Category Archives: Sierra Leone

Don’t Forget Your Helmet! Motorcycles and the Peace Corps

Since March 16, 2020, American University and Peace Corps Community Archives staff moved their tasks online to wait out the impact of COVID-19. While this bars access to our physical collections, the PCCA’s digital archives has a number of interesting journals, memoirs, and photographs available to explore.

As I flipped through the pages of a guestbook from the Volunteer Rest House in Kambia, Sierra Leone–donated by Jim Hiiter–one photo stuck out to me more than the rest.

A young woman perched on the seat of a motorbike, with the caption, “Posing with my ‘death machine’ and my controversial ‘to be a woman is not easy’ helmet. (Before the accident.)

Thankfully, Bernadette Chaloupka only injured her ankle after an accident on her motorbike; however, the Peace Corps still flew her back to Washington, D.C. to recover—cutting short her time in Sierra Leone. She writes about travelling back to the U.S. afer a local doctor called for surgery:

I’m a living example of why the Peace Corps has decided to ban motorcycles…Even though an operation was unnecessary, I tell Peace Corps plenti plenti tenki for that wonderful holiday!”

Chaloupka’s experience with motorcycles is just one of many. As I dug through Peace Corps policies, volunteer memoirs and letters home, I found that Chaloupka’s brief recovery period was a minor consequence compared with the many stories of motorcycle accidents.

Between 1961 and 2003, the Peace Corps reported that 89 volunteers died in motor vehicle accidents—21 of them involved a motorcycle. An article in the 1985 Peace Corps Times advised volunteers on motorcycle safety, reporting that in 1983, fourteen volunteers were evacuated to the United States due to motorcycle injuries.

That said, reliable transportation is an important piece of volunteer service, when distances between villages and cities could be several hundred miles away. For some, motorbikes were a beneficial way to get around during their assignments, connecting volunteers to important resources in other regions.

Alan Crew, a PCV in Nigeria 1965- 1966, mentions that as the only form of transportation available to him, his motorbike was important for travelling the long distances from his village to meet other volunteers or go into bigger cities. He wrote to his family in 1965,

My motorcycle is running beautifully, although it still isn’t completely broken in. I can understand the almost reverent feeling the old volunteers have for their machines, as they afford one the only means of mobility available…There are 104 of us within 125 miles of each other so that we can all get together on weekends if we like. Therefore, the mobility of the motorcycle takes on a new dimension of importance.

In the case of Jane Wertz, her motorcycle may have been the only thing that helped her safely leave Zaire during military-led riots in 1991. Wertz was featured in a Peace Corps News article following the event, relaying her journey from her host village to Kikwit, the closest city with a Peace Corps office. “Usually it’s about a 3 ½ hour trip, but it took me about six hours because I had too much stuff on my bike…It was dark. I had fallen about six times. The bike was really, really heavy. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to pick it up.” Wertz’s motorcycle, as heavy as it was, was the only thing that could have gotten her to the office for evacuation.

Today, the Peace Corps allows volunteers to use motorbikes only on a project-by-project basis. Many of these exceptions are for volunteers in rural areas, only after comprehensive safety training. And, at the heart of the manual? Wear your helmet!

Sources:

Office of the Chief of Staff, “MS 523 Motorcycles and Bicycles” January 7, 2013. https://files.peacecorps.gov/documents/MS-523-Policy.pdf

Adventure in a Great Big World,” by Alan Crew, Peace Corps Community Archives, https://blogs.library.american.edu/pcca/adventure-in-a-great-big-world/

Angene Wilson and Jack Wilson, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Susan Trebbe and James C. Flanigan, “Exit from Zaire,” Peace Corps Times, Fall 1991. https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2500?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=680d78e377b816da1f3b&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=8

Pat Seaman, “Peace Corps and the Art of Motorcycle Safety,” Peace Corps Times, January-February 1985, 8-9. https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2463/datastream/PDF/view

Character Reflections from Kambia, Sierra Leone

In 1983, Jim and Carolyn Hitter left a notebook in the Peace Corps Rest House in Kambia, Sierra Leone, as a way to remember the work of their fellow volunteers. Scrawled on the inside cover of the faded notebook: “Dedicated to us, the PCV’s, VSO’s of Kambia. Twenty years of Volunteers have been here and left no record, no footprints…With this small beginning maybe our successors will know us by our deeds and misdeeds.” 

