50 Years of Peace Corps and a Trip Home

31 07 2011

So I’ve been back in Tanzania now for a little over a month since the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Dar and my return from my trip back to America.  There’s not much else to say about the 50th Anniversary other than it was amazing.  Aside from the actual event, it was also great to be able to meet volunteers from around the country that I may not have otherwise come in contact with.  There are about 140 volunteers spanning across three sectors; education, health, and environment and I probably won’t meet more than half of them since Tanzania is a fairly large country geographically.

Before the event, which was held in the evening, the director of Peace Corps, Aaron Williams held a roundtable discussion with the volunteers who were in attendance.  This was a pretty big deal, for the director of Peace Corps to make a visit, and it was even more of a big deal because he was staying for 5 entire days which apparently is even rarer.  Even before meeting with us he even took a visit to another volunteer’s site about 3 hours outside of Dar.  The guy who had the privilege to host the director of Peace Corps is a friend of mine who came to country at the same time as me.  He was lucky enough to be chosen to have the director come to his site because it was the closest volunteer to Dar es Salaam.  The roundtable consisted first of a volunteer presentation of the work we are doing in the three sectors.  We volunteers submitted photos, stories, and other materials to assist a small group of other volunteers in developing a presentation.  The director was extremely impressed with the presentation.  In fact he was so impressed, he wanted a copy of the presentation and wanted the three girls who gave the presentation to do it again for the staff at Peace Corps HQ in Washington.  Of course, our country director was delighted that her volunteers were showing the director how Tanzanian volunteers are some of the best in Peace Corps.  This was a truly unique experience, to be able to just have an open, informal discussion with someone about issues, things that were going well, and just general questions that people had about Peace Corps as an organization.

Rather than try to describe how special the event was, I’ve posted a public link to the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary photos as well as posted here the volunteer speech that everyone at the event was raving about.  Being able to hear the speech in person was unforgettable.  The guy who gave the speech, Dan, lives in Iringa and is one of two other male volunteers in the Iringa region.  He also happens to be the guy that I went to the airport with after the ceremony because he had a flight to America the same morning as I did.  Every single person at the event was completely floored by his speech.  People who didn’t attend the event heard about it and have since requested the transcript of the speech.  In addition to the tremendous speech given by my friend Dan, several volunteers showcased their talents by singing and dancing; you can see pictures of all this at the link I posted.  After the ceremony all the volunteers and a large number of ex-pats went to the bar to continue the celebration.  Dan and I tagged along for a while and had a few beers with everyone to celebrate, but wanted to make sure we both got to the airport in enough time to comfortably make our flights back home.

I won’t bore everyone here with stories from my trip home but all I can say that it was exactly what I needed.  My flight was delayed out of Kenya thus causing me to miss my connecting flight back to America, which was a bummer, but ended up being put up in one of the nicest places I’d stayed in over 10 months.  I forgot how nice nice really could be.  I arrived late, and KLM was paying for the room, which as it turned out only ‘suites’ were left.  So I stayed in a suite on the 11th floor (buildings here in Tanzania rarely go over two stories) in which I had a choice of ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ pillows, unlimited hot water, and electricity.  I really felt like a country bumpkin because when I first got into the room I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on.  Turns out that these days you need to put your room key in a slot to activate the lights.  The other thing that really shocked me was how late the sun set.  Here in Tanzania, the sun sets at more or less the same time (7:00pm) every day.  There in Amsterdam, the sun didn’t set until 10:00pm!  It was bizarre and forgot out awesome it is to have those extra 3 hours of daylight.   In addition to the great accommodations, I was given dinner for free which turned out to be buffet style.  Even though I lost a day in America because of the missed connection, I can’t really complain too much.  Once I didn’t make it home, it was awesome.  My good buddy Mike was able to get off work and pick me up from the airport.  Our first stop was chick-fil-a, which was heavenly, then we stopped at a new york style pizza place.  My trip consisted of eating a LOT of food and seeing as many people as possible.  It was amazing to be able to also see my entire family and to be there for my cousin Aubrey’s high school graduation party.  Even though I only got to hang with my family for a handful of days, it was worth the price of the ticket home many times over to be able to see them all again.  The same goes for my friends, many of whom went out of their way to accommodate me, feed me, make time in their busy schedules to come out to a bar to see me, and make sure I wasn’t sleeping on the streets.  I was also lucky to make a bunch of new friends while I was back.  The last day of my trip was a little bitter sweet as it was tough to say goodbye for a second time to all the friends who have supported me here by sending me care-packages in the mail (which are by no means cheap) or just listening when I need to talk to someone.  However, once I arrived back in country, I felt refreshed and prepared to take on the second half of my service knowing that whatever happens or however much I may complain about things here, my family and friends are there for me.  I feel lucky as hell to have family and friends that give me so much support and words of encouragement; it always seems that they know when I need a little pick-me-up because I’ll get an email or a note, or a surprise phone call just to say ‘hey’ or ‘you can do it’ which is all it takes sometimes here.  Anyway, enough rambling on.  The link below is a public Facebook link so everyone here should be able to access it regardless if you are a member of Facebook. 




