For those that are not aware, Peace Corps started in 1961. This makes this year the 50th anniversary. Tanzania was one of the first countries to host volunteers. Because of this, there has been a lot of celebration to commemorate the anniversary. The director of the Peace Corps recently visited Tanzania. At the party, my area buddy, Dan Waldron gave a wonderful speech which I thought I’d share with you:
“Dr. Florens Turuku, Ambassador Lenhardt, Director Williams, Country Director Wojnar-Diagne. Distinguished guests, fellow volunteers, ndugu wenzangu. Take a moment to look around. We are not natural neighbors. We come from different generations, from different states and different countries, from different religions and backgrounds. But tonight we are united in a community of hope, brought together by an unshaken devotion to our common humanity. So it is tonight, and so it was at the beginning of our journey.
50 years ago a group of driven individuals arrived in what was then Tanganyika. It wasn’t a country yet, it wouldn’t be for four more months, and when they arrived, they were greeted by a sign which read “Beware the lions” And there we started. But who were these people, these reckless ambassadors? Reading the first curious accounts, the first letters home from a new frontier, one gets a sense of their characters. Who were they? They were George Schreiber, who talked about embodying “ a pioneer type of spirit”. They were George Johnson, who said “Peace Corps exists as an embodiment of a conviction that the best way to achieve global understanding is to put Americans in contact with other nations.” There were 35 of them, engineers, surveyors, and geologists, from Princeton, Harvard, Michigan. And they were drawn together by a man who stood on the steps of Ann Arbor and told the assembled students that based on “your willingness to not merely serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.” 5 months later, the Peace Corps was signed into law, with Kennedy again telling us that “We will send those abroad who are committed to the concept which motivates the Peace Corps. It will not be easy:”
Across the nation, people were moved. They volunteered, they went to boot camp (Drill sergeant and all), and they became the first soldiers in an army of peace. 50 years later, that army has fought poverty, hunger, disease, and subjugation in 139 countries, side by side with peoples of every language, tribe, and religion. Kennedy’s words have outlived him. The army fights on. And though it sometimes feels as though our struggle is never-ending, battles have been won, progress has been made.
Yet for all the measurable progress, so much of what Peace Corps does is unquantifiable. There is no box that shows how amazed the children were when the seedlings began to grow, no graph to measure the change that occurred when a woman living with HIV when she realized she had become a leader. And more: how many Tanzanians knew, until the moment they were proven wrong, that Americans could never swing a jembe? How many Tanzanians did not believe that we could dance? And how many of us volunteers never guessed at the number of different ways life could be lived, and lived beautifully, until we came here? We knew about the poverty, but how little did we know about the generosity? These things may be unquantifiable, but they are no less real. Mwalimu Nyerere said “To measure a country’s wealth by its gross national product is to measure things, not satisfactions.” Many other organizations build more things. Yet I doubt there is another that builds more satisfactions.
Now where do we go from here? The goal of our work is to make the continuation of our work unnecessary. We are not there yet, in fact we are nowhere near the limits of our potential. Success is based on expectations, but it is also limited by them, and we are limiting ourselves, and our communities as long as remain prisoners to what Michael Gerson called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Let us never tire of pushing ever upwards. We have come so very far, Tanzanian and American alike, still we have so very far yet to go. This is a party to celebrate 50 years of friendship and accomplishment, but it can be more. Let us stand together tonight and take this anniversary as an opportunity to recommit to the spirit of the Peace Corps, to remember the sense of duty that brought us all here, to do better, to go farther, to try harder. We can expect far more from one another, but we can also offer far more of ourselves. American poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Tonight we have a golden opportunity on this golden anniversary to not set limits on our potential, but rather expand our expectations.
I don’t know much. I left America a year and a week ago, and I’m just beginning to realize what I don’t understand. But I love this job. There is nothing like it. I said goodbye to everything and everyone I held dear, climbed onto a plane with a large group of strangers, got pushed out at 30,000 feet, landed, and began to plant trees, dig wells, and teach beekeeping. One day, mungu akipenda, I will get good at my job, at which point it will be time to leave. And after all of that, after the level of insanity I’ve put myself and my loved ones through, the thought that will keep me up at night: is how do I get back to Tanzania?
Because somewhere along the way, something changed. We came here as ambassadors from America, to show Tanzanians what America really is. But now…now we have become ambassadors to America, from Tanzania. For the rest of our days we will do all in our power to represent Tanzania: its beauty and its need, its poverty and its riches, its depth of generosity and humanity. The Kiswahili word for together is “pamoja”. It literally means “in one place”. And if that’s the case, none of us will ever be together again. A part of us never left America, the land of the free, the home of the brave. But a part of us will never leave Tanzania, “nakupenda na moyo yote”. That part of us will always be Tanzanian, rising with the sun, gripping the hands of strangers-turned-family, forever exchanging with unguarded smiles the news of the morning.
Because Peace Corps is not for everybody. As Kennedy said, “it will not be easy.” It isn’t easy. It is painful, and it is lonely. But none of us here today have to be here. We could be living closer to our loved ones. We could be making more money. We could be cooler, or more comfortable, and God knows we could be cleaner. But each of us decided that there were more important things to us than comfort, that while a ship in the harbor may be safe, that is not what ships are built for. Everyone here tonight, Tanzanian and American, has dedicated a portion of their lives to the belief that with devotion, and kindness, and insistence on a brighter future, change is possible. Everyone here tonight is part of something greater than themselves. We are all soldiers in an army of peace. An army that marches on, as our President Barack Obama said, “with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us.”
ndugu wenzangu = my relatives
jembe = hoe
mungu akipenda = if God wishes
nakupenda na moyo yote = I love you with all my heart