Once the first journal filled, other PCVs added another in 1988. Many of the entries are a bit of gossip, others are firsthand reflections and memories of their time in Sierra Leone.

Here are some entries from the two notebooks:

Dewey- N. Carolina

Econ major at UNC? Aggie [Agriculture] at Bapinga 1980-1982. Extended to fisheries winter of ’82. Lived with Pa Laurin. Seemed to get along well with farmers. Speak languages well. Mr. Generosity. Dewey gives things away!

Extremely conservative politically. 

Married Sierra Leonean, Regina Durwig, at Pt. Loko on 9 July 1983.

No; Dewey’s father came to S.L. to convince him that this was not a wise thing so Dewey’s wedding apparently turned into an “engagement party.” 

In fact, Dewey went home without Regina and apparently with an agreement that he would never come back, nor send for her.

Page from Jim Hitter’s Notebook, Jim Hitter Collection, Peace Corps Community Archives.

Logan 72-74

History at Kolenten. Had a masters in World History and a BA in African History. (Orland was in his Form III Class). There was a riot at school because all the history students were getting poor grades. “Logan must go or die” was chalked on the streets. According to Orlando, “he resembled Jesus and he never laughed.

Jim Hitter, 1982-1984 Kambia
…”Lived” (in a matter of speaking) through 2-3 extensive beer droughts. Saw the price of STAR [beer] go from $.80 to $4.00.

…Never taught before this experience and never will again. In fact I expect never to work again. My background for this was some years as an engineer in the aerospace industry, VISTA (in a veterans project in Seattle) and 10 years retirement. I would have been long gone if it hadn’t been for the support/love/and good humor of Carolyn, my wife!

Martin Seviour, 
1980-1982, Sewafe/Kono
1982-1984, Kambia

I’m leaving this country tomorrow after 4 years, and it does seem a day too long! I’m a VSO. I taught secondary English in Sewafe for two years and came to Kambia to work in the KELT Primary English Project.

I dislike Kambia only slightly less than Jim Hitter and know only slightly more Temne…I would like to deny all rumours that I extended only to avoid the draft for the Falklands War. 

Hopefully, I will be the first of a long line of VSO’s using the Kambia Rest House. I would like to express my thanks to all the PCVs who have strived at all time to let me not feel inferior. Special thanks should go to Douglas whom I’ve only known for a short time but who has been a good friend (Keep the toilet clean Dough!) and to the Hitters who have put up with my verbal ramblings late into the might and have cooked wonderful meals and given me lots of encouragement and advice…”

Carolyn Hitter
1982-1984, Kambia, Primary Workshops

…The Hitters lived in the “suburbs” –on the fringe of Kambia at Kolenten. The greatest thing thaat happened in Kambia was finding Kemokoh, an excellent cook, an honest man, and the only Sierra Leonean to complete a job on time…

Jim and Carolyn, old enough to be the parents of other Kambia volunteers (47 and 45) showed their age by drinking more beer than most. All those years of practice, you know!

Jim and Carolyn Hitter, 1982. Jim Hitter Collection, Peace Corps Community Archives.

[Added by another volunteer:] “Pictured above in typical form. Great people who are well worth visiting should anyone pass through Seattle.”

And in the second journal…

Bernadette
“I succeeded Chris Lavin in Bayonde village. I have enjoyed living with the Jimbra people, and tell God “tenki” everyday that I was not placed in Temne-land; Bayonde is a “seke-free zone.”

