Joe Sabo

An excerpt from Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories which should be published in a couple of weeks or months or…

The Sabo Family

Joe Sabo was a garrulous, gentle giant. He and his wife were devoted to their mission. Joe was right out of The Ugly American,[1] a novel set in Southeast Asia, in which the physically attractive American is the bad guy and the so-called ugly American did good works.

The Sabos lived ten miles away in Oguta, close to the Niger River. I could almost feel the river not far away from the Sabo’s home. Big trees shaded everything, making it dim and lonely. It seemed haunted by sad and languorous spirits harboring leprosy, yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, and shistosomiasis. Several colors on maps representing serious tropical diseases overlap where the Sabos lived.

Joe and his wife taught people to read English using phonetic spellings, and although they had no experience with Igbo they taught reading in that language, too. Igbos didn’t have a written language until some missionaries put one together based on phonetics and the English alphabet. The Sabos used a special phonics technique created by Frank Laubach, a Christian Evangelical missionary and mystic known as “The Apostle to the Illiterates.” The Sabos didn’t preach sermons or try to convert anyone to anything except reading.

Joe was a skilled mechanic, and in no time after arriving in their home in Oguta, he repaired and put into service a broken-down gasoline-powered electric generator that went with the house. I remember the pride on his face when he told me, “It hasn’t run since 1953.” Back home in Cleveland, Joe worked on a Fisher Body assembly line making car bodies for General Motors automobiles. Joe and I agreed on labor issues. He told me of a worker on the assembly line falling over and left lying as a replacement was rushed in to keep the line going.

Once while visiting the Sabos, we were in the yard talking when ten-year-old Danny Sabo came around the house riding his bicycle. He looked proud and delighted and was furiously ringing the bell on the handle bars. He was wanting attention and I obliged.

“Did you get a new bike?” I asked.

“No, new bell,” he responded as he sped by.

The Sabo kids were lonely for their American friends and school. It was hard for fifth- and sixth-grade kids to make friends in such a different place with unfamiliar language and culture. The Sabo daughter developed white spots all over her legs. I worried that it was leprosy.

There didn’t seem to be anything to look forward to in that hot, damp, unhealthy environment. It felt miserable, as if life would continue to go on and off with children dying of one or more of the endemic diseases and no one going away to college, with few making it to any school at all. Stark survival was what it looked like, no frills or proms or cruising down main street or football games or hanging out at the Dairy Queen.

[1] 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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