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Joseph O’Connell’s Peace Corps

by Joseph O’Connell

Jan. 21, 1961, was bitterly cold when my younger brother and I stood near the U.S. Capitol, to hear President John F. Kennedy take the oath of office. A few minutes later, when he issued his famous challenge, that we citizens should first ask what we can do for our country, I recall being moved by his soaring rhetoric, although I had no idea that his words would, seven years later, move me to join the Peace Corps for a what turned out to be a life-changing experience in the Colombian Andes.

Joe O’Connell, Colombia,1967-69: Joe O’Connell pauses in his search for Colombian spuds in the Andes.

It was early in 1967 when my fellow trainees and I flew to Puerto Rico for the first half of our training, much of which was spent trying to master Spanish, along with how to be a community organizer in Colombia’s vast rural areas. After a couple of months near the island’s rain forest, my group moved on to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, where we continued our studies until late June. I was assigned to Junin, a tiny, rain-soaked hamlet at some 10,000 feet in Colombia’s Cundinamarca province, several bone-jarring hours from Bogotá. Even now, the day I arrived in Junin remains vividly in my memory. A Volunteer Leader drove me over muddy and rutted roads to Junin in a Jeep that had seen better days. During our training, I had been given what the Peace Corps called a “site survey,” a sparse description of Junin. I was to be the first – and last — Volunteer there. If I had expected a formal welcome, I would have been mistaken. It wasn’t clear that anyone in Junin was expecting me.

We came to a stop in the village’s main plaza, which was dominated by an unpainted and unfinished cathedral-size church. “Well,” said Ken Collins, “Here we are.” After I unloaded my duffel bag, we shook hands as he climbed back into the Jeep. “Good luck,” he said simply. I watched the Jeep disappear as it headed down the mountain toward Bogotá. My thought at that moment was, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” Nothing that I could see on that plaza suggested anything life-changing.

We had been trained in what the Peace Corps called “rural community development.” My original mission was to mobilize the town’s residents, most of whom were small farmers (known as minifundistas) so that they could petition the provincial government for funds to build schools, roads, community drug stores, etc. As I quickly learned, however, the local populace had already organized itself quite well into community action councils for each of the settlements in the area that surrounded the town. They sure didn’t need a foreign stranger, whose Spanish was just so-so, telling them how to organize. What they did need was assistance in improving their crop yields, mostly potatoes and corn. We quickly got some basic instruction in agricultural extension at a research organization near Bogotá. The scientists there promised to support us and supply us with new strains of potato seeds which we would be introducing to the farmers. Luckily, one of our colleagues grew up on a farm and knew more than the rest of us, who came from cities or suburbs.

My two-plus years in Junin were a mix of a few modest successes leavened by some predictable setbacks. The farmers whom we helped to plant demonstration plots were impressed by the dramatically higher yields of potatoes. That was the good news. The less-than-good news was that the yields were so high that the price of potatoes in the region fell, badly. In addition, many people did not care for the flavor of the newly-introduced strain. They preferred the native strain. Among the successes, with support from community leaders and the local priest, we were able to establish a community drug store which offered medications that had been unavailable in Junin. Also, with a contribution we secured from the USAID office at the U.S. Embassy, we were able to help finish a new school, whose construction had been halted for lack of funds.

Looking back at those years, and like many Peace Corps Volunteers over the past sixty years, many of the goals that I had naively set for myself turned out to be too ambitious. When I couldn’t achieve them, frustration set in more than once, and at times I felt like a failure. Another commonality among returned Volunteers, including me, is a guilty feeling that I had gotten more out of my experience than I put into it, which was probably inevitable. After all these years, that still haunts my dreams and memories.

I wrote above that my time in the Peace Corps was life-changing, and that remains true today. For example, I have – fortunately – not, since my departure from Colombia, been able to look at my own country – or the world – in the same limited way that I did before I joined the Peace Corps. Also, if meeting and marrying the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life qualifies as life changing – and of course it does – then that is obviously a big part of the change in my life. While still in training in Bogotá, I met a young Colombian woman named Stella Sarmiento. A year later, we married, and she joined me in Junin for my final year there. So, in a way, she had her own Peace Corps experience, in her own country. I will leave it to others to guess who quickly became the most popular person in town. After all, she was much better looking than I, and her Spanish was perfect.

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