You never know where you might find one. That eighth-grade math teacher. The nurse who checks your pulse. The retiree with a passion for gardening. Returned Peace Corps volunteers live and work in every layer of American society. More than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries since the storied agency was established by President Kennedy in 1961. Its purpose was threefold: to aid other countries, foster a better understanding of Americans among people in other nations, and promote awareness of the rest of the world among Americans.
The Peace Corps has always done a better job at the first two goals than the last, says John Coyne, an early volunteer who served in Ethiopia from 1962-67. The editor of www.peacecorpsworldwide.org — a Web site devoted to telling the stories of volunteers’ experiences — Coyne is encouraged by the growing list of writers who are former volunteers. They include travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux and two writers for the New Yorker, Peter Hessler and George Packer. This fall, as part of this year’s 50th anniversary of the organization, the Library of Congress will dedicate a collection of Peace Corps writings. Aside from sharing their experiences, many ex-PCers continue their work from home. “One of the things that’s not well known about returned volunteers is that they’re still involved in the countries they served in,” says Coyne. For example, over the past 25 years a group of returned volunteers from the Philippines developed a scholarship for students who couldn’t afford to attend college there. Work like this takes place “under the radar,” he says.
So what are the biggest changes in Peace Corps over half a century? Through the years, enrollment has ebbed and flowed for a variety of reasons. “In the ’60s there was a surge in enrollment. It was a question of going into the army and Vietnam, or going into the Peace Corps,” Coyne says. The high point was reached around 1967, with 16,000 volunteers. The numbers fell steadily beginning with the presidency of Richard Nixon, who believed (according to Coyne) that the Peace Corps harbored subversives, and wanted to end the program. That was deemed too politically costly; instead, he mired it in layers of bureaucracy in hopes of strangling it. President Jimmy Carter returned it to the status of an independent agency. (His mother had served as a volunteer in India in 1966, at the age of 68).
When Ronald Reagan became president, his administration also wanted to eliminate the agency, but the director at the time was key in keeping it alive, Coyne says. The ’80s proved a low point for enrollment, with only around 4,000 volunteers. “That means you’ve got 2,000 volunteers going in each year,” he says. “That’s nothing. You had no imprint, no fingerprints on any policy.”
The wave of deficit reduction in Washington, D.C. doesn’t bode well for agencies like the Peace Corps, he says, but it’s not the end of the line. “The Peace Corps will survive, because it’s mom and apple pie. It’s the one thing that everybody likes that we do. It’s the smiley face of America.”
The Valley is home to its share of former Peace Corps members. In honor of the organization’s birthday, we’ve asked four of them — all of whom served in Africa — to share their stories.
Peace Corps service usually brings to mind wide-eyed college graduates getting their first experience outside the U.S. And that was certainly the case when Priscilla Goldfarb was assigned to teach in Uganda as a young woman in the late 1960s. Today, she exemplifies the growing number of retirement-age volunteers: When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf area in 2005, she was on a jet headed to Florida for training within 48 hours of being contacted by Crisis Corps, a disaster-relief arm of the Peace Corps that calls up former volunteers.
“I’d always been on the list, but I was never able to take time away from my family and work,” she says of the organization, which was renamed Peace Corps Response in 2007. “It’s only for people who have served in the Peace Corps. They recognize that that’s a cadre that knows how to function under, shall we say, unusual circumstances.”
Raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, Goldfarb graduated from Wheaton College with a major in European history and an unclear sense of what to do next. “A lot of my contemporaries got married immediately after college and stayed home and raised families,” she says. A sense of adventure ultimately led her to join up.
Her teaching gig in Uganda began in fits and starts: the first two schools to which she was assigned closed down because they had no water. She eventually moved to a boarding school for high schoolers, who had to pay tuition to attend. “They wanted to be there,” she says. “They were very motivated.” (How motivated? “Once they came to my house right around supper time. They were so proud because they had found a rat, dissected it, and labeled all the body parts. They handed it to me proudly.”)
