The Black Peace Corps Volunteer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A white Peace Corps Volunteer is posted in an isolated location in Borneo and a Black Peace Corps Volunteer joins him.

Black Peace Corps

 

When I arrived at the abandoned grade school, known as Waikaiuka, a few miles outside of Hilo, Hawaii to start my Peace Corps Training, it was apparent all except one had something in common. We were white.  There wasn’t even a shade of brown except for a girl of Armenian descent, a little Middle Eastern tinge, but definitely white by the narrowest of definitions.

That left Frank. Frank was black, not dark chocolate but ebony black. About 6 foot tall, he was well proportioned as if athletic. I’d guess he’d hit the scales at 175 pounds, but I never thought about his height or weight when I first saw him.

Physically, I saw he was jet black. That’s what struck me. If I’d of conjectured, which I didn’t, if you traced his ancestry back to slave days, his great-great grandparents never set foot in the plantation big house. They worked the cotton fields.

During our three months of training, I noticed a few other things. He had a pleasant personality, was politically astute, let others talk first before chiming in.

 

On closer observation his facial features put him into a quasi-noble category. He was intellectual but not book smart.

I wasn’t close to him during training, but neither were the others. I did learn he came from Norfolk, Virginia, grew up with Jim Crow, never attended college and had transferred from the Job Corps into the Peace Corps, backgrounds that further segregated him from the rest of us.

He kept himself aloof, not abrasively so but as if he knew he didn’t fit in with the other 51 volunteers. He didn't.

 

His urban ghetto transition to a “farm school-teacher” in Malaysia, however, did not make him different. Most of those training to be “farm school” teachers did not grow up on a farm, hadn’t studied agriculture and knew nothing about farming, things we were supposed to know in 3 months.

After training completion, he was sent to the Island of Labuan off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia which is mostly Chinese inhabited. I also went to Sabah as a “farm school” teacher but to the mainland of Borneo Island, the third largest in the world.

Despite his lack of college, Frank was learned beyond most of the Peace Corps volunteers, but street educated. He knew human nature much better than we. In addition, he had the gift of language ability. Part of our training was learning to speak Malay and Frank was truly glib in it after 3 months unlike others who struggled to speak fluently.

That sums up what I knew about him until he came to live with me. Oh, there was one other thing. I heard him talk about Malcolm X and how he was a great black leader, someone I knew nothing about.

Once in Sabah, I was posted to a remote agricultural station in a small village called Damai, not recognized by any map. It lacked running water, paved roads, telephones, and electricity. The other nine “farm school” volunteers sent to Sabah expressed their relief on announcement of my posting there and they’re not being posted there with a burst of laughter plus pats on my back. I decided to make the best of it by reading every book in the 200-book locker the Peace Corps provided and eventually even read The Hobbit.

Damai was in a large agricultural valley of coconuts, rice, maze, and tobacco. It was inhabited by native Dusen’s, (Ex-headhunters) Chinese shop keepers and one elderly English couple.

She was the valley’s nurse and only health care worker. He was a banty gentleman suffering from arthritis who was a spitfire pilot in World War 2. He operated the only mechanized farm in the valley and wondered if he’d fought on the wrong side of the sky as the British empire evaporated.

The valley to the east, west and south was ringed by hills that rose to mountains, all shrouded in thick jungle, filled with tropical fauna, it covered most of the island back then. To the north the valley ended in a vast mangrove swamp until one reached the deeper water of Marudu Bay inhabited by Bajous along the shore who were fishermen, smugglers, and sea pirates when opportunity presented itself. 

The valley’s natives had reluctantly given up head hunting under British rule but had a short spat of revival under Japanese occupation with British temporary second thought.

 In the hills they practiced slash and burn farming and subsistence hunting with blow guns and poison darts. Many of the women still wore copper tubing around their necks, arms and legs which announced their movements by jangling clangs. In the hills, with or without copper coils, pleasantly, they went topless.

The closest electricity socket/light bulb, telephone or macadam paved road were 50 kilometers distant. The district capital and seaport was Kudat, a town of 4,000, 50 dirt road kilometers to the north. About equal distant to the south over dirt road was the town of Kota Belud. It’s 3,000 plus residents were mostly horse riding Bajaus and ex sea pirates.

The English engineers who’d designed the few dirt roads connecting the valley to the outside world, built wood bridges when confronted by rivers. The bridges were built just above non flood stage height, the concept being when the monsoon rains came the flood waters and debris flowed over the low-slung bridge and didn’t wash it out. Once the monsoon rains ended and the river water receded, the bridge would still be there, a process that worked more often than failed.

Adjacent to the road bridge were swinging pedestrian bridges high above flood stage to allow pedestrian travel during the monsoon rains. A motorcycle crossing was also possible if the rider was strong enough to push the bike up the steep wood grade to the start of the span's crossing, ride over and keep the motorcycle under control going down the steep other side. This took a smoke break before the attempt and another after a successful landing.

