Peace Corps veterans swap 'war stories' in Westport
Updated 2:08 pm, Friday, March 25, 2011
Many Peace Corps volunteers describe their experience as life changing.
No better example is that of Westporter Catherine Onyemelukwe, who during her two-year tour in Nigeria met Clement, a Nigerian national, and married him. They have been married for 47 years.
Onyemelukwe was among the first volunteers to sign up after President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps in 1961.
As he was campaigning for president at the University of Michigan a few months before his inauguration, Kennedy, then a senator, challenged students to "contribute two years of their lives to help people in countries of the developing world," according to the Peace Corps' website, www.peacecorps.gov. The corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In that span, more than 200,000 people have served in 139 nations. In Connecticut, 3,071 people have served since 1961; 138 currently.
Onyemelukwe, who served in Nigeria in the 1960s, recently hosted a party at her Westport home for former Peace Corps volunteers to mark the anniversary. Sixteen corps veterans, spouses, partners and friends attended. They brought food and drink from their Peace Corps host countries. Music and native clothing from the various nations also helped set the gathering's theme.
Perfect thing to do
Onyemelukwe was a senior at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in German, when she became intrigued at the prospect of helping a developing nation. "It seemed like the perfect thing to do. I couldn't imagine doing anything else." After graduation, and with her application to the Peace Corps accepted, she received intensive training at UCLA. She learned languages, particular Yoruba, which is spoken in the southwestern part of Nigeria, and about the native culture. She remembers having to learn to play "netball," similar to basketball and played only by females.
In 1962, she flew from New York to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, with about 70 other volunteers. With the schools not yet ready for the volunteers, the group went on a trip to the eastern part of the country and then traveled north. She gained a good understanding of the country in which she would serve for two years as a German language teacher. "In the first week, I saw a lot of the country, which was just wonderful, it was so amazing."
She taught students at the Federal Emergency Science School who excelled in science and math. The students, who were her age or older, were "eager and smart." To develop her lesson plans, she went to the German Cultural Institute to learn how to teach "scientific German," with which she was unfamiliar. Because the stint at the FESS was part-time, she also taught English, religious knowledge and African history to younger grades in a small fishing village 15 miles away. She was given a Fiat 500 -- having a car was unheard of for volunteers -- to make the trip on local roads. She often had to wait for cattle herders to clear the road with their stock, which they took from the north to the south to sell them. "The cows were bigger than I was."
In the fall of her second year in the corps, she met Clement Onyemelukwe. They were married on Boxing Day in 1964, and lived in Nigeria for 22 years, raising their two sons and a daughter, all in their 40s now. They also have three grandchildren and another on the way.
Catherine and Clement married at a time when interracial relationships were against the law in her home state of Kentucky. In fact, her parents received "hate calls." But in Nigeria, the wedding was big news; the story was over the AP wire and prompted Life magazine to cover it. An engineer and economist, Clement is the former chief electrical engineer of the Electricity Corp. of Nigeria. They had to leave Lagos when the Biafran War started, but returned in 1970. They left Nigeria as permanent residents in 1986.
However, Clement, now an American citizen with his own business, travels to Nigeria every two or three months for a few weeks at a time. Catherine has returned to Nigeria several times, and tries to visit every other year at Christmas. Her youngest son lives there.
In Westport, she has been active in nonprofit and civic organizations. She was president of the Westport Public Library board of trustees during its capital building campaign, was director of development for the YMCA, worked for the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition and now works for the Mill River Collaborative in Stamford. She has spent most of her career as a fundraising professional. She has kept her hand in international affairs too, including membership in the National Peace Corps Association Alumni Group, Friends of Nigeria and the Connecticut Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, for which she recently hosted a party at her home. Onyemelukwe also is the president of the board of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Committee.
`They taught you how to survive no matter what'
For Dianne Wildman, a 20-year Westport resident and the director of editorial services at Cablevision, joining the Peace Corps was her ticket to see the world. She was at Temple University when she signed up. "I was in college and I heard about the Peace Corps and I couldn't wait to try it. I applied when I was a junior so that I wouldn't even have to wait after I graduated. And indeed I didn't."
Serving in the 1970s, she said her training was different than it was for the earlier volunteers. They were trained in country; for her, that was Micronesia. She remembers that when they first landed, the hot air hit them right away. "It was so humid and very hot." They trained in campsites in Udot, the municipality in Truk Lagoon, Chuuk State, in the Federated States of Micronesia. Her 18-member contingent trained in a military-style, including being required to swim a certain distance since they were serving on the islands. "They taught you how to survive no matter what," she said, remembering learning how to bathe using a bucket of water from the rain catch. And she vividly recalls the cockroaches. "They were 4 inches long and flew."
During her tour, she taught English to elementary, then high school students, and also worked at a radio station. "My story is unique," she said, "in that halfway through, we had a devastating typhoon and it totaled the island. We had many typhoons, it was very common, but this one was disastrous. We lost the schools, we lost the homes, we lost everybody's homes." After the typhoon, which hit twice, "we got the schools back but they were in tents, these huge Army tents, and terribly hot and that was for months ... We worked a lot on just rebuild. It wasn't a normal Peace Corps thing from then on."
After her tour, Wildman, who has two children, "took the long way home," traveling through Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Once she returned home, she knew she needed a job that would get her abroad again. She worked for NBC News for 10 years and was a correspondent in the Burbank, Houston, New York and London bureaus. She also reported in North Ireland and the Middle East.
"I liked journalism very much. I thought it was my ticket to see the world. That was the main thing with me. I would have taken truck driving if it would have let me get out of town." A California native, Wildman also was deputy assistant for the U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs from 1993 to 1996 during the Clinton administration.
When she thinks back to her time in Micronesia, she smiles, "I had a wonderful time in the Peace Corps and I think that everybody should think about trying this. So many people have told me that they almost did or still have their application. And I think, `I am sorry you didn't go.' What an adventure. Someone paid your way to do this thing."
`Once you go and do this, very few people just stay home'
From 1982 to 1984, Tom Conroy found himself in Cape Coast, Ghana, as a teacher at a seminary. He taught biology and literature to "high school students who were bound to priests," he said. He also helped to build quarters for nurses at a hospital in Kumasi. Being familiar with the construction business since his father was a builder, Conroy oversaw a crew of skilled laborers from the area.
For Conroy, who formerly lived in Westport and now resides in what he calls a "Zen retreat" on a private lane in Weston, joining the Peace Corps was something he "always wanted to do, ever since I was in high school. I guess I was inspired by Kennedy," although he was young when the corps was established. "I just didn't want to get old and wish I'd done it."
He experienced "hard-core culture shock" when he arrived in Ghana, he said, and remembers in particular his ignorance about how to find and cook food. He didn't eat well for about four months. "I don't even know how we got through it." But he figured it out. He eventually found a local woman, gave her the food and told her to cook for them. Additionally, motivated to help create their own food source, he was instrumental in building a "fish pond," from which tilapia was raised and sold.
"It was at the Peace Corps where I got my calling. I decided when I got out that I wanted to work in international business," he said. Originally from New Jersey, he attended the University of Rhode Island, then the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona when he returned from Ghana. He later worked in Hong Kong as a commodities trader buying and selling metal. He has returned to Africa on a project for the Gates Foundation, which hired him to do commodities marketing surveys, traveling to Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.
He has learned to appreciate the special bond Peace Corps volunteers have, and recently attended a 25-year reunion in South Carolina. "Once you go and do this, very few people just stay home. Some people do, but most people find a way to feed that urge and it becomes part of their reason to do what they do."
The returned Peace Corps volunteers say they never had any regrets about their service and are grateful for the opportunity. Onyemelukwe sums it up best: "All Peace Corps volunteers come back and say it was life changing in some way. For most of them it's not this sort of permanent connection that I have, but for everyone they feel they gained more than the people they taught or worked with. They feel it gave them such a window onto the world. It is quite amazing."