The U.S. Peace Corps celebrated its 60th birthday on March 1. Happy birthday to a beloved organization that has done wonderful things all around the world. Since inception, the Peace Corps has fielded more than 240,000 volunteers for service in 141 nations doing all sorts of work and making significant improvements for many lives in the developing world.
I joined in 1964 and I clearly remember opening that envelope and the thrill of reading “You are assigned to Tanganyika.” I received my doctor of veterinary medicine degree on a Saturday in June and left for the Peace Corps on Sunday.
At that time, early in Peace Corps history, what did it take to be a Peace Corps volunteer — a PCV? The organization was quite new. Technically, you must have a serious work qualification of some sort — but what about who you are? What are your motivations? Why do you want to be a PCV? I think of several important factors.
First, a dedication to the idea that somewhere, somehow, something for somebody could be done to help them with their livelihood. Altruism was the word of the day. But there had to be other elements too. An adventurous spirit for one, because if you were going to invest two years of your life in an idea you had to jump in feet first. And also, you had to be a basic risk taker as an attitude in life.
So, if you were a dedicated, adventurous, risk taker, how do you find a mate? Most of us were relatively young and single and we were all university graduates, but in a huge university (Michigan State where I went had 42,000 students) how do you sort through the myriad people to find someone with similar approach to life? Well, the Peace Corps did the sorting for us. A concentrated population of dedicated risk takers of both genders already selected. How can it get better than that? And there are thousands and thousands of Peace Corps marriages as a result.
I’m one of the so-called “Kennedy Kids” whose life was completely changed by the Peace Corps experience. The 1960s was the decade of freedom for many African nations and lots of the colonial era government servants had cleared off. They would not work under a Black government, so there were massive holes in the civil service. We in Tanganyika 5 filled some of those holes.
My first job was in a senior government position because there were no Tanganyikan veterinarians at all. One of the basics of Peace Corps was that we would be paid approximately what a local Tanganyikan in the same job would be paid. So the salary on my first job as a qualified veterinary professional was $120 a month. And in the economics of that time it was sufficient.
As soon as the Peace Corps was finished, I was immediately hired to stay on and was there for nine years. My most favorite posting was as a veterinary officer of Masailand. There were about 1 million cattle and 1 million sheep and goats and tens of thousands of donkeys — and I was their vet. There was a good cadre of Tanzanian field staff, but no other qualified vets.
The concept of veterinary work there is quite different in that you treat populations of livestock rather than individuals. As an example, each year we vaccinated about 850,000 cattle against rinderpest, the worst cattle disease ever known, and many more than that through dipping vats for tick-borne diseases. These experiences led to another career here in Oregon ending up as a state veterinarian, which is essentially the same for livestock as public health is for humans, and then, after retirement, back to Africa and still working there today after 57 years.
Peace Corps completely changed my professional career. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities and work situations that have followed. But, back to mates. I was in Tanganyika 5 and in the Tanganyika 6 Peace Corps group, a bunch of teachers, there was one magnificent young woman whose name was Barbara Bainbridge, so her initials were “BB.”
In Swahili, my work language, the word “bibi “(pronounced bee-bee) means “sweetheart.” Is that serendipitous? A portent for the future? Or fate? Or divine intervention? Or all four put together? But that’s another story for another day.