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The Peace Corps experience

The Peace Corps experience

When the Peace Corps was founded, the statement used to indorse the idea was that it was intended to promote world peace and friendship through volunteers, who would offer their services even through hardship. From the 1960s to 2015, nearly 220,000 people have joined the Peace Corps and served in 141 countries. In that regard, Ethiopia was among the first countries to invite Peace Corps volunteers and the first group of 300 education volunteers landed in Addis Ababa in September of 1962, writes Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.

Orchestra Ethiopia, one of the most applauded bands in Ethiopian music, was composed of influential musicians like Tesfaye Lemma, Getamesay Abebe and Melaku Gelaw. The band always had captivating performances. At some point, someone special joined the band, who later managed to surprise many music-lovers across the globe

It was none other than Charles Sutton – an American who mastered playing Mesenko, a one stringed traditional Ethiopian music instrument. Taught by the late Getamessay Abebe, he joined the all-Ethiopian band. Dressed like an Ethiopian, speaking as an Ethiopian and playing an Ethiopian music instrument, Sutton soon became famous. He was known as the ferenj (foreigner) singing in Amharic.

Sutton was born in New York City in 1942 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He attended Harvard University as a freshman but took a two-year leave of absence to study music in Washington DC and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In the 1960s a fortunate opportunity brought him to Ethiopia – a country he considers his second home. He joined the Peace Corps and came to Ethiopia to teach English. At that time, he played the guitar and piano. During his stay he was fascinated with Ethiopian music instruments. Soon after, he took it up on himself to yield to his true calling – music – and more specifically traditional Ethiopian music.

The band he joined was a protuberant performing group during the 1960s and 70s. It was financed by the then Haile Selassie I University, later renamed Addis Ababa University. They performed in theaters, hotels like Wabe Shebelle and Hilton, and embassies in Addis Ababa, at parties and weddings, on television, on excursions into the provinces, eventually on tour in the United States.

Long after the band split up, they got a chance to meet up in 2006 in the US, after which they released the mesenko, washint and kirar mix album "Zoro Getem" (Reunion). They contributed the proceeds from the sales of the CD to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) at Addis Ababa University.

Sutton’s connection to Ethiopia did not stop with the music. He is still involved in different aspects of the country including humanitarian works. He remains the ultimate example of Peace Corps members who still keep ties with the country they volunteered in.

Peace corps was founded 56 years ago on March 1, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. With its headquarters in Washington DC, it is a scheme run by the United States government for Americans to do voluntary works in different parts of the world, mainly developing countries, with an annual budget estimated around 400 million dollars.

Most of the volunteers’ works are related to social and economic development, involving college graduate Americans to serve abroad for two years after a three-month training. These volunteers work alongside governments, schools, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, business, information technology, agriculture, and environment.

Ethiopia was among the first countries to invite Peace Corps and the first group of 300 education volunteers landed in Addis Ababa in September of 1962.

When the Peace Corps was founded, the statement used to indorse the idea was that it was intended to promote world peace and friendship through volunteers, who would offer their services even through hardship. From the 1960s to 2015, nearly 220,000 people have joined the Peace Corps and served in 141 countries.

People who served in the Peace Corps and returned to their home country are among the high achieving people. Be it congressmen, senators, authors, entrepreneurs – numerous Americans have been members of the Peace Corps.

Some of the volunteers keep in touch with their host countries, while others go to the extent of moving back and be involved in socioeconomic activities. Among famous Peace Corps volunteers who served in Ethiopia, Paul Tsongas, former US senator and candidate for president in 1992 and John Garamendi, commissioner and congressman for California can be mentioned. Author Mildred D. Taylor has also been part of the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

Reed Hastings (founder of Netflix), Lillian Carter (mother of Jimmy Carter), Chris Matthews (host of NBC’s Hardball), Carol Beamy (former head of UNESCO), Bob Vila (TV director), Paul Theroux (critique and writer) and Mae Jemison (first African American to go the outer space) are also some of the volunteers who served in different parts of the world.

Despite the Peace Corps being designed to provide help wherever needed, the idea still had an intention to value America in terms of building a good image and there has been arguments in regards to the extent it benefited the country. There have also been some critics concerning the operation – both from Americans and from other countries concerning the impact.

Ethiopia has welcomed a new group of Peace Corps volunteers and on September 25, 2017 at the US embassy in Addis Ababa they had a swearing in ceremony. From the 39 volunteers five of them will teach English in Oromia Regional State while nine people will work in Tigray Regional State and 16 in the Southern Regional State.

Under the program Promoting English Language Learning in Ethiopia (PELLE), the volunteers are the fourth batch to serve. They received 12 weeks of training in communities around Butajira and Mekelle, where they learned Amharic, Oromiffa and Tigrigna.

In addition to teaching English to high school students in grade nine and 11, the education volunteers will organize extracurricular activities, including promoting gender equality, use of ICT and libraries to support English proficiency. They will also support teachers’ English professional development opportunities. The volunteers are said to complete their certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) during their two years of service in Ethiopia.

Similarly, volunteers are spread across Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub Saharan Africa, Oceania and Asia. Their service varies depending on the need of the country.

Mostly, the service is related to assisting with health and education. In environment, volunteer activities include technical training, working with wildlife preservation, organizing community-based conservation programs for sustainable use of forests or marine resources, and creating activities for raising revenue to protect the environment.

