December 29, 2004: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: Vegetarians: Politics: Political Nuetrality: San Antonio Current : When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. "The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian," recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. "I said 'yes'."

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkmenistan: Peace Corps Turkmenistan : The Peace Corps in Turkmenistan: December 29, 2004: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: Vegetarians: Politics: Political Nuetrality: San Antonio Current : When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. "The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian," recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. "I said 'yes'."

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Saturday, January 01, 2005 - 3:48 pm: Edit Post

When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. "The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian," recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. "I said 'yes'."

When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian, recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. I said 'yes'.

When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. "The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian," recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. "I said 'yes'."

A delicate neutrality

By Lisa Sorg 12/29/2004

Caption: Former Peace Corps volunteer Laura Booher spent two years in Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic, where she taught English as a foreign language. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

What is the role of the Peace Corps in a bellicose world?

When Laura Booher interviewed for the Peace Corps, the most difficult question pertained not to her political or religious views, but her dietary habits. "The woman interviewing me asked if I was a vegetarian," recalls Booher, who returned to San Antonio last month after serving for two years in Turkmenistan. "I said 'yes'."

"Then she asked me, 'If a whole village sacrifices a cow for you, are you going to eat it?' And I didn't know."

Despite the strange food, pit toilets, and rural isolation, Booher joined the Peace Corps for the same reasons that many volunteer choose to surrender two years of their lives to a foreign and farflung locale: They have a sense of wanderlust and a willingness to work toward empowering impoverished communities. And when the volunteers return, as have Booher and several of her fellow San Antonians, many are intrinsically changed - for the better.

In the Peace Corps' 43-year history, the agency's goals haven't changed: to reduce poverty, engage in cross-cultural exchange, and educate others about America. Although volunteers are required to remain politically neutral while abroad, the Peace Corps itself is subject to domestic and foreign political pressures.

So when Peace Corps volunteers enter an international stage where their mission can conflict with the United States' actions abroad, such as the war in Iraq, do they serve as goodwill ambassadors or as extensions of its foreign policy?

The answer: Both.

Neutral volunteers, polarized governments

Booher's village did cook a cow in her honor, although she didn't eat it, which took a lot of explaining. "My training host mother called me crazy," she laughs. "I was glad the interviewer asked me the question."

More than 5,300 Texans have served in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961. Booher joined the Corps after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina. After 9/11, the Peace Corps evacuated its volunteers from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic that borders AfgHansistan and Iran, and Booher's group reopened the program in the predominantly Muslim region in the fall of 2002.

"A lot of people had never met an American," says Booher, a Churchill High School graduate. "Some people weren't used to foreigners. I had rocks thrown at me twice."

Nonetheless, Booher's host family warmly received her, and she became a celebrity in the village. She taught English as a foreign language in four schools to fellow teachers and children at the behest of the Turkmenistan government, which often sent mixed messages about the importance of the program. "There was a big push from the president to learn English, yet he cut English programs while I was there. To do a summer English camp I had to ask and ask and ask for permission."

Projects often progress in fits and starts. Occasionally, Booher would organize a teaching seminar, but no one would show up. "It was a little discouraging," she says, but by the second year Booher had helped the community establish an English center with 300 books.

Paraguayan boys play in a rural village. Andrea Hansis Diarte and Kathleen Stellema volunteered in the Peace Corps in the South American country: Diarte as a rural health worker and Stellema in marketing for cooperatives.
Yet, teaching English has been politicized within the Peace Corps. In the book, The Politics of the Peace Corps and VISTA, author T. Zane Reeves writes that during the Carter administration, when liberal political appointees wrestled power away from conservatives, Sam Brown, the left-of-center director of ACTION, an umbrella organization over the Peace Corps and VISTA, opposed TEFL in part because it hinted at cultural imperialism.

"In most countries where illiteracy rates were high, English was taught to a small elite. Brown charged that teaching English was 'not a fundamental task of development' and ordered the planned TEFL programs be scrapped," Reeves wrote. The programs were later reinstated because host countries viewed English as the key to participating in the global marketplace, and requested the TEFL programs.

This type of political maneuvering has occurred when administrations have used political appointees to create a conservative or liberal climate within the Peace Corps - much to the chagrin of volunteers and staff who want the Corps to stay neutral. During the Nixon era, conservatives tilted the Corps to the right through recruiting practices and programming; during Carter, liberals tugged the agency in the other direction.

