaries such as Matt Roberts and Timothy Lambson are required to travel in pairs, partly for safety reasons. The two men are walking through the Cape Verde capital of Praia.
By 2001, the way volunteers dressed and behaved in Cape Verde had caught the attention of Congress.
"The post permitted volunteers to dress and behave unprofessionally, affecting both performance and safety," Peace Corps Inspector General Charles D. Smith told a Congressional committee.
Drinking, too, was part of the culture that locals encouraged volunteers to adopt.
James Polachy recalled that his Cape Verdean co-worker encouraged him to drink at work.
"I would be working in city hall doing accounting work, and they ask me where the lead accountant is at," Polachy said. "I'm like, Well, he's at the bar. It's 10:30 in the morning. So I go to the bar, and he says, Have a drink. All right. Have another. All right. You come back to work about noon half-shot."
Alexandra Alvarez of Arlington, Va., who at age 22 went to Cape Verde a few months after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2000, said the Peace Corps reprimanded her for her heavy drinking and inappropriate dress. She said she was reported after another volunteer spotted her taking a shot of alcohol before going out to a club.
"For me, it was just like a ritual, putting on the music, getting in the mood and having a drink before I went out," Alvarez said. "Of course all the other volunteers that I was hanging out with during training, the girls were drinking just as much as I was."
In 1999, the inspector general recommended "immediate medical and psychological support" be sent to Cape Verde to reduce the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and to deal with the risk of rape and sexual assault on female volunteers.
Wally Swanson, who spent two years in Cape Verde shortly after graduating in 1996 from Middlebury College in Vermont, recalled that one female he had befriended was sent home for a drinking problem.
"I think the situation that person was involved in is probably the safety concern that a number of Peace Corps volunteers are in, where new volunteers are there as an outsider, a 20-something-year-old in a seemingly exotic place (where) there's a sort of feeling that, I'm in Disney World, Swanson said.
MALES USUALLY MAKE RELATIONSHIP DECISIONS
Claudio Roberto Semedo was on his way to get a haircut in the town of Sao Domingo when police arrested him in the rape of a young Peace Corps volunteer.
"I was in prison for eight months," said Semedo, who was freed after a court decided the evidence wasn't strong enough to convict him.
During an interview in Cape Verde last summer, the prosecutor said the volunteer, who graduated from college in Pennsylvania shortly before joining the Peace Corps, was raped, and he was appealing the decision.
Semedo and his defense attorney said the volunteer is lying and that Semedo had dated her for months. The volunteer, who did not want to be identified, acknowledged she knew Semedo.
"I was close to a family that lived across the street, and I did a lot with this family. And he was a family friend," she said.
Many of the problems in Cape Verde were linked to the relationships between volunteers and local men.
O'Neill said "training groupies" would wait at the training center for new volunteers to arrive.
"This is like fresh meat for these guys, and they come in there and they're all charming, nice looking and fit, and they come in there and they take them out to clubs and, you know, get them going," said O'Neill, who now oversees security for the international organization Save the Children.
Heather Van Deest of Johnstown, Ohio, which is northeast of Columbus, was sure she wasn't going to date any of the local men when she went to Cape Verde as a volunteer in July 1998.
"I saw what the culture was like, and this culture was not respectful to women," said Van Deest, who graduated from Miami University in 1994 and worked for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for nearly three years before joining Peace Corps.
"You don't know the type of person you're meeting. You don't know if they like you because of you or because you're American and they just want a ticket" to the United States.
But like many other female volunteers in Cape Verde, Van Deest eventually began dating a man she had met several times at her site in the city of Espargos on the island of Sal.
Of 17 female volunteers interviewed in 1999 by the Peace Corps inspector general, 14 were dating Cape Verdeans and two others acknowledged previous relationships, a 2000 report says.
"Volunteers admitted that romantic relationships with Cape Verdean men became a way to cope with their feelings of isolation and loneliness as well as with the ever-present harassment they experience," the report says.
"Female volunteers in relationships with Cape Verdean men may be at risk for sexual assault because of conflicting cultural understanding about such relationships."
Few of the volunteers involved in relationships with Cape Verdean men planned to maintain those relationships after the Peace Corps, the report said, and in a culture where males usually make decisions, this can lead to problems.
