Los Gatans agree: Peace Corps was the toughest job they ever loved

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Jennifer LaForce was stationed in a village near the Okavango Delta and Valerie Zacher was in the capital city of Gaborone

Jennifer LaForce was stationed in a village near the Okavango Delta and Valerie Zacher was in the capital city of Gaborone

Los Gatans agree: Peace Corps was the toughest job they ever loved

Los Gatos Weekly-Times

Photograph courtesy of Jennifer LaForce

Jennifer LaForce visited this Nharo Bushman village in D'Kar, Botswana.

Making Inroads

Los Gatans agree: Peace Corps was the toughest job they ever loved

By Anne Gelhaus

They only met once during their time in Botswana with the Peace Corps, when Jennifer LaForce was stationed in a village near the Okavango Delta and Valerie Zacher was in the capital city of Gaborone. But despite their disparate experiences, the two women returned to Los Gatos with many of the same views on the southern African nation.

LaForce, who graduated from Los Gatos High School in 1982, applied to the Peace Corps in 1986 after earning a business degree from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. In Botswana, she worked as a business adviser to the Maun Brigade Development Trust, which she describes as "essentially a vocational school." South Africa follows the British school system, and the brigades were developed in the 1960s to teach trades to those who don't pass their exams and can't go on to the next level of education.

"I was particularly fortunate," LaForce says, "because most people who join the Peace Corps right out of college go into teaching, but I had the opportunity to work in business. I walked into a brigade that was running fairly well and was able to apply basic business skills and really improve it. My best years in Botswana were the two I spent on the brigade."

Zacher waited until later in life. When she applied to go overseas to join the Peace Corps, she had already established a business career in Silicon Valley.

"I was in college during the Kennedy administration," she says, "when the Peace Corps was first conceived. I didn't join then, but the desire to do so never left me."

Zacher waited to apply until her son, Jason Wallace, who was in LaForce's class at Los Gatos High, graduated from college himself.

"I was in my mid-40s and at a good point in my career," she recalls. "I worried that to go at that point would be sort of self-destructive. Instead, it turned out to be the best three years of my life."

Zacher served in the Peace Corps from 1987-89, heading up the purchasing department for a cooperative wholesaler in Gaborone.

"We sold everything from cement to door frames to hair products," she says. "It was like a giant general store."

Zacher acted as a mentor to the co-op's South African employees and revamped the warehouse system.

"It was a pretty atypical job for the Peace Corps," she says. "I made $6 a day, and my job was to spend $12 million of the co-op's money each year."

As part of her job, Zacher traveled the country to check out different warehouses.

"I ended up with an opportunity I'd never have had in the U.S.," she says. "I got to go to the heads of national companies and negotiate for discounts."

South African businesses were still operating under an embargo when Zacher was there.

"They wanted to sell to Botswana because no one else would buy from them," she recalls. "In two years, we [in the Peace Corps] turned the co-op around into a productive money-maker. If I'd left there after two years, I'd probably have thought I'd walked on water."

Instead, Zacher stayed one more year, "doing the same job, but getting paid for it." During her third year with the co-op, new administrators took over.

"Everything fell apart again," Zacher says. "I've heard the co-op doesn't exist anymore."

Zacher recalls LaForce visiting her at her Gaborone condominium with a mutual friend. She says LaForce's decision to work in a village was typical of the mindset of the younger people in her Peace Corps group.

"A lot of young people would have been unhappy in the city," she adds. "For me, it was ideal."

LaForce's ideal was less urban: Rather than live in a condo, she opted for the straw and mud huts of Maun.

"Maun was neat because there wasn't a lot of racial prejudice," LaForce says. "It was my best experience of friendship across a large cultural boundary.

"I learned a lot more than I gave," she adds. "The people I was working with accepted me, and women are almost what you would call second-class citizens in Botswana."

Zacher agrees that sexism in South Africa is "a little more upfront" than in the United States.

"In my position," Zacher says, "I had certain clout and demanded a certain respect. If you take away that position, women are treated quite negatively, despite the fact the African women do almost everything: They maintain the household and work outside the home.

"It's very depressing at times," she adds, "because you feel there's not a lot of hope for the women. [Sexism] is so deep-seated that it will probably be generations before it changes."

On the plus side, Zacher says she never experienced ageism in South Africa.

"Being a middle-aged white woman wasn't a disadvantage," she adds. "I had the dating life of an 18-year-old debutante."

LaForce had a different social experience after leaving Maun for a job in the private sector. She worked at a cattle ranch in Ghanzi, a desert community, where she set up a computer system. She worked for the Vickerman family, who established their ranch in 1968, just after Botswana gained its independence. The Vickermans are among several white South African families who took up cattle ranching in the area after discovering surface water on what is mostly desert land.

Most land in Botswana is communally owned by the hundreds of Bushman tribes native to South Africa, but in Ghanzi, ranchers lobbied successfully to make their holdings private.

