I have wrestled with the impact of the Peace Corps since leaving Papua New Guinea 30 years ago. Being with Matt in Zambia is giving me very fresh perspective.
What can one American do?
I see a five foot tall, sixty-five year old divorcee screaming out her instructions to fish pond diggers and leaving a legacy of functioning cooperatives and beautifully engineered ponds full of tilapia.
I see dozens of America’s finest foregoing 27 months of their prime twenties, career, earnings, proposals- essentially the American dream- in favor of another Dream that is not physical and can only be wrought in the unique crucible that is America.
I see Americans who may have driven Mercedes ride hours in cramped,sweltering buses. This is only surpassed in incredulity bytheir parents doing likewise when they visit. Here lies the essence, the crux, of a Peace Corps service. Like the Incarnation, there is power in the strong becoming weak. The medium becomes the message.
While ponds will grow fish and education saves life and limb, the lasting effect of the Peace Corps is in the minds and hearts.
To illustrate this phenomenon, the modern parable of The Ugly American’s Wife captures its essence.
Emma Atkins is in a pre-Vietnam war Southeast Asian village with her husband, whose rough appearance and greased-stained hands earned him the double-entendred moniker. He invents a bicycle-powered water pump for rice irrigation. Shortly after her arrival, Emma notices the permanently-hunched back of every aged person. She does an awesome thing, and the rest is better quoted from thebook
And it was not until four years later, when Emma was back in Pittsburgh, that she learned the final results of her broomhandle project. One day she got a letter in a large handsome yellow bamboo paper envelope. Inside, written in an exquisite script, was a letter from the headman of Chang Dong:
Wife of the engineer: I am writing you to thank you for a thing that you did for the old people of Chang Dong. For many centuries, longer than any man can remember, we have always had old people with bent backs in this village. And in every village that we know of the old people have always had bent backs.
We had always thought this was a part of growing old, and it was one of the reason that we dreaded old age. But, wife of the engineer, you have changed all that. By the lucky accident of your longhandled broom you showed us a new way to sweep. It is a small thing, but it has changed the lives of our old people. For four years, ever since you have left, we have been using the long reeds for broom handles. You will be happy to know that today there are few bent backs in the village of Chang Dong. Today the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful during the months of the monsoon.
This is a small thing, I know, but for our people it is an important thing.
I know you are not of our religion, wife of the engineer, but perhaps you will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory. It is a simple affair; at the foot of the altar are these words: “In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.” And in front of the shrine there is a stack of the old short reeds which we used to use. Again, wife of the engineer, we thank you and we think of you.
Excerpt taken from The Ugly American
By William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
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