When Ken Shaw of San Francisco joined the Peace Corps in rural Zambia as an agriculture specialist, he was 61. “To say it was eye-opening is an understatement,” said the retired county health department employee and part-time actor, adding he was fulfilling “my old hippie dream.”
`It’s the greatest experience you’ll ever have,” the Hicksville, N.Y. native concluded. “Maybe not the most enjoyable, but the greatest.”
Surprises abounded. “You have to be able to squat and ride a bike,” he said bluntly of the hole-in-the-ground toilet and how he biked seven miles every morning and night from his host family’s property, where he stayed in a separate 400-square-foot house, to his job.
But the ebullient extrovert, one of about four per cent of Peace Corps volunteers age 50+ (the average age is 27), loved his stint in Africa, though he had never been abroad before. He found revelations at every turn. “I learned how to build a solar panel in my house, and how to handle a bull. I never thought I’d be eating caterpillars.” (He doesn’t recommend them.)
“I also learned how well other countries treat their older people. We suck at it in the U.S. I was told before I went I’d be treated as a king as an older American man. Men would open doors for me – it was true.”
“The experience of older Americans is an asset to their host country, host community and fellow volunteers – as they share their expertise, they also learn about a new culture, language and way of life,” said Peace Corps spokeswoman Marjorie Wass.
Joining the Peace Corps
Peace Corps stints, which last for two years plus three months in-country training, are in six fields: Education (the biggest by far), health, agriculture, community economic development, youth development and environment. But shorter stints, three to 12 months, for professionals and technical experts exist in the Peace Corps Response program. Pick a country (or be sent to wherever the need is greatest), and your skills and preferences are matched to openings. Many gigs have no language requirement before you leave (in others, Spanish or any Romance language is required). Often, couples are accepted.
There’s no upper age limit. Alice Carter, the oldest known volunteer, was 86 when she served in Morocco. “Each person is considered on a case-by-case basis. Some health conditions are more difficult to accommodate in countries where the Peace Corps is, but diabetes or a previous heart attack aren’t automatic turn-downs,” Wass explained. A comprehensive battery of medical and dental exams and tests is required. “The good news: if you’re not accepted, you’ll find out what’s wrong with you,” Shaw quipped. Vaccines (or proof of immunity) are required beforehand for measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chicken pox and tetanus (and, in certain countries, yellow fever).
Not everyone is cut out for Peace Corps service. Another 60+ man in Shaw’s group quit after one and a half week’s training in Zambia. “His host family didn’t speak English, and he kept bumping his head because the ceiling was so low. He started flipping out.”
Interested? Read these tips first
- Talk to ex-volunteers and connect with Peace Corps recruiters online. Shaw attended events held by the Northern California Peace Corps Association, one of 185 affiliates of ex-volunteers of the National Peace Corps Association, located all over the country. Chances are your state or city has one.
- Do your homework so your expectations are realistic. Read about conditions in the country and region you’ll be living in. Expecting flush toilets in rural Africa is unrealistic.
- Be open to new experiences. You’ll eat foods you’ve never eaten and do things you’ve never done before. If you hate change, are set in your habits and think the American way is the only way, this isn’t for you.
- Be friendly. Shaw said “Hi, how are you” in the local language to rural Zambians he passed. “They were thrilled and laughed in amazement.” It’s only polite to return any greeting you get.
- Expect to be stared at and watched. You may be the first white person, or American, or Black American locals have ever seen. You’re the exotic one. Remember, you’re representing America: Leave a good impression.
Photo: Ken Shaw
Sharon McDonnell is a freelance writer; see her work here.