WILSON: Angene Wilson. I am interviewing Kristen Perry for the Oral History Project of returning to Peace Corp volunteers. Kristen tell me what your full name is and where and when you were born.

PERRY: My name is Kristen Hansen Perry and I was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1976.

WILSON: Okay. Thank you. And tell me a little bit about your family and growing up in Nebraska and if there was anything there that had anything to do with you going to the Peace Corps. If you'd heard about anything before you went to college.

PERRY: I knew about the Peace Corps. I remember being in middle school and thinking and hearing about it and thinking, wow, that sounds like a really neat thing. You know hearing that they went to you know Eastern Europe and I was studying German at the time and thinking oh maybe that could be useful. But I grew up in Omaha, which is a pretty big city. My parents, were, my mother was a professor. And so we were you know fairly well informed about things. And I have a younger sister but 1:00just other than that it's just a small family. And we traveled quite a bit when I was young but I didn't actually get overseas until I was in high school. I traveled to Spain with my mother and just loved it.

WILSON: What did your mother teach?

PERRY: She was a professor of child psychology.


PERRY: So did a lot of work with children. And things like that. When I was in high school we had an exchange student from Germany who came and lived with us for a year which was really wonderful. She helped me a lot with my German studies. But it was a really good cross-cultural experience as well. We also hosted a Japanese exchange student for a summer as well. So you know, my parents were conscious of wanting to help me and my sister be wise about the world. I also was an avid reader when I was a child. And I loved to read about different places and different cultures. And so I think that that certainly all led into it. And then I went to--You want me to go into college now or?


WILSON: Yes. Sure. That's fine.

PERRY: Is there more you want to hear about Omaha?

WILSON: No I don't think so. Were there any, we talked about your family anything in terms of school that that teachers or subjects that got you interested in the rest of the world?

PERRY: You know I always enjoyed social studies umm and just reading about history and and other places but I really think it was the literature that that did it for me. Yeah I think that's probably it.

WILSON: Okay, good.

PERRY: But also just the love of travel--

WILSON: Travel, yeah right, right, right.

PERRY: --that my parents certainly instilled in me. So umm then I went to college in Minnesota. So I went to Carleton College which is a very small liberal arts college.

WILSON: Good, good college.

PERRY: Yes, and they really emphasis umm study abroad which is one of the reasons that I went there. I was really excited about that. And my junior year I spent a semester studying at oxford which was a really wonderful experience for me. Of course they speak English. And so that wasn't--but it still you know I realized there was a very 3:00different cultural experience and ya know you do--

WILSON: Different educational experience too, right?

PERRY: Oh yes, oh yes, absolutely. And so you know to experience some of that culture shock. But really enjoyed experiencing a different viewpoint than you know what I was used to in the U.S. And also had an opportunity to travel around Europe at the end of that semester and just loved the experience and I'd been sort of, you know, toying with the idea of Peace Corps but decided that I wanted to be a teacher. And so I needed to you know get some teaching experience after college. Carleton didn't offer elementary certification so I had to do an internship post B.A. So I moved out to Colorado and sort of had Peace Corps in the back of my mind and you know I had picked up the literature at their information tables and everything. But, when I was teaching in Colorado I had a really good friend that I had known for a very long time who was applying to the Peace Corps. And you know this had been in the back of my mind I thought well you know why not? This is the 4:00perfect time to do it. I'm young, I'm single. You know the beginning of my career you know why not? So he was going through the process and I thought why not I'll go through it too. And it was kinda nice to have a friend who was going through that. Together do we could sort of commiserate and that was a long process as it is. I had some medical issues that they were a little concerned about. And so it took a little bit of extra time to get my acceptance. And so at the end of my first year of teaching in Denver you know I found out that I had been accepted and would be leaving. And I was very excited about that. So.

WILSON: And did you choose Lesotho or?

PERRY: I did. I actually had a little bit of an unusual situation. Because of the medical concerns that they had they wanted me to go to a sunny tropical country. But also one that did not have malaria. (laughs) And that is--


PERRY: There aren't that many places in the world that that cause I couldn't take the malaria prophylaxis that was approved at that time.


WILSON: Right.

PERRY: And so there were only a few places that met both of those criteria. And so the Peace Corps folks called me up and said well look we these two placements that would fit, you know, your medical criteria but also you know what your what your job is. And and one was Lesotho and the other one was Kiribati in the South Pacific.


PERRY: And well the South Pacific could be really, really cool but I really wanted to go to Africa. That was my first choice and also the job was much more what I wanted. In Kiribati they wanted me to teach like middle school math and science, adult business. And I thought I can't even balance my own check book.

WILSON: That's not the right one (laughs)

PERRY: And the Lesotho was elementary you know work and so it was just a very obvious choice for me. So, so I did actually get a choice. Unlike you know I think like most people. Which was kind of nice. You know, I had never heard of Lesotho before. You know I found out about that.

WILSON: Had to go look at it, look it up on a map.

PERRY: And I thought alright I can do that. So yeah that was how that played out. And I had several months between the end of teaching and 6:00leaving for Lesotho in November. So I got to go live with my mother for a while. (laughs) And uh it was fun.

WILSON: So you graduated from college then. So we got the dates right.

PERRY: In 1998.

WILSON: In 1998. And then taught a year and then.

PERRY: And then went to Lesotho.

WILSON: And then went to Lesotho for 99 through 2001.

PERRY: Right November to November.

WILSON: Okay. And let's remember sometime down the road then to talk about what it was like to be there during 9/11. Because you were there during 9/11. So--we'll keep that for later. Okay so you went to Lesotho and trained there. And what was training like?

PERRY: Well our training--my understanding is that in a lot of countries people live sort of in home stays the entire time and ours was a little bit different. They had a training center that was in the, the village 7:00of or the town of Roma which is where the university is in Lesotho and this was actually well it wasn't a convent but it was like a seminary and so it was run by a bunch of nuns, basically. It was called Our Ladies House. And it was you know a seminary for Catholic priests, basically. And then these nuns were there sort of taking care of these priests in training. And they had like a little conference center. And so we lived basically in dorm rooms at this conference center and had our training there. But then we had--I think about three weeks of village training, village based training. And we went out to two or three different villages. They broke us up by program area. And they sent us out to these different villages and we had home stay umm experience and then did more extensive language training as well. And it was interesting I was in this village called, what was it, I want to say Mashoengeng. But I think that's what it was. But the family that I lived with was actually related to the king of Lesotho. So it was I think the king's cousin that I was living with and so that was, they 8:00had a lot of really nice things. They had, well they didn't really have electricity but a lot of people had televisions hooked up to these giant batteries.

WILSON: Right.

PERRY: But they had a television. And they had two different bedrooms. And they had a nice kitchen. And umm so it was a very nice house to live in. They gave me my own bedroom. But this was the king's family. And so the people in the Peace Corps used to sort of tease me because they said oh you know you're the princess. You're living with the prince's family. And you know they give you a local name. And so when people heard my last name they went oh you know that was kind of king of funny. But I lived with this wonderful family for about three weeks. And they had two young children, a little girl and a little boy. And they were very, very sweet. And you know they were really good and the mother could speak English but you know the Peace Corps had told her not to do that. And so she was very patient with me, trying to teach me the language. And it was, it was interesting.

WILSON: What else besides language was part of your training?

PERRY: Lots of cultural things of course. You know local foods, just 9:00learning what it's like to live you know sort of some of the expected gender roles and how you're supposed to clean the house every day. And things like that were really important. Just learning how to not offend people. That was you know a big deal. We learned also one of the big things in Lesotho as part of their culture is singing and dancing. And so they would teach us all sorts of songs.


PERRY: We had to every morning in training we had to practice the Lesotho National Anthem. And sing it in three part harmony. Because that's how they sing it. And all of those things, so that was really important. And, and so we learned a lot of songs. And some traditional dances and things like that. So

WILSON: What were some, what are examples of some of the cultural differences that you learned about in training that you then saw the importance of when you were there?

PERRY: Right, right. Well I, one of the things that was really important was greeting everyone all the time. And and, and, and just 10:00going through that ritual and and, and that I really learned that sort of process was much more important than product of things. And that taking the time to do these things was very, very important. You know one of the big differences which I think is common in certainly throughout Africa but also in other places is how people view time. And you know Americans idea of being on time is very, very different than Lesotho ideas of being on time. We had to teach some classes in the village school and run some workshops for the teachers. And just peoples since of time was very, very different. Of course in the Peace Corps training we were expected to show up at class on time. But other things just sort of happened whenever on their on Africa time. And that was you know I think that was in the village that was more apparent to us that it had been at the training center. So that was really important. What else, well I'm sure I'll think of something.


WILSON: Yeah you'll probably think of other things. But certainly time and the greeting are things that are common to other African countries--

PERRY: Right, right.

WILSON: --As you probably know. What was it what was it like to arrive in Lesotho and then to realize you were there for training and then going out to your site. But thinking about cultural differences and so forth. What were the things that were hardest to adapt to? And did you feel like you had culture shock?

PERRY: Oh sure. You know I think I went through the very typical you know you get there and there's a euphoria and then you sort of crash and then about the same time training really starts to suck. All of that stuff. Aand yeah I certainly did experience culture shock. You know one of things that was really hard for me--I was raised to be a very independent women and to be an intellectual and to share my thinking and one of the things was really hard for me was, I think 12:00Lesotho is an interesting example because the gender roles even though they seem to be very different like in some ways women particularly in my village had a lot of power. So that was interesting but just there was a lot of sexism and a lot of sexual harassment. And that really hard for me you know when I came home I told my mom I said you know I may never ever get another marriage proposal in my life and I think that's fine. (laughs)

WILSON: (laughs) You had enough (laughs)

PERRY: Oh yeah. They would come running down the street after me you know, "Oh Elsie I love you, I love you," you know, and you know my personal favorite was this guy who came running down the street and he's like "hey momma nice nice ya know I love you I wanna marry you" And he'd never seen me before, you know and there was a lot of sexual harassment. And you know men who'd come up to me and tell me that they wanted to sleep with me and understand what the white woman tastes like and you know things like that. And that was really hard for me. And it was hard for me to you know corporal punishment is certainly the 13:00norm in schools. And it was really hard for me to see children getting hit for getting a wrong answer in class and things that like. That was really hard. And I think that's common for a lot of volunteers. And I think just the culture shock in terms of like the pace of time, like on the one hand I loved it, I loved that I had so much time and that you know I could just sort of enjoy life and experience things and that was wonderful. But it was also really frustrating when I felt something was important and it wasn't being done. And that sort of thing. Just the you know there were times when I thought people just think differently than I do. And that was you know really hard. I spent a lot of time with my friend Virginia you know visiting her at her site. Cause she was in the town that I had to go to do my shopping and because of the bus schedule. You know I would often had to just go in and stay for the weekend. So I would stay with her. We spent a lot of time just trying to process the different ways that Americans and 14:00Basotho would think and the different world views. And that was just you know I spent a long time one day trying to explain why standing up on a hill when there's lightning is not the best plan. And that was just not you know I was terrified for my life and knew that you know we could take steps to make ourselves safer. But you know it's a much more fatalistic culture. And this is God's will and nothing I do is going to make a difference. And just things like that. The world view and perspectives were very different. And so that was really hard. But I could really tell over time though how I had changed. You know with my views that there were still things that frustrated me. But like I could understand why it made sense to them. The example I always like to give is that with the bride price that you at first I thought oh my God this is awful. This is you know the feminist in me was like you can't pay for women. And but then after having conversations with lots of people I understood I got it, I understand why this makes sense. And it's you know for you it's the same thing as like a prenuptial 15:00agreement. And it's the people that I talked to said you know people use it like a wedding shower. They use this money to then buy gifts for the family that they'll need to set up their homes. And I said oh ok. It's like insurance that if the husband treats his wife badly the parents can say I'm sorry give us back our daughter and we'll give you back the money. And I thought ok I understand that I still wouldn't want it but I get it. And, and I you know I went oh yeah I think I've moved past the culture shock to you know sort of the acceptance and understanding. And, and you know there were still things that I were not ok with me like the harassment. But I certainly went through that.

WILSON: How did you finally deal with if you did the sexual harassment? Cause that's tough for ----------(??)

PERRY: It's very tough. Umm I just sort of I tried to ignore it as much as I could. And you know with some of the guys I would have fun you know just I tried to turn it into a joke. I said ok I'll marry you. But you know I cost a lot of cows. They would ask me how many cows 16:00and I would say I'm like 5000 cows and they say oh no no no I can't afford this. Sorry I can't marry you. So I tried to have fun with it. You know when I didn't feel like physically threatened.

WILSON: Right.

PERRY: I did a lot of complaining to people and I was lucky in my own village wasn't too bad because my counterpart was a very powerful woman. And there was one man who had really been bothering me and, and I was kind of worried about him. And she you know went off and took care of it and it was never an issue again. So I think you know in my village that was great.

WILSON: Now were you living by yourself?

PERRY: I was, I was.

WILSON: And so you were living in what was your living situation like going by, alone?

PERRY: I lived alone I had a one room house. It was a cinder block house with a tin roof or whatever that is, zinc. I actually had to change sites after about six weeks. I had a big problem at my first site and to move. But my second site, loved it, had a wonderful counterpart. So I lived in a house by myself but it was in a family compound. So there was a family that I lived with who kind of looked 17:00out for me. And then my counterpart lived like across the road. And I actually spent a lot more time at her house than at the house of the family of the people where I was living. I would get my water from her room. I didn't have electricity. No running water, none of that. So I would go to her well and pump my water from her well and things like that. So and the really interesting thing about site was that lived literally 10 feet from the border with South Africa. My house was the last house before you get to South Africa. I could spit into South Africa from my house.


PERRY: And there was nothing you know there was a ----------(??) farm way down the road. But this was there was nothing. And so I lived very much on the edge of the village. And it was interesting I would duck through the fence and walk in South Africa all the time. And which was not probably legal but I did it. (laughs) And it was beautiful place to live but it was a very interesting to have that sort of border culture. And there was a bar next door. And that was on the South Africa side. It was the only thing there was this bar. And it 18:00was interesting living next door to a bar. (laughs) And you know the whole border thing was sort of interesting. But I love my village, I loved the people that were there.

WILSON: So you lived in a one room house that had no electricity, no running water. You had a latrine in the--

PERRY: I did. Latrine in the yard.

WILSON: And how did you cook?

PERRY: We had little gas stoves that was liquid petroleum. Whatever that is. And a little two burner stove and cooked on top of that. If I wanted to do any baking I had you know I could make a Dutch oven. One of the cool things about my village was that it was a UNESCO solar village trial site.

WILSON: Oh my.

PERRY: They had all sorts of funding and there was this wonderful skills training center that was trying to pilot all of this solar stuff. And so they made solar ovens and I bought a solar oven and had one in my yard and it I would bake all sort--

WILSON: What's a solar oven like? How does it work?

PERRY: Well it's a big metal box that has a glass lid and it's painted black inside. And it swivels you can have it follow the sun. And 19:00basically it just heats up with the sun's rays and it bakes you know whatever you're making. It takes a lot longer to do things but you know I would put a loaf of bread in the morning to bake and I would come home in the afternoon and I would have fresh baked bread and it wouldn't burn. That was one of the wonderful things that you know. So you just capture the sun's rays and it heats it that way. So that was really fun once I got that up and running. And you could you know cook rice in it and pies were a little bit hard cause there was so much liquid in them. But you know cakes and cookies and bread and things like that I would make in the solar oven.