Peace Corps spokesman Jesus García began working at the agency during the Clinton administration. Under Bush, García says, "the mission is still the same. For example, we're not told 'You can't talk about condoms [in health programs],' but we do discuss other issues, such as abstinence."

Volunteers do not, as a general rule, discuss politics. Political neutrality is one of the Peace Corps' founding precepts and insulates the agency against accusations of meddling in foreign countries' affairs. "We ask them not to be involved in any political or human rights causes when they're abroad," says García. "We're there with agreements with the government. We're not there to proselytize."

Neutrality isn't always possible. San Antonian Kathleen Stellema, who served as a marketing volunteer in Paraguay from 1991-93, says it was difficult to avoid political conversations in Pilar, a rural but progressive village near the Argentina border. "People asked me questions," she recalls. "I would always say, 'This is my opinion; I don't speak for the organization.' But whatever you do is seen as national."

Tom Hansis served in Honduras as a community development volunteer from 1969-71, during the Vietnam War. Even in rural Central America he fielded questions from campesinos, who learned about the war on the radio, about his stance on the conflict. "I was surprised at the level of sophistication in the countryside about the war," says Hansis. "I told them it was a difficult situation and tried to present both sides of the argument."

There seems to be a slight, albeit implict, softening of the neutrality policy in some regions of the world. San Antonian Andrea Hansis Diarte served in Ycua Satí, Paraguay, from 1995-97 as a rural health extension officer; she notes that volunteers in Paraguay can educate communities about the democratic process, such as conducting a town hall meeting, which would have been forbidden a decade ago.

Aside from major political upheavals - coups, wars, botched elections - international politics don't affect everyday life for volunteers, says Stellema, adding, "but money allocated to programs and funding, yes."

She cited Brazil as an example of a country that has refused to accept Peace Corps volunteers because USAID, another federal assistance agency, offers similar programming, with fewer strings attached. "The perception is that the countries want the money but not the opinion on how to spend it," Stellema says. "USAID implements the same projects, but on a grander scale. They have a budget. We have to build a well without money and they get $500,000 to build 30 wells. But when you're dealing with a country, one offer is, 'You get money and a USAID agent. The other is no money and 20 volunteers.' But with the Peace Corps you get people-to-people connections."

While volunteers are expected to remain neutral, the international dynamic often is not. In The Bold Experiment: John Kennedy's Peace Corps, author Gerald Rice notes that when President Kennedy launched the idea in 1960, it was partially in response to the Cold War. "The original study was authorized under the terms of the Mutual Security Act, which sought to 'maintain the security of the U.S and the free world from Communist aggression and thereby maintain peace.'"

At different junctures in Peace Corps history, the U.S. has benefited from placing volunteers in certain areas. Reeves, author of Politics in the Peace Corps and Vista, writes that under Reagan, "conservatives believed that properly educated volunteers should support the legitimate aims of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Central America," where the number of volunteers was increasing.

Host countries can also have a political agenda in their requests for particular projects and types of volunteers. The Peace Corps recently opened its first Mexico program after the Mexican government invited highly skilled Corps volunteers to help with water management and other environmental projects in three cities, including industrialized San Luis Potosí.

Meanwhile, the Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas suffer Third World conditions but the Mexican government did not request Peace Corps volunteers for those areas. Considering the strife between the Mexican government and indigenous people in the south, it raises questions why the Mexican government doesn't invite the Corps to empower those impoverished areas.

A primary goal of the Peace Corps is to "show people another side of America," says spokesman Jesus García. "Even if our country has something else going on the other side of the world."

That "something else," the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has generated anti-American sentiment in many regions, making the Peace Corps a valuable foreign policy tool for mollifying international criticism. Yet, some former Peace Corps volunteers question whether the Corps can accomplish its goals when the U.S. government contradicts the agency's tenets.

Dick Lipzer, who served in Ethiopia from 1962-64, wrote in a newsletter geared toward gay and lesbian former Peace Corps volunteers: "Does the Peace Corps have a future in the age of American imperialism? Can an organization whose job has always been in an almost literal sense 'preemptive peace' function at all in a time of 'preemptive war?'"

