Peace Corps Rising

Arabsiyo Mother

 My years in Peace Corps Somalia were the best education I could ever have. The long term effects on the Somalis by the PC Groups are remembered by Somalis as “the best Americans” they ever met, not me, but the whole group, year after year, living with the same difficult world around us. I have returned to Somalia in numerous capacities over the past 40 years, and the simple volunteers who were living a simple life there are still having positive effect. Hard to believe if you haven’t been there, but it’s true. I, too, call on the expanded funding for the Peace Corps.

If recent returnees are reporting a broken system, then it may have something to do with the recent Top Down Bush approach even to the Peace Corps. I saw similar deterioration in the Nixon years. The problem was Peace Corps Washington, not the Volunteers in the bush. Carter and Clinton supported the Peace Corps and it rebounded. Second, review your thoughts about the Peace Corps after you have been back in the US rat race for a couple of years. It gets sweeter with age.


A Letter from Peter Yarrow to Rep. Lowey on the Importance of the Peace Corps Vote

Dearest Rep. Nita Lowey, This is a personal message to you from your buddy, your long time supporter and your friend, Puff\’s \”real\” daddy. In the vote coming up next week . . .


Berbera Waiter

jan27sheikh-0391How am I doing, How do you do?

You learn to say and respond to it in Somali, in Swahili, in Nairobi Shang, maybe in English with a local twist “I’m very OK.” Maybe you learn to say it in Mkiga or Kikuyu when you visit the villages. Jambo, Sho-sho. Ma fiantahay, walaal? Greetings Grandmother, Are you well, brother?

Now and then, even in a greeting, a moment in time stops you, or, rather, you stop the moment in time. The Greeks used a number of words relating to time; Chronos is time moving through life. Kyros is a moment in time full of meaning. Time is stopped. It relates to Seizing the Day, to the miracle of coincidence, to marvel, to vision and wonder. Time full of meaning. So the meaning of “I’m fine” ranges greatly, too. I say now I am very fine. I wait in Berbera for a meal of roasted whole fish just caught and delivered, of fruit from small farms nearby, of cold bottled water.

Is this Work or Play? I suppose Twain and Tom Sawyer were correct to illustrate that it is obligation that marks the difference between work and play. So I paint the fence for Tom and call it play. I am escorting a group of evaluators around Somaliland, to shops and schools and maternity clinics and plant sites, to remote parts of the slums, to ministry offices and to coastal towns like Berbera, long a known place on maps of Africa, but almost forgotten these days, to facilitate their evaluation of what I have done for the past twenty two months. They want to talk to the stakeholders. Maybe the ancient Greeks did not need a word for stakeholder then. It is Donor Talk, Agency Talk, part of a language of exclusion, of distance that requires the fashionable contemporary word, stakeholder. My guests talk that language. Me?

How am I doing, How do you do? Serious professional evaluation bureaucrats, plan in hand, questionnaires in mind, skeptical, distant, removed from the moment, at least from my moment. They, too, wait in Berbera. They do not notice nor understand the dark storm clouds over the Ga’an Libaax Mountains. We passed the mountain, The Lion’s Paw, this morning on the way to Berbera. And it is now the hard rain season. I noticed the cumulo-nimbus cover over The Lion’s Paw earlier. I see the rain forming now. It is surely coming later and it will be a very hard rain. I am sitting at the table with the evaluators, we wait for our meal. I can feel the water in the air and heat rising from the Gulf of Aden up to the mountains. I must move these people along, it’s my obligation, so now it becomes work. If the tugs are running in the afternoon, we will wait at the river bank. Wait and wait. There are no bridges over many of the dry river beds. When the hard rain comes, you change your plan. You wait on the river bank, caught between running tugs.

Our Berbera waiter is proud and purposeful, he dances from the kitchen to serve the customers. Pasta. Fish. Vegetables. Mixed fruit juices or straight lemonade. Watermelon juice. And bottled water. The customers shelter from the sun under fringed umbrellas, made locally by the eccentric engineer, Umbrella Man. Umbrella Man lives in a box near the docks. He is proud of his umbrellas and they are very useful in the Berbera sun. Engineered in Berbera. The Russian crows wait for their food, too, above the Somali cats, fit cats living around the primary restaurant here on the waterfront. The black billed white ibises cruise elsewhere now, sometimes returning to replace the crows, pecking in to feed when the customers finish and leave a table.

We eat fresh fish that comes in with fishermen and the tide, barracuda, from head to tail. Twenty five horse outboard fishing boats are anchored not far offshore. We can see where the fish came from, the calm Gulf, the small boats. My Evaluators grade the meal “surprisingly good.” “Now I know why you insisted on this restaurant.”

My drivers are looking at the black sky south of town, over the mountains. It would behoove us to move. The Evaluator plane, a UN Beechcraft 1900, is scheduled to fly in the morning from Hargeisa, two hours and many tugs away. Don’t want to get caught between running tugs. I am talking and thinking, explaining project objectives and silently calculating weather. I am driven by events here, not timetables and matrix analysis. Ideas and concepts born in Washington fluorescent lighting, hatched in bureaucratic studios, incubated in budget workshops don’t matter much in the field at times. They lose their shine, don’t make as much sense as they did at their birth. No dress rehearsals here. Live action only, improvised, we plan by quick consensus in a group held together by trust. Evaluators are not in the group yet. I love the Somali drivers, fellows who walked the terrain in peace and war, who know where it is appropriate to say “many snakes.” Or “water one meter deep here.”

The sea is calm, the port activity is calm. We finish our meals, apply toothpicks, wash and then spray cologne on our hands. I catch a glance from the Somali drivers. Back to work. We walk toward the Land Cruisers. My turn to speak.

“Let’s push it a little. We might have a problem with rain if we delay too much.”

That Russian crow is waiting for our leftovers. How am I doing? How do you do?

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor