Finding purpose in the Peace Corps

Sunday, October 10, 2004

It wasn't like he grew up hearing that he had to clean his plate because there were starving children in Africa who didn't have food to eat. Nor was he constantly reminded about how wealthy and prosperous his nation was. But something about the world's disharmony struck a chord with Judy Baker's son.

She and her husband, Richard, of Jackson, aren't sure how they raised a child so committed to changing the world that he'd sacrifice 27 months to live in a poverty-stricken village on an African mountain.

But their son, Tony, the youngest of three boys, has been doing just that.

Most mothers would have balked at the idea of their youngest child leaving home to live in Africa. And Judy wasn't thrilled when Tony said he wanted to join the Peace Corps after college. But he knew after graduating from Jackson High School that he didn't want a desk job working on a computer.

So Judy keeps reminding herself that the decision wasn't about what she wanted but about what Tony wanted. "It's his life, and I gave him life, but he gets to do what he wants to do," she said.

So Tony, 22, has been living in the Tanzanian bush atop a mountain biking two hours to reach a post office box, electricity and running water. His village has none of those amenities, and he bikes because he isn't allowed to drive while in Africa.

Back in the United States, Judy Baker has a hard time understanding exactly what her son's life is like. She's seen photographs of his two-room brick hut, and she's read his letters about the hyenas that roam the village at night.

He describes his African home in a letter:

"You must understand the beauty of my surroundings. It's hard to say. It clearly kicks the pants off any state park I've ever been to, but I'm not quite sure I'd call it national park quality. As you walk into the village, you pass two big craters -- one with a large pond at the bottom -- all the while approaching the mountain, it's getting bigger and bigger. When you reach my house, the view from the kitchen/living room window is -- boom! -- mountain right in your face, and a hillside speckled with grasstop huts peeking over fields of corn. Walk three minutes to the top of the hill my house sits on and you see the rift valley and a huge salt lake at the bottom of it."

In another letter to his aunt, uncle and cousins, he talked about the people he lives among and the magnitude of poverty in Tanzania:

"... Everyone is dirt, dirt, dirt poor. I mean it. Everyone. On a nationwide scale. OK, maybe this will draw a picture: Take the poorest guy you've ever, ever seen, beat him, cripple 'im in some way, take all his stuff (because even the poor in America have things), take it all, then give him both AIDS and malaria at the same time, then multiply him to fill a country, and that is what the population of Tanzania is like."

Despite stories about hippopotamuses swimming in the lake and pictures of lions, zebra and camels sunning in the plains, Judy Baker knows her son's not on a safari vacation.

She knows her son had malaria. She also knows he's lost weight because he eats only what foods are available to the people he lives among. He's been surviving on corn, which his village grows, and a sampling of other vegetables he can buy by visiting nearby villages.

But some of her prayers have been answered. A group of nuns living in a convent on the other side of the mountain have taken it upon themselves to feed the American boy who comes to teach them English.

"I've already told you, but I'll say it again because elation of this magnitude deserves repeating: Every time I go, they won't even start class before they've stuffed me with beans, ugali, cooked spinach, sometimes tea, sometimes rice and even sometimes bread!" Tony Baker wrote in July in a letter to his parents.

Judy Baker tried to send dried foods to her son, but the packages sat for months in a post office. Now she doesn't send anything unless he requests it specifically.

Part of the problem in Tanzania is the corrupt government and mismanaged resources. Tony's already seen evidence of that. He's been frustrated by the slow pace at which the village government moves, but he continues to work at a nursery growing tree seedlings that can be planted on the mountainside to prevent wind and rain erosion and mudslides during the rainy season.

With degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Tony Baker didn't know much about farming or crops when he went into the Peace Corps. But he's had training.

Peace Corp volunteers primarily teach English, but there are other programs available, some dealing with improving business, the environment, agriculture or health.

During a visit to Southeast Missouri State University last week, Peace Corps recruitment representative Jeri Titus talked with students interested in joining the program. It was her third recruiting trip to Southeast Missouri. She comes in part to find volunteers with agricultural experience because those positions are necessary to the Peace Corps, and often hard to fill.

Volunteers with the Peace Corps have to be at least 18 years old and must agree to providing service for 27 months, which includes a three-month training period.

Volunteers do get a small stipend and health-insurance coverage. At the end of their service, each volunteer receives a "readjustment allowance" of $6,000 and an enhanced hiring status for federal jobs.

There are Peace Corps volunteers in 75 countries around the world.

Judy Baker is proud that her son felt a calling to help the world. She hopes more people learn about the Peace Corps and what it offers. There were critics who said he should have just stayed home to help hungry people here, she said.

But Tony kept telling them that it only takes one person to make a change. "It was something he had to do," she said.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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