On the eve of the Peace Corps’ 43rd anniversary, three Sacramento volunteers report from the front
In 1961, a squadron of 51 Americans descended a Pan Am aircraft ramp in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Gathering on the tarmac, they surprised a welcoming committee of government officials by singing the national anthem—of Ghana—in Twi, the locally spoken language. So began the first mission of the Peace Corps. The challenge originally made by John Kennedy during campus visits as a presidential candidate—that Americans serve their country in the interest of peace—since has been met by more than 170,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 136 host countries throughout the world.
The organization, which celebrates its 43rd anniversary on March 1, estimates that some 340 returned volunteers currently reside in Sacramento County and that an additional 15 are on active duty abroad. Among the latter is Elk Grove native Margaret Kennedy, who got her degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and currently serves as an agro-forestry worker in the western highlands of Guatemala. She lives alone in a small house near the village of Pachaj, which is a 40-minute bus ride from a larger town where she shops for supplies. The wildly painted and decorated buses are often crowded with livestock—chickens, turkeys, ducks and pigs. Anything larger than a baby pig must be tied down to the top of the bus.
About four days a week, Kennedy works in a horticultural nursery with a local non-governmental organization called Grupo Chico Mendes, a volunteer committee of seven indigenous men ranging in age from 17 to 37. They also have full-time jobs making traditional Mayan clothing to support their families. Chico Mendes’ goal is to combat deforestation. Local people rely heavily on the surrounding forest to provide food, fuel and water, and resulting deforestation affects not only the environment and health of the inhabitants but also the very fabric of Mayan life in the region. The goal of Kennedy’s reforestation project is to build a small business, growing Christmas trees and other ornamental plants to sell in the nearby city.
Kennedy said the concept of a woman living and working alone in the village was not easily accepted. So, her host family loaned her a large and aggressive mixed-breed German shepherd-Great Dane for protection. This seemed to ease concerns all around—at least, in a way.
“My dog, Chucha, was raised by the Guatemalan army in a prison camp,” explained Kennedy. “She has had five owners since she arrived in Pachaj. I have seen her attack about a dozen little Mayan men. She also ate seven chickens, nearly killed my neighbors’ terrier and bit my host family’s new puppy in the face last week, breaking its cheekbone. When neighbors ask if I’m gonna take Chucha home with me, I politely reply that we kill anything with a rap sheet like this back in the States. What surprised me was that no one really has a problem with her behavior. ‘They are just animals, Maggie,’ they say. ‘Who cares?’ But I love my dog like a good gringa dog owner. She gets bathed, dewormed and flea dipped. It’s been like rags to riches for her. The Chucha is lovin’ life!”
Monica Gonzalez, also from the Sacramento area, is a volunteer currently serving in Ecuador. Gonzalez teaches classes in the local village schools. Subjects include English, literature, reading, reforestation, computer skills and environmental education. Because Gonzalez was a Spanish speaker to begin with, the language wasn’t as difficult a hurdle to overcome for her as it was for some of her fellow volunteers. However, adjusting to cultural differences was initially daunting. Peace Corps training covers as much as possible to prepare volunteers for living on their own in a host country, but nothing can prepare them fully.
“This is where having a good attitude, creativity and a good sense of humor comes in,” said Gonzalez. “[My neighbors in Ecuador] have taught me laughter. There’s always laughter dancing just beneath the surface, waiting for the first opportunity to come leaping out. Usually, something I’ve said or done starts it up. Like the time my neighbors convinced me to dance in their traditional dance group for the New Year’s festival. They had a great time watching me try to emulate their graceful moves. Here in this strange, beautiful and complicated country, all my actions, my successes, my failures are watched. When things go well, it feels awesome!”
Jason Ko, a 1995 graduate of C.K. McClatchy High School and later of the University of California, Berkeley, is finishing his third year as a small-business adviser in the North African Islamic republic of Mauritania. Jason considers the Peace Corps to be at least as effective and necessary now as it was more than 40 years ago. American culture since has saturated the world with its images via TV, movies and commercial products, making the Peace Corps presence unique and human by comparison.
Ko experienced local Islamic reaction to the September 11 attacks, the subsequent U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq. He was hit with rocks, spat upon and not served in cafes, but there also were displays of compassion. A total stranger, upon learning Jason was American, loaned him his portable shortwave radio for several days after September 11.
Through the many personal relationships he developed in a three-year period, Ko was able to help dispel some commonly held misperceptions about Americans. In private discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, many of his new acquaintances were surprised to learn that Americans can hold far more diverse opinions on the subject than his new acquaintances ever thought possible. As an Asian-American, Ko also was living proof that the U.S. population is more racially diverse than many had assumed.
“We are exposed at a grassroots level to their culture—not just the nice restaurants, tourist shops and ex-pat hangouts, but at the local and intimate levels,” mused Ko as he neared the conclusion of his three-year stint in Africa. “These experiences challenge both sides to re-evaluate their thoughts about each other, to comprehend the universality of human nature and the sometimes-unbridgeable cultural gaps. I would argue that most volunteers will have their thinking changed rather than change the thinking of the local people.”
March 1-7 is “Peace Corps Week,” during which volunteers will make themselves available for presentations to classrooms and organizations in the Sacramento area. Interested parties can contact Nancy Sinnwell at (916) 979-8002, ext. 71, or Michael Romano, at the Peace Corps Regional Office in San Francisco, at (800) 424-8580.