The Peace Corps: A Visit To Learn From One Volunteer

Father and Son

Waking, I come back wandering through dreams. Sleep-bound; numb. It’s dark. There is a hint of false dawn through a split window cover. A soft new light striking the mosquito net which looks like spider-weaves tenting above me. I feel my toes and the sag in the mattress against my back. Outside bundled branch brooms sweeping sighs heard against distant cock calls. Voices sweet and melodic salve my sleep-logged mind. Women are bent over brooming and preparing the courtyards, singing with joy and delight at the new day. I understand that with the sun I’ll be lit with ancient light and the dawn experiences of human existence.

This is the remote bush of Zambia. Off the tracks where the world of others, foreigners, takes what little food a family can grow in exchange for unnecessary things like tin for roofs, fees for cell phones, refrigeration and gas or diesel to move people and products. This is the edge of universes, where tectonic forces tear apart a way of life never evaluated for its worth, but scrubbed bare of resources and people, all dragged to far towns believing in economic gods, not human worth. This is where the deadly forces called “progress” cancel the worth of tens of thousands of generations. This is one of the last places like this – I am aware, awake and awakening, never to be the same.

This is the world my 24 year old son, David Nathaniel, is absorbing and melding into. As a Peace Corps Volunteer he has been in Zambia, Africa for over a year. He speaks fluent Bemba. His village is remote, about 8 klicks off the almost impassable main road from Mansa, in a place where “road” usually means a deeply rutted dirt track with potholes that could be filled with VW Beetles. In the rainy season you can’t tell the puddles from bottomless sinks.

Peace Corps rules won’t let him operate a motor vehicle, not even a motorcycle. He has a bike with a rack and must walk or ride everywhere around his 11 by 50 Klicks catchment area, to serve over 9,000 people. Riding 40 klicks out, doing a women’s program or helping with well-baby clinics and then a hard ride back in loose sand and shifting dirt to reach home before dark, is a challenge. He is in great shape.

There is an electric line running into the dispersed collections of mud brick, grass roof homes. A few structures have intermittent electricity. The clinic has some power, but is not adequately wired for service. When the installation is complete, sometime between ten years ago and soon, that energy will help run machines, give light; save lives.  “Civilization” is trickling into the community following the electric lines and the desires of those in the community who want energy slaves – lights, refrigeration, entertainment, and cookers. They don’t suspect that they will soon be slaves. Hunger and malnutrition increase as they sell what little food they can grow and their labor to pay for power. The need to change to a cash economy eventually means leaving the village community and working in the mines or the smelters. For a majority who leave their community, it means eking survival in the dead-end back alleys and endless mazes of towns which entomb them.

The Bemba people are part of a long-term southern migration from the equatorial Congo.  They are part of an even more ancient Bantu migration south from equatorial West Africa. We know so little of their history, but assume we know it all. What exists in our time are a vital, gentle people who have learned to appreciate life’s quality and to live in that grace every day. To have evolved to live so peacefully and so much in harmony with the earth and each other seems easily written-off as boring to jaded outsiders. Maybe it is to people who have never experienced its depth. What these Zambians have evolved is a cultural wealth we have lost and deeply hunger for.  What they suffer from is poor diet, lack of medical care, and an economic system that robs them of substance – their daily bread. I have learned that if Peace Corps volunteers like David Nathaniel can help, it will be to alleviate suffering with adequate healthcare and applicable information about agriculture, diet, malaria, HIV/Aides, dysentery, and parasites. Sadly, too many attempts to help, result in the destruction of  their support and survival systems and hasten the destruction of good cultural practices.

There is a growing awareness that it is necessary to know the culture and the dreams of the people before laying a trip on them based on our concepts of supposed needs and imagined good.

The very idea that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governmental agency intervention can enhance the lives of individuals is fraught with dangers. If you are going to do unto others you better be qualified through your knowledge of them. If you are there to inject your religion or your concepts of a good life – to inculcate – you are skirting the edges of an old and proven evil. Many service organizations are aware of this dynamic and they are changing those practices. Some volunteers are examining their motivation and focusing on the people and culture they serve, not the brownie points they can earn for doing “good” works to others.

