The amount of lawn signs around town makes it clear that Ashland is filled with activists. It takes a lot of courage to be an activist, but for Peace Corps volunteers, it takes more than just courage. It takes everything in them.
Peace Corps week, a week celebrating the inception of the organization on Mar. 1, 1961, was recently memorialized all over the Rogue Valley. Southern Oregon is a magnet for returned Peace Corps volunteers. Many of these returned volunteers have written books about their experiences.
One local couple, David Drury and Asifa Kanji, wrote about their experience in Mali in 2011 before being evacuated due to a coup. Their side-by-side memoirs “300 Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” describe their 14-months stay in the Sahel.
“We never got to say goodbye or thank you to families who had taken us in as their own,” Kanji said. “We disappeared out of peoples’ lives … so the book was our way to say ‘thank you.’”
Kanji, who lived in Tanzania until age 11, was a health volunteer, focused on finding solutions to malnutrition during her stay. The most substantial project she undertook was implementing the education and planting of the moringa plant.
In Mali, there is a hunger season, a time between harvests with little or no food, Kanji said.
“The kids who survive end up with impaired brain function, because they don’t have enough food and enough nutrition,” Kanji said.
The moringa plant grows well in that part of Africa, and the leaves are extremely nutritious and include important nutrients such as amino acids, protein and vitamins.
Thirty miles away from a “no-go zone” where Al Qaeda kidnappings were rampant, and on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Kanji said her time as a Peace Corps volunteer was the best thing she’s ever done.
“The Malian people are just awesome,” Kanji said. “I’ve never met a community of people so caring, so welcoming. And even though they’re incredibly poor, they’ll give you, the guest, their last grain of rice. That’s how generous they are as a people.”
Kanji’s memoir’s title, “300 Cups of Tea,” stems as a metaphor for the development of relationships and global aid of corps volunteers in Mali. She said it takes 300 cups of tea to get to know someone and earn their trust in the culture.
“It’s a story of survival, of human spirit, of love,” Kanji said.
All of the proceeds from the book go to the Let Girls Learn initiative, a program that expands educational opportunities for girls worldwide, including areas of conflict and crisis.
“It’s not about charity, it’s not about doing good, but it’s about learning from each other and enabling each other to create a better life,” Kanji said.
According to Drury, Kanji had the last plane out due to death of a family member, before the coup began. That night, gunfire erupted in the village, and Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated the next morning. After the coup, Drury and Kanji finished their time in Ghana and South Africa.
“The most important thing you need to know during a coup, is - are they shooting this way (up), or are they shooting this way (horizontal),” Drury said demonstrating with his hands. “If they’re shooting this way (up), then it’s done, you know it’s over because they’re celebrating.”
Kanji and Drury have traveled the world together embarking on various global outreach programs for years. While in Mali, Drury worked on small business improvement. His memoir’s title, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” is an old Peace Corps slogan, he said.
“People are people everywhere,” Drury said. “You realize, wherever you go, that this is the same species. They are people like we are.”
Drury said the book was written in an essay style of the epistle-fashioned letters they wrote during their volunteer time. Drury and Asifa spend their time now writing and presenting lectures on various topics, including teaching Americans to see past common stereotypes.
Another local author and returned Peace Corps volunteer shares similar beliefs that volunteering is life-changing and has steered him in a single direction ever since — working in the public sector for nonprofits on health and environmental issues.
In Curt Mekemson’s book, “The Bush Devil Ate Same: And other Tales of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa” is about the influence UC Berkeley had on him as a student in the ‘60s to join the corps, his time abroad and an update on Liberia since. Mekemson said the title stems from the impact of the tribal culture on the students he taught.
Sam Kollie, a young man working for Mekemson who became a close friend, shared a tribal secret with Mekemson, and not his wife, although she was the one that asked about the scars on his back. That’s because the participation of a bush school run with the highly secret and powerful Poro Society for young males of the Kpelle Tribe didn’t share their secrets with women.
“The Bush Devil was a powerful figure in the society,” Mekemson said. “He was always dressed up in a costume that hid his identity and made him look quite scary. When Sam graduated from bush school, the bush devil ‘ate’ him: swallowing him as a child and spitting him back out as an adult. The scarification marks were made by the Devil’s ‘teeth.’”
The book explores Mekemson’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the organization’s inception, the projects he undertook improving the language and education programs where he worked, and how those projects were destroyed because they government saw Mekemson as a threat to their one-party rule.
He said he created a new elementary school reader using African folklore so the children could relate to the stories better and learn faster. But, near completion of the book, the project was shut done by the Liberian government.
“Liberian children were expected to learn to read out of vintage California textbooks featuring Dick, Jane and Spot,” Mekemson said. “Dick and Jane with their large homes and white-picket fences were really hard to relate to. As for Spot, he resembled food.”
“Apparently, my innocent stories about children and African folk tales was going to lead to a future Revolution,” Mekemson said.
Mekemson said he was restless upon his arrival and found solace by working as an activist. He became the executive director of an environmental information/action center and the executive director of the American Lung Association in Sacremento, California, a legislative advocate for environmental and health issues in California and Alaska, as well as the national consultant to the American Lung Association on trekking.
Both Mekemson’s and Drury and Kanji’s books can be found at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, alongside many other local returned Peace Corps volunteers’ books.
— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.