…Unlike the other Kambia PCV’s and VSO’s, I was not particularly fond of Kambia, mostly because of the rude, obnoxious, ruff bobos that hung around the rest house, whose hobby was to taunt me…

Anyway, back to Bayonde and my Peace Corps “work.” I think all of us PCV’s have realized that we are not here for the work we do; we are here as cheap P.R. for the American government. I guess that’s not so bad as long as we realize that, and also realize that we are not going to “develop” this country. As I’m sure you’ve heard a zillion PCV’s say: It’s not the work that counts so much, it’s enjoying the people and the culture where you will get the most satisfaction. At least, this has been true in my case…

I am a living example of why the Peace Corps has decided to bag the motorcycles. I broke my ankle in a Honda spill and was unnecessarily sent back to D.C. (a Salone doctor wanted to operate–yikes!) Even though an operation was unnecessary, I tell Peace Corps plenti plenti tenki for that wonderful holiday!”

Bernadette on her motorcycle in Sierra Leone. Featured in her entry in the second notebook. Jim Hitter Collection, Peace Corps Community Archives.

After the program in Sierra Leone disbanded in the ‘90s, the journals made their way to the United States. In his own notes about the journals, Jim explains: “In 1994, when rebel activity became too much, the Peace Corps was ordered out of the country. The diaries (and the large US flag that hung on the Resthouse wall) were rescued by the Catholic fathers and sent to the US.” 

Another RPCV preserved the journals until 2002, when they were ceremoniously revealed at the Friends of Sierra Leone annual meeting and 40th Peace Corps Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C.

Jim Hitter in Sierra Leone

Name: Jim Hitter
Country of Service: Sierra Leone
Place of Service: Kambia
Dates in Service: 1982-1984
Keywords: Agriculture, Community Development, Education, Environment, Health, Youth

Accession Date: March 5, 2020
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 0.25 linear feet

Document Types
• Photographs
• Diaries

Digital collection

Phil Fretz in Sierra Leone

Name: Philip Fretz
Country of Service: Sierra Leone
Place of Service: Kenema
Service Type: English teacher
Dates in Service: 1967-1969
Keywords: Education

Accession Date: January 8, 2020
Access: No Restrictions
Collection Size: 85 digital files and 1 volume

Document Types

  • Memoir
  • Photographs
  • Film/Video

Susan Shepler in Sierra Leone

Susan Shepler

Country of Service: Sierra Leone
Place of Service: Gbendembu
Service Type: Education
Dates in Service: 1987-1989
Keywords: Gbendembu

Accession Date: October 7, 2015
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 0.5 linear feet

Document Types

  • Language learning notes and language manual
  • Peace Corps Sierra Leone newsletter, De News De
  • Swearing in Ceremony Program
  • Volunteers Guide to Freetown
  • Sample exams
  • Gbendembu Secondary School staff list, letterhead and program

Adjusting to New Worlds

When browsing the collections of the Peace Corps Community Archive it is difficult to miss material that demonstrates excitement, fatigue, curiosity, or frustration surrounding issues of adjustment to life in a foreign country.

Often, volunteers expressed these sentiments through letters, diary entries, and artwork. In some cases, notation of adjustment can even be found in the official Peace Corps paperwork.

In this post, we’ll explore the materials of three new collections to illustrate how volunteers adapted: Gage Skinner (Chile, 1964 – 1966), Susan Shepler (Sierra Leone, 1987 – 1989), and Bobbe Seibert (Honduras, 2000).

Gage Skinner, an anthropologist by training, joined the Peace Corps in 1964. As one of the first groups of Peace Corps volunteers, Skinner used his time in Chile to teach Mapuche Indians the practice of beekeeping. But he was unaccustomed to the long hours spent traveling by foot around rural Chile, so Skinner inquired about horses for sale in nearby towns.

Skinner_Journal3066

Sunday, February 14, 1964, Skinner wrote about walking four hours “back into the hills” to see a horse “offered for sale.” PCCA.

Skinner purchased a horse in late April 1964. To document the event, he glued this picture drawn by his little brother Greg into his journal.

Skinner_Journal2065

This drawing by Greg of Skinner’s horse appears in Skinner’s personal journal. PCCA.

In an earlier entry, dated January 13th, 1964, Skinner journals about how difficult it could be for volunteers to acclimate to their housing. As seen on the page below, he bemoans the uncomfortable living conditions in his first home in Chile:

“There are chickens and cats in the kitchen. They are flea-ridden. They defecate on the floors. There are flies in the kitchen.”

