May 25, 2003 - Sylva Herald: Stoddard begins fourth tour as Peace Corps volunteer in Africa

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Lesotho: Peace Corps Lesotho : The Peace Corps in Lesotho: May 25, 2003 - Sylva Herald: Stoddard begins fourth tour as Peace Corps volunteer in Africa

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Stoddard begins fourth tour as Peace Corps volunteer in Africa

Stoddard begins fourth tour as Peace Corps volunteer in Africa

Stoddard begins fourth tour as Peace Corps volunteer in Africa
By Rose Hooper

"She died with her sneakers on. That's what I want people to say about me - someday in the distant future when I am gone."

So says Pat Stoddard of Barkers Creek, who squirmed uncomfortably in the spotlight of attention. She attempted to sum up her life for an interview conducted as she completed last-minute packing for another Peace Corps adventure to Africa.

Stoddard is a study in contrasts: A tightly-wound bundle of energy, yet sitting quietly on the couch, so delicate in stature she appears frail, grudgingly giving up gems from her bag of lifetime experiences, gems you soon realize reflect a remarkable and multi-faceted tapestry of life.
And she can't stop the delight that occasionally bubbles up from inside her and manifests in a wide, toothy grin as she begins to tell her story. It isn't that she doesn't want to share the story of her life; it just seems a little like bragging and not that remarkable to her way of thinking. She doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

As if it's routine for a 70-year-old woman to close up her house, loan out her car, arrange a cat-sitter, and fly off to Africa, alone, to begin her fourth tour as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"I've always been something of a rambling rose," she explained, having been a student in 27 different schools as the daughter of a migrant engineer. "I was born in 1931 during the Depression and lived in California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Florida."

After college she became a symphonic violinist, traveling with an orchestra until marriage clipped her musical wings. She settled into married life, had two children, and taught school in Florida for 20 years until her children were properly raised.

"The minute everyone was raised, a wild longing came over me," she said. "The first thing I did was sign up for Outward Bound." (Outward Bound is a strenuous outdoor survival program.)

"I nearly killed myself in Outward Bound. It was nine days of torture and backpacking led by a slave-driving, female, ex-Army master sergeant," she said. At age 60, Stoddard was the oldest in the group, yet she was the first to come in from a hike, which was actually a 7-mile fast run.

"I hated that master sergeant," Stoddard said, "but apparently she saw something special in me because she took me aside and said gruffly, ?Go find out about the Peace Corps.'" The thought, she said, had never occurred to her.

"The one thing I learned in Outward Bound was ?what's going to happen is going to happen, and we should let life evolve as it should.' I was teaching in Tallahassee at the time, and, out of the blue was told my school was going to make cutbacks, so I offered to be let go and signed up for Peace Corps. My family thought I'd lost my marbles," she said, laughing at the memory.

Single by that time and being pulled by a sense of adventure and love of the unknown, all Stoddard only had to sell her house to sever ties.

"I sold it myself," she said proudly. "I set out fresh flowers and had muffins baking so the smell filled the house. I sold it to the first two people who looked at it."

Stoddard's first African Peace Corps tour began a fascinating journey of service for the petite adventurer. "I've learned I operate best with challenges," she said. "I've always been a ?service' person. I need to be able to serve." While her job in Africa has been generally the same during each tour of duty, she has gone to a different area each time. She develops early childhood programs, training teachers, presenting workshops and making model lesson plans, "seeking to remedy the evil legacies left by the educational policies of the now abandoned Apartheid system."

If the jobs are similar, the different parts of Africa in which she has served are not. The terrain in South Africa, where she did her first tour, was completely different from Lesotho in Central Africa, where she did her last tour. In Lesotho she had 39 teachers to oversee in seven different schools.

She would take public transportation to the schools if it was available ? generally a lorry jammed with people, chickens and goats. One of the schools, however, was 10 miles away over the mountains, and the best way there was by foot. Lesotho, located in the south central part of Africa, is one of two kingdoms left in the world. More than a mile high in elevation, it also has some of the most severely eroded soil in the world. The long path to the school barely clung to the edge of the mountains and was covered in scree, small slippery flat rocks that made standing difficult, not to mention treacherous for walking.

She may have ridden a horse to shorten the journey, but the thought of being that high off the ground with the possibility of the horse slipping and plunging off the edge frightened her into walking the entire distance.

On days she went to the school, usually twice a month, she stuffed her teaching supplies into a knapsack and picked her way gingerly along the trail and across two rivers until she arrived at the school.

"The first time I crossed the river, I fell in," she said, laughing. "The native children would run fearlessly along this horribly steep path, barefooted in the rocks. They were masters at leaping from rock to rock to cross the river."