WILSON: So you ate what? In terms of kinds of food?

PERRY: Right.

WILSON: Were you eating what people in the village were eating--

PERRY: Sometimes--

WILSON: --Or did you have access to--

PERRY: I did I had access, there wasn't much in the village you know you could get some there was little shop down the road from my house and you could get some eggs and cooking oil and rice and some basic staples there. And sometimes they might have some tomatoes and onions 20:00and things like that. But I did most of my shopping in town, which was about an hour and a half by bus.

WILSON: Why don't you take a minute and spell the name of the village where you lived and the name of the town. So that we get that right.

PERRY: Sure. So I lived in the village of Liphiring. Which is not spelled at all how it sounds. It's L-I-P-H-I-R-I-N-G, Liphiring. And the town was Mohale's Hoek M-O-H-A-L-E-'-S H-O-E-K. So and that's one of the what they called camp towns or district capitals in Lesotho. And it wasn't that far but the bus traveled at about a maximum speed of ten miles an hour. So it--

WILSON: Took a while.

PERRY: --Took a while to get there.

WILSON: And did you have any transportation? Did you have a bicycle? Did you have--

PERRY: No we were not issued bicycles in Lesotho. So we had our feet and that's what the local people do.

WILSON: And the bus yeah yeah.

PERRY: Well I had the bus when the bus worked which you know it was not always the case. So I would go into Mohale's Shoek to umm do my 21:00shopping. And there we actually had a pretty good variety. There was grocery store that was owned by a white family that lived in Lesotho for generations. And you could get you know rice and pasta. You could get like macaroni. You could ya know get flour and things like that. They had a little bit better selection of fruits and vegetables. They would have meats there. I didn't usually take meat back to my village because there wasn't a way for me to keep it. Unless I--

WILSON: You didn't have a refrigerator.

PERRY: No, oh no refrigeration. And the one time that I decided to get some meat and take it back I got a really serious case of food poisoning. (laughs) So I decided not to do that again. You could get canned tuna. So that was a big source of protein for me. And some fruits and vegetables you know mostly I think imported from South Africa. Peaches was one thing that we had a lot of in Lesotho which 22:00was wonderful--

WILSON: Grown in Lesotho--

PERRY: In fact there were peach trees around my house. So we could get some good peaches.

WILSON: That makes me think Kristen, I think that you ought to describe the climate and the weather because people make assumptions about--

PERRY: They do--

WILSON: --Living in Africa--

PERRY: Right.

WILSON: --About what kind of weather you had.

PERRY: Lesotho is really different umm from Africa. It's very far south and it's high altitude. The entire country is mountainous. And in fact Lesotho is the country that had the highest lowest altitude in the world. So its lowest altitude is higher than any other country's lowest altitude.

WILSON: Oh really, that's interesting.

PERRY: Yes. Yeah. So the entire country like I think I lived around 7000 feet altitude. So we get winter and it would snow. The summers were warm and dry. And then you'd get about a week of rain in the spring and a week of rain in the fall. And in the summer it's a lot like living in Colorado or New Mexico where you'd get sort of the afternoon rainstorm that'll come through very quickly and then it's 23:00gone. And then the winters were very cold. And it would snow some.

WILSON: And of course the winters and summers are reverse of here.

PERRY: Right, it's Southern Hemisphere. So June, July, August is winter there. We were issued heaters and I would have my little heater on in my house and I could still see my breath you know in the house at night. So it it got very cold. So it's not tropical. We didn't have things like mangos and all of that so you know we had more cold weather crops. And they grow corn, maize which is the staple food. And sorghum is another staple. And they eat a lot of spinach.

WILSON: Oh spinach. How did they fix their maize? Is it kind of a porridge?

PERRY: It's a stiff porridge.

WILSON: A stiff porridige..

PERRY: Which they call papa.

WILSON: And did you learn to like that?

PERRY: Oh yeah I didn't mind it. It's bland and sort of boring but you know whatever. And they would fix that and they would have like spinach or cabbage you know cooked to death with it and lots of salt and oil. They would have some beans and yaouknow chicken. But that 24:00was sort of a luxury, would be to have chicken or mutton. Umm--

WILSON: And how big was your village?

PERRY: I think my village had a thousand or so people in it. So it was not that big, but it was not tiny either. And it was you know for Lesotho it was fairly well developed. Umm the chief of our village was actually the provost of the university. I think until he got fired. (laughs) But he had a PHD and he was very well educated. And so he was the one who brought a lot of these projects like the solar village. And a lot of the people in the village were you know reasonably well educated and went to South Africa to work. So a lot of the men worked in the mines and they were able to send home a lot of money. So a lot of the people in the village had solar panels on the roof. Like the family that I lived with, their house had solar panels, they had a TV and that ran off of solar, things like that. So they actually lived a lot better than I did. So people tended to be you know a little bit 25:00more I wouldn't quite think middle class but it was not too bad for the village.

WILSON: And had there been a Peace Corps volunteer in your village before?

PERRY: Mmhmm. Yes

WILSON: So you were replacing somebody?

