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Reliving My Peace Corps Experience

Return to Africa, 50 Years Later

by CHARLES R. LARSON

When I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nigeria almost fifty years ago, I was avoiding the draft.  I was unformed, undisciplined and unworldly—especially the latter—since I knew little about the world beyond America’s borders.  The experience altered my life, took me in directions I had never imagined, even providing me with a career I would never have pursued if I had not gone to Africa.  In September of this year, the Peace Corps will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Although I have traveled on the African continent extensively down through the years, this summer I wanted to replicate as closely as possible my Peace Corps experience all those years ago, return to the basics (no electricity, no running water, an isolated locale), so I decided to spend a brief time in a remote area of Zimbabwe, one of the most troubled countries on the continent today.

In the spring of 1962 when I applied for the Peace Corps, I had actually been drafted.  I had passed the physical and been given a date to appear for basic training.  My deferments for teaching high school English had run out.  On a Friday in May, I took the test for the Peace Corps (a computerized aptitude test in those days) and the following Monday I got a call, asking me if I wanted to go to Nigeria and teach.  I said yes, but when the conversation was over I had to find a map to see where Nigeria was located.  The Peace Corps was very young in those days, no bureaucracy, so things could still happen quickly.  Today, the application process lasts about nine months.  President Kennedy had started the Peace Corps, using his discretionary money.  Initially, it wasn’t even approved by Congress.  Fortunate for me, my draft board gave me another deferment.

Three months later after training, I was stationed in Oraukwu, in what was then a section of the country known as “Eastern Nigeria,” where I taught English at a boys’ secondary school.  Accessible by dirt road only, the school was five years old, had three hundred students, but no electricity or running water or telephone line—amenities I quickly learned were non-essential.  But the school had something else that was much more important: students who were determined to succeed in the life of the new country, independent two years earlier.  They were privileged and they knew it.  Their families had scrimped to save enough money for the school fees.  It would be years later that Nigeria would move toward something we think of as compulsory free secondary school education.

I had a point of comparison with the American students I had taught earlier, particularly in Englewood, Colorado, where too many students were uninterested in learning and dropped out during the academic year.  No such situation in Oraukwu but, rather, the opposite.  In the middle of the night, I’d see kerosene lamps burning in the dormitories, where students (particularly the seniors getting ready for the School Certificate Examinations) would be studying surreptitiously after the official lights out. And they met with me all the time for extra practice with their writing.  Never since those two years in Nigeria have I encountered such an eagerness for learning as I witnessed with my Oraukwu Grammar School students.

After my time in the Peace Corps, I returned to the United States and jettisoned my earlier plans to earn a Ph.D. in American literature.  The decision was an easy one.  I had been exposed to an emerging African literature during my time in Nigeria and already knew by the spring of 1965, when I taught my first course in African literature, that my Ph.D. would need to focus on this exciting writing from a continent rapidly moving from oral to written literature.  Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola—there were enough writers from Nigeria alone, though African writing was exploding across the continent.  So basically, that is what I did, teaching African (as well as other non-Western) literature until I retired this past spring, introducing thousands of students to the literature that had so excited me from the day I first read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) during the summer of 1962, before I left for Nigeria.

I never made a telephone call during the two years I lived in Nigeria (the mails worked quite efficiently—not as they do today—so all my communication was by the post).  I learned that a kerosene Tilly lamp was quite sufficient for reading after dark and I devoured a couple hundred books when I lived in Oraukwu.  Running water (from a tank that collected rain during the wet season) was not much of a problem until the harmattan, the dry season, and then students filled my tank with buckets of water carried on their heads from a stream a mile away.  I felt guilty about that, but for the first time in my life I learned how to live with less, though I have sometimes been negligent in practicing the same conservation since I returned to the United States.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011, forty-nine years later.

Nigeria in 2011 is not the Nigeria I fell in love with in 1962.  Years of bad governments, military coups, Civil War, Big Oil, tribal rivalries, corruption, and rampant greed from those at the top have not served the country well.  I have been back several times, on each occasion depressed by what I have seen.  And saddened by the country’s rapid decline. True, Goodluck Jonathan—who won the recent Nigerian election—looks more promising for solving the country’s many problems than anyone before him. Even so, Nigeria was not the choice for my most recent trip.

