When our politicians decide to become involved in another country’s problems, it wouldn’t hurt if they took a lesson in anthropology.
Tom DeMeo, a former Peace Corps volunteer, believes foreign policy errors could be avoided if there were more interest in how other people live. He says living among the people of a country helps you understand and see the beauty in other cultures.
“It’s a mistake to expect that other people think and act the way we do,” says DeMeo, whose volunteer work took him to Ghana from 1980-82, and to Botswana from 1982-84. He’s currently working in Ethiopia as a program manager and scientist with the Forest Service. His wife, Phyllis Shelton, volunteered through the Peace Corps in Honduras.
“For example, Africans are horrified that we put people in nursing homes,” he says. “In Africa and the Middle East, for instance, the people put family and tribe first. The nation is an abstract, and means little or nothing.”
America’s foreign policy error in Iraq, he continues, is that it’s not really a country. “In Iraq, there is more loyalty to family and religious sect, not whether Iraq exists or not.”
DeMeo also observes that visitors to Africa might see Africans as lazy because they aren’t always in a rush to get something done or get somewhere on time. “There are cultural differences that travel and engaging with people in various countries teach us,” he says. “It’s not a judgment. It’s learning to understand how others live and what they value. It’s a mistake to think that all people have loyalty to family and nation first, as we do.”
DeMeo is one of 400 returned Peace Corps volunteers in the Portland metro area who belong to the Columbia River Peace Corps Association. He serves as its president while Shelton serves as secretary.
Local returned Peace Corps volunteers have served in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Malaysia, Peru, Turkey, Rwanda, Liberia, Cameroon, Honduras and many other countries.
The association is committed to service and community, both at home and abroad. He’d like to activate more members — only about 50 are active — by reaching out to engage younger former Peace Corps volunteers. Most current members served during the 1980s.
One of the major issues with those returning from Peace Corps service is that they miss the close relationships they had developed in another country. DeMeo hopes to alleviate some of that loss by arranging speaking engagements for Peace Corps volunteers in schools, community groups and more.
“This is more important than ever,” he says. “We want to help Americans understand the world.”
His organization also helps volunteers network and find jobs when they return from foreign countries and re-integrate themselves back home.
For example, he attended a national conference of Peace Corps volunteers in Washington, D.C., which attracted a large Ethiopian contingent. He is working on livestock management in that country, which he describes as “very interesting; a great country.”
CRPCA also has a grants program where international and local projects can be aided, such as a water program in Cameroon, soup kitchens and feeding the homeless in Portland, or buying books for libraries in Ghana.
Currently, the group is mentoring a Chinese family of four who belong to Falun Dong, a spiritual group toward which the Chinese government is hostile. They are combining efforts with Catholic Charities to help the family get acclimated to this country for an eight-month commitment. This includes teaching them about the transit system, helping the wife learn to drive, obtaining affordable housing, and more.
DeMeo and Shelton have adopted a child from China who speaks Mandarin, and that has helped in working with the other Chinese family. They also adopted a child from Mongolia, have an adopted stepdaughter, and a biological son and daughter.
Among his own ongoing projects, DeMeo manages old growth forests and wildlife, monitoring the ecosystem and cattle grazing. “The Forest Service has an international program to offer tech assistance in Africa, so I was back to Ghana two years ago, almost 30 years after I volunteered to be there,” he says. “There is a lot more development and the economy is doing a little better in Ghana, although almost all the rain forests are gone. More people means fewer trees, but everyone has a cell phone.”
In Botswana, he accomplished much by planting trees, establishing nurseries, managing timber sales for the government and fighting wildfires. He notes that seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa, and they are getting more democratic.
“In the Peace Corps, we are encouraged to live among the people in their own living situations, but our living situation is a little bit better than theirs,” DeMeo says. “In Botswana, the people are more conservative in a good sense, quiet and reserved.”
He’s heard from others who’ve visited Africa that they come away inspired by the people they meet. “They are very optimistic, very cheerful,” DeMeo says of his experiences there.
He believes the colonial legacy in some African countries is strongest where artificial boundaries were established by developed countries meddling in their affairs, and that loyalty to country can lead to arrogance and false assumptions.
“It is foolish to think that other people should behave the way you do and think the way you do,” DeMeo says. “There’s an adage, ‘Respect what you don’t know.’"