"A year or so after retirement from my professorial position at the University of Arizona ... I came to the conclusion that I needed something larger than myself to devote energies to. Come evening, I frequently realized that I had done absolutely nothing that was of use to anyone except to those where I spent my money."
So starts the story of Grandma Goes to Africa.
As she wrote above in her personal journal, Renate Schulz, a 73-year-old lifelong educator who has a condo in Clearwater, was at loose ends in 2009 after her career teaching language and German studies at the University of Arizona was over. But she didn't flail around long. By 2011, she was back to teaching, this time in the impoverished West African nation of Mali as a Peace Corps education and literacy volunteer.
Teaching wasn't new to her — but neither was the Peace Corps or Africa. Schulz was a volunteer with her former husband in Nigeria in 1963-65, after finishing grad school. (Peace Corps volunteers are no longer sent to Nigeria.)
She said it was the life-changing effect of that earlier stint that drove her to "re-enlist" when she was in search of something meaningful. "It was the most formative experience of my life when I was young and the most marvelous experience of my life over 70," she said.
So she signed on for 27 months and was sent to Mali with 23 other volunteers — who were all under 30. They were assigned to work in two sectors, education and water/sanitation, in the almost unbearable subtropical heat.
Her job was to teach English to students in their 20s at the art institute at the outskirts of the nation's capital, Bamako, her eventual home.
After six weeks with a host family in the bush where Schulz said she experienced culture shock and stomach viruses, where she had to eat with her hands and make her way in the dark to an outhouse, she was given new quarters, with running water, WiFi and a telephone, in Bamako.
Although a Western lifestyle was possible in Bamako, it was expensive. She had to eat out a lot, she said. "You can't really come home at 2 in the afternoon and kill a goat for supper."
Schulz boned up on her French, the language of Mali — second only to each individual local tribal language. She found it difficult to teach in a system in which attendance was not mandatory.
"Students came and went," she said.
• • •
In March 2012, Schulz was headed to Ghana for spring break, her first vacation since returning to the United States for the Christmas holidays.
En route she learned that there had been a military coup in Mali. President Amadou Toumani Touré had been forced into hiding, the soldiers had taken over Mali TV, the airport and borders had been closed, and a 24-hour curfew had been declared.
"What was happening to my Peace Corps colleagues? What was happening to my students? What was happening to my neighbors?" Schulz wrote in her journal.
She and the Peace Corps colleagues with her were told to go into consolidation (a locking down of volunteers in regional capitals), call their families and stay in Ghana until further notice. The situation in Mali worsened, with embassies closing and 200,000 refugees in the north.
Schulz worried about the laptop left behind that was full of photos and notes. She had carefully hidden it behind a couch so would-be burglars couldn't find it.
After getting her hopes up and then dashed several times about returning to Mali, the final word came on April 5: Peace Corps Mali was being evacuated. On April 8, a chartered Ethiopian Airlines plane brought the 18 remaining volunteers in her group to Ghana. And the Malian staff had brought along some of the things she had requested.
"Unfortunately, they did not bring priorities No. 1 and 2: my laptop and my income tax papers," she said.
• • •
Schulz had been there 11 months. The evacuated volunteers could choose to either immediately go to another country, get a delayed transfer to another country, wait for Mali to reopen — or figure "duty served."
She took the delayed transfer, and in January left to volunteer at the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State in eastern Mexico. She said she feels as if she's on vacation.
Her students are all faculty members, and she is teaching them to be more fluent in English to help with their computer skills and research.
The Mexican people, she said, have taken her in and have made her feel safe and valued.
Who would expect less for the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in Mexico?
Patti Ewald can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746.
The Peace Corps has no upper age limit. Five percent of the Peace Corps' 7,500 volunteers are over age 50. Volunteers with a lifetime of experience are eagerly sought.
Volunteers of all ages say they benefit greatly by training, working and facing challenges together. The friendships formed through these experiences often become lifelong. In their host communities, midlife and 50+ volunteers are generally accorded respect for their age and wisdom and often mentor younger volunteers. Because there are fewer older volunteers, however, loneliness can be a problem for those who feel the need for a nearby and supportive peer group.
HEALTH AND MEDICAL
All applicants undergo comprehensive medical and dental assessments before leaving to make sure the assigned country can deal with any pre-existing conditions they might have. See peacecorps.gov/medical for more information.
Necessary immunizations, anti-malaria medication (if appropriate), and health precaution instructions are provided before leaving the country. The Peace Corps has medical officers in all countries where there are volunteers.
Find more information and a link to an application at peacecorps.gov/50plus.
Are you Corps material?
Renate Schulz has this advice for those 50 and older who may consider volunteering with the Peace Corps.
• If you cannot roll with the punches,
• If you must have certain foods and routines, DON'T GO.
• If you have health issues that can't be managed in another country, DON'T GO.
• If you are adventurous, GO.
• If you get excited by the unpredictable, GO.
• If you want to have an impact, GO, even though that impact is sometimes larger on you than on the community.
Renate Schulz kept a personal diary of her stay in Mali. She called the first segment, "Grandma Goes to Africa." Here are some excerpts:
June 8, 2011
I share a bowl of rice and sauce (actually quite tasty) with Aissata, while her husband shares a bowl with the children separately on the ground. Tomorrow I'll try to find a spoon to use while eating. This eating by hand is definitely not for me, particularly since my host family members do not appear to have acquired the habit of hand washing before a meal.
June 9, 2011
The entire village population (it seems to me) is watching a soccer game on a small black and white TV run by a car battery in front of my room. The heat is unbearable. I am bathed in sweat and can't sleep.