"The Bushmen worked for them initially for no wages, just for food," LaForce says. "Even today, racial prejudice puts the Bushmen at the bottom of the totem pole."

While Henry Vickerman employs Bushmen, the name various tribes use to describe themselves, LaForce says she never saw him mistreat his workers.

"If he was racially prejudiced--and it would be hard to live there and not be--it wasn't violent or hateful," she adds. "The Vickermans were the most forward-thinking of all the farmers in the area in that they were working toward implementing a minimum wage, but from my perspective, it wasn't good enough.

"I think that's the main reason I left. Being raised in a culture of equal opportunity, to have one of your cultural truths not even recognized and to see so much oppression, was like seeing things all bunched up. When I came home, I felt a great burden lifted from me. In a way, I'm a coward because there are people who stay there and fight it, but I got too lonely, and it got too hard."

After two years on the ranch, LaForce married Henry's son Arthur and stopped working for the family. They have since divorced.

"We gave it a good go," she says, "but even though their traditions were more Western than most, it was still so different. Whenever I went on a rampage about the way the Bushmen were treated, lots of times I was listened to, but lots of times I wasn't. Lots of times, I was wrong."

She and Arthur argued about implementing a minimum wage. He thought the Bushmen would take the extra money and buy sugar to make alcohol.

"When raises were given," LaForce says, "some people did make more liquor, but some people bought a bed or clothes for their kids. I felt like I had at the beginning: It was their choice."

LaForce says it was easier for her to make friends with bush children than with adults.

"With the kids," she adds, "you really didn't need the language as much as you did with the adults. The children are confident, gregarious and responsible: If you gave 30 Bushman kids a cookie, everyone would get a piece."

LaForce helped start a preschool for the ranch hands' children, using as her model a similar school that a missionary couple had started at a neighboring ranch.

"They blew the stereotypes away," she says of the missionaries. "They uplifted the bush people in basic survival ways much more than they were there to preach any particular religion.

"I had hoped to see a school on every farm [in Ghanzi]," LaForce adds, "but I don't think that's going to happen."

LaForce says she saw children who went away to public school return broken down by the prejudice they had encountered there.

"The Bushmen knew they had to be educated to fight [prejudice and oppression] on a different battleground," she adds. "But you could understand why they didn't want to go away to school."

Zacher says she dealt with a lot of white South Africans during her time in Gaborone.

"I heard every kind of attitude," she adds, "from the most racist to the most liberal."

Zacher says she also had trouble dealing with some of the attitudes that black South Africans had toward whites.

"There was an assumption that all white people were rich, so it was perfectly all right to steal from us," she says. "The assumption is a difficult one: You can understand how it evolved because most white people do have money, but not if they're in the Peace Corps."

Before the Peace Corps turned her loose in Gaborone, she received six weeks of training and lived with a family in the capital city for two weeks.

"The Peace Corps is very concerned that we not be offensive," Zacher says, "and it's very easy for Americans to be offensive.

"You have to gear down your expectations," she explains. "You can't walk into a business meeting and start talking business: You're expected to greet everyone first and exchange pleasantries. To stop your business sense and be cordial and polite takes so much time for us."

In Botswana, Zacher says, time is not of the essence. "Nothing gets done quickly in Africa," she adds. "It takes a couple months to adjust your pace, and it takes a couple months to readjust when you get back to the States. Africa taught me that nothing's so important that you need to get it done by 2 p.m. on Monday."

LaForce says she had a harder time readjusting to life in the fast lane than she did slowing down in the first place.

"When I came home," she says, "I went from being excited about all the choices we have here to being disgusted by them. In Botswana, you never had to do anything right away: You had time to sit and read or dream. Here, your time's taken up just trying to make a living. I really have to struggle to keep the lessons of Botswana fresh in my mind."

Both women had brushes with South African leaders while in Botswana: Zacher saw Nelson Mandela on his speaking tour just after he was released from prison, and LaForce twice dined with President Luett Masire, who came to the Vickermans' ranch to discuss a proposed wildlife preserve on the 300,000-acre spread.

"He treated Henry and the Bushman mechanic with equal respect," LaForce says of Masire. "In a culture where women are closer to being property than human, he would want to know my opinion, and he'd pull my chair out for me."

Zacher had a less cordial experience with the South African government: She heard machine-gun fire one night and found out that the military had raided a nearby house and shot all the occupants, who were suspected members of the African National Congress. "I was more fascinated than afraid," she recalls.

Zacher says her experience with the Peace Corps was "99 percent positive."

"You scale down your entire lifestyle," she adds. "It's a good experience for those of us who are spoiled: It taught me to be somewhat frugal.

"The most difficult thing about the Peace Corps is really working for nothing," Zacher continues. "It's true that it's the toughest job you'll ever love, and anybody who's thinking of joining should be adaptable. We go in with such ideals as Americans, and that's not reality. We can't impose our views on people: We can try to make inroads, but that's all we can do."

This article appeared in the Los Gatos Weekly-Times, April 10, 1996. ©1996 Metro Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved

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