"In fact, volunteers reported that trying to terminate relationships had led to cases of sexual assault and/or rape of female volunteers," the report said.
In all four reported rapes in Cape Verde since 1990 and in five other sexual assaults, the attacker was identified as a former or current boyfriend or "friend/acquaintance," the Daily News analysis found.
One night in 2001, on the island of Sal, a volunteer agreed to go to a nightclub with a Cape Verdean man, who was supposed to pick her up at 12:30 a.m. He didn't show up on time, and he called at 3 a.m. wanting to apologize in person.
"He was drunk. It was clear," the volunteer said. "He pushed himself into my apartment.
"I didn't start screaming. I kind of just went out of my body and just like I just completely went limp. It was surreal, and I was so tired and disoriented."
The man then raped her, she said.
"As soon as he got off of me, I just ran and waited for him to get his stuff together and leave," she said.
EASIER TO BLAME VICTIMS OF ASSAULTS
Michelle Brown of Cumberland, Maine, while stationed in the small town of Igreja on the island of Fogo, awoke in her second-floor apartment in November 2000 to find a man with a knife standing next to her bed.
Then he jumped on her.
"He was trying to keep me quiet," said Brown, who joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Arizona State University in 1998. "I couldn't even speak for like three days because my voice was so hoarse from screaming."
The attacker fled when her roommate awoke.
Authorities identified the attacker as Joao Rosario Monteirode Pina, who is in his mid-30s and has a rap sheet dating back to 1992. Shortly after the attack on Brown, Pina was identified as the man who broke into a convent a few blocks away and began touching a sleeping 16-year-old girl who was visiting a nun.
"Whenever he gets out of jail, all the women get scared," said Sister Francisca Martins, who lives at the convent.
The Peace Corps, Brown said, had her write out a statement but didn't tell her what action they would take or keep her informed about the case.
Instead, after she later reported that a stalker had followed her to the school where she taught, Country Director Barbara Stahler asked her to consider how her own behavior contributed to the attacks, Brown said.
"The way that she handled it was horrendous, and then, to make matters worse, we tried calling Peace Corps Washington to get somebody to talk to her, assess how she was handling the situation, and we were totally blown off," Brown said.
During an interview at the tiny police station in the city of Igeja, Assistant Chief Carlos Lopes Teixeira said the Peace Corps representative who spoke to him about the attack on Brown also wanted to know about the volunteer's behavior.
During an interview in June 2002 on Fogo, Oscar Tauares, the government official in charge of prosecuting felony cases on the island, said the Brown case was assigned to local court, which can only hear cases with a potential sentence of two years or less. He said he had never been contacted by the Peace Corps about the possibility of prosecuting the Brown case as a serious felony crime.
"No one has ever come to me about anything from the Peace Corps," he said.
Judge Mario Marques said Pina was convicted of breaking and entering and sentenced to three months in the attack on Brown as part of a two-year sentence for various crimes.
"I wasn't aware that he had been convicted," Brown said. "No one in Peace Corps kept me informed of anything regarding the case."
The Peace Corps wouldn't comment about the Brown case, citing privacy concerns.
During the summer of 2002, Pina was in a small prison, being held on unrelated charges. Prison officials refused to let reporters question him about the attack on Brown.
In other cases, too, volunteers were not satisfied with efforts to prosecute their attackers.
Kirsten Taylor was the victim of an attempted sexual assault while a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde. Taylor credits the barking of her dog, Molly, in playing a role in foiling the attack. After her service, Taylor brought Molly home with her to Pueblo, Colo.
In the March 1998 attack on Kirsten Taylor of Colorado, the evidence also seemed strong.
On that day, Taylor's dog, Molly, started barking at a noise outside her apartment on the island of Brava. Taylor opened the door to find a man with a box over his head.
"I could smell alcohol on him, so I knew he was really drunk," Taylor said. "He slammed his body in the door so I couldn't shut it.
"He was choking me, and I was screaming. . . . He would have raped me and killed me. I know that."
As she shoved her hand in the door to prevent him from locking himself inside, the door cut two large gashes into her hand, spewing blood.
Joao Valdes Oliveira said he was watching television across the street when he heard Taylor's screams. When Oliveira yelled back to find out what was happening, the attacker fled.
Using the description provided by Taylor, police investigator Joao De Pina arrested a man named Joao Paulo who had bloodstained clothes at his home.
