Looking Back on the Peace Corps Experience

Harriet, Still Travelling

Those years in Tanzania were historic not only for me but for the country. Two years before my arrival, Tanganyika joined Zanzabar to form the new country. Mwalimu (teacher) Julius Nyerere became the first president, a brilliant and peace-loving man doing his best to guide his country through the pitfalls of independence. It was a privilege and eye opening to experience the joys and tensions of nation-building at the ground level.

To President Nyerere’s great dismay, Tanzania declined after the idealistic plans hatched in Arusha turned out to be foiled by human weaknesses and a crippling drought. I returned a few years ago, as a birder, and found the country finally shaking off some of the woes brought by the settlement schemes that ripped tribes from their overworked ancestral lands, mixed them on the settlement schemes, and then denied them the promesed start up money. Neither corruption nor dissent inside TANU had been overcome as well.

After my service ended, I took the slow way home through Asia, meeting my sister in Bankok and continuing to the South Pacific. The Peace Corps repaid me for a plane ticket home with unlimited stops, no expiration date and 150% mileage from Mwanza to Portland, OR. I used my journey to explore where I might like to return and to see what other opportunities were available. The customs inspectors were all fascinated with my box of butterflies.

Anita Leaving Mwanza (KS)

An important counterpoint to my Peace Corps experience was seeing suffering and poverty in India at a level I never experienced in upbeat and optimistic Tanzania. I had time to spare in India while waiting for my sister. Volunteering was a natural impulse, but since I did not speak Urdu, I was told not to consider helping with flood relief. I was sent to Calcutta, where a new program, run by a nun, was serving the poorest of the poor. They welcomed English-speaking volunteers. It was not until ten years later that I learned that it was Mother Teresa who interviewed me. But it was my experience among the lepers with her Sisters of Charity that forced me to reflect on myself, my past and my future. Click here for the full story, “India, Lessons from the Poorest of the Poor”.

My Peace Corps experience matured me quickly. I was given responsibilities and met challenges that drew on every mental and physical resource. As a recent college graduate I was pushed beyond what I thought possible. At first, I did not question that I would do what was expected of my by the headmistresses and director of Outward Bound. During my service, I developed a more discerning attitude toward authority and confidence in my own judgment.

After two years, I felt I could have done an adequate job as headmistress, since I felt I was doing much of that work in addition to my teaching load. Though I was invited to extend my stay, I was ready to move on. I was young. Tanzania seemed to be moving forward. The world awaited me, my country was in the painful throes of the civil rights movement, and the Viet Nam war was heating up.  It was time to leave Bwiru to discover what might come next.

The Simpsons Leaving Mwanza by Train (KS)

Kathy Simpson and Anita Foley stayed on a few more terms and reported that Sister Jaque Marie turned out to be an excellent headmistress and stayed at Bwiru for several years. After our string of head mistresses, that must have been a relief to everyone. Kathy and Winnie continued in education. Anita became a doctor in rural Nova Scotia. Kay and Steve married, lived in England while in graduate school and then moved to the Boston area. Shortly after the birth of their son, Steve was tragically killed by lightening.

What moved me forward years ago was the belief that I was training tomorrow’s teachers. As I was doing research for this piece, I discovered that there still are Peace Corps Volunteers at Bwiru. My life metaphor emerged after months at sea, watching a tiny tugboat push around an enormous ship. Patience and persistence win out in the end if you don’t quit. After ten years in the women’s funding movement and twenty-three as administrator of a progressive foundation, I know it works.

I learned after leaving Tanzania that I can’t save the world, but it is important to me to do what I can.


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