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A peace of the puzzle
by Greg Russell

U of M alumni are doing their part in promoting peace while improving living conditions for the less fortunate around the world.

A peace of the puzzleAdam Montgomery’s mood was confounding. Anyone who had ever crossed paths with the former University of Memphis soccer star knew him as a happy-go-lucky — if not philosophical — young man who always sported a grin as wide as the crossbars of a “futtie” goalpost. Dig deep into his more than 700 Facebook photos and one would still be hard pressed to find anything but laughter, good times and a cavernous list of fun-loving friends.

But here he was, Christmas Eve 2008, thousands of miles from Tennessee feeling something deep within that was about as foreign as the South American country he was now calling home. Depression and homesickness surfaced as he chatted with family members who had gathered in Morristown, Tenn., for the holidays. If tears had a way of finding their way through phone lines, this would certainly have been the occasion.

Soon after that conversation, it began to dawn on Montgomery (BBA ’08) that the next two years of his life would be an emotional roller coaster — one that he would have to endure solo. Montgomery was in the first full month of a two-year Peace Corps stint in Paraguay, a small, Third World country that lags behind border countries Brazil and Argentina in the race toward modernization. His assignment: Teaching bee-keeping skills and English while living among a remote tribe of Guaraní Indians whose English skills are about as good as an average American’s Guaraní. No hot showers, no indoor plumbing, no grocery store and no Internet cafés — just dirt roads, wood shacks and a population that at first accused him of being a spy.

The toughest job you’ll ever love

As I lie awake in my bed, reflecting on my first day as a Peace Corps volunteer, one question keeps repeatedly coming to mind: “What have I gotten myself into?” Actually, this question arose about halfway through my first day sometime in the midst of me getting sick from the water, eaten alive by the bugs, and generally not being able to understand anyone in my village.

When Montgomery first arrived in Potrero Reducción, a village of 200 or so Guaraní Indians in the remote Paraguay countryside, he, like many Peace Corps workers, was at a loss for words.

“The poverty in my village is very eye-opening,” says Montgomery. “The town itself is very primitive. Many of the people live in wood shacks, there are no paved roads and there are no cars. Almost all of the houses have electricity, but only about a fourth have running water. The house I live in has no refrigerator, no running water and no indoor plumbing.”

Paraguay is the second poorest South American country: families make about $4,500 annually, but even less in rural areas. “They live off the land and the animals they raise — it is a month-to-month existence,” says Montgomery.

He says his village is made up of a church, school and soccer field. Most in the area work as farmers.

Peace Corps volunteers sign up to work for two-year stints in a developing country for a myriad of reasons.

“A lot of it is wanting to see the world and to just do something really different,” Montgomery says. “And it is a chance to help other people out. I have been fortunate in my life, and this is a way I can give back.”

Montgomery was a fixture on Richie Grant’s Tiger soccer squad from 2004 to 2007, helping Memphis make only its second-ever NCAA tournament appearance his freshman year.

After unsuccessfully trying out for two professional soccer teams upon graduation, he says he wasn’t ready to go to work nor go back to school, so the Peace Corps was a perfect fit.

What started as a small initiative in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy has blossomed into one of the largest volunteer relief organizations in the world. About 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers — including 151 U of M graduates — have served in 195 countries since it began, seeking to help individuals and communities build better lives.

“The three main goals of the Peace Corps are to share your expertise, live their culture and share your own culture with the people you live with,” Montgomery says.

(Bottom photo) Montgomery's “official” duty as a Peace Corps volunteer is to teach bee-keeping skills to farmers in Potrero Reducción, Paraguay, but he also conducts English lessons for school-age children in the remote village (top photo).

(Bottom photo) Montgomery's “official” duty as a Peace Corps volunteer is to teach bee-keeping skills to farmers in Potrero Reducción, Paraguay, but he also conducts English lessons for school-age children in the remote village (top photo).

 

Volunteers go through a several-month application process before being assigned to a duty station in almost any area of the world. A host country requests and then must show a need for a Peace Corps volunteer. Workers train locals in education, agricultural methods, business, health and HIV/AIDS education and environmental issues.

The areas can be in remote jungles, deserts and rain forests, and often times hundreds of miles from any hint of civilization.

“To get to the nearest modern city, Villarica, I have to get up at 4 a.m., walk about three miles to a bus stop and then ride several hours,” says Montgomery. There, he catches up on e-mail, will maybe grab a hot shower or sit in a café for a taste of civilization.

