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Bill Kendall follows in father's footsteps to Peace Corps in Benin
Bill Kendall follows in father's footsteps to Peace Corps in Benin
Son follows in father's footsteps to Peace Corps in Africa
By Cathy Conley / email@example.com
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Bill Kendall was standing on a street drinking a Coke and listening to Johnny Cash singing "I Walk the Line."
It was 30 years ago. The street corner was in a rural hamlet in Ghana, Africa. Bill was a Peace Corps volunteer.
Today, three decades later, his son Jon is walking the same line. He left yesterday to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, Africa, not far from where his father was stationed.
The scene of Bill Kendall drinking Coke and listening to Cash was a rare interlude with western civilization during the two years he was in Ghana.
"Coca Cola was everywhere, but music was rare. We couldn't get American music. We only had a two-way radio," said Kendall, a Weymouth resident and head of mathematics and technology for the Braintree school system.
Bill was one of six Boston College graduates who entered the Peace Corps in 1971.
"I was drawn to the Peace Corps by John F. Kennedy. He was the spark. There was an idealism in the sixties, a different feeling," he said.
Bill can't remember why six BC graduates were drawn to the Peace Corps at the same time, but it was the largest contingent from any college in the country. Half of the group didn't last the two-year commitment.
"The Peace Corps asks that you stay two years. Volunteers must leave after five years," Bill said.
Bill taught math in high school. He lived in a boarding school with the students, an austere three-decker concrete structure with running water and three hours of electricity. Twenty to 30 teachers lived in the building. Bill was the only one from the Peace Corps.
He was paid the salary of an African teacher.
The classrooms were equally austere with nothing more than desks, chairs, and a blackboard.
"There were no screens on the windows," Bill said. "Birds would fly in and an occasional pet pig might visit."
The school day began at 7 a.m. and went until 3 p.m. Students returned to a three-hour study hall in the evening.
The students were from middle to upper class families. They were thirsty for knowledge.
"The kids were so excited to learn," Bill said. "They begged for extra classes.
"Education was the only way to move ahead. There were no start up businesses, no part-time jobs, no rock stars, no athlete stars.
"We used old English textbooks. Teaching conditions were difficult, but not primitive.
"I cut my teeth for the MCAS exams in Ghana because students had to take a high stakes test to graduate. I had to prepare my kids to pass a national exam. We had to use different textbooks for the syllabus. I learned from the master teachers how to do this. When the MCAS came, I had experience from my Peace Corps days. It was like payback."
Temperatures soared during the dry season. Rain poured during the wet season
"We had no thermometers so we didn't know the temperature, but it was definitely in the hundreds in the dry season," Bill said.
Diet was mainly fu-fu, a mixture of plantain, yams and cassava mashed together into a ball and placed in peanut soup.
"It was a starchy diet. Every once in a while, a butcher would slaughter a goat and we'd have some meat," Bill said.
Health was a prime concern while Bill was in Ghana.
"There were no doctors if you got sick," he said. "I got tape worm and dysentery. It was from the water and the food. I lost 20 pounds. I went into the Peace Corps at 150 and came out at 120."
Trucks were the only means of transportation. Drivers made their living transporting people around the tiny rural hamlets.
"They were like airport limousines with a lot of people in them, but they weren't limos in looks," Bill said.
What did Bill miss most while he was in Ghana 30 years ago?
"Movies, books, my friends, and music," he said.
"I loved my experience in the Peace Corps. It was an adventure. Every day was new and exciting. You were a big celebrity. Everyone wanted to be with you.
"The Peace Corps tells you that re-entry back into the United States is harder than entering the Third World culture. They're right.
"You're not a celebrity anymore. You look at America in a different light. You look at the incredible affluence in this country and think of the good people you met without anything.
"I see leftover food at a banquet, and I think of the people who don't have enough to eat. The Peace Corps changes you, and it lasts a lifetime."
When Bill returned from the Peace Corps, he got a job as a math teacher at Braintree High School. He has been there ever since.
"At the end of my first year in my evaluation, Headmaster John LeRoy wrote, 'Mr. Kendall has adapted to not being in Africa,'" Bill said.
As Bill prepared to say farewell to his son this week, he reminisced about saying goodbye to his own father 30 years ago.
"We were an Old Yankee household. We didn't discuss feelings, but I did notice that my mother couldn't come to Logan Airport when I left," he said.
Bill is able to express the emotions he feels about his son's adventure. He's worried and he's proud.
"I know some of the things he will face, but I'm very proud of what he's doing," Bill said. "It's overwhelming how proud I am."
Some things will be different for his son.
Jon will be able to get national news and send emails from internet cafes set up throughout the country.
"I even saw an official from Ghana on the news, talking on a cell phone," Bill said.
Bill was in an English speaking country, but French is the language in Benin.
Jon's attraction to the Peace Corps began when he was a child.
"I began thinking about going to the Peace Corps when I was about 10 or 11. My dad was always talking about it. A lot of his Peace Corps colleagues visited and reminisced about it," said Jon, a 1999 Weymouth High School graduate who just received his degree in marketing from Syracuse University in May.
"I applied for the Peace Corps on line in the fall and said that West Africa was my first choice.
"I wanted to be immersed in a different culture and gain a more worldly experience.
"I want to look back on my life when I'm older and feel that I did something that was worthwhile for all humanity."
Jon was interviewed at Syracuse in December. He was nominated in January.
"I was so excited," he said. "I called my family right away."
Before Jon was accepted, he had to be tutored in French for 20 lessons, and he himself had to tutor students for 10 weeks.
He chose to tutor inner city students, getting them ready for the New York exams: the Empire State's equivalent of MCAS.
"I enjoyed it once I got my feet wet," Jon said.
Health and dental exams followed.
Finally, on April 24, a huge packet arrived at Syracuse. Jon was accepted to the Peace Corps. Destination: Benin, Africa.
On Tuesday, Jon left from Logan, just like his father did 30 years ago. He was scheduled to touch down in Philadelphia and Paris and then go on to Cotonou in Benin.
Jon will live with a host family for three months, immersing himself in the language and the culture.
In October, he will be given his teaching assignment.
Jon will be given a salary comparable to a four-person household. $225 will be put in his bank account by the Peace Corps.
'I don't know if I will be in a rural or a city school," he said.
Wherever it is, the temperature will soar to 113 degrees, and there is no air conditioning.
"Luckily, I like hot weather," Jon said.
His only worries are sickness and loneliness.
"Everybody gets dysentery because of the food and water," Jon said. "The Peace Corps teaches you how to purify the water You just worry about getting very sick."
He hopes to ward off loneliness by making friends with the staff and the students at his school.
Jon also plans to communicate often with his parents and girlfriend by email.
His mother and father are going to visit him at Christmas, and he hopes to meet his girlfriend in Europe next year for a trip together.
Jon was allowed to carry 80 pounds of luggage on his trip.
"I'm taking a short wave radio, a CD player and batteries, a Swiss knife, a poncho for the rainy season, three years supply of underwear and socks, but very little clothing," he said. " I'll buy clothes when I get there."
What Jon thinks he'll miss most are "constant electricity and the easy access to good food."
Now Jon takes his place, like his father before him, as one of the 153,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have served in 134 countries across the world during the past 42 years.