By the time I arrived head-hunting competition among the villages was replaced by religious rivalry between Catholic, Basil, (A Swiss form of Lutheranism), Seven Day Adventist and Islam. Damai was mostly Seven Day Adventist but the Valley remained at least 50% pagan, virgin ground for those proselytizing the different faiths.

Posted in Damai, I evaded Peace Corps director scrutiny and Malaysian Agricultural officer interference. I could ride my motorcycle in the tropical heat without a helmet, a big Peace Corps no, no subject to being sent home if violated.

The concept of urban young Americans going to Malaysia to teach farming to locals, as people ambassadors, mostly failed. There were exceptions, me a minor one. I did run 2-week vegetable garden farm classes and showed movies against the school exterior wall once we got a diesel electric generator to run a couple hours at night.

The natives were enthralled to watch British and Malaysian propaganda films, a favorite being the Kew Gardens of London with an enormous green house for tropical plants. The tall coconut tree growing in a giant glass house was big news in Damai.

Peace Corps directors were political appointees. They’d not contributed in politics to visit the boondocks of Borneo. They preferred the bright lights and genteel social life of Jesselton, Sabah’s 25,000 population capital. It was re-named Kota Kinabalu shortly after my arrival but to this day has remained Api Api or “Fire Fire” to by the local Chinese. The Australian navy used battle ships to level the town to ensure there’d be no Japanese resistance when they landed.

When some farm schools failed the Peace Corps director asked others if they could take an orphaned volunteer. The director asked if Frank could be re-located in Damai. It was the only time in two years a Peace Corps director made the 100-kilometer trek to Damai.

With my concurrence, Frank Boyd showed up in a cloud of dust on the dirt road in front of my farm school and exited from a Land Rover.

Originally when posted to Damai, I didn’t have a house and slept on a bench in the farm school building which everyone concurred was haunted. When Frank arrived, I had a house, a two and half room structure on poles. There was a stair to a living/eating area, a bedroom, and a kitchen nook with a little cement window slab for cooking by burning dried branches.  It meant Frank and I lived close together.

After staking out separate bedroom territory, hanging our mosquito nets, we went over the ground rules. I oversaw keeping potable water in the refrigerator and ensuring there was toilet paper in the “janbon”, a wood outhouse with a center hole and wood footrests to squat on for the drop.

Overseeing water meant I boiled, filtered, and bottled well water and put it in the kerosene refrigerator.  How burning kerosene refrigerated stuff was a mysterious wonder to me. The water level rising to ground level during monsoon rains was less mysterious.

Taking control of cooking, the first thing Frank did was revise my diet. I’d been eating simple, well lazily. Typically, I opened a little can of Ma Ling beef curry from China, took veggies grown on the farm school, fried them together and plopped them on boiled rice all prepared with a little fire between stones on the concrete kitchen cooking slab.

 

Frank astonished for our first meal together.

 

“Jim, I’m going to make bread.”

 

“Bread? How in the hell you going to bake bread?”

 

He went to his modest baggage stash and pulled out a metal folding oven and set it up on the cement cooking slab then said.

 

“Next we got to make the dough.”

 

Thus began my learning about who Frank was and he me.

 

We had some things in common already. Peace Corps volunteers were at the minimum, middle class but the majority would be better classified as upper middle and even a couple sniffing close to lower upper class. My family was blue collar and Frank’s was lower, but we were close enough to perceive things from a similar economic bent, as have nots.

 

From Hawaii training days I knew he was a Malcolm X Black Muslim and wanted to convert the colored folks of the earth. I learned one of the reasons his attempted farm school teaching failed was his ability to learn languages. After a year in country, he could speak and understand Hakka Chinese the dominate ethnic group of Laban, Island.

It was his language fluency ability that crushed his missionary agenda. Chinese assume very few whites can understand them if they speak Chinese in their presence, and a black person never.

 

Chinese tended to be racist and refer to whites as White Devils” but for blacks it was more blatant. Frank’s understood what they openly said if front of him as they assumed he could not possibly know what they said. Soon Frank’s Malcom X missionary effort was over.

 

So, Frank got a bowl and started mixing water and flour to let the yeast find a repast and make the dough rise with their gas excrement. By the morning, the dough had risen.

“Hey Jim, look the dough rose! Now we got to knead it, but I got to ask you a white guy question.”

That’s how Frank addressed racial issues that bothered him. He’d ask a white guy question.

“What’d you want to know Frank? I’m not be good at white guy questions. There was only one black guy in my high school.”

 

“There’s something I can’t understand about white folks. In Norfolk, Virginia whites didn’t want you drinking out of their water fountains, eating next to them in restaurants, or trying on clothes at the department stores. I can understand that. They don’t want to mingle with no niggers. But there’s something, I just can’t understand. If that all bothers them, there's one thing they let black people do that didn't bother them. It’s something that don’t make no sense.”

“What’s that Frank?”

“We can knead the dough of the bread they eat. They ain’t bothered a whit to have black hands kneading all over the dough they eat! What’s that about?”

