Michael Geneve in Voices From the Peace Corps

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Angene and Jack Wilson’s new book, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers, includes stories from one of Ace’s longtime art directors, Michael Geneve, who served in the Peace Corps 2003 through 2005. Excerpts reprinted with the permission of University Press of Kentucky.

Michael Geneve (Mozambique 2003–2005) explained that he had known about the Peace Corps since he was sixteen. He thought about it again when he was a twenty-five-year-old graduate in graphic design with a good job as art director for the Lexington-based Ace Weekly. “Something wasn’t fulfilling my needs. I wasn’t sure if it was just one of those crazy ideas that I had about helping people, but I researched it more at this point. They actually had everything online. My friends and family all said I was crazy [except his dad, who travels a lot and said, ‘Do that, man!’]. ‘What are you doing? You’ve got a really good job and you’re on your way up. You have everything you need here. Why do you need to go over there and not have electricity and do this?’ I didn’t know how to respond. I just told them that I had this void in me, that I needed to see the world and help some people out.” Michael also talked with returned volunteers in Lexington, including Tara Loyd (Lesotho 1999–2001). “We did a piece on her in Ace, and she told me everything I needed to know about it and really encouraged me. I was really fortunate to meet her.”

Miscommunication with Washington was a problem for Geneve. He wanted to go to a former Soviet bloc country, but the Peace Corps said, “‘No. You’re going to teach English and art in Ghana.’ I said, ‘Okay. I’ll take whatever I can get. If you guys say I can do it, let’s do it.’” The Peace Corps promised to send him a packet in six weeks, in March 2003, but nothing came. Michael called Washington. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we forgot to call you. That program is not going.’ I’m basically telling the lady, ‘I quit my job, I sold my car, I’m setting somebody up to live in my house. What am I supposed to do now?’ And she said, ‘Well, I told you you’re not supposed to do anything like that until you’re ready to go.’ I said, ‘You told me six weeks. What do I do now?’ She said, ‘Well, we can put you in for a new location.’ I just assumed that they were sending people out every couple months. And she said, ‘No, no, no. The program we’re going to put you into is Mozambique. And it’s not until October 2003.’” So Michael begged for his job back, bought a junky truck for $500, and stayed in town until October.

The results of the National Peace Corps Association’s December 2009 survey echoed the concerns of Michael and others. Issues that needed to be addressed included “communication during application and medical screening process” and “increasing speed in moving from application to selection and placement,” as well as applicant input and choice on country assignment. The Peace Corps has recognized the need for speed: one goal of its 2009 Performance and Accountability Report was to reduce the response time to applicants from 123 days in 2009 to 80 days by the end of 2011.

Lauren and David Goodpaster (Malawi 2005–2007) had a cell phone but no electricity to charge it, so they set up a time once or twice a month on Sundays to turn on the phone. “Occasionally we wouldn’t have a battery. You know, it was like, ‘Oh hey guys. Sorry!’ And it would hang up.” Lauren explained, “When we did get into town we were able to e-mail. We had this e-mail Listserv of 200 people, and I would write journal stories pages long and hope that people would be interested.”
In neighboring Mozambique, Michael Geneve (2003–2005) used a prepaid phone card to call his family and then let them call him back, and he did a lot of text messaging. E-mail access was three and a half hours away, and although he sent e-mail descriptions of his Peace Corps experience back to Ace, at one time he didn’t use his e-mail for about eight months. Returned volunteer Gwenyth Lee (Cameroon 2004–2006) also had a cell phone, and there were a few wealthy people in her village with cell phones, too. However, “in Bamenda [the closest town], everybody had a cell phone. My village was too small, but it had good coverage because of elevation, so I could get phone calls from my parents, and I could send text messages. They tried to call every week, and they probably got through half the time. So I probably talked to them once or twice a month. It was good.”

