...claudine ko

"The Peace Corps Never Warned Me What
I Was Really in For”

Jane, November 2003

Claudine Ko explores why women bail out of the program. Hint: It may have something to do with assault, forced medication, and parasites.

"Before I left for the Peace Corps, I was enamored with my own benevolence," laughs Katy Backes, 25, who spent most of her life in northern Minnesota and North Dakota. "I thought I was really great for going." Three months into her assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Mozambique in 1999, reality set in. "Local men used to yell in Portuguese, 'White pussy, white pussy!'" she says. "The locals had a hard time understanding what a young foreign woman would be doing living alone. They knew I got money somehow and they started to think that I was a prostitute. A lot of men on their way back from the bars would stop outside my house and holler, 'We know you want to come and party with us!'

"There was actually quite a bit of threatening of PCVs, but we weren't made aware of that before we left," Katy says. "A volunteer who'd been living on my site had been robbed twice. The Peace Corps said it wasn't a problem - that a guard was going to start walking past my house. But the guard didn't show up." The harassment got so bad that Katy said she began calling her program's head office - located a 10-hour bus ride away. "I didn't feel like the Peace Corps believed me," she says. "They said, 'Everyone has problems at their site at first.' They thought maybe I was overreacting and suggested I see a psychologist." 

Then eight months into her service, a local man showed up at Katy's classroom while she was teaching. "I told him he needed to go the administration building," she says. "That's when he pushed me very violently and started to hit me and rip my clothes, saying things about what I do at night, like, 'We know how you get your money.' I pushed him off and started yelling, 'Get out of here! Get out!' and then he went away. The kids looked ready to fall apart, so I straightened my clothes, swallowed my tears, and kept teaching."

Afterward, the Peace Corps gave Katy the option of leaving through "interrupted service" or choosing another country to serve in. "I didn't feel the problem was Mozambique," says Katy, who was part of only the second PCV group to enter the country post-civil war. "It was with the Peace Corps making a safe living environment, and they weren't actively changing my situation." Cassandra Champion, the organization's press person, says that while they are not familiar with that happened in Katy's case, a community will occasionally increase its own guard or police patrols when necessary and when asked. Ultimately, Katy decided to leave her 27-month program early, joining the nearly one-third of her fellow 6,678 volunteers worldwide who drop out. 

It's another blistering hot afternoon in Tabanco, a shantytown of about 400 people in northern Peru's Sechura desert. Heather Frankland, a soft-spoken, blue-eyed 24-year-old, walks along a stretch of the Pan-American Highway dressed in a blue cardigan and matching tank top over loose woven pants and sandals. She is part of Peru One, a group of 26 PCVs (19 are female) who are the first here since Peru's military government axed the program in 1975 during an anti-U.S. backlash. Her job, technically, is to teach Tabanco's residents about health, like the importance of hand-washing and boiling water. Her secondary project is teaching English to the local children a few days a week.

Heather also spends much of her time going up and down the highway, stopping to socialize in people's homes. Eighteen-wheelers and buses roar past while passersby shout warm greetings to her, wave or honk their horns. Everybody in town knows who she is.

"Being the first group, we're more here to establish and meet people," she explains, noting that because "Heather" is difficult for many of the Peruvians to pronounce, she goes by "Flor." "It's better that gringa," she says, smirking.

"I wanted to do something to help somebody," adds Heather, an incredibly earnest Indiana native who majored in English at Knox College, a small liberal arts school. "Just the fact that you are here in a community that has been neglected to some extent, you are doing something." Donkeys loiter around her quiet neighborhood, which is framed by sand dunes. Turkeys gobble.

"The first three months are really hard," Heather says. "The Peace Corps tells you that. You have to speak Spanish all the time, and it's hard to see why we're here. Some days, you get homesick and just have to go to the city and get a Coke." Problem is, the closest groceries, Internet access, and Cokes are in Piura, a 90-minute bus ride away.