Goldfarb taught “what was needed,” which included a semester of science but mostly African history, she says. It might sound strange that an American would teach that, she says, but Uganda had only gained independence from Great Britain in 1962 and the country’s history hadn’t been part of the curriculum under colonial rule. She worked with Ugandan teachers to develop a syllabus.
On the side, she tutored English literature to a dozen or so students who planned to take extra exams. “We were studying Keats and Wordsworth sitting practically in spitting distance of the equator, talking about ice and spring.”
Goldfarb’s stint in the Peace Corps was old school — no such thing as Internet, Blackberries, or phone cards. “We were not really in touch with anyone. You felt pretty quickly that you were on your own, which I think is a big difference with today’s volunteers. I spoke to my family once in two years, and that was because I walked a few miles down the road to a place that had a hardwired telephone. The call was broken probably five times in the 90 seconds I talked to my family. That was my contact with my family, apart from letters and a few tapes I made.”
Perhaps the project for which she feels the most pride was the establishment of a library at the school, which was built around an African history book collection. In 2002 she had the chance to return to the school for the first time in 35 years. “The library was still there,” she says. “It was something very tangible and made me feel very happy.”
Once back in the States, she taught for five years, went to graduate school, worked primarily in the nonprofit sector, married, and raised two children. In 1997, the family moved to Garrison. She’d reconnected with the Peace Corps after attending a 30 year reunion, which sparked her interest in Crisis Corps. A couple months after retiring as president of a local hospital foundation, Hurricane Katrina struck and she was soon off. She was assigned to a FEMA disaster recovery center near Mobile, Alabama. She and other volunteers spent the 30-day shift assisting residents to receive aid.
The Peace Corps, she says, is a “you-needed-to-be-there” experience. “I’ve noticed this with other volunteers I’ve met through the years, no matter who we are or what our personalities are, there’s a common bond.” That observation reminds her of a joke popular in the day. “Some people look at a glass as half full; some look at it as half empty. And a Peace Corps volunteer will look at a half glass of water and say, ‘I can take a bath in that.’ ”
Uganda, circa 1966
At left: Priscilla Stevens Goldfarb (seated on the left) and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Jennis Johnson Taylor, taking a break in Uganda. Above: Ugandan students do their weekly laundry
Goldfarb received this book as a gift from her students
When Nathaniel Delafield, a social worker, and Sarah Osterhoudt, a biologist, set out for their Peace Corps assignment in a small farming community in Madagascar, the married couple expected to work on projects that reflected their professional background — designing fuel-efficient, wood-burning clay stoves, for instance. But a small band of vanilla farmers had other plans for them.
Initially, the couple resisted the farmers’ request to help them find new, better-paying global markets for the roughly 50,000 tons of vanilla they produce each year. “We said, look, we weren’t trained for that,” Delafield says. “Neither of us had the background in business or trading. Or vanilla. Or finance. Or export and import. Or anything like that.”
But the members of the vanilla farmer’s association, which was the volunteers’ official in-country sponsor, knew what they wanted. “They were exceptionally persuasive and savvy in how they got us interested in vanilla trees,” Delafield remembers. “They spent the first two months teaching us everything they knew about growing and processing vanilla because they somehow knew — and I laugh now — that we’d get involved.”
Of course, it would have been almost impossible not to get involved. “We got there right before the season of harvesting” Delafield says during a recent interview from Madagascar. “The beans are very rigid and hard and smell nothing like vanilla when picked. But people were curing and processing all over; some were doing it in our house, right outside our window. Little by little, the air started to smell like vanilla. Everybody was walking around with a huge grin on their face.”
Today, vanilla is central to the couple’s lives as operators of a fair-trade export firm.
Osterhoudt was raised in Hyde Park, where her family has lived for generations. Delafield spent his young years in western New York, but his family moved to Hyde Park in 1990. She met Delafield through his brother, but not until her husband-to-be had already left the Valley to attend Wesleyan College. After attending separate graduate schools, they were married in 2003 at Mills Mansion in Staatsburgh.