A hive of activity

Peace Corps workers go through three months of intensive training before being sent to their site. Montgomery learned the art of bee-keeping — swarms of Africanized bees are prevalent in the countryside and offer farmers an opportunity to harvest, market and profit from their honey.

“There is a lot of money to be made if it is done right,” says Montgomery. He adds, with a laugh, that Africanized bees are extremely aggressive. “I have been stung several times, about 20 times on one occasion. When one stings you, it is like a snowball effect: the smell attracts others, and they keep stinging you.”

Montgomery says the Peace Corps gives its volunteers the freedom to provide help in a village in any way they see fit.

“There are five to 10 teenagers who want to learn English, so I do English lessons. The kids want to learn English, but the most difficult thing is finding a time when everyone can gather around. Often the only time is right before or after a soccer game or practice.”

With Montgomery being the first volunteer in the area, some in the tribe were suspicious of him at first.

“A lot of the people are leery of the U.S.,” he says. “Part of my job is to let them know what the Peace Corps is all about. All eyes are on me. Even before I meet people, they know who I am.”

Before moving into his modest house, Montgomery was required to live with host families for his first three months.

“This is a way to get to know the people and to gain their trust.”

Though impoverished, Montgomery says the villagers live in a state of bliss.

“They know no other way,” he says. “Their sense of community is amazing. Families are close. Neighbors are close. Everybody celebrates together and everybody mourns together.

“They are poor but they will give you the shirt off their back. With the families I have lived with, I try to pay them money for the food I eat but they won’t take it. So I buy them groceries instead.

(Top photo) Montgomery, who is on a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, also started a chess club for the local villagers. (Below) The former Tiger soccer standout says he joined the Peace Corps as a “way to give back.”
(Top photo) Montgomery, who is on a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, also started a chess club for the local villagers. (Below) The former Tiger soccer standout says he joined the Peace Corps as a “way to give back.”
“And they are carefree. They love the land they live on and they love life.”

The biggest challenge for Montgomery has been learning the language.

“My Guaraní is not the best,” he says with a chuckle. “I sometimes get laughed at when I try to speak it — you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself. A good deal of my day is spent studying the language.”

Montgomery, who plans to attend graduate school at Fordham University and major in international development after his two years are completed, says he is beginning to fit in. He has joined a soccer club, locals often invite him for dinner and he has formed a chess club.

“A local remembering my name, inviting me to an event or just conversing with me for an extended amount of time fills me with great joy,” he says.

“The things I have discovered about myself here in only the span of two months make me excited about the discoveries that lie ahead in the upcoming months. There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I am determined to hang on and just try my best to enjoy the ride.”

A recent journal entry of Montgomery’s may sum it up best:

Little by little, things are starting to click. The culture, language and people do not seem so strange to me anymore. In fact, I am beginning to catch myself doing things that I would have never done a month ago, things only Paraguayans do. Questions of doubt and insecurity about my purpose here still arise, but now my job does not seem so daunting. Peace Corps says that this will be the toughest job that I will ever love. From day one, I have agreed with the tough part of my job, but I had a hard time understanding how I could ever love it. One month later, my opinion has changed entirely. Loving this job does not seem so far-fetched anymore, especially when I am beginning to think of Paraguay as my home.

 

Other U of M alumni who served in the Peace Corps

The U of M Magazine was able to catch up with several more volunteers. Here are some of their stories:

Carol Greenwald, Turkey, 1965-67

Greenwald (third from left) with Turkish pupils.
Greenwald (third from left) with Turkish pupils.
“I went for two years without speaking to my mother,” says Carol Greenwald (MA ’78, EdD ’94), who served in the Peace Corps in Turkey with her husband, Jim. “We were stationed in a rural area on the Syrian border in a small town called Kilis, which was a smuggling town. There was a lot of lawlessness and a lot of guns.

“The town didn’t have telephones so we really had no communication with the outside world. A Peace Corps supervisor would visit us every three months or so to check on us.”

Greenwald, who now works as an augmented communication specialist in Memphis, taught English, first to high school students and later in a teacher’s college in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.

Despite the lack of security, Greenwald said she felt safe. “As a woman in Turkey in the 1960s, there was always the feeling of needing to be careful. I was careful to wear a scarf, dress moderately and not be alone, especially at night. Transportation was dangerous. There were a lot of holdups on buses along the road.

“It was fulfilling for me to see another culture and to experience it in ways that I would have never experienced it as a tourist. It has lasted my entire life and given me an entirely different view of the world.”