PERRY: Well I wasn't directly replacing somebody. It had been a year or two. They, it worked out they had not for some reason gotten it together to apply for that cycle. But when I had to leave my first village the Peace Corps contacted them because they knew people had had a successful experience before and said look we know you wanted someone but just didn't quite get it together would you do us a favor and take this sort of emergency transfer. And they said yes and it was wonderful. So they had I think other education volunteers there. And then while I was there they decided to place another Peace Corps volunteer who came in the next wave and she was I think an environmental person. She only lasted about a month though. She had some issues and just didn't stick around.

WILSON: Didn't stay.

PERRY: But there was a volunteer from Ireland also living in the village. So--

WILSON: Oh that's interesting.

PERRY: Yeah. So you know there was the two of us and we would get 26:00together and like once a week or so and just have a meal together, we'd go hiking. And that kind of nice to just have--

WILSON: Have somebody else.

PERRY: Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: So talk a little bit about your job. How did that work?

PERRY: Sure. I was what they called a primary resource teacher. And so I had I didn't teach a class of my own. I had two primary schools which is first grade through seventh grade. One in my village and one in the next village over which was about five miles away. And I would visit these schools and do teacher training because the teachers themselves did not have much teacher training if any. Some of them didn't even have a high school degree or you know whatever. So did a lot of in school training. For the teachers I would do demonstration lessons. I would go observe their classes and give them feedback and suggestions. Help them develop materials because they didn't you know really have much in the way of materials. And then I did some sort of 27:00other school development like I started a little school library and we got a little mini grant to get some get some books and bookshelves and things. And had an after school English club. English was the medium of instruction and of course the kids really struggled with that. And so I tried to promote that as much as I could. So that was my primary job. And then as a secondary project I did HIV AIDS education which is pretty much I think required now throughout Africa. And I worked with, we had a clinic in the village and there was a nurse at this clinic who was just an amazing woman and was so motivated and just you know knew what was up and we worked together to train a group of the girls at the secondary school to be peer educators. And they then these girls went around giving little workshops and things about HIV/AIDS care and prevention. And that ended up really being the most meaningful part of my experience. You know the teachers they loved me and they loved having me there but I don't really feel like I made much of a 28:00difference there but I really do feel with the HIV/AIDS that that was, it was powerful for them and for me.

WILSON: Say a little bit more about that Kristen so what was, what was most successful and yet what was hard about doing the teacher training--

PERRY: Right.

WILSON:--and then why do you think the other was more satisfying.

PERRY: Well I think I think what was some of the most successful part of the teacher training was just me being there on a regular basis and just talking with the teachers and giving them constant feedback. I think part of the reason it was successful is that you know one of the things about Peace Corps is it takes so long to just sort of figure out what life is like and what ya know what you really can do and what you can't do. And by the time I had a good handle on that it was time to go. And I think I realized that what I was trying to teach them was so 29:00far outside their experience that they couldn't they couldn't they just couldn't envision it and they couldn't you know they just didn't have the experience themselves.

WILSON: Were they mostly doing rote teaching and the kids were copying down in their notebooks?

PERRY: Right, right. I mean there were huge classes like the standard one had I think like 110 kids in it and one teacher who had no training. And you know and they had you know maybe enough textbooks for each kid to share with a partner and you know and the kids might have a pencil and notebook and so you know the teachers were doing the best they could under the circumstances. And so you know we could have conversations about things and that was good. The things that were most successful with the teachers were some of the things that were their ideas like one of the teachers in the Standard I, like they had no materials whatsoever. And one of the teachers they wanted to 30:00paint the alphabet on the wall so that the kids could have that as a reference and so we got a little bitty grant and got some paint and the teachers had this great idea that you know I was just thinking we could paint them up high, you know, and the teacher said no, n,o no, lets paint it low so that the kids can come and trace it.

WILSON: Good idea.

PERRY: And then they had the idea to do the capital and the lower case in different colors. And so they were really invested in that. And you know it was a permanent thing that could be on the walls. And I don't know if it changed their practice any but they felt invested in that. It wasn't me like pouring an idea into their head. It sort of came from the ground up. And of course you know it took me a long time to get, duh hello, you know. (Wilson laughs) So it was things like that I think were most successful you know there parts of the English club that I thought were really successful. A lot of the kids just came I think to see what the crazy white lady was going to do but there were some things that I was really proud of. You know the kids at first had such a hard time with things like we used to play Twenty 31:00Questions as a language game and they didn't have that scientific reasoning of how to you know they would just randomly guess things and they didn't know how to narrow it down until finally you know one day I was explaining it to them and they started to catch on. And I watched as the kids would sort of teach each other like no, no you got to ask a question like this and so ok so here was something that you know that sort of thing made a difference. So it was the little things that really made a difference. And so that was I think good. But I think I just didn't figure out fast enough why it wasn't working because I was trying to pour ideas into their heads that were just too foreign. They didn't have it was so outside their experience. And --

WILSON: And there wasn't any help for you in how to do that in training? Your training was mostly culture and language?

PERRY: I mean there was some training but the, the, the job training aspect was most like here's the national curriculum.


PERRY: You know here's what teachers are expected to do and that was helpful but you know here's what a radio lesson is and here's how they 32:00do it. So it was sort of helpful but not you know it's one of those things that you just have to figure out as you go.

WILSON: Yeah, yeah.