June 22, 2011
My diet continues to be limited. Breakfast: soft French bread with mayonnaise or locally made peanut butter and tea. Lunch: boiled rice with a sauce containing a small gourd and a small piece of cabbage and sometimes a few pieces of tough meat (I like) or dried fish (I don't like). Dinner: french fries with a fried egg or pasta with an oily sauce, and tea.
July 4, 2011
I picked up my first Malian outfit, which I had made by one of the village tailors. To have a wrapper and blouse custom tailored cost 1,500 CFA, or the equivalent of $3.
July 7, 2011
I am the only one in our group to be placed in the capital city of Mali, allowed to live independently (i.e., not within or near the confines of a family compound for security reasons) with relatively modern conveniences.
Aug. 12, 2011
Malian Islam is definitely not the intolerant, humorless version of the Islam ... practiced by Al Qaeda. Very few women veil their faces; women are permitted to drive cars and motorcycles; music and dancing are part of everyday life.
Sept. 25, 2011
Washing sheets in a bucket builds character! I remember that my grandmother also did the laundry (for a family of 7) by hand, without a washing machine, and gain new respect for her generation.
Oct. 6, 2011
A visit to a primary school: There are a total of 390 students, in five grades, taught by four teachers: 130 precious little faces, sitting often four to five at a desk intended for two, look at me expectantly in the first grade, kept quiet by a female teacher with limited French competence.
Oct. 20, 2011
The U.S. Embassy is an island of cleanliness and calm. The only negative aspect is the lengthy security procedure.
Oct. 29, 2011
The National Park, which also houses the National Museum and a gorgeous — though extremely pricey — restaurant must be the loveliest place in all of Mali. Trees! Green grass! Flowers! No garbage!
Nov. 2, 2011
I am sitting next to a woman, totally covered in black — including black gloves — except for her eyes. ...
I find it somewhat disconcerting to interact with the totally veiled woman, because the veil covering her face muffles her voice, and I lack those additional facilitators of communication, such as lip movement and facial expressions, to determine whether she is friend or foe.
Nov. 6, 2011
The feast of Tabaski: When I arrive at Mohamed's house, their sheep has already been killed and skinned, and Boubakar, the son, has started to cut up parts of the animal on a piece of cardboard on the ground outside the gate of the house. The head of the large-horned animal, as well as the skin, wait next to the door, to be picked up by tanners roaming the neighborhood. A hole had been dug in front of the neighbor's house to catch the blood of the neighborhood sacrifices. The hole also holds the contents of the intestines and whatever else of the carcasses that is inedible. I am sorry that I did not come in time for the sacrificial killing, but am told that I would not have been able to watch anyway, since women do not take part in the slaughtering.
Nov. 25, 2011
Another terrorist attack! And this one for the first time south of the River Niger: Three kidnapped, one shot — in a restaurant during bright daylight! One woman escaped. Some of my colleagues fear that Peace Corps will be evacuated for security reasons.
Nov. 26, 2011
The American director of Peace Corps Mali comes to Tubaniso to reassure us. Mali is a large country and, so far, all attacks have been in the north, 240 km from the nearest volunteer station in Mali, and off-limits to us for travel since the first kidnapping incident. He does, however, express concern that these attacks have now moved south of the Niger.
Nov. 29, 2011
One minute I feel totally at ease interacting with educated Malians as my equals, in the context of what I perceive to be a shared human experience and similar aspirations, only to be suddenly confronted by something said or seen which reminds me that I am living in alien territory and that my opinions, perceptions and cultural expectations are very different from many in my host country.
Dec. 6, 2011
I make (my students) aware that polygamy, early — arranged or forced — marriages, and lack of women's education contribute to the huge birth rate in Mali (6.4 children per woman), and the 3.1 percent annual increase in population, which is predicted to lead to a doubling of the population within 20 years.
Jan. 16, 2012
I note for the first time that I am no longer aware of the conditions of my surroundings. I guess this means that I have adjusted!
Feb. 2, 2012
We volunteers have been bombarded for the past week with security alerts by the Embassy and the Peace Corps ... five separate attacks by Tuaregs on Malian Army installations in the north with numerous casualties. Today the unrest arrived in Bamako. ...
I get an emergency phone message from Peace Corps Security, telling me to avoid downtown Bamako today. ... I stay home. ...
The Peace Corps office is full of volunteers who have been stranded in town, unable to return to their work sites because of the unrest. We are advised by email and SMS's to "stay in" for the evening.
Feb. 3, 2012
The city appears to be calm, but the Peace Corps office is still closed.
Feb. 7, 2012
Life appears to be back to "normal." However, now there is a weather warning from the U.S. Embassy, recommending that we stay inside and not exercise outdoors. The cold winds coming from the Sahara this time of year — called the Harmattan — are blowing in full force. It actually feels cold (it may be as low as 60 degrees during the night and mornings).
Feb. 18, 2012
Twice the police tried to flag down my taxi to stop for a document check, but the driver instead stepped on the gas. The first time I expected to hear a pursuing siren within two minutes and I ducked to avoid any possible bullets from pursuing cops ... but nothing happened. ... Taxis here have no meters, and you better agree on a fare before departure!
March 6, 2012
Ahhhhh, the good life! I am house-sitting for the U.S. ambassador for two weeks while she is in the States. I assume that I got recommended for the job because I may not be as prone as my younger colleagues are to use this opportunity for hosting wild parties and emptying the well-equipped bar and wine collection.
March 24, 2012
In Ghana: I was getting awfully frustrated by the lack of coverage by the American media of the political upheaval in Mali. ...
This upheaval was a catastrophe for over 13 million people — not counting myself and about 200 American volunteers! — and I couldn't find coverage on CNN!!!!