By Itayi Viriri
Harare, Zimbabwe - John F. Kennedy was on the campaign trail in 1960 when he issued a challenge that would shape the ambitions of many American youths of later years. He asked them if they would be willing to serve their country by living and working in developing world.
He won the presidential election and in March 1961, the United States Peace Corps was born.
Kennedy envisaged an American volunteer organisation which would assist governments and communities in developing countries to achieve their development aims.
His dream has since been achieved with around 165,000 volunteers spending at least a couple of years each in 132 countries in the last 39 years. Currently under the stewardship of the director, Mark Schneider, the volunteer organisation has 7,000 men and women serving in 78 countries throughout the world.
Zimbabwe is among those countries that requested and benefitted from the presence of Peace Corps volunteers. These volunteers have worked in various fields, for close to a decade now.
With 97 volunteers working in areas ranging from education and business to the environment, the Peace Corps volunteers have been warmly welcomed by the rural communities that they serve.
The country director in Zimbabwe is Sally Collier, a one-time volunteer herself. She told The Standard that the Peace Corps came to this country at the invitation of the Zimbabwe government.
Said Collier: "The Peace Corps came to this country in 1991 with about 30 volunteers serving as teachers at rural secondary schools. Right now, we have some volunteers who are imparting their expertise as business advisors and environmental educators."
She added that the education volunteers normally arrive in Zimbabwe each year in October, for orientation and training and usually start work the following January. The environmental volunteers begin their training in early March and report for their assignments in May.
The orientation and training period goes on for eight to 11 weeks and encompasses technical training and the learning of the local languages, culture and history.
In most cases, the volunteers are usually university graduates who are motivated by a desire to help, and to understand and experience another culture by living and working with the people.
"The volunteers bring to Zimbabwe their various skills, but more importantly for them, they take back home great memories of the time spent with the rural folk of this country," said Collier.
She added that for most of the volunteers, the experience inspired both their lives and careers"Some of them go back to the United States fully aware that they can live comfortably without all the trappings and worries of life in the industrialised world." Part of the Peace Corps' mission is to promote world peace and friendship by providing volunteers who contribute to the social, economic and human development of interested countries.
This has earned the organisation a lot of respect and admiration, both at home and abroad.
In Zimbabwe, the sheer fact that the volunteers are mostly sent to those remote areas avoided by the local professional, means that they become something akin to folk heroes to the communities that they serve. As one rural district administrator said: "The volunteers leave the rural folk with America's most enduring values--hope, optimism, freedom and opportunity."
When asked whether the volunteers took away jobs that were meant for locals, Collier said: "The volunteers only take those jobs for which local qualified personnel are not available and they work at local pay rates and under local conditions."
Collier has been country director since 1997 and her term expires next year in July.
"I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia in 1962 and I was among the 300 that were the first group to come to Africa," Collier said. As has been said by other ex-volunteers, the experience changed her life from then on.
"After leaving the Corps, I did my masters in social work and set up private practice in family therapy and clinical social work."
After all her seven stepchildren had left home, she applied for the post of country director.
"My experience with my stepchildren and my educational and professional background, helped a lot when I got the job," she said.
Her application was successful and she was posted to Swaziland. When the programme ended in that country after close to three decades of Peace Corps presence in 1996, she then took up the role of country director in Zimbabwe in 1997. Although her tenure here is nearing its end, she said she and her husband Bob, a chemistry and maths teacher in Harare, have enjoyed their stay in the country.
"We are limited to five-year terms as country directors and I really cannot believe how fast time has flown or that I will be leaving soon," she said.
She also said that it was quite pleasing to note that the organisation received a lot of support from the Zimbabwean government, through the relevant ministries, such as education and environment portfolios.
"Those that we work with, here in this country, now know what to expect from us, what we are and stand for, and what we can do." Perhaps to paint a picture of how the organisation operates, one poster advertisement depicted two identical pictures of a village in Peru. The caption beneath the pictures read: "This was the village before and after the presence of Peace Corps volunteers."
This, Collier said, best described how the organisation operated--the tangible benefits could only be seen in the people's quality of life after the departure of the volunteers, not necessarily in infrastructural development.
This article was originally published in the Zimbabwe Standard on January 16, 2000.