Remembering The Peace Corps
By Barbara Hildt
Fifty years ago in July 1968, as 22-year-old newlyweds, David Hildt and I began thirteen weeks of training to serve as Peace Corps volunteers, PCVs, with the agricultural extension service in the state of Mato Grosso (Thick Bush), Brazil.
We spent the next two years living very simply in Poconé, the village at the end of a dusty, bumpy three hours drive from Cuiabá, the state capitol of Mato Grosso. In the rainy season the very curvy dirt road often had sections with pools of mud, impassable even for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
During our third year we worked out of the Peace Corps office in Cuiabá, the geographic center of South America and a frontier city where adventurers and speculators prepared to head north into the wilds of the central Amazon basin.
Until recently, I hadn’t thought much or deeply about our years in Peace Corps, cut off from our families, friends and all that was happening in the US and the rest of the world. Now memories of those years are being awakened as I meet other PCVs living near Lake Chapala, in Jalisco, Mexico.
Since 1961, when Peace Corps was established by President Kennedy, more than 220,000 Americans have served as volunteers in 141 under-developed countries, addressing problems and human needs, such as healthcare, food and education in schools, clinics and community service organizations.
Every volunteer’s experiences are different in the Peace Corps. Many, like me, had mostly positive experiences working with host country people on projects that made a difference. Others are assigned to live in unsafe situations, only to be frustrated by a lack of support for poorly conceived projects that have little chance of success. Some develop health problems or have hardships and frustrations that cause them to terminate without completing the normal two years of service.
From other PCVs, I´ve learned that regardless of how different our experiences were in Peace Corps, we all learned important lessons from coping with our living conditions and working with people whose backgrounds, cultures and beliefs were very different from our own.
We learned that before we could persuade a parent, teacher, farmer or village to try something new to solve a problem, we had to know their language and as much as possible about their traditions and culture. We had to listen respectfully and accept whatever people were willing to tell us about their lives and beliefs.
We needed to practice open-minded diplomacy, based on respect for even the poorest, least educated people. Before we could convince a community or an individual to change their thinking or practices, we first needed to get them to like us and trust our intentions. Sharing things we had in common, such as love of our family members, benefited our relationships with each other. Rather than being in a hurry and launching into the purpose of our visit, we learned to socialize first, sipping cafezinho, a small cup of strong sweet coffee or limonada together.
By sharing with other former PCVs, we learn that we all grew and were changed for the better from our experiences in Peace Corps, no matter where in the world we were living or how difficult the challenges were.
Peace Corps volunteers affect the way people in other countries view Americans, hopefully more positively. Just as important are the volunteers’ changed views of other countries and cultures and how they view U.S. relations with other nations.
Serving in Peace Corps causes PCVs to no longer identify just as U.S. citizens. We become citizens of the world, more interested in knowing and caring about the lives of people from backgrounds unlike our own.