"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 protected] or (727) 893-8746.