In spite of the terrain, walking the 10 miles to the school took her only 2 1/2 hours. Between Peace Corps stints she walks several miles each day near her home in Barkers Creek to keep in shape for her African adventures.

Daily life in Africa is primitive compared to even the most modest American standards, Stoddard said, yet the simplicity never seemed a hardship for her.

"We are over civilized in America," she said. In her three tours of duty with the Peace Corps, her living accommodations ranged from a fairly modern flat to a concrete and mud hut with a thatched roof.

"I never had a flush toilet, water or electricity," she said. "Mostly my toilet was just a hole in the ground with a small, thatched hut built around it. I was given an oil lamp by the Peace Corps to use for lighting."

Carrying water is a way of life in Africa, and bathing consisted of a sponge bath from a pail, often in very chilly conditions, even though her hut was heated with a kerosene stove.

"I wore lots of layers in the winter," she said, "and you dreaded taking everything off at the same time to bathe." Since it is legal to bring seeds into the country, Stoddard took eggplant and summer squash seeds with her when she went to Sierra Leone. She carefully tended her own little garden of these strange looking plants, much to the amusement of the locals.

In Lesotha, the locals raised cows and goats, which only the rich people could afford to eat. They also made mohair from the goats and made a curdled dairy product from the milk. Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to consume dairy products in Africa for health reasons. Meat markets consist of freshly butchered animal parts hanging outside in the open and covered with flies, she said.

Occasionally she was the only American in her village. "You have to get to a bigger town occasionally just to eat some different food, see people and speak English," she said. "I'd try to go about once a month, but it was difficult to bring back many supplies because the only way I had to carry things was in my backpack."

The lack of diversity in food is often a problem for Americans going into an African country, Stoddard said. The natives eat lots of rice or corn, depending on the location. Corn is roasted over a "three stone fire," (the stones hold the cooking pot over the flames) making parched corn, which, unlike popped corn, is hard and crunchy. Chicken is eaten only on special occasions. Every meal consists of "pounded rice" (also known as "mealy meal"), which had been laboriously ground to a powder in a mortar and pestle, and cooked.

During the summer vegetable season, wild greens are chopped and soaked in palm oil and eaten on rice ? a delicacy that made Stoddard's cholesterol count skyrocket by the time she came back to the U.S.

Part of the problem with Americans going into this land is they often can't get past the awfulness ? such as the primitive living conditions or seeing wives and animals being publicly abused ? to see the good things about a basic simple life, she said.

And occasionally, the African people are not immediately accepting of these Peace Corps strangers. "Sometimes I would go two months without seeing another white person. In my last position, a telephone was a two-hour lorry ride away."

In spite of the hardships, Stoddard said the culture is fascinating, and she has ultimately made good and lasting friendships there. She especially loved the children. Sadly, she says, about three-quarters of Peace Corps volunteers are right out of college, and the shock is so great they never get into the local culture.

The real culture shock did not occur when she went into a unknown and remote African village, she said. It was re-entering the U.S. after having been gone two years. After the peace and quiet of a Third World country, just the hustle and bustle and noise of America is hard to take.

"TV has horrified me since I came back. I don't watch it," she said. "And one American family's garbage would feed a whole village in Africa."

She can't help comparing the conspicuous consumerism of American children with the African children. "With the condition of some of the schools, you wouldn't think they would learn, but they do amazing things."

Schools in Africa are often open-air structures, where the students sit together at long benches. No one ever gets a whole pencil ? new pencils are cut into several pieces, with each student getting a stub. And, lacking pencil sharpeners, the students become adept at gnawing off a sharp point with their teeth.

"A Peace Corps tour certainly widens your vision. It is a mind-widening experience, then you come home and find minds here have not been widened, and you run smack into it," she said.

"If you want to transmit what you've learned there, you can't say it, you have to model it. Your job as a Peace Corps volunteer is to go and experience another culture, then bring that culture back for Americans to experience."

The predominate goal of the Peace Corps volunteer is motivation and testing strengths, allowing unrestricted creativity that no other job can offer, Stoddard said.

"Your growth is phenomenal and you can do so much good in a community. It's the perfect vehicle for getting things done. The spiritual part of you grows, and you have all this time to expand. You have time to contemplate," she said. Between Peace Corps tours, Stoddard continues her life of service by becoming an Americorps-VISTA member ? a Peace Corps sister organization, which provides volunteer opportunities in the U.S.

This past year she completed her third year of VISTA service, the maximum allowed, by serving as VISTA team leader in Jackson County, working at the Family Resource Center in Webster.

Editor's Note: Stoddard will share her latest adventure with periodic reports to The Sylva Herald.

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Story Source: Sylva Herald

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