“Good point Frank! I better knead the dough.”

Stunned a moment, he looked at me then started laughing.

“Jim, I ain’t letting no honky knead the dough I’m going to eat. Once I wolfed down the bread he kneaded and baked out of the little oven we came to understand one another.

It wasn’t too long before we had a cramped quarters disagreement. Frank being politically astute and reserved in speech never directly confronted but started out with questions to get you to the answer he wanted you to say.

“Jim, I got a little something we should talk about.”

“What that be Frank?”

“The water in the refrig.”

“Oh, I ain’t doing it right? Not boiled long enough?”

“No, you doing a good job with that.”

“Okay. I know the kerosene ran out and the refrig got warm, but I had to buy a couple bottles to get it running again.”

“No, I understand that. But it is something about bottles. The water in the bottles.”

“What’s wrong with the water in the bottles, Frank?”

“It ain’t what’s wrong with water in the bottles, Jim. It’s what you do with the bottles.”

“I clean them good and pour the water in hot from boiling. There’s no germs in them bottles.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I’m a getting at. It’s something you do.”

“Okay, Frank, what’s it I do?”

“Don’t get offended but it’s something you do that offends me. See, you drive up on your motorcycle, you be hot and sweaty. You run up the stairs. First thing you do is rush to the refrigerator and guzzle water out of a bottle.”

“So, what’s wrong with that?”

“Jim, I got to drink the water out of that bottle after you slobbered all over the opening.”

“I laughed and once calm said.

“It’s okay to me if you slobber on the bottle too. I try not to slobber, and you know what we whites used to say as kids when we passed the soda bottle around? Don’t N lip it.”

“Well, that’s what offends me.”

“Okay Frank, from now on I’ll segregate the water bottles.”

He told me things about growing up in the ghetto, how he wasn’t afraid of a pistol but after seeing someone blown away with a shotgun, he would never challenge someone pointing a shotgun at him.

He told me white folks came to the ghetto to do what they didn’t want whites to know about, but they didn’t care if blacks knew or not and blacks, therefore, know more about white folks that white folks did themselves.

I convinced him capitalism was good if we only had a 100% inheritance tax and all the money collected by the tax was distributed annually to those turning 18 to do as they wished and after that the government wouldn’t help you.

Eventually we agreed on most things politically. We agree rich liberals were hypocrites. He was against abortion calling it black USA genocide. He was against illegal drugs and thought white people allowed it in the ghettos to keep black people down. His vices were cigarettes and booze, both of which we used.

By the end, he learned a lot about white me and I, about black him. He told me before he was “drafted” into the Job Corps, heard about Malcom X and transferred into the Peace Corps he was studying to be a pimp.

“Jim, who do you think are the smartest people out there?”

“Well, I know it ain’t me nor anyone I know, including you. Most I knew from college were only book smart. I’d guess successful businessmen, not ones who inherited a business but built it. So, who be the smartest?”

“Pimps, Jim, they be the smartest businessmen.”

“Pimps? Like them that drive around in titty pink Cadillacs?"

“That’s what I’m saying. They’re the smartest businessmen. They got women working rain sleet or snow for them and turning over the dough. You think you’re smart enough to get a bunch of women to do that for you? They’re the best psychologists in the world, way smarter that that guy Freud. He could never do that. A good pimp can get anyone to whore for him.”

“I never thought about it that way. You got a point. You ever know a pimp?”

“Know one? I was going to be one! I was studying to be a pimp. You just don’t go do it you got to learn how to do it from a master. The guy teaching me was the smartest person I ever met. He took me under his wing and started training me, but I got all messed up with Job Corps and then Peace Corps.”

“Gee Frank, you could have been someone but the government messed you up.”

There was a lot of learning about each other in the remaining year together, but our farm school grew.

The Dusen natives had no problem with a black “farm school” teacher and we started pushing other agricultural programs like growing peanuts and changing the natives to grow I-R-8 a wonder rice plant developed by Rockefeller Research that could be double cropped in a year and produced 2 to 3 times the amount the local rice varieties could.

The natives often insisted on putting 3 plants instead of one as we instructed in the rice paddies as they did with their paddy fields. If they did Frank would walk behind and stomp on it and replace it with one I-R-8 strand.

We eliminated many unique local varieties that families had developed over centuries if not millenniums.  Their unique taste niches were replaced by the bland tasting I-R-8 but that’s progress.

Fifty years later I returned to Damai. Electricity, paved roads, and the ubiquitous cell phone has invaded the Valley. Bandau has become a city and not a pagan is to be found in the valley. The native No Dusen women wear copper coils around their necks, arms or legs and most own and drive cars. The jungle hills have been logged off and are in oil palm. Almost no one grows rice anymore.

I still think of Frank and wonder how his world turned out. I hope he was successful in whatever endeavors he attempted when back in USA.


Submitted: April 26, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Jim Brown. All rights reserved.

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