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Peace Corps in the CAR

Bûngbi tî Sîrîrî na Bɛ̂-Afirîka

I spent two years (1988-1990) as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic. My official duties were teaching mathematics (in French) to high school students in the town of Kembe, some 600 km by dirt road east of the capital city, Bangui.

My two years in Central Africa were the highlight of my life. I cannot recommend the Peace Corps highly enough for anyone with a strong immune system and a sense of adventure. The country was beautiful, the people very easygoing, the opportunity to learn (and teach) in French, to learn Sango, to know the joys of long walks in the rain with no cell phone and nothing more pressing to do, these money can't buy in the US. It was truly a dream come true.

Still with me? Okay, now for the bad stuff. My own personal experience was fantastic (well, maybe not the malaria during training in Bukavu, where I almost died), but...

What of the vaunted three goals in the Peace Corps mission?

  1. Aid economic development in host countries
  2. Share American culture and "values" with host country nationals (HCN)
  3. Share what we learn of the culture of HCNs with our fellow Americans

Hopelessly naive fantasy, or just clever propaganda? Who can say (well, maybe this person). Anyway, best as I can see, none of these goals ever had any real chance of happening. Here's how it worked for me:

  1. Lecture futilely about things my students don't understand and will never use.
  2. Try in vain to explain why Americans think that it is wrong to cheat on tests, and knowing better than to try to share my opinion when the PE teacher got one of my very few female students pregnant when she was 13-years old and had to drop out of school (not that she was complaining, she was the envy of her peers).
  3. Feel the boredom overtake Americans when I came back and tried to talk of my experiences, and have to answer questions like "where is Central Africa" (umm, the name kind of says it all), and "Peace Corps, that doesn't pay much, does it?".

What little I might have achieved with my students was destroyed when President Kolingba fell from power in a bloody coup and his smallish Yakoma tribe were targeted for revenge. Those of my elite students who didn't go back to a village fishing lifestyle are certain never to become a functionary and their education to use in Bangui.

Event at the time, I often thought I was more part of the problem than the solution. The Peace Corps was just one of many development organizations working in the CAR, and I didn't think highly of most of them. Professional "development" gurus seemed more interested in traveling around the country in their fancy cars than in actually doing anything for Central Africans (here is a short satirical poem on what the development set actually do!)

As for the CAR educational system, it is an exact copy of the French system, ill-suited to the vastly difference needs of CAR society. Each year, only half of each class passes on to the next grade, the rest (called redoublants) repeat the same grade over. If they fail again, they are expelled. Needless to say, the number of students who make it all the way through high school and pass the baccalauréat is miniscule.

Both my own inexperience as a teacher and the following external factors limited my effectiveness:

  1. The official language (French) is at best everybody's third language, encountered first in school, not in the home, and students are desperately learning the language of instruction even as arcane math concepts are pushed down their throats.
  2. Convincing parents that there is value in sending their children to school instead of to work in the fields growing food for the family is not easy.
  3. Girls get little respect in Central African society and must do significantly more chores at home than the boys. Respect comes from motherhood and several of the few girls in my classes got pregnant at 13 (one of them from the P.E. teacher). The attrition rate of girls in school was depressing and unstoppable.
  4. All government officials, including school administration and faculty, are appointed by the president, and political (and tribal) affiliations seemed to count more than honesty and competence. My school principal in particular was shamelessly corrupt. He managed to have his vice-principal reassigned (whose only crime was apparently not stealing the food intended for the school lunches fast enough) and had the third in command (the only honest one) fired outright for refusing to go along. In this climate, students learned quickly that good things are obtained through cheating and corruption, not through hard work. Math is learned incrementally, and the level of cheating was so high that I could barely stem the tide. Students caught cheating were punished by the school administration only for not being clever enough to fool me, and the vice-principal once was caught red-handed selling an English exam to some well-connected students! (After that we kept our exams secret from the administration).
  5. Because the principal was selling the students' food in the open-air market for his own profit, many of the students were hungry, listless, and malnourished. Of course, in the fairly constant 35°C (95°F) heat, even I had trouble concentrating.

I actually misspoke about Goal 2: I couldn't help but share my culture with Central Africans. I was in a fishbowl, and everyone wanted (and expected to be allowed) to find out about every little part of my life. I represented my culture (the good, the bad, and the ugly) admirably. On the whole, I tried to give a balanced view of Americana, but most PCV's, myself included, are far left-of-center politically. To balance this liberal image, and in stark contrast, there were also numerous American Baptist missionaries, all of them staunch social conservatives. None of these distinctions seemed to register with Central Africans. We were foreigners who were not French, and that made us well-liked and unimportant, no matter how we acted.

So now here I am, over 20 years later, having a resurgence of nostalgia and warm memories of my time there in Kembe. I am working on making Sango more accessible (and online) for English speakers (what very few resources are available require fluency in French and haunting of used book stores in Paris).

Hobbes was not completely right: Though I suspect life in Central African has always been poor and short, it was the French who brought brutish, disfunctional post-colonial dicatators who have intermittently injected nasty into the mix, and unpaid soldiers and foreign militants who have strongly ramped up all of the above.

Fortunately, solitary is not a Central African trait, and old people are not left to rot in nursing homes, no one is a village is left to starve while anyone has food to eat. In a country where people literally cling to each other while talking and walking, loneliness is unimaginable. Too bad Goal 3 is the hardest of all: all cultures can be mean to strangers, but Americans seem to have a knack for sometimes treating family and friends in ways a Central Africans would never dream of doing.