The Peace Corps as History and Remembrance

A Peace Crops veteran and fine journalist casts his eye over the first 50 years of Peace Corps

When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years
By Stanley Meisler
Beacon Press 2011

Reviewed by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 62–65)

ETHIOPIA RPCVs WILL BE SURPRISED and delighted to know that Stanley Meisler’s concise and thoroughly informative history of the first 50 years of the Peace Corps, devotes a full chapter to the Peace Corps Volunteers of the old Empire. This chapter entitled “The Fall of the Lion of Judah” begins with this ominous paragraph:

For better or worse, no country has ever felt the impact of the Peace Corps as much as Ethiopia did in the 1960s and 1970s. A generation of educated Ethiopians grew up in which every member had been taught in high school by at least one Peace Corps Volunteer, and probably many more. These educated Ethiopians spoke English better than any generation that came before or afterward and pondered modern and democratic ideas that were both exciting and subversive in the hoary empire of Haile Selassie I. A case can be made that the Volunteers contributed to the revolution that brought down the emperor. But the Peace Corps has never boasted about this.

Stan Meisler, a reporter with long experience with the AP and the Los Angeles Times, came late to the Peace Corps. “I was not there at the madcap, exciting, glorious beginning. I started my work at Peace Corps headquarters just after the election of Lyndon B. Johnson to a full term as president, a year after the assassination of President Kennedy.”

Stan had misgivings about working for the government, as any reporter might, but the Peace Corps was different. “It was,” he writes, “an oasis of idealism and goodness in the vast Washington bureaucracy. Everyone, even Washington correspondents, loved the Peace Corps.”

In his tour, he would make a half dozen lengthy — a month or longer — trips to evaluate Peace Corps programs: twice to Ethiopia, twice to Cameroon, and once each to Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, India, and Iran. After the Peace Corps, and for three decades, he was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Knowing Stan from his tours to Ethiopia and at Peace Corps Headquarters, I’d say if anyone is capably of writing about the agency, it’s Stanley Meisler.

His history of the first 50 years of the agency follows two paths. One path is the work of PCVs overseas based mostly on his own evaluations and exhaustive research over the last two years; the second path follows the policy and political maneuverings in Washington, D.C. with its various power struggles, political appointments, and wily decision making. These back room and background stories come from persons with firsthand knowledge of how it all happened.

Stan is at his best when discerning what he observed during his evaluation tours and later saw from afar when he was working for three decades as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Latin America. Not much gets by this guy. Like any good reporter, Stan has done his homework and it shows. His history of the Peace Corps, When The World Calls, is full of nuggets of information which he develops into interesting and insightful stories. As someone who has made a passion, a hobby (some might call it an obsession) out of the agency, I was surprised by what I didn’t know about the Peace Corps, the back stories, let’s call them, of what really happened at HQ. Meisler has gotten to a lot of folks who are still around to tell tales of the good (and not so good) old days.

Meisler tracks the agency over these five decades, beginning with Shriver. He ends his book with Aaron Williams, the current Director, a former PCV in the Dominican Republic. But Stan focuses his history mostly on themes, flash points, the worth of the PCV overseas, and what RPCVs have accomplished, then and now, in their host country and here at home.

The titles of his chapters show where Meisler is going and what interests him.

Sarge’s Peace Corps (Chapter 2)
Americans Invade Dominican Republic   (Chapter 6)
The Militant Sam Brown (Chapter 11)
The Rich Lady in Her First Job for Pay (Chapter 13)
200,000 Stories (Chapter 14)
The Quiet Bush Years (Chapter 17)
Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good? (Afterward)

For obvious reasons I zoned in Chapter 14, as the telling of Peace Corps tales has been the focus of my Peace Corps interest for some twenty-five years. With Marian Haley Beil (Debre Berhan 62-64) we have been tracking Peace Corps writers as if we were the Emperor’s long ago palace cheetahs. Stan is kind enough to recognize our efforts (thank you, Stan!) and single out three fine memoirs by RPCVs: Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-86); Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1992-94); and Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-04) to show the range of experiences, the range of hardships and triumphs, and the range of age of Volunteers. These memoirs show us old Ethiopian PCVs, as well as the rest of the world, where the Peace Corps is today.

These memoirs, he sums up, “reflected a changing Peace Corps. By the 1980s, the Peace Corps had become an elite institution of Americans working in remote sites, often alone, coping with poverty and inertia, doing the best they could to change what little they could . . . . All in all, based on the evidence in these memoirs, the most recent Volunteers struck an old evaluator like myself as a heroic band.”