One of the volunteers who were sworn in, Megan Massinburg, 28, is from Dallas, Texas. She studied international relations and Japanese. Massinburg has always been interested in working oversees, where she can contribute to society. She says it has been a plan of her to come to Ethiopia ever since she heard so much about the country from her Ethiopian friends in the University of North Texas. She was introduced to Ethiopian music and culture, and of course the hairstyle which she adopted. She knots half of her hair while the other half is afro loose.

She has been working on mobile and web design after graduation; nonetheless, she always wanted to do more. So she applied for to become a Peace Corps and was ready to go anywhere and do anything as long as she gets to help people. When she found out she would be teaching English in Ethiopia she was more than delighted.

“I have never been to Africa. As an African American, I was excited to come to a place where I knew I wouldn’t have to worry so much because I would be around people that look like me,” Massinburg explains. Alongside helping people, she sees the opportunity as a way of reconnecting to her African roots, which she says is important for the diaspora regardless of where in Africa they go.

The first thing that fascinated her about Ethiopia was the landscape and greenery. She says she was surprised by how hospitable and welcoming the people are. She learned Amharic in the training prior to her service. According to her, the training helped her share life experiences with the Ethiopian family she was living with. “The cultural exchange was both ways,” she states.

“I wouldn’t have expected such a warm welcome. There is a different family dynamic here. People are genuinely interested in your life because they care.” she comments. Her parents had mixed emotions when she was packing for Ethiopia; her mother was hesitant but her father was supportive. However, she points “Here is home now.”

She believes one can contribute to the world through various ways. “The two-year experience is going to change me in ways that I have no idea.” She remarks. She will be teaching in Southern Ethiopia, Hembecho.

Massinburg believes that her volunteer work is not only going to be her giving but, taking back too. “In helping other people, I am getting helped.” She explains and hopes she would show her young brothers and others that one doesn’t have to stay within boundaries but aspire to help people around the world.

There is a National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) for Peace Corps members like Massinburg. It is an association for Peace Corps community including those that are currently serving and returned volunteers, current and former Peace Corps staff, host country nationals, family and friends. NPCA helps volunteers access global jobs and it has mobilized over 225,000 individuals and more than 165 affiliate groups to act on their Peace Corps ideals.

There are more than 195 volunteers in Ethiopia working on projects in education, environment, and health. During their service here, volunteers learn to speak local languages, including Amharic, Oromiffa and Tigrigna. Volunteers also learn about social and cultural values of Ethiopians such as food and diet clothing, housing and taking part in social activities

Joseph Garzone, 24, grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut. He graduated from Eastern Connecticut University in social studies and has been teaching as a history substitute teacher in high school. He says he has always been someone who wants to do different things in life and travel to as many places as he could.

College gave him a good opportunity as to his passion for traveling. He had to travel to Jordan and Israel to do a research on Israeli-Palestine conflict. After college he decided to apply to become a Peace Corps to expand his teaching experience and mostly to immerse himself in a new environment.

“Some people didn’t understand why I wanted to do it and some others, who are used to me leaving all the time, understood. I have always wanted to talk to locals to get the actual information,” he explains.

Being a social studies teacher, he knew about Ethiopian history and had few expectations when it comes to the culture. He states, “I knew it was an interesting place for me to come. I assumed it would be a collective, communal, close-net society.” And that is what he witnessed during his training while living with a host family which he now calls “my family”.

He has learned not only Tigrigna but, how people can rely on people around them, as opposed to what he is used to America where folks rely on companies to get any service. He does not see the experience as only him giving to the community but accepting something in return. “I want to learn how to be more involved in my community,” he confirms.

He says he is now learning to be connected to everyone around him as opposed to the individualistic community he is from. He also hopes to be a valuable member of the community he is currently living in. “Teachers are role models and they have power over their students. I hope to be someone that gives my students a different point of view.” He states and looks forward to how the two-year experience will change his daily interaction with the community.

Garzone gave a speech at the swearing ceremony in Tigrigna and he will be teaching in Northern Ethiopia, Wukro Maray. He says he is ready to explore more of the country as he goes along. Sure he expects challenges but, he believes everything people do in life can be challenging but the key is being open-minded.

Peace Corps provides volunteers with housing and a living stipend that enables them to live in a manner similar to people in their community of service. Volunteers are highly in demand by corporate, nonprofit, and government employers seeking candidates with the skills required in today’s global economy. Returned Peace Corps volunteers have also gone on to successful careers in all kinds of fields. Graduate schools in America recognize the service experience returned Peace Corps bring.

After nearly a decade’s absence, Peace Corps returned to Ethiopia in 2007. Back then the focus was combating HIV/AIDS. 43 Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Ethiopia on October 7, 2007 to work with Ethiopians fighting the disease.

In 1962, 279 Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Ethiopia to serve as secondary school teachers. From 1962 to 1977 and then again between 1995 and 1999 when the program closed due to conflict in the region, Peace Corps to Ethiopia was one of the largest programs in the world. During this period, more than 3,500 volunteers served in rural communities all over Ethiopia.

Renowned film director Steven Spielberg owns a Peace Corps painting by Norman Rockwell and that shows how the Peace Corps culture is deep rooted in America. The painting is entitled “Peace Corps in Ethiopia”, which shows voluntary activities in Ethiopia and is now hanging in the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York.

Norman Rockwell’s connection with Ethiopia began in 1963 when he traveled to Ethiopia and he showed his journey through his paintings.

The narrative of Peace Corps is part of the popular culture too, as movie series characters such as Barney Stinson from ‘How I Met Your Mother’, Chris and Brian from ‘Family Guy’ and Britta from Community are depicted as Peace Corps volunteers.