Jason Stewart, Mongolia, 2002-04

Stewart (right) tackles a traditional Mongolian musical instrument.
Stewart (right) tackles a traditional Mongolian musical instrument.
The end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union posed new challenges for Peace Corps volunteers.

“During the Soviet times, herding was the lifestyle of many Mongolians,” says Jason Stewart (BBA ’01), who was stationed in Mandalgovi, Mongolia. “Herding goats, camels, that is what they did. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, all the Soviet subsidies went away. There was no one place where these people could sell their goods. So I spent a lot of my time working on a project called the Gobi Initiative, funded by USAID, the arm of the American government that does international development. We were helping the herders transition from a Soviet economy to a market economy. I equate it to a small business startup in America.”

Stewart, who now works for USAID in Washington, D.C., says another initiative was what he was most proud of.

“We set up a life skills group for teenagers. It was a forum for them to talk about things that are pertinent to teens worldwide: peer pressure, alcohol abuse, relationships. The participants said this was the first time they had done something like this. They were very thankful.

“The little amount that some people have can be jarring to a guy like me who grew up in upper middle-class America. My family was used to having two cars, having enough money to go to college, having lots of clothes, things like that. You are reminded that it is not that way for everyone.”

Meredith Martin, Dominica, 2000-02

Meredith still stays in contact with the Carib tribe.

Meredith still stays in contact with the Carib tribe.

 

The Caribbean might seem like a dream-like assignment, but on an island that has few white sand beaches and is very rocky, mass tourism dollars are absent and the people are very poor.

“The motto of the Peace Corps is ‘the toughest job you will ever love,’” says Meredith Martin (BA ’99), who lived with a Carib Indian tribe in Dominica. “That is really true. It was the best time of my life but also the absolute worst time. I had my highest highs and lowest lows.”

Martin, who works as an operations manager at NSA in Collierville, taught literacy in the school and also worked in a community center developing programs for the reservation’s secondary students.

“It was the most depressed area of the country. Much like reservations in the states, they tend to have less resources.”

Martin joined the Peace Corps after an accident that severely broke her leg.

“I couldn’t walk, I had to drop out of school and I had to move back home. During that time frame, I thought, ‘Wow, if I didn’t live in the States with access to excellent health care, I would have never been able to walk again.’ It got me thinking how lucky I was and how good I had it, and that perhaps I should do something for somebody else.

“You like to think you are going to revolutionize the world. It is really not quite like that. You make little impacts that make big impacts. I still get letters from former students remembering things we did, things we talked about or memories they had of me being there. That tells me I made an impact.”

Amanda “Maggie” Magdelena, Mauritania, 2006-08

Magdelena (right) says the Peace Corps
Magdelena (right) says the Peace Corps "was not for me."
Most Peace Corps volunteers come away with good experiences, but not always. Placed in what the Peace Corps says is one of its toughest assignments, Mauritania, Maggie Magdelena (BA ’04) was put in an awkward position after the minister of education allegedly stole funding that had been put in place to help Magdelena train teachers in the English language. Thinking she would be reassigned, she says she was told to “make do” by the Peace Corps.

Magdelena lived in Kiffa, a city of about 40,000 residents that she termed “insanely underdeveloped.”

“There is no sewage system, no gas system — if you buy a barrel of gas, you roll it to your house. Donkey carts are the main way to get around. A lot of people live in tents.”

Magdelena says she eventually taught English to junior high school boys. “They really didn’t seem to care that I was there,” she says. While the experience may be good for others, Magdelena, in graduate school at Tulane, says this is something she would never do again.

Ben Pennington, Bolivia, 2008

Pennington will serve again in Morocco later this year.

Pennington will serve again in Morocco later this year.

 

This U of M alumnus was in what he termed an ideal setting: in the Andes Mountains of Boliva, but civil unrest caused the Peace Corps to pull its volunteers from this South American country in 2008. “

I saw kids with sticks of dynamite in their hands,” said Ben Pennington (BA ‘07). The country had been thrown into civil unrest and the U.S. ambassador was ordered to leave Bolivia after he was accused of inciting part of the unrest.

“The Peace Corps is all about safety of its volunteers,” said Pennington.

Pennington and other Peace Corps volunteers were flown to Peru where they were given the option of reassignment, or a flight home. He chose the latter, but says his Peace Corps days are not over — he is set for a two-year assignment in Morocco later this year.

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