As it is National Peace Corps Week, I thought I’d combine a post about Peace Corps with my Day 1 introduction for #igquiltfest2020.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Kenya. I worked with a women’s income generation cooperative that made tie-dye fabric and garments near Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I worked with Luo people, the same enthic group as Barak Obama’s father (Obama is a VERY Luo name, BTW.) The women I worked with used the funds they earned from the co-op to support their families and children with food and school fees.
My experience in Africa as a young, very green, person just out of college with a business degree, profoundly impacted my worldview, feminism, patriotism and political leanings – forever. It’s difficult to adequately put my thoughts and feelings into words, but I thought it’s a good time to try.
WORLDVIEW: My worldview was rocked in countless ways – Trying with all my will to truly understand life viewed through eyes of someone with life circumstances vastly different than my own; finding empathy and the understanding to learn from and embrace the motivations and needs of others; and, most importantly to me, recognizing that human souls are born into bodies in wildly different situations and that for a staggering portion of our planet’s population, these souls are born into crushing poverty, disease, oppression, inequality and disadvantage that often makes it impossible to persevere or ever rise above their circumstances (and, belatedly, realizing that this was and is happening in in my own country as well.)
FEMINISM: I grew up in the South in a time when girls were constantly reminded to “be ladylike” and “don’t be bossy.” I was soundly ridiculed by male friends and professors in college for being pro-ERA. In my first rounds of college interviews I was asked what my plans were for marriage and children (yes, it WAS illegal back then!) And of course #Metoo. But seeing what the women I worked with in Africa faced to get through their lives left me reeling.
Things I remember:
- Listening to a woman in my housing compound screaming during the night as she was beaten by her husband. I could hear the sound of fists hitting her body. The next morning, seeing her battered and bruised face as she went about washing the blood from her clothing in the communal water spout. Shame that I didn’t know what to do to help her and fear that I might be a target of violence if I did.
- Talking to a man on public transportation telling me that a man beating his wife “shows that he cares about her.”
- Being told by the women I worked with that I made them feel good about themselves, that I treated them with respect about the work that they were doing and that was a new experience for them.
- Being asked by a Catholic missionary (nun) if I would accompany women to get IUD birth control, as they were being turned away because they didn’t have husbands with them and if they came with a Mzungu, they would be more likely to receive services to prevent more pregnancies. President Reagan launching the Mexico City policy.
- Learning that a baby named after me, Baby Lorraine, died at 3 months due to dehydration and dysentery because her mother didn’t have access to clean water.
- Bringing a team of women to Nairobi for the United Nations International Decade of Women conference – their first time to a city – and seeing Bella Abzug debating with an African man in a workshop. My female African colleagues came away stunned by a woman who “spoke up and talked just like a man – but for women!”
The women I knew had so little control over their lives and bodies – I would never take that for granted the rest of my life and am horrified that health access and the reproductive rights of women are presently being eroded in my own country.
PATRIOTISM: I returned to the U.S. deeply patriotic and passionate about the U.S. Constitution and the rights enshrined in our laws.
- Voting rights: During elections, our Peace Corps training group had to go to a remote location – basically, to hide – to ensure our safety due to fears of a coup d’etat. I’d never worried about a smooth government transition at home. Fortunately, there was no coup. But I learned from other volunteers in the field that in their communities, those that were running for office, and whom the single political party did not approve, were rounded up and arrested on election day, to ensure that no one could line up behind them on Election Day. (That’s how it was done for local elections – people stood in line behind their chosen candidates. If the candidate wasn’t there, no one could line up behind them to be counted.) Since then, I have made sure I vote in every single election. This summer I plan to register voters in key swing states for the November election and will work to expand and ensure voting rights for all Americans.
- Freedom of speech and freedom of the press: Peace Corps Volunteers were soundly warned that, while we could say whatever we wanted about our own president, under no circumstances could we share any beliefs or thoughts on the Kenyan president. If someone tried to engage in such conversation with us – especially if it involved criticism of the government – we were to walk away, for fear of being framed or arrested. All public buildings, offices, businesses, churches, etc. had to publicly display an approved photograph of President Daniel arap Moi. The police would arrest or beat the owner or manager who did not comply. There was only one legal political party – the KANU party – and the KANU party ran the country’s only legal national newspaper. The newspaper ran only propaganda about the president (some of it was laughable through our American eyes at the time.) Subsequently, and especially in recent years, I treasure the fourth-estate and the critical role the media plays in our country through our freedom of the press.
POLITICS: The same week U.S. Senate was holding the impeachment trial of Donald Trump,the NY Times ran an obituary of former President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi. The similarities between him and things happening in our own country are chilling:
In the early days, (Daniel Arap Moi) released political prisoners and preached unity — pushing many to think that he would change course from the ways of his predecessor by eliminating tribal cronyism and tackling rampant graft.Instead, what emerged was a one-party state with Mr. Moi at its center who demanded blind loyalty from government officials by asking them “to sing like parrots” after his own tune. During his reign, freedom of speech was curtailed, ethnic violence proliferated and dissent was crushed, with many opposition figures detained and tortured in the much-dreaded Nyayo House torture chambers.
I never would have imagined that so many decades later, I would be fearful for my own county. I treasure our democracy and the rights that we must continue to fight and work to uphold to provide for all Americans and all people. Our valuable, inalienable American rights.
This is what Peace Corps did for me. Truly the toughest job I’ll ever love. I’ll be forever grateful.
(Note: I understand if my views, based on my lived experience, are not your own, but respectfully ask that mine be respected, in the American spirit of democracy and freedom of expression, .)