Julian Martin: We’re not the ‘experts’ we think we are
I could not imagine my job in the Peace Corps being community development or such. There was no way that I knew enough or was experienced enough to bring about beneficial change in a community that had existed possibly for centuries or maybe so long no one knew when it began. I am so very glad that I was assigned to teach chemistry in a high school. Whether it was what they or their culture needed, I could teach chemistry to young Igbo men.
By their financial sacrifices the students’ families and communities seemed to be saying they wanted somebody to teach them chemistry. They trusted the judgment of politicians and school administrators that chemistry and the other Western academic subjects were what their children needed to get ahead in the brave new world out there. My job was already decided when I got there and I did it. On the side, I got acquainted with communities but never offered them any advice as to how they could do better.
I visited an area of Eastern Nigeria where there was a custom, a rule, that there would be no defecation within a certain distance of a stream. But here, we, they, somebody, allowed or ignored the existence of several huge chemical storage tanks a few feet from the Elk River and just a mile upstream from the water company intake. Ten thousand gallons of coal-cleaning chemical was leaked from one of those tanks into the Elk River and sucked into the water company’s intake. Over two months later, our trust shattered, we are still drinking and cooking with bottled water. Who needed a Peace Corps community development “expert,” the Nigerian communities that banned defecation near their streams, or us?
How could anyone from the many communities across the United States that are threatened with the contamination of their water supply, their breathing air and their very land, offer “expert” assistance to “less developed” communities?
A Peace Corps friend says that Peace Corps volunteers who worked in community development, especially in Latin America, came home more radical than when they left. He figures it was because the community development volunteers went up against the oligarchies that owned most of the land and controlled most of the jobs and did not react kindly to change. To get more people who might come home and advocate for the increasing numbers of people who are poor and powerless, maybe we should send more Peace Corps volunteers to work in community development, knowing that it is going to be a frustrating, difficult, and almost impossible task, but that will create a sensitivity much needed in our country.
Julian Martin, of Charleston, is a retired teacher.