"I had no doubt it was him, and he was trying to rape her," De Pina said during an interview in his home last summer. "He's a delinquent, and we've had a lot of problems with him."
Taylor said she quit Peace Corps in September 1998 six months after the attack and a year before her service was to end because the agency wouldn't provide her with legal assistance to prosecute the man who attacked her.
"I could have dealt with the attack, but I couldn't deal with not having a lawyer," she said.
Taylor said her attacker was allowed to run errands while in jail, and she saw him on the streets sometimes.
In a 2 1/2-page letter to Taylor's mother, then-Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan said that the country director "discussed" a new site for Taylor but that she decided against moving. He said Taylor was given "prompt and frequent" attention from the medical staff, and that she was offered counseling in Washington, D.C., which she refused.
"The four cases which have occurred in Cape Verde over the past 20 months have been pursued vigorously and appropriately by staff and local officials," Gearan wrote.
An analysis of the Peace Corps Assault Notification and Surveillance System database shows that in the 20 months preceding the Oct. 16, 1998, letter, there were 11 assaults on volunteers in Cape Verde, including three rapes, two aggravated assaults and five other sexual assaults.
The Daily News sent the results of its analysis to Gearan at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, where he is college president. He did not respond.
In his letter to Mrs. Taylor, Gearan wrote that her daughter's attacker "was sentenced to two years in prison." In a written response to the Daily News, the Peace Corps, too, said he had been convicted.
But the chief investigator on the case, De Pina, said Paulo was found not guilty, and records from Cape Verde's 2nd Class Court in Fogo show that he was found not guilty of attempting to rape Taylor and was ordered released on Dec. 22, 1999. The court said Taylor's absence from the proceedings "greatly jeopardized" the outcome.
On Tuesday, with the assistance of the Daily News, Taylor spoke to both the judge and prosecutor. She said both confirmed to her that her attacker was not sentenced in her case.
Taylor said she was never made aware of the court decision.
"Overall, the Peace Corps has a happy 10-year record of success and good will in Cape Verde, perceived as such by volunteers and Cape Verdeans alike," Gearan wrote.
Ken McCall contributed to this story. Christine Willmsen is a former Dayton Daily News reporter.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 11.01.2003]
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To: Michelle Brown of Cumberland, Maine.
How are you doing? I remember running into you in the Portland YMCA pool in 98. Your name was still in my Rolodex, tonight, so just for laughs, I googled Michelle Brown, Peace Corps and read in Peace Corps Online about the horrible ordeal you went through in the Caoe Verde Islands. ==========
I hope you are happy at peace wherever you are. My recovery from my 1987 brain injury has been total. I never thought it could happen but I'm happier, now than I've ever been in my life. My photography business is helping conserve land around the State. I've even done aerial photography from a little single engine Cessna. But my real gig is hughchatfield.com I'll be submitting work to the museum in a few weeks. Thank you for your selfless efforts to help people. Be Well, hugh
By Melanie Carvalho (c-67-164-64-106.client.comcast.net - 184.108.40.206) on Monday, August 09, 2004 - 10:24 pm: Edit Post|
I just want to say that this article, in my opinion is totally one sided! Yes, there were aspects of life that were dangerous for female Peace Corps volunteers. I do not argue that this article is false. But there is another side to it. I was a female Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde from 1998-2000. I married a Cape Verdean man in 2000, and we've now been happily married for over four years. We now have a son together. Ask anyone, and they'll tell you that we make joint decisions, that he respects me, and that he would never take advantage of any woman. I know of several other couples with similar stories! Be careful when making generalizations, because they can be very hurtful to those other people!
By truth (66-44-1-16.s270.apx1.lnh.md.dialup.rcn.com - 220.127.116.11) on Friday, August 13, 2004 - 3:02 pm: Edit Post|
You are absolutely correct that these articles are one-sided. That was the direct intent of the reporters from the Dayton Daily News, Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood. They wanted to publish stories with no context that would hurt the reputation of the Peace Corps, while at the same time winning prizes for themselves for their so-called "journalism". (Even lies can be well written.) To see their photographs with President Bush at the White House go to www.whca.net It is too bad that there is not some organization in the U.S. that publicly condemns journalists who have no morals or ethics. If they had published falsehoods against an individual they would have been sued for slander/libel.