Thanks, Stan, for telling us how it was and how it is and for bringing our stories home.

John Coyne (Addis 62-64) is the editor of and the Manager of Communications for The College of New Rochelle. His next novel, The Caddie Who Won the Masters, will be published in the spring of 2011.

Adventures in two worlds

An Ethiopian-American writes a powerful and touchy narrative of a father’s odyssey and a son’s journey of discovery

How to Read the Air
by Dinaw Mengestu
Riverhead Books 2010
$25. 95

Reviewed by Janet (Danzl) Lee (Endeber 74–76)

EACH DAY AS I WALKED to and from the Segenat Children and Youth Library in Mekelle, where I recently spent five months volunteering during a sabbatical from my job as a librarian in Denver, I passed by Sefra Jeganu, the Heroes’ Residence. The compound housed wounded resistance fighters who were instrumental in the struggle for democracy and self-determination that ultimately led to the toppling of the Derg, the military government that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.  The compound was a complex maze of family units built from chiseled rocks. Although the wheel-chair bound men — and some women — were were guarded and cautious about me, a ferengi, the children welcomed me into their modest homes and spoke openly about their fathers’ injuries and their daily lives. Sefra Jeganu was just one of many daily reminders that I witnessed of Ethiopia’s war-torn recent past.

As a PCV during the time of the overthrow of Haile Sellasie and the first two years of the Derg, I was aware, albeit naively, of the terror that surrounded me.  Now many years later, I am only beginning to understand the depth of that terror. And so I welcome the fresh voices of young writers such as Dinaw Mengestu who are telling the tales long ignored outside of Ethiopia. Dinaw’s new book, “How to Read the Air,” is not by any means a war novel, but aspects of war and struggle permeate the story as the narrator, Jonas Woldemariam, an American of Ethiopian ancestry attempts to work through issues of his failed marriage by reconstructing the last road trip that his parents made together from Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee,  prior to the dissolution of their own marriage.  Like many of the Ethiopian Diaspora, Jonas’ father, Yosef, fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror and ultimately found his way to the United States, leaving his young bride, Mariam, to follow several years later. Their courtship had been brief and dramatic occurring “under a backdrop of fiery speeches and frequent gunfire in the last days of the monarchy.” This separation contributed to the distance the couple felt between them, as did the difficulties of reuniting in a foreign land with a new language and unusual customs. One can safely assume that the addition the baggage of the war itself, which divided countrymen from each other based on politics and lineage, further disconnected the couple.

In reality, Jonas knows little of his father, a man who along with dozens of other men and boys was imprisoned in an cell outside of Addis after the Derg took power. He was released with no explanation. Over the course of two months he was transported to a port city in Sudan in a small truck and eventually fled Sudan tucked into a box on a ship. It is no wonder that Yosef had dreams of boxes until the last days of his life. And it is no wonder that Jonas felt a void that his absent father left behind, unspoken gaps of personal history that haunted his own sense of who he was and his relationships with others.

Dinaw seamlessly weaves the original journey taken by Jonas’ parents thirty years earlier with the ongoing journey Jonas takes immediately after his father’s death. Jonas has become a masterful storyteller, first retelling personal stories of refugees and immigrants as a clerk in a legal aid office, later as an English teacher at a prep school. It is at the legal aid office that he meets Angela, his future wife. She has her own share of issues and inadequacies, compounded by the stories and half-truths that they tell each other. Throughout it becomes difficult even for Jonas to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins, the illusion become so much a part of his being.

The recounting, or more accurately the fabricating, of Yosef’s exodus from war-torn Ethiopia through Sudan to the U.S. is the book’s strength. After the death of his father, Jonas explains his absence from class to his prep school students by telling his father’s story. But this is not just his father’s story. It is the story of so many Ethiopians who fled the peril of a brutal dictatorship. The students are enthralled and the story becomes urban legend, exaggerated in each subsequent retelling.

This is a complex, yet beautifully written, book, uniquely African and uniquely American. Copies of “How to Read the Air” will join “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears” on the shelves in the Book Club room of the Segenat Children and Youth Library, in Mekelle, Ethiopia.  An eager generation of young readers awaits.