Skinner_Journal1064

Wednesday, January 13th, 1964, Skinner described his housing situation in rural Chile.  PCCA.

Susan Shepler, who taught mathematics in Sierra Leone in the late 1980s, offers little in her notes about discomfort. In fact, a survey she filled out in the April 1989 issue of Di News De, a local newsletter produced by the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, reveals Shepler’s openness to the new cuisine and customs.

Schepler_Quiz2062

This is the second page of a “Volunteer Survey” filled in by Susan Shepler from the April 1989 issue of Di News De. PCCA.

In this same issue of Di News De, however, researchers will encounter comics, short stories, and other creative expressions that indicate some of the challenges many volunteers faced. Two examples include a bus ride gone awry and a recipe to recreate familiar food.

Schepler_LorryRide060

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 1989 issue of Di News De. Susan Shepler collection. PCCA.

Schepler_Recipe063

April 1989 issue of Di News De. Susan Shepler collection. PCCA.

Unlike Shepler, Bobbe Seibert described distaste for some local foods and created her own recipes abroad. Seibert, who joined the Peace Corps later in her adult life, detailed her cooking practices in a letter to her father and stepmother, Jean.

On October 17, 2000, Seibert wrote to her parents to explain how she used corn to make a “wonderfully hot, smooth, and comforting” cream soup because she was “not particularly fond of” the homemade tortillas.

Siebert_Corn067

Letter from Seibert to her father and stepmother on October 17, 2000. PCCA.

In the same letter, Seibert  enclosed a photograph of her house. On the back of the image she cautions her parents about visiting, noting “Honduras is not a comfortable country.”

Siebert_Pic1068Siebert_Pic2069

Photograph from a letter to Seibert’s father and stepmother dated October 17, 2000. PCCA.

Seibert served on an agricultural team in Honduras in 2000 until a family emergency brought her back home to Alaska. Yet, her time as a volunteer is well chronicled in her journals, artwork, and correspondence.

In a letter to her husband John, for example, Seibert expresses excitement regarding her new host family and housing:

“My family is perfect.”

“Dona Marlen is a housekeer – not a maid, and they have two wonderful kids, Marleny – she’s eight years old and we go everywhere together and Edward who is two years old and mostly just smiles all the time.”

“The roof is corrugated but of very good quality it sounds wonderful when it rains as it did last night – quite hard.”

Siebert_NewFam070

This letter from Seibert to John on February 6, 2000, offers a positive reaction to a new housing arrangement. PCCA.

Celebrating or overcoming adjustments is part of the Peace Corps volunteer experience. By carefully studying the collections in the Peace Corps Community Archive, researchers can build an enriched understanding of a volunteer’s daily life, including the joys and struggles associated with adjusting to a new world.

For more information, please visit the Peace Corps Community Archive website. To use the collections or make a donation, please contact the AU Archives at archives [at] american.edu

 

Student Artwork in the Peace Corps Community Archive

Christine Wenk-Harrison served her time in the Peace Corps working as an art teacher with students in Sierra Leone.  Her lesson plan notebook shows how Christine stressed the originality of artwork to her students. She believed art could be “something about you, your own idea, and work.” Her lesson plans also reveal her belief that teaching through art could demonstrate to her students how to work both creatively and independently while at the same time following instructions and overall directions.

Through art, Christine’s students expressed themselves, their culture, and their hopes. Below are several examples of her students’ work, held in American’s University’s Peace Corps Community Archive.

Wenk-Harrison Soccer Student Artwork

Student Artwork, Christine Wenk-Harrison, American University Peace Corps Community Archive

Wenk-Harrison Object Student Artwork

Student Artwork, Christine Wenk-Harrison, American University Peace Corps Community Archive

Student Artwork, Christine Wenk-Harrison, American University Peace Corps Community Archive

Christine Wenk-Harrison in Sierra Leone

Christine Wenk-Harrison

Country of Service: Sierra Leone
Service Type: Education
Dates in Service: 1969-1971
Keywords: Education, Youth

Accession Date: April 1, 2014
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1 linear inch

Document Types

  • Art work
  • Lesson plans
  • Training materials