November 22, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Guest Commentaries: Tanzania RPCV Malte vonMatthiesse says Harsh realities may block vision of Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: October 26, 2003: Dayton Daily News reports on Peace Corps Safety and Security: Guest Commentary: November 22, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Guest Commentaries: Tanzania RPCV Malte vonMatthiesse says Harsh realities may block vision of Peace Corps

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Sunday, November 30, 2003 - 3:28 pm: Edit Post

Tanzania RPCV Malte vonMatthiesse says Harsh realities may block vision of Peace Corps

Tanzania RPCV Malte vonMatthiesse says Harsh realities may block vision of Peace Corps

Harsh realities may block vision of Peace Corps

Americans no longer considered friends in many places

By Malte vonMatthiessen

John F. Kennedy's vision that was hatched on the steps at the University of Michigan may not be able to co-exist with the realities of today's world.

His idea for the Peace Corps was born during a different time a time of optimism and can-do enthusiasm. When the organization came into being in 1961, it inspired a generation of young people who passionately believed that they could make a difference. We were going to change the world.

The hard truth, though, is that the world in 2003 is vastly different than it was in the early 60s. Back then, there was a certain innocence. Newly emerging nation states were celebrating independence and looked to the United States for leadership and support; the United States was part of a network of multinational organizations that we helped to organize.

There was no media contagion (most folks in the developing world had no access to television and movies and there were no Internet cafes).

The Dayton Daily News' "Casualties of Peace" series has brought into the open what many of us have known for a long time. I remember sitting next to a former director of the Peace Corps discussing this very issue in the early 90s. The subject of risk, exposure to physical harm, rape and even death dominated the conversation. Many Peace Corps defenders pretend that these threats don't exist.

My time in Tanzania as a volunteer was a life-transforming event, as it has been for most Peace Corps volunteers. While I'm not sure that I (or many of us) truly made a difference, we changed.

I came to understand the importance of giving unselfishly; and I came home devoted to trying to make my community a better place. My time in Africa also taught me to be a risk-taker, to embrace change.

I really don't think the risk/reward tradeoff has changed all that much since the 60s. But there is this difference:

Americans are no longer viewed as a friend in many places, and, in others, we're no longer welcome at all. In many developing countries, Americans live behind walls, have armed escorts and ride around in bullet-proof vehicles.

When I was in Tanzania, a female Peace Corps volunteer was murdered. The crime was never solved. In 1967, a member of our Peace Corps group disappeared in the bush while on a medical project. Sadly, the circumstances surrounding that event point directly at negligence on the part of in-country Peace Corps administrators. The volunteer was never found.

Yes, we were allowed to roam about the country. We were careless, and it was a miracle more of us weren't harmed. Yes, there was heavy alcohol consumption and drug abuse and "free living." We were robbed, physically attacked; and we got sick.

Herein lies what I call the "Peace Corps paradox." We survived. And many from our ranks went on to lead successful lives and productive high-profile careers. I suspect that fact has contributed to the mythology of the Peace Corps culture.

Just because some of us who were out there years ago still dream about a perfect world doesn't mean we can ignore the realities of today's world. We can't overlook the pain and suffering that volunteers and their families have endured. We can't keep insisting that the myth, the ideals, are all that matter.

After all, while the myth still persists here at home, it no longer exists outside the United States.

Consider Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari and George Parker's article in The New Yorker, "Gangsta War; Letters from the Ivory Coast."

Both men, who are fromer Peace Corps volunteers, paint a vivid and shocking portrait of Africa in the 21st century countries where there is no rule of law; where armed gangs of young boys roam the countryside, killing and raping and plundering communities. Urban areas have become battle zones. HIV, disease and poverty are rampant.

Each and every Peace Corps volunteer in these countries is at significant risk.

Maybe it's time to have a big goodbye party in Washington, to celebrate and cry together.

I loved being a Peace Corps volunteer. I love Africa and its people. They changed my life. But we're not being fair to the young folks today who face danger and death; and we're not being truthful with ourselves.

We need to have an honest dialogue. At the very least, I would advocate that we convene current and former administrators and volunteers to explore options. Who knows what the outcome would be.

But, certainly, to advocate that we should expand the Peace Corps and increase the number of volunteers are foolish ideas. First, we must talk truthfully.

Malte vonMatthiessen was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania from 1966-69. He served on the board of directors of the National Peace Corps Association from 1992-93. A Yellow Springs resident, he is chairman of the board of YSI Inc.

[From the Dayton Daily News: 11.22.2003]

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Story Source: Dayton Daily News: Guest Commentaries

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Investigative Journalism; COS - Tanzania



By ( - on Sunday, November 30, 2003 - 7:42 pm: Edit Post

Malte VonMatthiessen Thank you for your article. I agree there needs to be a tremendous done to make Peace Corps stronger during this generation.

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