I chose Zimbabwe, which I visited five times between 1996 and 2001, because I wanted to understand what had happened to the country once seemingly blessed with infinite possibilities and now as close to a basket case as any country on the continent, thanks to the ruthless mismanagement of Robert Mugabe and his war-vet cronies.  I got what I asked for and then some.  Harare, the capitol, is dirty, decrepit, worn down and worn out—a black-and-white copy of a former colorful city, reminding me of what I observed years ago in East Germany.  I was in Harare only briefly because of my attempts to replicate my experience in the Peace Corps in a much more remote locale.

I had made arrangements before I entered the country to visit an orphanage in the eastern part of Zimbabwe, south of Mutare, one of the country’s three largest cities.  The Murwira Children’s Home is located in a hilly area of Marange, on land donated by a local chief.  The school is twelve years old.  It’s run by Paula Leen, an American who started the orphanage which typically has about thirty children (from a few weeks old to sixteen years), though Paula has a feeding program for a much larger area which, at any given time, provides the food for four to five thousand orphans.  This, because Zimbabwe has lost nearly a third of its twelve million people, who have fled the country because of political violence. Of the eight million remaining, 1.6 million are orphans.  That is a staggering number of parentless children for any country.  Their parents have most likely died because of two reasons: AIDS and the reign of terror unleashed by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF supporters to keep the man in power—no matter what that requires.  Government care of these orphans is hapless.

The farm lands south of Mutare are poor, depleted, though rich in diamonds and gold.  I visited the orphanage in the dry season, during the winter in Southern Africa. Mutare gave me a preview of the devastation of the country—hundreds of people living on the streets, hundreds of others sleeping each night below their produce stands, all wedged together in a huge open market on the edge of the city.  Poorly dressed people, too many children running around unattended.

It was at the orphanage where I re-lived my much earlier experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  No phone (wireless phones do not work there, either), no running water, no electricity besides a couple of hours right after dark from a small solar unit on one of the buildings.  Essentially, candles for the darkness, which was roughly about six pm until six am.  I went to bed at seven at night and began to wake up about four, when the first roosters would honk me out of my tired sleep.  I had forgotten what it was like to live by daylight, and sleep by darkness.  But it was only a day or so before I discovered that I was, indeed, exhausted by the time night came along.

Exhausted from doing very little.  It was hot during the day, even during the winter.  There had been no rains for weeks.  Paula’s sitting room (living/dining/kitchen combined) saw a steady flow of children and workers during all waking hours.  Children—many with AIDS—needed to be driven to the nearby primary and secondary schools, taken there and picked up later; children came to her because they had malaria or other reasons for feeling ill.  A child would need to be taken to the hospital; a woman, already in labor, had started her trek to a maternity ward, and Paula would see that she was driven to the facility.  Workers at the orphanage (cooks, gardeners, laundry women, the women who ran the nursery, drivers and a host of others) would enter the room in a steady stream.  And then Paula would be up, driving a child or an adult somewhere: returning to Mutare for food or other necessary purchases, dealing all day long with the unexpected and—to some extent—the predictable.

I watched in awe how she did everything (with the help of a full-time administrator), unflappable but totally sympathetic.  Infants were abandoned by their parents, so she’d take them in.  Older children whose parents had discovered that they were mentally challenged were dumped by their families, so Paula took them in.  Abused children (boys and girls) and girls reaching puberty who had already been eyed by one of the local apostolic ministers, including one with more than a hundred wives, had fled to the orphanage so they wouldn’t be forced to be the minister’s next wife.  And always young children who were starving because—and this has apparently become the practice in much of the country because of the dog-eat-dog environment—young children, especially babies, famished because their parents and older siblings are always fed first.

This is what I saw that was so utterly disturbing: children who are disposed of for one reason or another by parents who have decided that their children’s survival is no longer their concern.  In a trickle-up society (where almost everything flows to the elite at the top), the bottom quickly flattens out to the destitute, the hopeless, with no chance of survival unless someone takes them in.  And the state itself seemingly becomes the model for letting people starve.  In times of famine, feed only those who voted for you in the last election.  When valuable minerals are discovered (as diamonds were several years ago), forcefully remove farmers from their land, maim and kill them if necessary, but steal the diamonds for the few in power.

All of this is to say that Zimbabwe today is one of the most depressing countries I have ever visited, and I have my comparisons (Haiti and Liberia, for example).  Yet at Murwira Children’s Home, I observed a small miracle.  At least for those children under Paula’s wing, life has not come to a full stop.  They are educated; they learn how to interact and care for one another; they learn the basics of nutrition and raising their own food.  The school has its own farm, an attempt to be self-sustaining, but that is also a major challenge because the soil is basically sand.

