Peace Corps Experience
- Cornell University
I grew up in the 1960's and was motivated by President Kennedy's inaugural exhortation, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." I fell in love with African culture in high school, and African literature in college. When I saw the Peace Corps job opening in Cameroon that matched these passions with my agriculture and business management education, I jumped at the chance.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Cameroon between 1976 and 1978. I served as a business advisor to a cocoa and coffee marketing cooperative. Local farmer groups worked through the coop to negotiate better sales terms for their crops, and profits were returned to them at the end of the season. The coop also used retained earnings to provide grants to villages for community development programs, including clean water projects. Women's groups were the primary beneficiaries of these grants.
Now, with 30 years of perspective, I think my most important experience was learning the extent to which language plays a role in business, community, and world peace. Cameroon is home to 230 different local languages and also uses the two colonial languages of French and English. In order to conduct business, most Cameroonians have to speak three languages or more. Because I had to speak French and the local language of Ewondo to do my job, I learned firsthand that the words you choose do not always translate directly into another language. You have to work hard to understand both the language and culture of another country in order to successfully negotiate anything from a business transaction to conflict resolution.
My experience working with coops in Cameroon led to a Master's Degree in cooperative finance followed by another 10 years living and working in Zaire, Rwanda, Mali, and Chad. My two daughters spent their childhood in Africa, and grew up speaking several languages … with a better accent than me, I might add. Eventually, my finance and coop experience led me to Wisconsin where I was recruited by the World Council of Credit Unions to help build credit unions in Central Europe. This then led to my current work as the managing director of Fitchburg Center, where I try to apply all of the lessons I learned to develop sustainable communities through cooperation. My entire life is truly built on my Peace Corps experience.
At Fitchburg Center, we have to work closely with neighbors, city representatives and staff, architects, engineers, and clients to achieve our objectives. Needless to say, there are many different opinions on the best way to proceed, so cooperation and communication are crucial. My international experience taught me to listen, pay close attention to the words that people use, and be committed to understanding their concerns. That allows me to better meet a customer's needs, avoid many conflicts, and more easily resolve those conflicts that do arise.
Even now, after more than 30 years, my fellow volunteers remain business colleagues and some of my best friends. The Peace Corps will always be a part of my life.