Many PCVs -61 percent of whom are female- live on their own, but Peru's head office in Lima decided to have its volunteers stay with families for safety reasons and when it come to the women, also for "respectability". Heather lives with the Sandovals in their cozy mud-and-reed walled home. It has a tin roof and sand floors, plus no running water or electricity. It is one of the few houses with a solar panel, which powers a couple of fluorescent tubes, and every once in a while, a TV. She even keeps two pet cats in her sparsely decorated room, which is safeguarded by a wrought-iron gate and bars over the window. Her Peace Corps-issued cell phone beeps in the corner, signaling low battery power. The phones are a new effort to improve PCV safety. Unfortunately Heather says hers only works in Piura. If she needs help fast, like the time she passed out from a migraine, it's a 20-minute bike ride to the nearest working phone. 

"The people here look after you," Heather says. "And we're a small group, so we have good contacts with our director, assistant director and nurse. The local men are macho, but I've never felt threatened. Still, I try to be careful." 

The Peace Corps stresses that volunteer safety is the "No. 1 priority." However, Suerie Moon, 29, was a PCV in rural South Africa in 1999, where she was supposed to train teachers at the local school. She lived with the principal's family, and one night shortly after she arrived, a man tried to get into her bedroom. "The window was broken, so he could stick his arm through and open it," she recalls. "He had taken my bra, which was sitting on a chair near the window. Then I saw his head coming into the room and I freaked out and he went running off." She says that at first, her host family didn't believe her. "They said, 'You're having nightmares.'" Then the principal saw the man's footprints in the yard.

Since the Peace Corps' founding in 1961, 250 people have died during service- 40 fatal illnesses, 20 murders, 171 accidents, 15 suicides and four of undetermined causes. The most recent death was a 23-year-old man who hanged himself in Mali in July. From 1993 to 2002, there were 787 aggravated assaults and 134 rapes. Suerie says the risks she might encounter were never explained in her pre-departure information packet: "The staff knew that crime and rape were serious issues in South Africa, but I was totally not expecting it." (Cassandra says that this info is available to volunteers who ask, and safety issues are usually discussed once the volunteers reach their assigned country.) Suerie adds that female PCVs were harassed as soon as they arrived. But when she asked to be assigned to a village with a male PCV, she says, the Peace Corps wouldn't consider it. "They didn't find daily harassment to be a sufficient reason to change their plans. It was a steady stream of drop-outs - I was one of them."

"One girl got a big dog she took everywhere," Suerie remembers. "It was a decision she made in order to stay and feel safe. But there's a real trade-off - the apartheid government used dogs to attack and terrorize. You're trying to do community work, not stand out as some version of old apartheid police forces."

"If you leave, it's a sign of weakness that you can't handle pit latrines, insufficient sanitation, or not having a lot of money," continues Suerie, who now works for Doctors Without Borders. "I think it pushes people to stay longer than they want to or should. Here was this girl who literally fought off a local teacher who had a knife and was intent on raping her. She stayed." Suerie doesn't think that the Peace Corps is an evil institution, but wonders if they bring up safety concerns with their local counterparts. "It's embarrassing to say, "Our female volunteers are afraid of being raped by your nationals,'" she says. 

"If the volunteer feels unsafe for any reason," Cassandra says, "the staff immediately work to resolve the situation, including moving the volunteer." Cassandra doesn't know the specifics of Suerie's circumstances, but notes, "Another volunteer close by does not necessarily create greater safety."

"My Stomach Always Hurts."
Heather's host mom, Josefa, cooks the family meals over an open-flame stove constructed out of large, uneven bricks. Her kitchen looks like a diorama from a natural history museum exhibit on primitive living. Today's lunch is fried white rice with peas, steamed chicken and lemon-colored Kola Real. Behind Heather, an empty white casket, donated to the community for future use, is slowly being eaten by termites as it rests against the wall. A battery-operated radio plays cumbia, the popular local dance music.

When Josefa collects the dishes, Heather's meal is only half-eaten, which is part of the reason she's lost weight since arriving in Peru. "People in my community tell me that I'm thinner because of love (she has a phoneless Peruvian boyfriend back in Piura). I say, 'No. It's the parasites.'"

 Posted on Heather's bedroom wall is a list she's made of problems and solutions. Grievance number 10 is, "My stomach always hurts." Her fix? "Cook for yourself."

