My interest in international volunteer service began when I joined the Peace Corps in 1965 and spent two years in the small city of Ghaziabad across the Jamuna River from New Delhi promoting modern poultry keeping. By chance, I was asked in 2003 to produce for the Brookings Institution a quick assessment of the Peace Corps. It was published in December 2003 and led to more than two years of work exploring options for scaling up international volunteer service, culminating in a workshop in June 2006 that opened with a pep talk from former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Episodically since then, I have produced a number of published reports and essays on this topic.
My aging-in-place community, the Dupont Circle Village, asked me to write a short account of my Peace Corps service in India. It was published in the DCV’s March 2021 newsletter which you can read below.
When people ask me what my job was during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in India, I say: “getting more eggs from happier hens”. When they ask what I accomplished, I say: “I got more eggs but the hens weren’t happier”.
The fundamental irony of my Peace Corps service is that we were showing poultry keepers how to earn money by converting from free range husbandry (roaming around the village) to raising chickens in cages. Now here in the USA we are taking chickens out of cages and moving to free range husbandry.
In June 1965, I arrived on the campus of St. Johns College in Annapolis MD to begin three months of training in modern poultry keeping with almost 100 other trainees. This was an exceptional training program because it built upon the “Great Books” curriculum of St. Johns College. The main feature of the program was its seminar style, led by a faculty of the top India scholars in the USA. Stories from our training program could easily fill a book.
The most amazing part of India XVI’s experience was spending five weeks in Israel. When we assembled at JFK Airport in New York City for our flight to New Delhi, we were stopped from boarding because fighting between India and Pakistan had just broken out. President Lyndon Johnson decided it would be wrong to send more Peace Corps volunteers to India before the fighting stopped. After three days in a hotel awaiting our fate, the Peace Corps sent us to Israel. We spent the first week there touring the whole country and then were divided into four kibbutzim that had poultry operations among their multitude of activities. Stories from our time in Israel could fill another book.
We arrived in New Delhi in November 1967 and were scattered among 6-7 different states in Northern and Western India. I ended up in Ghaziabad, just 15 miles East of New Delhi. Peace Corps staff had learned of my keen interest in small industry. By chance, a site in Ghaziabad prepared for a volunteer from an earlier small industry group had gone unfilled, so they posted me there.
It’s not easy to sum up my experience within the Newsletter’s word limit. Here are some highlights:
· My poultry work was more of a failure than a success. My “clients” ranged from a brewery raising more than 1000 chickens for their eggs, to a Christian mission, to a family in a remote village selected by my counterpart as a pilot project for modern poultry keeping in rural India. My most spectacular failure was starting an egg-laying operation on the flat roof of a large residence on Ghaziabad’s main road. Nothing about this effort was smart.
· My small industry work got nowhere. I tried making egg cartons from a European design. I designed a “better” feeder for chicken houses that turned out to be worse. I tried to help a friendly carpenter make yoyos with a fine lacquer finish, but we were not able to master the lacquering.
· Having acquired an interest in family planning in college, I spent chunks of time advocating family planning and providing encouragement and support to the nascent family planning movement in Ghaziabad. I’m sure my efforts had no effect on the birth rate.
· The worst part of my experience was getting pneumonia about four months after my arrival and spending a full month in Holy Family Hospital in New Delhi.
· The best part of my experience was being able to travel to most of the states of India and even visit Nepal for a few days. The most memorable trip was to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab State, as the guide to the daughter of the interior designer who worked with LeCorbusier in designing Punjab’s new capital.
· It should come as no surprise that the best part of my Peace Corps experience was the friends I made. I stayed in touch over the years with three Indian friends and I’ve visited them five times since completing service in 1967. And I have done quite a bit of work to promote the Peace Corps and international volunteer service over the past 17 years.