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Leslie Noyes Mass’s Back to Pakistan

Pakistan: Fifty Years Later

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Like yours truly, Leslie Noyes Mass was a Peace Corps Volunteer fifty years ago, recently returned to the country of her assignment: Pakistan.  But unlike what I observed during my recent return to Africa, Mass discovered a significantly different country: more education for young children, an exploding population, and a country not nearly as friendly to the United States as it was when she was there years ago.  I wouldn’t call any of these changes a great surprise, yet I found Back to Pakistan totally engaging for the contrasts I have already mentioned—plus the mirroring of some of the experiences I encountered as a volunteer in Nigeria.

Mass was dumped in Dhamke, twenty or so miles from Lahore, with few guidelines as to what she was expected to do.  Ostensibly, community development, but it was expected that she would generate her own project(s) unlike some of the other volunteers who as teachers had clearly defined tasks.  Her living facilities were basic, exacerbated by her gender as an unmarried
woman is a Muslim community.  Initially, she was frustrated and angry: “Now what?  I had no idea.  And I was mad at the Peace Corps for botching up my assignment.  But I was determined to figure out a way to work in this village.”

Drawing on her letters to friends back home, Mass is able to provide vivid details and feelings about her initial impressions of Pakistan (and her assignment) all those years ago.  Here’s a paragraph from a letter to her boyfriend (later to be her husband), dated October 19, 1962: “The Volunteers here seem to be living pretty well and though some are equally disgusted with the lack of job definition, I am the orphan of the group.  No other woman is alone in a village; everyone else has, at least, a place to live and a real job.  The teachers have already started teaching and the men assigned to agricultural extension and engineering projects all have co-workers.  But we Community Development workers are on our own.  No one really knows what we are supposed to do.”  She’s upset that her attempts to reach out to women in the community are largely unsuccessful.  This is no huge surprise, given the restrictions on women’s lives (and their mobility) at the time and the country’s literacy rate of 12%.  But when she is transferred to Sheikhupura months later, Mass realizes that she had made significant inroads into the lives of the Dhamke women.

Shift to 2009.  Mass returns to Pakistan with several others, including people who were in the Peace Corps all those years ago.  She’s been teaching for decades, earned a doctorate in early and middle school education, and retired from her job as director of an educational program at Ohio Wesleyan University.  She’s a pro, accustomed to training teachers, which she and her friends will do in Pakistan for several months.  They have been successful with making arrangements with The Citizens Foundation (TCF), a private organization that has set up several hundred schools across the country since the government-sponsored schools are sadly lacking.  TCF has had major successes in the country, largely because of its curriculum and the dedication of its teachers who are women only.

Mass, thus, in 2009 is part volunteer, part educational expert, part tourist, keenly attuned to all the differences in the country from the first time she worked there.  The activities with TCF are totally professional, and instantly rewarding.  But it is an incident related to her by Ateed Riaz, one of the organization’s founding directors, that is most revealing to Mass (and to this reader), providing the context for the country’s education and development: “A friend of mine went to the city of Medina and went to a woman squatting on the floor selling something.  He negotiated with her, but she would not sell to him.  She said, ‘If you like it, buy it from that other tradeswoman.  I will not sell it to you.’  So he got a local to come and talk to her in her own language.  She talked to the local and explained that she had already sold enough that day and that other woman had not yet sold any, so I should buy from her.  The message is clear: We need to help each other.”

The beauty of Back to Pakistan: A Fifty-Year Journey is Leslie Noyes Mass’s hindsight, combined with her insight.  The book intermixes the two times instead of following a linear narrative and abounds in Mass’s first-hand reports from all those years earlier, sent as missives to her friends.  Yes, I was predisposed to enjoy this book because of my own educational journey, and I confess that some of the passages describing her activities with TCF (administrators, teachers and pupils) may seem too pedantic to the average reader.  But there are wonderful moments throughout the entire book, such as this one, just as Mass and her friends are going to depart from Lahore: “The schoolmaster said, in a mish-mash of English, Urdu, and Punjabi that he and all the village were happy that I had come back because it shows that not all Americans view Pakistan as a dangerous place where everyone is a terrorist.”

Back to Pakistan: A Fifty-Year Journey
Leslie Noyes Mass
Rowan & Littlefield, 212 pp., $32.95

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