Delafield and Osterhoudt knew that the Peace Corps had a history of assigning married couples — if they’re exceptionally flexible about the destination. And they were. “We wanted in some way to give the cosmic forces of the world a chance to put us someplace new, so we put very little stipulation on where we’d go,” says Delafield. They found themselves in Madagascar, south of the equator just off the eastern coast of Africa. For the first three months, morning to dusk, they studied the culture and one of the 36 dialects spoken in the former French colony.
The pair soon came to see that, as promised, the community’s beans were of superior quality. They sought out buyers in the vanilla industry, who would buy the samples on the spot. And here’s where some of that “cosmic force” — or plain old serendipity — helped these neophyte exporters. They sent some vanilla beans home to the U.S. with a visiting friend, who in turn gave the samples to Delafield’s brother, who passed them along to a chocolate maker at a gourmet chocolate company in San Francisco. At about the same time, the chocolate company was purchased by Hershey’s, which soon deemed the Madagascar vanilla bean to be the very best.
Things moved quickly from there: Delafield’s brother James founded From the Field Trading Company, an import firm, and the farmers’ first shipment went out in the winter of 2006. The Peace Corps volunteers tried to help the farmers’ association become hands-on exporters, but found it unworkable. “It was really difficult for them because they have so much that they need to take care of all the time,” Delafield says. “It’s not easy raising vanilla. They can’t leave town and do the paperwork, which they did the first time.” Nor could the couple find an export firm interested in fair-trade terms. As a result, after completing their two-year assignment, they established Fava Trading Company, a fair-trade subsidiary of From the Field.
Once that was up and running, Osterhoudt began a doctoral program at Yale University for forestry, her husband taking over much of the fledgling business. (She’s completed her courses and field work in Madagascar and is now writing her dissertation.)
“Sarah and I went into the Peace Corps ready to be transformed,” Delafield concludes. “But I never dreamed it would turn into a career. I never expected to be a business owner. I went in as sort of an anti-capitalist — being a good social worker. I have to add, though, the community where we were, the farmers, they were open to transformation, too. They were looking for this to happen.”
Delafield says: “This photo was taken in January 2007 in the town of Mananara, about 12 kilometers north of our village. We are coming back happy from getting a package in the mail and a box of books from Sarah’s mom — which would, incidentally, become the basis for the community library that we helped start and continue to support.” At right: A vanilla flower
The Peace Corps has never been a place where someone could earn much money or live too grandly. But in the mid-1960s, volunteering for the organization had one highly valued fringe benefit for 20-somethings like John Dashman: It kept the Vietnam War draft at bay.
“I was very much against the war,” says Dashman, a soft-spoken professional nurse who lives in Shokan.
Still, it was an era of distrust by many young people toward U.S. foreign policy in general, and Dashman harbored some suspicions about the motives of the program, which was still relatively new.
Ironically, he came to embrace the core mission of the Peace Corps even as the experience hardened his opposition to America’s war — an attitude he says was common among expatriates. “During the Vietnam war, those of us overseas understood what was going on in Vietnam in a way that had nothing to do with the usual way that news reports and the government described the conflict,” he says.
“What the Peace Corps did was take thousands and thousands of Americans and open them up to what was happening in the rest of the world. It showed them how other people lived.”
After completing his assignment, Dashman was among those who tried to form an organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers. “Our interest was to lobby against the war,” he says. “Do you know that the Peace Corps could not find any records of the volunteers, could not gather the names?” (An organization was formed with the help of the Peace Corps after the war ended to keep track of former participants.)
Dashman’s arrival in and departure from Nigeria were bookended by unrest. When he first came to the country, it was in the midst of a coup; during the first months of his third year, the Nigerian Civil War forced the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers. In between, he worked in a 700 square-mile district and lived in Afuze. He met his boss only once. He went from village to village, would find someone who spoke pidgin English, and ask if he could provide technical assistance for any projects. During his stint he worked on a bridge and a school building, and helped establish a potable water supply; he offered what technical assistance he could from his Peace Corps training and the technical manuals he had. He’d planned to spend a third year instituting projects of his own, such as increasing the amount of protein in the people’s diet, but the civil war cut that short. Asked to appraise his efforts in Nigeria, he says, “I didn’t feel satisfied, but I felt that I’d made some progress.”
