Peace Corps and After, a volunteer in the Ivory Coast

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By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, July 02, 2001 - 1:24 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps and After, a volunteer in the Ivory Coast

Peace Corps and After, a volunteer in the Ivory Coast

Peace Corps and After, a volunteer in the Ivory Coast

Peace Corps and After

"I went to Africa to see the sea,

And after I had seen the sea,

I turned my back on it,

And it knocked me down and stole my shoe,

...Just like some people."

(Poem based on a true happening.)

I learned a lot more in Peace Corps than why you shouldn't turn your back on the ocean. I learned that other people are a whole lot smarter than we give them credit for. I also learned that we Americans know a thing or two ourselves. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. Each of us has something to teach and plenty to learn.

I don't remember what I expected to find when I reached the Ivory Coast at the end of the summer of 1970. The reality overwhelmed whatever preconceptions I had. The country was not poor by African standards. Abidjan was a comfortable, up-to-date capital. People were well-dressed and reasonably well-fed. The main roads upcountry were paved. Grinding poverty was not a major feature of Ivorian life.

I went to teach English at a junior/senior high school in Bouafle, a town about the size of Auburn, located in the middle of the country. The schools were mostly French-run and had a French curriculum. The Ivorians brought in the Peace Corps to offset the French influence and also to meet French standards for English instruction. (The French grudgingly admitted that we spoke English, but made it clear that they weren't entirely convinced.)

I lived in a pleasant little cinderblock house surrounded by a wall. There were gorgeous hibiscus bushes in the yard. Across the road was an unfinished house inhabited by a flock of honking guinea hens. I had electricity and running water. I tooled around town on a little moped. Of course, I had cats.

Here's what I remember most vividly about West Africa:

*The stunning, golden brilliance of the sun on the forest leaves after a rainstorm;

*The overpowering clarity of the stars in the night sky;

*The egrets following the cattle as they grazed;

*Goats chasing a dog down the street;

*The diplomatic skill of an old Baoule chief in bringing a family back together;

*The quiet intensity of the lives of people whose main possessions are their own lives and their relationships with one another.

During the summer of 1971 I went on a road trip along the Guinea coast. I saw parts of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Ghana was happy, friendly and poor. A small mob in Accra nearly lynched a guy who harrassed me on the street. Later I tried to get him out of jail. He got out, but not before the police worked him over. Then there was Togo, where a green light means you have the right-of-way, and a red light means you lay on the horn before hitting the gas. Benin was an unhappy place, and just a little bit nasty. Lagos, Nigeria, was a big Dodge City. Ibadan, just a few miles upcountry, was a quiet, dignified college town with a really terrific book store and food so spicy that it hurt to swallow it.

In 1972, I went north on the train. On impulse, I got off at Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. It was a stroke of luck if I ever had one. A beautiful town. Wonderful people. But lives are short in that place. I wonder how many of the people I met there are still living.

For that matter, I wonder what's happened to my former pupils in the Ivory Coast. I've read that the HIV infection rate there is about 50%. It's a catastrophe I can't begin to imagine. I don't want to imagine it. Nor do I want to imagine the catastrophic deforestation of the country that was beginning while I was there.

So, what difference did I make? In the face of poverty, disease and environmental disaster, can I say that I did anything at all of value by being a school teacher?

Yes. But that answer is based more on faith than on any objective assessment of what I accomplished. Any teacher in any classroom anywhere in the world would probably say the same thing. You try your best. The rest is faith.

In 1972 I went down to Abidjan to take the the Foreign Service exam because everybody else was. It was a fateful choice. A few weeks later I found that I qualified to go on to the oral exam in Washington, DC, which I did after knocking around Paris and London. I made the cut and went on a waiting list. Then I started a graduate program in international relations at the University of Denver with the idea of becoming a college-level teacher, not really figuring that the call would come from D.C. I was wrong. The call came. In June of 1973, I was sworn in as a U.S. Junior Foreign Service Officer. My commission was signed by President Richard Nixon and by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. How's that for irony?

I fought for -- and got -- a Washington assignment: first, as an intelligence analyst for central and southern Africa; then as country desk officer for Chad, Togo and Mauritania in the Office of West African Affairs. And in between there was a month-long stint in New York at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., where I sat with the U.S. delegation to the General Assembly as a glorified stenographer.

I am not a good bureaucrat. I did not like the American approach to Africa, which in the Cold-War era was mostly a matter of keeping South Africa and Portugal happy and not much else. I wanted out. I couldn't justify believing what I believed and serving the foreign policy I was hired to serve. I kept my balance by tutoring adult ed in an inner-city DC school and by taking graduate courses at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. I spent a lot of time drinking coffee in little restaurants in Georgetown.

In December 1974, my Mother died. Returning from her funeral, I made plans to quit the Department of State and finish my M.A. at SAIS, with no other objective clearly in mind except maybe to build up my credentials for law school. (After all, everybody else was going to law school; and I couldn't imagine myself now doing a Ph.D. dissertation.)

I did the M.A. I took the Law School Admission Test and applied to several schools: Three said yes: Indiana University at Bloomington, American University in D.C. and the University of Denver. As a legal Indiana resident, I could get in-state tuition at Bloomington. That's where I went...and endured three years of unimaginable boredom.

I got my law degree in 1979, took the bar exam in February 1980 and was sworn in as an attorney before the Indiana Supreme Court in June 1980. By that time I was already embroiled in some of the local Auburn issues that, for better or for worse, kept me here in the place I was born.

Mike Sticks His Neck Out for Auburn.

Walter for Mayor

P.O. Box 267

Auburn, IN 46706-0267

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Page Updated Thu Jan 25, 2001 8:43pm EST

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