Rabies could also be a health issue, and shots were required if it was suspected. That was what happened to Geneve, who liked to run four or five times a week, often with kids, on the half-mile cement landing strip in his town. One day while he was running a dog bit his leg, and he had to go down to the capital, Maputo, and get rabies shots. After he returned to his village and resumed running, “You know what? That same dog, the same day of the week, the same location, he bit me again. Actually,” he said, “the owner of the dog was one of my students’ fathers, and he came over to apologize.” The owner killed the dog, so Michael called the Peace Corps medical officer, and she told him to cut off the dog’s head and bring it down to Maputo, twelve hours south on the bus. They observed Michael for ten days. “I didn’t have rabies, thank goodness. So that’s the story on the dog. I still have a really good scar.” Michael also got malaria in July 2005 and had health problems during his last six months, so instead of going to Brazil on his way home, as he had planned, he came straight home.

He described arriving in his village and going to the director’s house for a welcome meal.

This woman comes out of the house holding a pot and pops it right in front of me. There’s a lid on it, and they tell me that I need to help myself. I was the guest. So I lift the top of the pot, and it’s a goat head looking right at me. I compose myself. All right. I can just eat some of this head here, but I have no idea what I’m doing. So I ask them, “What is the best part?” And they tell me it’s the brains. I ask, “Well, how do I do that?” And they say, “Pick it up and then take that knife, the really blunt knife, and crack the skull open to get to the brains.” I’m thinking, “Oh, God, the goat’s looking at me.” The skull popped open pretty easily. Then I got the brains and cut some out and put it on my plate. And it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. I thought for sure I was going to throw up, but I kept it down. And it’s really funny, because now I love goat brain and goat tongue and goat cheek and everything like that. That first experience, maybe it was the way they prepared it. I have no idea, but they were all laughing at me.

From chapter 7:
Soon after arriving in-country, volunteers were often sent out to their host families or out to the countryside. Geneve (Mozambique 2003–2005) talks about walking for an hour with his host father, Orlando, from the training center outside Maputo, the capital, to the cement block house he would call home for the next ten weeks.

There were other houses in that community that were made of mud and reeds, but we all stayed in a cement house for security purposes. We were the sixth group to go there, and each of the previous groups stayed with pretty much those same families. So every time they get somebody out of the Peace Corps, they get a little bit of cash and fix up their house.

I’m seeing all these people go into their houses. And it’s really hot. It’s four, five o’clock and still really hot. The sun’s going down, and this is when I know it’s going to be a really hot experience in Mozambique. But I was up for it. And we walk all the way and finally we get to our house, and I see my family. My father was a teacher and made pretty good money, but the mother owned all these different stores and actually made a lot of money, and all of her family would come and borrow money from her. They invited me into their house. The mother and father actually moved out of the big room of the house for me to live there. They had a TV in their house and they insisted that they put it in my room, and I had no idea how to say to them that I didn’t want the TV. We finally get the mosquito net rigged up. Then I have to go to the bathroom. How do I say that? I got my dictionary. “Bano. Where’s the bano?”

They took Michael out to a little reed house with a cloth flap in front and a lock. “That was the latrine. They locked it with chicken wire, so I would have to ask them every time. Inside is this triangular shaft that comes up about two and a half feet. I just assume that everybody sits on that thing. There’s this cardboard over the top of it. And I lift the cardboard off, and these cockroaches start flowing out like it’s a volcano. I kind of perch over the top. I don’t want to sit on it. And my whole family was watching me behind the flap. I’m like, I can’t do this. So I just held it the whole night.”

Judy Lippmann (Morocco 1966–1968) remembered that “the fresh vegetables and pomegranates and fruits were just wonderful, and lots of lamb and fresh butter. When I was in Tétouan, one of the highlights of the lunch hour was going to the bakery and getting a hot loaf of bread. There’s nothing better in the world than a can of sardines and this hot bread and butter. The coffee was wonderful, and the yogurt was fabulous.” Richard Parker (Côte d’Ivoire 1973–1974, Morocco 1976–1978) “liked the African cooking very much, especially the peanut sauce. I would go to the market, buy hamburger, and make hamburgers on French bread with avocado. Those were great burgers, fresh off a cow.”
Geneve (Mozambique 2003–2005) talked about “fruit galore. Bananas all year long, really cheap. Mangoes, avocados, lemons, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, sometimes apples from South Africa. I was about a half hour away from the beach. You’d have to be in the right spot in the village to see the ladies with fish, and those went quick. A variety of fish really cheap and really, really good.”

