Peace Corps Success in Botswana

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, June 27, 2001 - 11:31 am: Edit Post

Peace Corps Success in Botswana

Peace Corps Success in Botswana

Peace Corps Success in Botswana

Peace Corps Success in Botswana

MOSHUPA, Botswana -- It was 1966, the U.S. Peace Corps was young and Brian Trennepohl of Manhattan, Kan., was among the idealistic volunteers who headed to Africa.

More than 30 years later, the Peace Corps has pulled out of Botswana, announcing its work completed and reallocating resources to other nations, such as neighboring South Africa.

But like dozens of other former volunteers, Trennepohl is still here, working as headmaster at a high school, married to a local woman and holding Botswanan citizenship.

"It gave meaning to my life," said Trennepohl, now 53 and sporting a head of thinning gray hair. "When I am in a group of Batswana, we speak Setswana. I don't realize my skin color is not the same."

Thousands of Americans have served in countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and South America under the aid program started by President Kennedy in 1960. In 1995, the Peace Corps had 7,200 people in 94 countries, but that was scaled back to 6,500 volunteers in about 90 countries by the end of 1997.

Botswana, a Texas-size arid country in southern Africa, saw its Peace Corps contingent leave for good last year. But former President Ketumile Masire told President Clinton during his visit in March: "Happily, a number of volunteers have stayed on ... contributing to our own biodiversity as a nation."

Shortly after Botswana's independence from Britain in 1966, Masire, who was then the vice president, welcomed 58 Peace Corps volunteers, including Trennepohl.

The need was great. Botswana was one of the world's 10 poorest countries, having only nine high schools and four miles of paved roads.

There is still poverty -- almost half the population lived below the poverty line in 1994, though that is down from 59 percent in 1986. Unemployment is about 20 percent.

But by the time the Peace Corps closed down after 31 years and more than 2,000 volunteers, Botswana had plowed the mineral wealth discovered after independence into infrastructure -- 230 high schools, 3,000 miles of paved roads, and water, electricity and medical clinics in most outlying areas.

While Peace Corps volunteers worked in national parks, vulture refuges and soil conservation projects, their main focus was education -- the cornerstone of Botswana's determined effort to lift up its people.

The country now provides nine years of free education, pays its teachers starting salaries of 40,000 pula (the equivalent of $10,000) and employs about 18,000 Batswana as teachers. Foreigners fill an additional 900 posts.

"In some subject areas where we still need teachers, we regretted that (Peace Corps) had to go," said Patrick Maphorisa, director of the education ministry's teaching service management. "But really, I must say, they have carried us to the end, and we are now able to pay teachers who come in from abroad."

Francis Hammond, the last Peace Corps country director for Botswana, said last year's withdrawal didn't really hurt the projects involving Peace Corps volunteers.

"Botswana just found itself in such a unique situation, where they had been concentrating on their development since independence and they made such great strides," Hammond said by telephone from Orange, N.J.

Trennepohl -- who gave up his U.S. citizenship -- oversees a high school of 700 students in Moshupa, about 50 miles west of Gaborone, the capital. He says he regrets that his administrative duties keep him from teaching.

Bob Williams, 51, whose parents live in Centralia, Kan., is another American who returned. He was a Peace Corps volunteer here in 1969-72, then came back in 1975 because he missed the country and its gentle people.

Tall and gray-haired with light blue eyes, Williams is headmaster at the Semang Hills Secondary School for 1,000 juniors and seniors in Serowe, 195 miles north of Gaborone.

Both men have satellite dishes in their homes and battle with their children over television shows. But they say Botswana's children are enthusiastic learners, unlike many children they encountered in their U.S. teaching experience.

"I enjoyed teaching here," said Williams, who married a Batswana woman in 1981. "The kids want to learn and are excited about being in school."

By PAT REBER, Associated Press Writer

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