WILSON: And what about HIV/AIDS? That was successful because--

PERRY: That was successful you know again because I think I had figured out well I was working a lot more closely with a counterpart for that, not my counterpart but she was like a secondary counterpart. And she, she was just an amazing woman and she would say ok here's what we're going to do. Here's and she knew the culture so well that she could figure out how to make it work. And I got involved with these high school girls and got to know them on a very personal level. And I think that helped them to sort of open up to me. And, and I and you know we worked together to sort of develop what they wanted to do, what they wanted to do to teach these kids and they developed a drama, a play that they took out to teach people about HIV/AIDS. And they developed so lessons for the young kids that they could you know about 33:00just you know washing your hands and you know all sorts of things that kids needed to know. And, and the key was that they develop them. And like with the drama, the nurse sort of consulted but this with the whole drama was in Sesotho and my language you know I could catch some of it but not you know I certainly and it and it morphed but about a five minute drama to a twenty minute drama. And was just sort of like ok. (laughs) And they really you know so they sort of took the lead on that and they sort of you know I sat down with them and after I gave them the basic training and information that they need I said ok what do you want to do with this. And they sort of took the lead. And I think that was really you know I had figured out by that point ok this is about building relationships. It's not about pouring knowledge into someone's head. And it's about building from the ground up. And it sort of it clicked for me by that point. And so--

WILSON: You've said that your relationship with your counterpart was really a good one.


WILSON: Say something more about just relationships with her and with 34:00other people in the village generally.

PERRY: Right, right.

WILSON: And these girls.

PERRY: Well I had sort of two like my official counterpart was the woman who was the principal at the primary school and she was very, very powerful. She was sort of like the unspoken chief of the village. She was not officially the chief but she was you know basically the chair of the church board. She was the chair of the secondary school board. She was the director of the church choir. You know she did all of these things. And she was well educated. She had gone to the teacher training college. So she had her you know certification. She was just this grandmotherly woman. Umm her name was Tabitha. And umm she was just very, very well respected and very ,very large. (laughs) And she you know people just really respected her. And you know she had obviously a lot of I think she was on the board of the clinic too. I mean she just did everything. And so people really respected her. And she just welcomed me into her family. And you know one of the 35:00things about Basotho is they're not very physically demonstrative in the same way that we are. But you know as soon as Peace Corps drove up with me you know having collected me from my old site to deposit me in this new village you know we drove up and she came up and gave me this huge bear hug to welcome me which was sort of unusual in that culture. And she just sort of took me into her family. She had a daughter who was about my age who was in school in South Africa who would come back and visit and you know so we were sort of like sisters and her grandkids would come over and play at my house and. So you know I felt very much like I had been taken in as part of her family and I would go over to her house almost every day just to say hi. And you know sometimes she would invite me over for a meal or something and we would have these wonderful conversations that were sort of hybrid of English and Sesotho. And it just kind of flowed together and, and you know we just I think we both just had a lot of mutual respect for each other. And, and she had worked with Peace Corps volunteers before so I didn't have to sort of break her into Americans. And she would-- one of the 36:00things that I think other volunteers struggled with was that they would be compared to other Americans. And you know so and so did it this way, why don't you do that. She never did that. And she would, but she would say things like oh yeah Mary Beth did that so I understand. You know so she had been kind of broken in already about how crazy Americans are. And but she never judged me compared to others and so we had a wonderful relationship. She was just a wonderful woman. And the other woman that I worked with was one of the nurses at the clinic and she was also amazing. She was not from that village originally or she was just sort of assigned by the government there. But she you know was well educated and very, very motivated you know she was one of those people who would get frustrated with other Basotho for being not on time and you know so she I don't know she just picked up some of these western ways of thinking or if that was just who she was or whatever. But she sort of knew what needed to be done and was not going to let anybody stand in the way of that and she was just great. 37:00You know she was one of those people that I worked with that I knew she would carry on our work after we left and we didn't always get that sense I think. So she was--

WILSON: And are these women people you're still in contact with?

PERRY: I try to keep in contact a bit with them but I have not heard from them in a couple of years. I think it's just hard for them. They've had a series of volunteers and I think it's hard to--

WILSON: To keep that relationship going.

PERRY: To say, yeah and just like keep saying goodbye to people and it's hard you know. It's hard on us and it's hard on them.

WILSON: And there are still volunteers, I mean there have been five since or four, three, whatever.

PERRY: I think they were hoping to get some others. So and it was such a good site for them that I'm sure that you know Peace Corps probably put other people there. So yeah they were amazing.

WILSON: What was a typical day like?

PERRY: Oh, well, usually I was woken up by the roosters (laughs). I would get up and I didn't necessarily bath every day especially in the 38:00winter when it was cold. I would maybe even bath like every third day. I mean I would do a little wash of the face and some crucial areas but I didn't do a full bath. But when I did take a bath you know I would have to heat up my water and we used sort of big basins and would sort of crouch over the basin and wash my hair that way, and my body, and make my breakfast and I usually you know boiled water, well I guess I boiled water in the evening. And then I would you know during the week I would go to one of the two schools and I sort of alternated week by week. I'd spend one week at the school in my village and one week far away at this--

WILSON: And you stayed in that village?

PERRY: No, no I would walk.

WILSON: Walk, five miles.

PERRY: It was a five mile walk.

WILSON: Each way?