Although Turkmenistan is relatively close to one of the world's hotspots, Booher says she encountered no hostility as a result of the Iraqi war or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. "They're removed from what's going on," Booher says. Turkmenistan President Sapamyrat Nyyazow is a dictator whose face, which resembles Wayne Newton, is plastered on buildings, billboards, even bottles of vodka. He also renamed the months of the year after his family members. "Some people have satellite TV," Booher adds. "But if they have only Turkman TV, they have four channels of people singing and dancing about the president."

Politics aside, the rewards

Excitement, boredom, esprits de corps, loneliness: Peace Corps volunteers typically experience a wide range of emotions during their two years. During training, says Stellema, who, like Hansis and Diarte, temporarily returned to the Peace Corps after their service as trainers, it is important to tell prospective volunteers to expect some difficulty in adapting.

"You'll experience your highest highs and your lowest lows in the Peace Corps," says Stellema. "Despite the lows and complications, the reward, what you bring back, you can't measure that."

Hansis entered the Peace Corps with the expectation to "save the world." And as was common in many young men in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hansis received a Vietnam War deferment for joining the Peace Corps. "It was better than going to the Armed forces."

Hansis encountered institutional barriers on his first assignment in rural Honduras, and asked to be transferred to the capital, where his assignment, which was more successful, was to visit coops throughout the country and teach people business concepts, such as calculating interest.

Peace Corps volunteers are trained to create institutional structures and foundations that will exist after their service. It is important not only to do, but also to achieve a more permanent result. "The host country person actively tried to do little," Hansis recalls. "I felt resistance. He was a political hack, but not everyone was like him."

Had he not been reassigned, Hansis says, he might have left the Peace Corps early.

Some Peace Corps volunteers leave before their two years is up, known as "early termination." "They say, 'I've done all could,'" explains Diarte, "or they have family emergencies, they broke rules, or they're not adapting."

Although Peace Corps volunteers often become celebrities in their communities, it can be a lonely job. "It's a different kind of loneliness because you're surrounded by people," Diarte says. "Sometimes you feel like you're not being utilized to your full potential. There's a different pace of work you're not used to."

In a typical day, Diarte would rise to the sound of roosters crowing, start a fire, eat breakfast, work, and come home for lunch. Yet, if it rained, which is common in South America, "nothing happened."

As a rural health extension worker, Diarte helped convince community members to pay for running water, which involved giving money, working with fellow villagers, and providing labor and materials. "It's about empowering people, asking them, 'Is this something we need?' I went house to house and asked people, 'Would you be interested in running water?' The majority of the women said yes; most of the men said no."

Stellema, served as a marketing volunteer for cooperatives in Paraguay, and later trained business leaders, farmers, and the local police in public relations. She arrived in the country in 1991, just two years after the country's dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, who had been in power for more than 35 years, was ousted in a coup and replaced by the U.S.-backed General Andrés Rodriguez.

A communications specialist, she initially learned that the culture allowed for little, if any freedom of speech or expression.

"Forty years of a dictatorship creates a certain atmosphere," Stellema says. "In terms of how people communicate, they didn't say no to anything because they didn't know who the enemy was."

After the 1993 democratic election, Stellema notes, " there was a younger generation that could discuss politics; they were now saying 'no.' I was amazed at the impact communication has on national policy and vice versa."

While government bureaucrats engage in political tug of wars, the four former Peace Corps volunteers credit their service with transforming their lives and instilling them with self-reliance and self-confidence.

"It really, really changed me," says Booher. "I'm more appreciative now. "

All four parlayed their Peace Corps experience to new careers. Booher is moving to Dallas to work as a Peace Corps recruiter; Stellema, a marketing volunteer in the Corps, works as an import development manager at H-E-B. Diarte returned to school to earn her master's degree in public health. She works at the UT Health Science Center. Hansis, who assisted consumer coops and credit unions in Honduras, advises small business owners.

Many former San Antonio Peace Corps volunteers ( cfm?id=117) meet every First Friday at Beethoven Maennerchor and hold fundraisers for sustainability projects abroad.

"I'm more wise to world," say Hansis of his Peace Corps experiences. "I'm more realistic; I'm still idealistic, but I understand what one person or a society can change. Other places still need more empowerment to change."

By Lisa Sorg

©San Antonio Current 2004

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: San Antonio Current

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