ACTIVIST REMEMBERS AFRICA
by Hugh Rogers
“In March, 1961, the day after President Kennedy announced he was forming the Peace Corps, I called Washington and volunteered.” Julian Martin, now a well-known political activist, recalls those days in his newly published memoir, Imagonna. What he tells about his motivation—his activities in the Wesley Foundation at West Virginia University, his discovery of certain heroes—only begins to explain that leap into the unknown. Some people are just born radical, although it helps if you’re born into a family of altruistic Christians and union activists. In 1961, a “peace corps” was a radical idea.
It’s still a miniscule program. The number of volunteers who have served over the past fifty years, 200,000, is less than ten percent of the number of active military and reserves serving just this year. Our military personnel are stationed in 150 countries. At one time or another, Peace Corps had projects in 139; currently, about 8,000 PCV’s are working in 77 countries. Coincidentally, they are no longer sent to the countries where Julian and I went, Nigeria and Korea.
Among RPCV’s (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), Imagonna will bring up lots of stories. Let me mention two more coincidences. The title of Julian’s book comes from his students’ puzzlement at a particular word he used—which turned out to be his pronunciation of “I am going to.” Similarly, my wife Ruth had to overcome her North Carolina accent so her students could be understood. Like Julian, who married a fellow PCV in Nigeria, we had a baby in Korea. In both places, strangers were curious and direct about the babies’ sex. His girl’s diaper was pulled off. Ruth learned how to say, “Yes, he has a chili pepper!” while yanking our boy away from probing fingers.
Julian was not only the first volunteer from West Virginia, he was one of the first from anywhere in the country. Peace Corps’ fledgling bureaucracy made some annoying mistakes. The telegram that arrived a few months after his call said he was being sent to Nicaragua. That was easy to correct, but the trainees rebelled at the pervasive pseudopsychology that was supposed to reveal character weaknesses. The language Julian was taught, Hausa, was useless in the Igbo region where he was sent. Fortunately, he was expected to teach chemistry, and coach track, in English, the language of education in the former colony. He learned Igbo on his own.
Instead of dealing with English colonials, he had to cope with Irish priests. His boss at the missionary school was a throwback in a long white cassock. He calls him Headmaster:
For two years I would witness Headmaster’s vow of humility being tested daily by the power he possessed to lord it over, abuse, and degrade the hired help and the three hundred teenage boys under his control. He usually failed the test.
And not only the vow of humility. The vow of poverty was difficult to reconcile with the cook, two houseboys, well-furnished house, new Peugot, ample foreign food, etc. Headmaster’s irritable temper and bigotry seemed to indicate he’d overstayed. The plush situation might help to explain why he didn’t leave.
Julian would learn that even his hero in Africa, Albert Schweitzer, was an appalling racist. His Peace Corps friend, William Shurtleff, who had worked for Schweitzer at the Lambarene hospital, could only shrug and quote the great man’s biographer: “A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”
“Culture shock” had to do with more than poverty, strange food, and mysterious customs. While trying to answer his students’ questions about faraway American racism, Julian became aware of local animosities between Igbos, Hausas, and Yorubas. The Biafran War, in which up to a million Igbos died, began shortly after he left. The neighboring country of Cameroon was already seething with insurrection. On vacation there in what he had thought was a safe mountain region, he had an AK-47 stuck in his face, and ate dinner beneath “fencing that swooped from the roof to the street” to divert hand grenades.
Nevertheless, it was a happy vacation: “Dispositions become flowery in a cool climate.” Perhaps he was missing West Virginia. Back at school, his thoughts of home turned to practical help. Friends from his chemical engineering class at WVU arranged donations of more than four hundred books, not only badly needed textbooks but a diverse collection for the school library. A wall-sized periodic chart of the elements came courtesy of Charleston Catholic High School.
Julian’s letters, saved by family and friends, and a journal he kept intermittently, were sources and “memory joggers” for the book. We get a double perspective, the eager 25-year-old and the reflective 75-year-old. Brief sections, some less than a page long, carry the story forward with no dilly-dallying. Yet it doesn’t seem hurried or thin; there’s a lot to savor.
There are moments when the full import of what he did appears in a startling image. His best student grew up in a mud hut with a thatched roof where his mother pounded yams into fufu. It looked exactly like a picture in the encyclopedia illustrating family life in 3000 B.C. Now Edwin Igbozurike could figure out, with a piece of zinc and a copper sulfate solution, the equivalent weight of copper. Julian writes, “Edwin made a five-thousand-year leap.”
[Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories is available at Taylor Books in Charleston, from amazon.com, or direct from the author—contact firstname.lastname@example.org.]