"You go to people's houses and want to gain their trust, so you eat what they give you," explains Heather. "I'm willing to eat anything to gain their confidence." The result is that she has had parasites four times. "It's funny - we're health volunteers, and we've had so many problems with our health."

While stomach issues are the biggest medical complaint, they're not the only ones. "Lots of people get depressed," says Judy Gerring, 26, who in 2001 was stationed 33 hours from her PC headquarters in Kazakhstan and was depressed for six months. "PCVs, feeling isolated and having trouble adjusting to a culture where drinking is a way of life, fell prey to alcohol abuse."

The Peace Corps also requires PCVs to take antimalarial drugs. Almost 80 percent of volunteers in Africa are in Lariam, even though its manufacturer warns that the drug's side effects can include psychotic episodes, paranoia, depression and suicidal thinking. "Some PCVs said, 'I'd rather stop taking it than go crazy,'" Suerie remembers. But the official Peace Corps line is, 'If you've stopped, we're shipping you home.'" The Peace Corps acknowledges Lariam's side effects and says it consults with volunteers to decide which antimalarial medication is appropriate.

"I Don't Want to be a Political Pawn"
At the top of Heather's problem/solution board is: "Not sure if I joined because I wanted to, or just to prove how good I actually am to peeps...I get bored, restless and unmotivated." She says there are a "multitude of reasons" she signed up, "but sometimes it's hard to remember them." It's a ten-minute walk from Heather's house to the school where the community has asked her to teach English. Standing in front of one of her classes, she tells the children, who seem to genuinely like her, that it's song time.

"Trash, trash, trash," she sings as a few students join in. "What do you do with it? You throw it away!"

Later, she says, "You wonder if learning English really helps them. Defining your role here is difficult, you come in with a big idea of changing things, and you get frustrated."

"Development money could be spent in better ways than sending out more inexperienced kids with few skills to offer," says Suerie who has a history degree from Yale. "I totally put myself in that group. I was supposed to train teachers in South Africa to teach the new post-apartheid curriculum. I was in a group of 39, and about 30 of us had no full-time teaching experience. The whole proposition was ludicrous. The Peace Corps could have thought a little harder about what's the best way of using volunteers and their skills and backgrounds."

On the other hand, some volunteers - like Reena Shah, 27, a former PCV who wanted a "grassroots experience" involving her environmental studies major - get exactly what they want. She was assigned to be a soil extension volunteer in her country of choice, Nepal. Beth Blacklow, 23, who wanted to learn Spanish and become a teacher, is currently happily teaching in Ecuador.

During his last State of the Union address, President Bush called for Americans to "extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world" by doubling the number of Peace Corps volunteers to 14,000 by 2007. But the House only approved a 6.5 percent funding increase. 

"If they double the size on the cheap, they might out support services." Suerie worries. But the Peace Corps insists that while it is optimistic about successfully making the jump, it won't compromise volunteers security or the program's infrastructure to do it.

"This feels like Bush compensating for cutting international funding in Africa, for cutting family planning, for fighting a war that doesn't need to be fought," says Jennifer Warren, 23, who questions her PCV time in oil-rich Jordan. "Now Bush wants to shove more PCVs out there to be do-gooders just to prove ourselves? I don't agree with using them as political pawns to make the U.S. look like a nice country."

Lots of returned PCVs had intensely worthwhile experiences - many say they got more than they gave. "There's not a whole lot you offer, except your youthful enthusiasm and Americanism," says Suerie. But it would suck if the Bush Administration were exploiting these qualities and putting volunteers at risk for the sake of cheap PR.

Back in Lima, the Peace Corps staff is welcoming Peru Two, a fresh batch of 23 female and 13 male PCVs, on their first weekend of a three-month training session. They look like a Road Rules reunion as they climb into a minivan that takes them back to their cushy, but temporary hotel. As we make our way up the hill back to the resort, Lindsay, a pale, tongue-pierced 22-year-old from Virginia exclaims, " My first real llama I've ever seen! Cool. I expect to see a lot more."