Stuck in a Rut? Join the Peace Corps

“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”Frank Herbert

From 1975 to 1977, I lived in Chad, Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer.

It was a good time in my life. I learned to speak French, made a few lifelong friends, and gained a perspective on the world that I could never have gotten by traveling or studying abroad.

I didn’t join the Peace Corps for altruistic reasons. I had no illusions about improving the Chadian people. They seemed pretty OK as they were. I saw volunteering as a chance to find out — at the government’s expense — if I had a capacity for teaching literature. I didn’t. It was also a great way to learn a foreign language and to meet girls. I did both — but only learning the language had any long-term benefits.

The volunteers who had lofty, world-saving ambitions didn’t last. They were quickly disillusioned by . . . I don’t know what . . . and found reasons to leave. Abandoning your post was considered shameful. You signed up for two years of hard labor — that was how I saw it. So what reason, short of a life-threatening illness, was excuse enough to back out of it?

If you stuck it out — endured the hard living, the mosquitoes, the crummy food and dysentery — you were rewarded not by any feeling that you had improved the country that hosted you but by the unexpected realization that you yourself had been improved. You might, for example, have discovered that you could be very happy living with far less material comfort than you were used to in the States. Or you might have found that you were healthier eating much less than you were accustomed to. I lost 30 pounds in Africa, dropping from a solid 190 to a lean 160, and was in the best physical shape of my life, despite the attack of malaria and the incessant and unmentionable bouts of diarrhea.

I have many memories of my life in Chad: hippopotamuses on the Chari River, our frightened-of-everything guardian Pascal, the way the rain slammed down on the porch of our little mud house in the late afternoons, dinner parties with French and Arab neighbors, exotic tribal weddings, eating “boule” with the right hand only, and teaching “My Last Duchess” to the worldly African students at the University of Chad, for example. None of these experiences was advertised in the Peace Corps literature I had seen. Each was a surprise and a blessing.

The Peace Corps is working in 71 countries now and is preparing to open or reopen programs in several additional countries later this year (including Chad, closed after a revolution that started when I was there). This expansion is part of a program President Bush inaugurated that seeks to pursue the Peace Corps’ “third goal,” which is to “help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

I never understood what that goal meant. I still don’t. If it meant that I was supposed to help my Chadian students understand French people better . . . well, I didn’t do that. If it meant that I was to learn to understand Chadians better . . . I’m not sure I accomplished that either. But I did have many wonderful experiences there, in that very poor country, working beside other volunteers and local professionals, teaching and writing and also drinking and dancing and playing sports.

It’s not easy to become a Peace Corps volunteer. You must be willing to live in meager surroundings, endure discomfort, struggle with a foreign language, and listen — at least for a while — to the self-centered dreams of do-gooders. But if you can do it, you will be rewarded by an experience of life you will never get working at home.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]