Paula has taught the children at the school and the villagers in the area how to compost, primarily by using leaves for fertilizer.  She refuses to buy commercial fertilizer because it is beyond the cost of the local people.  Instead, there is composting and crop rotation, but water is the most urgent problem because the school needs to grow vegetables and fruit year around.  In the dry season, water has to be brought by truck from a near-by stream.  I was more than impressed to see what was being grown when I visited: bananas, mangoes, paw-paw, squash, tomatoes, corn, string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, onions, and cassava.  Although when I joined the Peace Corps, I was a teacher, it wasn’t many years before most volunteers were sent overseas not to teach but for issues related to food production and health.

Still, for most of the food for the outreach program of the Murwira Children’s Home—feeding thousands of orphans in near-by areas—she (and other such organizations in Zimbabwe and other countries) relies upon is international food donors, especially Feed My Starving Children.  The tons of food (in individual packages of slightly less than a pound each) are composed of fortified rice and soy protein (folic acid, niacin, vitamins A and B6, iodine, etc).  The food is donated at no cost, but the orphanage has to pay for the shipping, which keeps increasing and currently totals $50,000 a year.  That expense has become one of Paula’s biggest headaches: continual fund-raising since support from The Seventh Day Adventist Church—which has helped from the beginning—is only partial. Then there are all the other expenses: staff salaries, school fees for the children, clothing, educational supplies, petrol for several vehicles—and too many other expenses to count.  Paula worries, also, about who will take over if something happens to her.  Although she looks and acts like an energetic sixty-year-old, she is considerably older.  What is needed is a much younger couple, whose own children are grown up.

In these troubled economic times, all donor organizations compete for the same money, but in Zimbabwe the extremes are overwhelming.  Mugabe, his generals, and the ZANU-PF leaders have billions of dollars; the people have nothing.  The extremes are obscene.  When Mugabe’s first wife died, her estate was valued in the billions, which is only to say that in too many African countries the masses of people are being bled to death by those in power at the top.  The people at the bottom of the heap have little more than their humor to sustain them.  Grace Mugabe—the president’s second wife—is called both “Disgrace” and because of her shopping sprees overseas the country’s first shopper.  Recently, she has been her country’s only shopper.  Everyone else is too poor.  Yet Mugabe, during his numerous recent medical trips to Indonesia, is known to have taken millions with him each time he has left the country.

What did I learn from my visit to Murwira Children’s Home?  The situation for working in Africa today obviously reflects the state of political control of too many African people by too many dictatorial regimes.  Nigeria—in the early 1960s when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country—was an environment that contributed to my success as a secondary school teacher in the country.  I never observed people I would describe as destitute.  I never worried for my own safety.  It was a pleasure to work with the Nigerian teachers at my school and challenge my always eager students.  But that situation does not prevail in the country today, where—like so many North African countries—there are too many educated young people with few prospects for meaningful employment.

Nigeria and Zimbabwe and too many other countries in Africa today are not hopeful environments, especially for young people.  Fortunately, there are exceptions to this—Botswana and Ghana, for example.  But going to the continent today as a Peace Corps Volunteer (or with a Western NGO or with any of the other so-called relief organizations) is a much more demanding situation that my own years ago.  I have nothing but respect for the Paula Leens of the world today—people who stick-it-out and work selflessly to improve the lot of their host country nationals, especially the most vulnerable: children.  Perhaps because the obstacles are so overwhelming the satisfactions are so also.  But I can easily see myself becoming quite cynical if I were a volunteer in many places in Africa today.

Nor do I see much changing in Zimbabwe.  The generals surrounding Robert Mugabe are on record as saying, “Our aim is to stay in power.”  So revolution, like the ones in North Africa, may be only an idea.  Revolt in a place like Zimbabwe is unlikely; the people have been cowered for too long.  The generals in Zimbabwe clearly know this.  The recent discovery of diamonds in the country became simply another opportunity to further exploit the people.  Farmers were kicked off their land, some murdered in the process so that government officials could literally scoop up the diamonds, with profit only for themselves.  The stories that are reported in the newspapers in the country about the diamond heist by the government are horrifying, but few in the West are concerned.

Several decades ago, at the time when most African countries became independent, a government minister in Gambia made an observation about what tactics could be employed to keep African leaders in power.  His cynical response?  Keep the people “hungry, illiterate and pregnant.”   Sadly, in too many situations, this practice has been successful.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu