Why I Wrote this Peace Corps Memoir

The newest book that I wrote was The Vegetable Grows and the Lion Roars:  My Peace Corps Service.  It recounts my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Ivory Coast, West Africa in the early days of the new program in the 1960s that was started by the new President John F. Kennedy to enlist young, active Americans in a constructive program to aid other countries that needed some assistance.  

Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, visited many college campuses to recruit willing young people to participate in this new venture.  During the Fall semester of 1964, he visited the University of California, Berkeley where I was a student.  I went to listen to him, was quite impressed with his presentation, but thought it was not for me.  Besides, they wouldn’t choose me anyway.  So I went on with my studies.  In the Spring semester, Sargent Shriver returned to the Cal campus and made another presentation.  Again, I was very impressed with him, but this time I decided to challenge the Peace Corps and see what they would do with my application.  So I submitted my application.  To my surprise, they sent me an invitation to participate in a health education project in the Ivory Coast, located between Liberia and Ghana in West Africa.  To prepare for our work there, eighteen guys went to UCLA for the three-month very intensive training from September to December, 1965.

Nearly at the end of our health education training, they asked for volunteers for a trial school gardens program that Peace Corps persuaded the Ivorian government to accept.  At first, the Ivorian government was reluctant to allow such a program because they had a bounty of French agricultural engineers and more highly trained agronomic engineers to draw from for any agricultural project.  Peace Corps suggested that those engineers would better serve the Ivory Coast using their higher expertise in more significant projects.  American college graduates would better serve the Ivorians in the more mundane school gardens work that did not require the expertise of an engineer.  So our school gardens project was a trial program to see if our volunteers could perform well enough to satisfy the Ivorians.  In response to the Peace Corps request during our UCLA training for volunteers for the school gardens project, I told them that I was willing to do it if they wanted me, but I said I preferred to remain in the health education project.  That was the way we left it at that time.

After our UCLA training ended, we flew to Abidjan, the bustling, large capital of the Ivory Coast where we had a two-day in-country orientation.  At the end of the orientation, we received our in-country assignments.  Garry Cutler, George Bibler, Bob Handloff, and I were selected for the school gardens project at four different locations.  The other guys also received their assignments for their locations where they were going to work in health education. 

At first, I was disappointed about being selected for the school gardens program.  But I quickly learned that agriculture was the number one industry in the Ivory Coast.  The Ivory Coast was the world’s third greatest coffee producer and a world producer of cocoa, in addition to timber, pineapples, and other products.  The Ivorian government saw that young people swarmed into the cities looking for work but ended up as homeless people sleeping on the streets.  To counter that problem like they already saw happening in Nigeria, for example, they wanted to initiate the school gardens program to improve the nutrition of the children and to teach them skills in growing vegetables in hopes of encouraging their young people to pursue careers in agriculture, their principal industry.  I realized how important that was to the Ivory Coast and wanted to participate in the school gardens program to help achieve these important goals.

You might ask yourself why I wrote the book.  There were three basic reasons why I wrote this personal memoir.  First, after I arrived in Gagnoa, my assigned location in the Ivory Coast, I decided to write a daily diary of what, when, where, and how I did it, plus my impressions, opinions, and views of people, places, and events as they occurred.  It occurred to me that if I did not write things down, I would most certainly forget most things, as is my habit.  I bought a notebook ideal for a diary in a Gagnoa stationery-bookstore.  And more as time went on when the notebook filled up.

Second, after my Peace Corps service, I told different stories about my experience in Gagnoa, the Ivory Coast, and my travels in West and East Africa to my family, friends, and neighbors.  Since they enjoyed the stories, I thought that other people might enjoy hearing the stories too.  The third reason for writing the book was the Peace Corps’ mission.  Peace Corps sent us to various countries to help them in a variety of projects, as people generally know. 

Our purpose was also to learn more about the people in the host country, their customs, and their culture.  Likewise, it was an opportunity to let our hosts learn more about Americans albeit on a individual basis.  While it was our goal to learn more about, for example, the Ivorians, in my case, I wanted to share this experience and what I learned with my fellow Americans.  As I pointed out in my book, some Ivorians had the impression we Americans dressed like cowboys and threw away our cars to buy a new one. We Americans have such major mistaken impressions of Africans because we lack knowledge of Africa (let alone any country in Africa) and we watch too many Tarzan movies.  How many Americans know that Africa is physically THREE times the size of the United States with an incredible diversity of peoples, languages, tribes, customs, history, and cultures?

Those are the reasons that inspired me to write The Vegetable Grows and the Lion Roars:  My Peace Corps Service.