“Dr. Florens Turuku, Ambassador Lenhardt, Director Williams, Country Director Wojnar-Diagne. Distinguished guests, fellow volunteers, ndugu wenzangu. Take a moment to look around. We are not natural neighbors. We come from different generations, from different states and different countries, from different religions and backgrounds. But tonight we are united in a community of hope, brought together by an unshaken devotion to our common humanity. So it is tonight, and so it was at the beginning of our journey. 

50 years ago a group of driven individuals arrived in what was then Tanganyika. It wasn’t a country yet, it wouldn’t be for four more months, and when they arrived, they were greeted by a sign which read “Beware the lions” And there we started. But who were these people, these reckless ambassadors? Reading the first curious accounts, the first letters home from a new frontier, one gets a sense of their characters. Who were they? They were George Schreiber, who talked about embodying “ a pioneer type of spirit”. They were George Johnson, who said “Peace Corps exists as an embodiment of a conviction that the best way to achieve global understanding is to put Americans in contact with other nations.” There were 35 of them, engineers, surveyors, and geologists, from Princeton, Harvard, Michigan. And they were drawn together by a man who stood on the steps of Ann Arbor and told the assembled students that based on “your willingness to not merely serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.” 5 months later, the Peace Corps was signed into law, with Kennedy again telling us that “We will send those abroad who are committed to the concept which motivates the Peace Corps. It will not be easy:”

Across the nation, people were moved. They volunteered, they went to boot camp (Drill sergeant and all), and they became the first soldiers in an army of peace. 50 years later, that army has fought poverty, hunger, disease, and subjugation in 139 countries, side by side with peoples of every language, tribe, and religion. Kennedy’s words have outlived him. The army fights on. And though it sometimes feels as though our struggle is never-ending, battles have been won, progress has been made. 

Yet for all the measurable progress, so much of what Peace Corps does is unquantifiable. There is no box that shows how amazed the children were when the seedlings began to grow, no graph to measure the change that occurred when a woman living with HIV when she realized she had become a leader. And more: how many Tanzanians knew, until the moment they were proven wrong, that Americans could never swing a jembe? How many Tanzanians did not believe that we could dance? And how many of us volunteers never guessed at the number of different ways life could be lived, and lived beautifully, until we came here? We knew about the poverty, but how little did we know about the generosity? These things may be unquantifiable, but they are no less real. Mwalimu Nyerere said “To measure a country’s wealth by its gross national product is to measure things, not satisfactions.” Many other organizations build more things. Yet I doubt there is another that builds more satisfactions.

Now where do we go from here? The goal of our work is to make the continuation of our work unnecessary. We are not there yet, in fact we are nowhere near the limits of our potential. Success is based on expectations, but it is also limited by them, and we are limiting ourselves, and our communities as long as remain prisoners to what Michael Gerson called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Let us never tire of pushing ever upwards. We have come so very far, Tanzanian and American alike, still we have so very far yet to go. This is a party to celebrate 50 years of friendship and accomplishment, but it can be more. Let us stand together tonight and take this anniversary as an opportunity to recommit to the spirit of the Peace Corps, to remember the sense of duty that brought us all here, to do better, to go farther, to try harder. We can expect far more from one another, but we can also offer far more of ourselves. American poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Tonight we have a golden opportunity on this golden anniversary to not set limits on our potential, but rather expand our expectations.

I don’t know much. I left America a year and a week ago, and I’m just beginning to realize what I don’t understand. But I love this job. There is nothing like it. I said goodbye to everything and everyone I held dear, climbed onto a plane with a large group of strangers, got pushed out at 30,000 feet, landed, and began to plant trees, dig wells, and teach beekeeping. One day, mungu akipenda, I will get good at my job, at which point it will be time to leave. And after all of that, after the level of insanity I’ve put myself and my loved ones through, the thought that will keep me up at night: is how do I get back to Tanzania?

Because somewhere along the way, something changed. We came here as ambassadors from America, to show Tanzanians what America really is. But now…now we have become ambassadors to America, from Tanzania. For the rest of our days we will do all in our power to represent Tanzania: its beauty and its need, its poverty and its riches, its depth of generosity and humanity. The Kiswahili word for together is “pamoja”. It literally means “in one place”. And if that’s the case, none of us will ever be together again. A part of us never left America, the land of the free, the home of the brave. But a part of us will never leave Tanzania, “nakupenda na moyo yote”. That part of us will always be Tanzanian, rising with the sun, gripping the hands of strangers-turned-family, forever exchanging with unguarded smiles the news of the morning.

Because Peace Corps is not for everybody. As Kennedy said, “it will not be easy.” It isn’t easy. It is painful, and it is lonely. But none of us here today have to be here. We could be living closer to our loved ones. We could be making more money. We could be cooler, or more comfortable, and God knows we could be cleaner. But each of us decided that there were more important things to us than comfort, that while a ship in the harbor may be safe, that is not what ships are built for. Everyone here tonight, Tanzanian and American, has dedicated a portion of their lives to the belief that with devotion, and kindness, and insistence on a brighter future, change is possible. Everyone here tonight is part of something greater than themselves. We are all soldiers in an army of peace. An army that marches on, as our President Barack Obama said, “with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us.””




2 responses

2 08 2011
Aunt Lynn


31 07 2011
glenn legacki

Outstanding speach, great pictures, you guys are awesome, great seeing you glenn!

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