PERRY: Yeah. Sometimes I would take the bus home or you know people, I would hitch a ride. And somebody was coming down the road, which was not very often. But yeah I walked and it that would take me about an hour and a half to get there. And then I would spend the day at the school umm you know I would go visit classes and you know things like that. Maybe have lunch at the school with the teachers, spend some time 39:00talking to them about things. Sort of get home early in the afternoon. It was very leisurely lifestyle. I might come back for the English club. I loved on Tuesdays and Thursdays that was when the church choir practiced and I liked to go listen to them practice and they enjoyed that. You know if I didn't, if I was in my village that week for the school I would sometimes take a walk, go hiking in the afternoon. Do some other things you know. And then I would start cooking dinner fairly early you know because it would get dark especially in the winter. So I would make, I sort of had my evening, the days were sort of fluid you know. But the evenings I had a very set ritual that sort of kept me sane I think. I would start making dinner. I'd try to eat dinner at a certain time when there was a program on the radio that I like to listen to. And you know I'd make dinner and then usually be done with that by six thirty when the classical music came on. And I would either, I would usually write in my journal or umm write letters 40:00home and then maybe do a crossword puzzle. I did a lot of crossword puzzles. And then I was usually in bed by about eight or eight thirty cause its dark and there's nothing else to do you know? And I had my little kerosene lamp but there's really not that much you can do. And I would usually read for about an hour or so and then I'd, I'd you know sleep. And so my days were very leisurely you know I'd visit people in the village or you know whatever. And then the weekends I would usually go into town, although not always. That's where I had to do my shopping and my banking. And things and you know if there was some project I was working with in school I would usually have to take care of it there. So that's sort of you know life was very leisurely. I did a lot, I read a lot of books. I kept a list of all the books I read. I read something like 115, 120 books while I was there, which was wonderful and you know I wrote a lot of letters. And you know just sort of go visit people and whatever.

WILSON: Did you travel inside Lesotho and then did you go to South 41:00Africa as well.

PERRY: Well I would duck under the fence also.

WILSON: Yeah right but I meant besides--

PERRY: There was town in South Africa not very far away called Zastron. It was just a little bitty sort of farming community. But we would go there every now and then cause they had a nice restaurant that we would go to and you know they had shops where we could get things ya know. I was so excited cause I could get deodorant and you know things like that. So we'd go there sometimes there'd be several other volunteers would get together and take a little trip. I would go into the capital fairly frequently too. I did actually a lot of work for Peace Corps as well. I helped with several other trainings.

WILSON: Oh, okay.

PERRY: So I worked with the doctor to do the medical training for the groups that came in. And then I helped with the, the next years education group. So I did that quite a bit. And then we had several umm sort of HIV/AIDS workshops that we put on collectively for people and those were in different parts of the country. And I would go to those. So I would visit my friends that way. And I did go to South 42:00Africa quite a bit. Occasionally we'd go to Bloemfontein which was a big city in South Africa. And, in fact, James, the Irish volunteer and I a couple times went because we were procuring things for the village that he you know was getting a sewing machine or something. And so we went to a movie and it was so exciting and wonderful. So we would go there. And then I you know I traveled when I went on vacation too so went to Durban in South Africa and went to Capetown which was wonderful. And then I traveled outside of South Africa. I traveled fairly broadly in the region as well.

WILSON: Where all?

PERRY: Umm I--

WILSON: Did you do that at the end or did you do that during?

PERRY: Through, yeah, I went to Swaziland which was kind of fun. I went there to Swaziland and Durban with another Peace Corps volunteer. And then my mother and sister came for Christmas you know after I'd been there for a year. And we went to Capetown and we went on safari in Botswana. And we went white water rafting down the Zambezi River. So 43:00that was really fun.

WILSON: Wow, yeah.

PERRY: And they actually came to my village for a day to see what Lesotho was like. So that was really neat and my dad came and we went --my parents are divorced and so got two vacations --and I met him in Tanzania and we went on safari in Tanzania. So I got you know up into east Africa which was kind of nice. And then I went to visit my friend who was in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso.

WILSON: Wow, so you went to West Africa too.

PERRY: Went to West Africa. So I got all over the place and I spent two weeks in Burkina with him and that was so different. You know it was a totally different world. I mean there's a lot of similarities I think between East Africa and Southern Africa but West Africa was very different. But there's similarities still too but it's--

WILSON: But it's still yeah, right.

PERRY: It's quite different. So yeah so I traveled quite a lot which was which was fun.

WILSON: And did you also travel on the way home?

PERRY: No I came straight home.

WILSON: Because you'd sounded like you traveled quite a bit already.


PERRY: I did, I did. And you know I was really ready to come home. I wanted to be home by Thanksgiving to see my family cause my whole family was getting together. And and then I knew I was going to apply for graduate school and that was coming right up. I just went straight home which was fine because I had had quite a good time traveling.

WILSON: I think that we're about to turn over the tape. So we'll get another cup of tea. We'll get the water hot again. And think about are there several memorable stories that you want to tell before we go on?

PERRY: Good or bad or both?

WILSON: Both, before we go on to thinking about coming home and the impact and so forth.

[Side a ends; side b begins.]

WILSON: We're on side two of tape with Kristen Perry talking about her Peace Corps experience in Lesotho with Basotho who speak Sesotho.