Janet (Danzl) Lee recently joined Yohannes Gebregeorgis for five months in setting up the Segenat Children and Youth Library in Mekelle, Ethiopia.  Her frequent blogs have been posted on the following facebook page:!/pages/Segenat-Children-and-Youth-Library/161388783881687

Books by Friends

Three of our colleagues have recently written books of considerable interest: two about Ethiopia and the other not

The Lion of Judah in the New World
: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa

By Theodore M. Vestal

TED VESTAL WAS ON PEACE CORPS/ETHIOPIA staff from 1964 to 1968 and then went on to a career as a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University where Ethiopia remained the center of his studies and his writing. His latest book, which comes out this month, traces the legacy of Haile Selassie in forming attitudes in the United States towards Africa. As Sergeant Shriver travelled Africa in the early ’60s in search of countries which might be interested in accepting Peace Corps Volunteers, most of the leaders he met with were newly minted and largely unknown Presidents and Prime ministers who not too many years earlier had been independence fighters struggling in the bush.  The exception was Haille Selassie who for many Americans was the face of  Africa. In his book Ted traces how Haille Selassie used his fame and prestige to forge an important alliance with America. He also discusses American relations with Ethiopia. It’s all studded with fascinating vignettes — Chief Justice Earl Warren offering Haille Selassie lunch at the Supreme Court, for example — which always makes Ted’s books so intriguing.

The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920
by James Quirin (Bati 65–67)
Tsehai Publishers 2010

THIS SCHOLARLY AND VERY THOROUGH book first came out in hardback in 1992, but has been updated and is now available in paperback via Amazon. For those of us interested in the history of the people we used to call the Falashas and are now called the Beta Israel, this study traces them from their origins in the shadows of history to the early 20th century.

by Richard Stevenson, aka Richard Lipez (Debre Marcos 62–64)
MLR Press

RICHARD LIPEZ HAS HAD a long and successful career as a writer including the great success of his Donald Strachey mystery series that were written under the name of Richard Stevenson.  Strachey is a gay private detective who, as all good fictional PIs, gets entangled in engaging characters who make the book worth reading. Dick Lipez’s book is more than just worth reading, it is, as Tony D’Souza  (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03) writes in his wonderful review found on that essential Peace Corps web site,, “a precious and glittering page turner.” So much so, says D’Souza,  “I’m still trying to shake the glitter off of my page turning fingers.” But the book is more than pure entertainment.  D’Souza  cleverly links Lipez’s work with Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. They both have important points hidden away under that glitter.  So do read D’Souza’s review, then order the book.

More Books about Ethiopia and Eritrea

In the last few months Ethiopia and Eritrea have generated more of books than we can review in the HERALD. Here is a list of some of the more interesting ones.

Famine & Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid
By Peter Gill
Oxford 2010

Steve Chesebrough (Asmara 62-64) sent us an email alerting us to a book review of Famine & Foreigners by Peter Gill which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in September last year.  We love when readers help us. Wrote Steve of the book:

This read to me like an interesting case of Telling It Like It Is. I was wondering if you thought commentary like this would be of interest to the readers of The HERALD? Possibly it will seem too controversial to discuss or publicize.

Well, we don’t want to run the full review here, but you can check out the review “The Hazards of Doing Good” at the WSJ site.

Steve declined our offer to review the book for the HERALD: “Gee whiz – I think the last time I did a book report, I was in the 8th grade!”  But he sure was on to something. We read the book. The book is an excellent recounting of the struggles over aid to Ethiopia, and raises the wider issue of whether humanitarian aid throughout Africa and the developing world has done very much good. The book has been widely reviewed and produced articles arguing the merits and demerits of aid.  See, for example, the review How little changes: Foreign aid, a hostage to fortune in the Economist; as well as an extensive review, “Abused by Hope,”  in the New Republic. Or better yet, buy the book and review it.

Ciao Asmara: A Classic Account of Contemporary Africa
by Justin Hill
Abacus  2002

Several friends, including a former student from Eritrea, called this book to our attention. It was published nearly ten years ago, but is still in print in paperback  and available from Amazon. It is the story of a young aid worker who takes up a offer to teach in newly independent Eritrea  in 1996. The book is described as a bittersweet  love letter to a country Hill grew to admire during this period of transition. As one reader put it: “All tragically believable. Scarcely a vapor of hope for so many.” Considering how little comes out of Eritrea today, it’s worth the price.

An Africa in Focus Book
by Mussie Tesfagiorgis

This book runs more than 400 pages and provides sources documents and commentary on the history and culture of Eritrea. A bit academic, but for those interested in studies of Eritrea, this is the (expensive) book to buy.

Click on the book cover or the bold book title to order from Amazon and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance

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