Peace Corps

I served from 1970 to 1972 as a math teacher in a country that had very few native math teachers. In fact, there was a shortage of qualified teachers of all kinds. I taught at Bonthe Secondary School, the only high school on Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone. Half of the teaching staff at our school were expatriates.

The ferry to the mainland didn't run on weekends, and that meant that I could only leave the island during school vacations - four times a year! Through this isolation, I got to know my neighbors, my kids, my fellow teachers, and myself very well.

On Friday afternoons after a long week of teaching, many of us would gather at Mama Wangall's. Wangall was one of the few people in town who owned a refrigerator, and in the afternoons and evenings her living room served as a bar. Here's one of our gatherings on a hot day in March, 1972.

Top row, from left to right: me, another Peace Corps, Mama Wangall, another PCV, and an Irish priest. On the stairs, two Canadian volunteers, another Irish priest, a British volunteer and a Sri Lankan contract teacher.

(more Peace Corps tales to follow... just in case anyone's interested.)

October 6, 1999

When I returned home from Sierra Leone, friends used to ask me if I thought I'd made any difference there.I'd tell them that I knew that my impact was limited. In fact, the volunteers who thought they were going to save the world were the bitter, disappointed ones who fled back to the US within the first few months. My hopes were more limited. I said that I'd be satisfied if just one of my students replaced me as a math teacher there.

I had two students in mind when I'd say that. And tonight, thanks to the miracle of the Web, I've tracked down one of them and he managed to call me from West Africa using Netphone. This is a picture of Joseph Bangali, the best student I had in Sierra Leone. He was brilliant, questioning, eager to learn and always ready to laugh. And yes, for a few years, he was a math teacher.

Now he's in charge of computers and communications for the Medical Research Council in Banjul, Gambia, and hopes to return to Bonthe when the war is finally over.

Nothing's more gratifying than to see a former student do well and do good. It's what keeps educators going.


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