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David Blicker Finds It's Never Too Late for the Peace Corps
David Blicker Finds It's Never Too Late for the Peace Corps
Blicker Finds It's Never Too
Late for the Peace Corps
Blicker shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson at the commissioning of the Machakos Alternative Energy Training & Resource Center in Kenya.
David Blicker í61 first heard of the Peace Corps while working behind the scenes at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. ďThe idea intrigued me,Ē recalls Blicker, and when President John F. Kennedy formally announced the program a year later, Blicker considered signing up. But he was dissuaded by his family, and instead went to law school at UC Berkeley.
For 34 years, he practiced law in California, including working at The Legal Aid Society and in private practice on employment cases and with small businesses. By the mid-1990s, however, Blicker found himself burned out and unhappy with law ó and unable to forget the lure of the Peace Corps. In 1998, he applied, and in March 1999, he received a two-year assignment in Kenya. He sold his house, rented out his office building, put his belongings into storage and boarded a plane with two suitcases and a backpack. After extending his assignment an additional seven months, he returned to California earlier this year. He is deciding what to do next, and is considering returning to Africa. He does not plan to return to legal practice.
CCT: What did you do with the Peace Corps in Kenya?
Blicker: I worked on three or four major projects. One was working with a company of male wood carvers and female weavers to build its infrastructure, improve quality control, expand its product line and increase exports. I tried to instill in them many of the marketing techniques that weíre so used to. The groups went from $2,000 worth of business in 1999 to $35,000 in 2000; thatís more money than most families there see in a lifetime.
The project I became most involved in was developing a solar energy training center. I wondered, as I saw the sun shining every day and experienced the power outages, why there werenít more solar panels used to generate electricity. People were buying generators and running them on petrol. Students were using kerosene lamps, which is unhealthful and unsafe. Eighty-three percent of Kenyans have no electricity.
I learned that the existing solar systems were costly and inefficient. Local electricians werenít trained, and the solar units were improperly sized, installed and maintained. I ended up calling on the resources of the Machakos Technical Training Institute to start a formal training program for electricians in best practices for solar energy installation and use. I e-mailed my friends at home and raised more than $5,000 for training. And when I came back to New York for my 40-year reunion, Marty Kaplan í61 suggested that I do a grant application to a foundation with which he was involved. We got $35,000 from that, and also received an $8,000 grant from the U.S. ambassadorís office.
We built a resource library, set up an Internet connection and built a mobile demo unit for rural outreach. The center and training program has funding to keep it going for another two years, and I hope to see that extended. Iím still involved with it now that Iím back home, and Iím working on plans to replicate it elsewhere.
CCT: How was Kenya different from what you expected?
Blicker: My assignment was not as rural as I expected. My notion was that I would be living in a small village with no water, roads or electricity, and no organized government services or structures. Once I got to Kenya, I realized I was far from out at the end of the world. [Kenya is] on the cusp of falling over into a second-world country. After 11 weeks of training, I was stationed in Machakos, which is a nice town. It has its sanitation and power problems, but itís not like living in a small village.
CCT: What were your living conditions?
Blicker: I rented the upstairs portion of a house, which I was lucky to find. The apartment was clean and airy and had all of the conveniences, but none of them worked. There was no electricity for three months. I was living with candles and getting into an ďup with the sun and down with the sunĒ lifestyle. I invested in a small refrigerator and a two-burner propane gas range. There was plumbing, when it worked. The problem was water ó many times there was no water for three or four days in a row.
CCT: How did you stay connected to the rest of the world?
Blicker: I read Kenyan newspapers, which are mostly in English, and The Economist. There was no Internet connection when I arrived, and phone calls were prohibitively expensive. After about six months, an Internet café opened, which was very pricey and unreliable ó but it was the Internet. You could write e-mails in the store, and they were forwarded once a day to Africa Online in Nairobi, except when they didnít pay their phone bill, and then nothing came through. About every week or 10 days, I got out to Nairobi, about an hour away by bus, and went to a cyber-café there. Then, in the last six months that I was there, we got an Internet service provider in Machakos, so we had more regular service. Also, by the time I left, I had a cell phone, which dramatically improved my communication, and also increased my work. I could get calls from abroad ó that was truly amazing. You canít do that reliably with a landline, which is why I think landlines will not be expanded in Kenya.
CCT: Would you recommend the Peace Corps to others?
Blicker: Yes, especially to someone who is interested in living with other people pretty much how they live. What you can accomplish depends on how responsive the community is. My biggest advice to other volunteers would be to lower your expectations. The Peace Corps is not without its problems, including all kinds of administrative and bureaucratic issues, but it's a wonderful, eye-opening experience, whether you're 21 or 64.