Portuguese was the colonial language in Mozambique, where Michael Geneve (2003–2005) taught English to six different eighth-grade classes, fifty-five students to a class. The Peace Corps had instructed him to use only English, which worked for the first week when the students were learning “How are you?” but when he got into grammar, he needed to use Portuguese. “I would use Portuguese in my class a little bit, but anytime I made the slightest mistake, those kids would laugh so hard at me, just because the rest of their teachers were so strict about getting Portuguese exactly right. When I said something in the masculine tense instead of the feminine, they would laugh their heads off. I told them, ‘Hey, I just started to learn Portuguese when you guys started to learn English. So you’ve got to give me some leeway here.’ They gave me a really hard time.” Michael explained the classroom situation: “Only two of the classrooms had desks. The rest of my four classes, the kids were on the ground. Most of the classrooms had chalkboards. The classrooms were made of reeds and a zinc metal roof, which made it hotter inside the classrooms than outside. The rooms were connected, so you could hear all the other teachers, and you couldn’t be too loud. I was trying to do really fun things like singing songs. I’d say the toughest thing for me was learning how to discipline the kids, but eventually they figured out that I’d send them out of the classroom if they didn’t do their homework. I really enjoyed teaching, and the kids started showing improvement quickly.”

He was pleased that, “after two years of these kids learning English with me, there were fifteen of them who spoke English. They could come over to my house, and we would speak English together. That was just a really great feeling.” He had a “bricks and mortar” impact as well. Using his architecture background, he designed a library for his school, worked with the school director to write a proposal, and got approval for $7,500 from USAID to build it.

Two returned volunteers found that the Peace Corps turned their career goals toward international development. Former graphic artist Michael Geneve (Mozambique 2003–2005) said, “I want to continue working with development.” Michael completed a master’s degree in community and leadership development in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, doing a thesis based on a community development course he led in Banda Aceh in Indonesia. He wants to work with an international nongovernmental organization. Blake Stabler (Russia 2000–2002) said, “The entire idea that I’d work in international development or that I’d be interested in agriculture as a way to make money for especially marginalized rural people is kind of weird.” His interest in solving the problems of rural poverty evolved from the time he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Russia. After working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several years, including a return to Russia, he completed a master’s degree at the Patterson School for International Diplomacy and Commerce at the University of Kentucky. “I really like going out to farms in these remote places and talking to people about what it is they actually want to do with their enterprises, and what they want to grow, and what they see as the future and trying to see what I can do to help out with that.”

[At a Peace Corps gathering] Lauren Goodpaster (Malawi 2005–2007) brought baby Sam to the party and met Don Stosberg (Malawi 1965–1966) and Kristen Perry (Lesotho 1999–2001). Glen and Jenifer Payne (Gabon 1989–1992, 1990–1992) had recently returned from a reunion of their Peace Corps groups and met another unrelated Payne, Sarah (The Gambia 1989–1991). Austin Cantor (Chile 1965–1968) and Dianne Bazell (Zaire [Democratic Republic of Congo] 1975–1977) realized they both went to the same synagogue, and Dianne took new Kentuckian Blake Stabler (Russia 2000–2002) home when we discovered he’d walked several miles from a bus stop to our house. Michael Geneve (Mozambique 2003–2005) reported that he was completing his thesis on an international development seminar he led in Banda Aceh in Indonesia. Bill Davig (Peru 1965–1967) bought Peace Corps calendars to take to the PeaceCraft store in Berea to sell, and others bought calendars for gifts. Paul Winther (India 1961–1963) told us he was leaving for Oregon the next morning to go hiking with Gary Griffin (Thailand 2004–2006). Debra Schweitzer (Mali 1993–1996) didn’t bring her son Beau, whose father is Malian, and Kay Roberts (Ecuador 1982–1984) didn’t bring her daughter Claire, whom she adopted from China. Both often attend Peace Corps events with their mothers, and we missed them.

On Saturday March 19 Angene and Jack Wilson will sign Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers, 2:00 pm, The Morris Book Shop and at Joseph Beth, Monday, March 21 at 7 pm.



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