Based on the assumption that the people receiving help must guide the direction of those resources and determine the course of their own affairs, anyone meddling from an outside culture, whatever the motivation, must purge themselves of the idea that they are a change agent. If they are serving to convert, redirect and modify culture for some imagined higher goal, they should not be allowed to meddle. There are no examples where these proselytizers have done anything with lasting value. There are many examples of damages done. For example, building a school or clinic and then leaving without training people to operate and maintain the structures does not have a long-term benefit to the people served. Laying medical and health information – think teaching about things no one can see, like dysentery germs or mosquito-borne malaria – on the people, without incorporating the information into the ken – the range of understanding – of the people. There is a skewed concept in our belief system that we are our brother’s keeper. That ugly and limited thinking is a major reason people are deprived of their dignity and forced to let others make decisions for them. We are our brother’s brother. “Do unto others…”  renders “keeping people” void of good.

What background and training puts a volunteer in the field who is effective in addressing their needs, not his/her own. I want to know how to screen volunteers so those selected can enhance, not damage or denigrate cultures. Who should be “turned-loose” on others in developing nations? These are questions every religious group, every NGO, every member of service organizations need to address. Obviously, there is a history of people entering other cultures to convert them to another way of thinking about religion. There are those who enslave. There are those who preach values and dogma that hurt and destroy as they try to mold them to ways of life suitable for other latitudes, belief systems, and economic systems. These people exist and do their dances on the heads of those they pretend to serve. Their time must come to an end.

I turn to my understanding of the volunteer I know the most about. At 23, he entered Africa to serve. Was he ready? Why is his work a year into his assignment considered ‘value added’, rather than information given and solutions laid-on? Was he taught to listen and learn and share his information into their ken and culture? How did he know how to give without depriving others of their dignity – their self-direction?  How does he know to cast-out judgments formed by his own culture? For example, dealing with polygamy, family organizations, work ethics, male and female roles, morals? What prepared him at 23 to enter an others home and try to add value? It was not a course of study or an inculcation of values. What prepared him were life experiences and his own quest for knowledge and understanding.

A profile of this effective volunteer gives insight into the way he has understood and done things. Born In Colorado, he spent time In Arizona and Mexico, melding into these different cultures. He celebrated his 8th birthday on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Traveled extensively in Europe with his family for a year. TravelSchooled  another year in the Eastern and Southern US, learning to understand other cultures and value systems. He excelled in public school. Entered the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University. Put his mind to global issues, urban evolution, and effective communication. At ASU he enjoyed ballroom dancing and the building of DevilDanceSport. He became a competitive ballroom dancer winning many medals. He used his understanding to help build university spirit and was chosen as runner-up to Mr. ASU (60,000 students). He created a global studies program in Milan, Italy and served 20 weeks at the American Consulate as a student-volunteer. He became fluent in Italian. Following that he spent the next three months solo-backpacking from Italy, through Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, England and then on to Ireland and Scotland. In each place he learned to meld into the culture and learned some of its history. He was graduated magma-cum-laude from the Barrett Honors College.

Following graduation, he volunteered for the American Red Cross – Arizona. His computer skills allowed him to create Excel spreadsheets he created to show the equipment stored in, and the status of, Red Cross storage trailers he inventoried around the state. He worked to update supplies and had first-hand experience as a Red Cross volunteer supporting the teams and helping the people impacted by the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Co-workers marvel at his ability to get things done, create upgradable sources of vital health and safety information, and provide leadership.

His goal was to join the Peace Corps and serve others. He applied and dealt with the Corps misinformation, red tape, and a seemingly lack of interest in him as a person. He was accepted and tentatively assigned to Eastern Europe. He began studying Russian in preparation. At the last minute, he was told he was needed in Africa. Where? He asked. Needed for what? They didn’t know. The change in assignment most likely came as a result of someone filling a vacancy, not an understanding or concern about his skills or his placement. Eventually he learned of his assignment and began studying Sub-Saharan Africa.

He describes the change to African service as one of the best things that has happened to him.

In Zambia, he is known as Ba Kapia, the little twin. (He is 6’4”, 230 pounds). He is loving, listening, melding and really contributing. Being with him in his village and in Luapula for a week, and traveling in Zambia with him for 3 weeks was a life-changing experience full of insights into human community and the potential of countries like Zambia.

Now in his second year, those who know him and his background, and those of us who share what he is doing through his photographs and through his writings – many punched out on the tiny keypad of a cell phone charged with solar power – get insights into life in the remote bush with a people and culture that should not vanish from this Earth.