The experience, though, had a profound effect on his life. He met a young American teacher and they eventually married. During a trip near the Cameroon border while still volunteers, they stayed in a stone building that sparked Dashman’s dream to build his own home. He made the decision that he would buy property back in the U.S. — which turned out to be in Ulster County — and built a home with his own hands. He lives there to this day, although “it’s still quite unfinished,” he admits.
“My experience in the Peace Corps,” he concludes, “was that I could get things done. I would probably not have survived as a nurse if not for the Peace Corps. I recommend doing it. Go some place different.”
Nigeria, circa 1966
“The motorcycle was provided by the Peace Corps,” says Dashman. “I had to get my own helmet sent by my parents (the Peace Corps didn’t have a budget for safety). I traveled 32,000 miles on that bike in my two years — most of it on dirt roads within my district”
Like the Peace Corps, Peter Durkin turns 50 this year. As he looks back, he sees how deeply the organization and his brief assignment influenced his life.
Unlike many Peace Corps volunteers, Durkin knew where he wanted to be sent: the wilds of southern Africa,in a sparsely populated wilderness.
He applied for the Peace Corps during his senior year at Villanova University, where he majored in civil engineering. In 1984, he was selected as part of a five-man group going to Botswana for a drought relief emergency.
“Wild, remote country,” he says of Ghanzi, which was his destination. Located in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, the town is a day’s drive from the capital through deep sand. “Farmers were losing cattle to lions and leopards,” Durkin remembers. “On the drive we had to slow down because there was a herd of antelope running in front of us.”
He compares Ghanzi to the Wild West, complete with a single hotel/bar and horses tied up out front. The house he stayed in was cinderblock with a metal roof, running water but no electricity.
The district in which he worked was about the size of Pennsylvania and located the heart of the Bushmen’s territory. “I had four projects,” he recalls. “It took two days of driving to visit three of them.” In general, he was bored because he didn’t actually have much to do. One project involved fencing off an airstrip; another was laying roads to three villages. Such work was so basic that there was no need for Durkin’s civil engineering or drought relief skills..
While the job didn’t offer much satisfaction, the locale did. He once accompanied two local men on a hunting trip. “We drove into the middle of nowhere, and they shot a wildebeest,” he says. “On the way we ran over a bright yellow cobra. It didn’t get hurt because we were in sand.” Other hunting trips were canceled, however, when the bumpy roads aggravated an old back injury, which was too serious to treat in the bush. So Durkin was sent home.
He moved back to the East Coast, married his wife, Cecilia, and became a road engineer. But his mind never really left Botswana. “Once you get the sands of Ghanzi between your toes, you never forget it,” he says. Almost two decades later, while living in Cold Spring, he found an online job posting for a park manager at a game preserve in Botswana. “I came home and said to my wife, ‘Hear me out…’ Four months later, we’d sold everything we owned, and me, my wife, two young kids, and an English setter moved to Botswana, never to come back.” Or so they thought.
Although he enjoyed the park management work, Durkin soon quit because of ownership “politics.” He and Cecilia worked a variety of jobs for the next three years. Eventually she began helping Bushmen women sell ostrich-egg jewelry in America; the family returned to Pougkeepsie in 2005 so she could more easily organize sales of the villagers’ products. She now operates Women’s Work, a fair-trade company that sells items handmade by female artisans. Durkin is an insurance adjuster and arranges safaris to his beloved Botswana through www.african-excursions.com.
Durkin sums up his Peace Corps experience with a joke popular among volunteers: If the Peace Corps sends you to Asia, you return very spiritually oriented. If you’re sent to South America, you return politically active. “And if you go to Africa, you come back and drink beer and tell stories.” •
Durkin took this photo of a “squaredovel” hut in the small village of Hukuntsi in the southern Kalahari Desert. Traditionally, these huts are round in shape and called rondovels
Portraits by Jennifer May