PERRY: Right, very good.

WILSON: So we clarify that for whoever's transcribing here. Okay tell 45:00us a couple of good stories.

PERRY: Well there's I think like three stories that I was thinking of telling you. One was sort of adventure I had about a year after I arrived. And I had made friends with this woman in Mohales Hoek and she was a woman who just sold sausages on the street. And she had befriended me and umm you know cause she sort of sold sausages by my bus while my bus waited to load people up to go back. And so we would chat and she would sit and wait with me on the bus and help me practice Sesotho And she was a wonderful woman. Her name was Angelina, is that right? I think that's right. And Augustina, that's what it was, Augustina. And she invited me to come and visit her family. And her family lived way up in the mountains. And Lesotho or my village was sort of in the low lands in the right on the border. Her family lived sort of in the central part of the country. And she really wanted me 46:00to come meet them. And so she said you know we'll go visit them. I said all right, why not? And okay this was one of those journeys where we started off on a taxi but then had to get on a horse and it was sort of like eight hours on a horse through the mountains. And you know this is where the lightning storm and the hail was coming down and we're up on top of a ridge and I think I'm gonna die. You know trying to explain to her that you know being on top of the ridge in the lightning was not the best plan ever. You know we made it to her family's house you know fine but I was soaked and cranky and not very pleased about cause she kept saying oh it's not far. That's one of the phrases they, oh it's not far.


PERRY: And so we get there and we're going to spend the weekend there and her family lives in a very, very traditional, very poor, they lived in rondavels, the round huts made out of clay and dung and stone and had a you know thatched roof. And they had three or four of these 47:00little rondevals in their umm compound. And they had this wonderful probably flea infested bed for me to stay in. And it was just one of those things. Here I was for like two days with this family and it was sort of, luckily I had brought along my deck of cards and everyone in Lesotho plays Crazy 8's. And so we played crazy 8's for hours because their English was not very good and my Sesotho was passable. But you couldn't have very sophisticated conversations. It's one of those things where they brought me the plate of tripe you know and that was going to be dinner! So it was just one of those experiences. And I was just miserable the whole time. It was cold and rainy and my clothes were wet. But the family was wonderful and they you know treated me like this honored guest and at one point I wanted to go take a nap cause I was very tired and so I went to lay down and of course all the women came into the house and sat around the bed to keep me company while I took a nap. (Wilson laughs) And they were having a 48:00conversation. I was not going to be sleeping. (laughs) But it was wonderful and of course the trip home was equally hellish. Another sort of eight hours coming down the mountain, and I think I got really dehydrated. It was pretty crazy. It was one of those things that you know I have pictures of and I took pictures of the family and gave them to Augustina to give to her family. And it just meant so much to her. And it was one of those experiences that was just really deeply cultural for me too and even though at the time it was--

WILSON: Seemed like a long--

PERRY: It was yes, you know. I look back on it and that was just one of those fun mental experiences that you kind of have to have, so that's one story. Another story that was not quite as good --living by the border had its problems. And one of them was that the, there were a lot of taxis from South Africa that would come and people would just come under the fence so if they didn't have the proper you know passport identification they would do that or if they had goods that 49:00they didn't want to pay tariffs on they would you know and there was break in the fence where umm up a mile or so where the stolen cars would come through from Johannesburg and--

WILSON: And there was no regular border crossing there at all?

PERRY: Oh there was no border crossing there, no. Lots of marijuana would come through and I just sort of tried to ignore it. Sometimes people would come there from South Africa and they would see me and they would be curious. Like what's this white lady doing here in Lesotho. And the South African military sometimes would sort of patrol, but not very often. But one time the military showed up and I was walking home from school and there were some officers and they called over to me and asked me to come over and thought, okay they're just gonna ask me the usual questions. You know what am I doing here and so I went over to say hi and they started grilling me about you know illegal activities that were going on and I thought oh God this is really bad. The guy kept saying to me you need to tell us what you know and I said look I don't really know anything. I try not pay 50:00attention to what goes on here. It's not my business. I'm just here working in the village. He kept persisting and persisting and finally he put his hand on his gun and he said, "Well you need to think about it we're gonna come back next week and question you again". And I thought oh my God. You know this is--

WILSON: How can they do that in Lesotho?

PERRY: They can't. They couldn't. But, you know there I was right on the border and there was nothing stopping them from coming under the fence and I told my counterpart and she sort of freaked out, cause it was inappropriate. Somehow I was going into some Peace Corps workshop or something and Peace Corps heard about this and of course they freaked out. And I think sort of rightly so but it created an international incident that had the embassies of three countries involved.

WILSON: Oh dear.

PERRY: Because the Lesotho Embassy and the U.S. Embassy--

WILSON: And the South African.

PERRY: Right. And it turned out well luckily. Peace Corps did not want to send me back to my site and they were going to move me and I said 51:00look I've already moved once. If you I love this place if you make me move, you can buy me a ticket home. And they, they it turned out the military wasn't even supposed to be there. And so when it got reported to the South African Embassy that the military was at this particular place they, that particular commanding officer got reassigned. I mean there was all sorts of stuff that happened. And that Peace Corps worked it out with the police around my village that they would come and patrol by my house for a while. And they allowed me to go back after the embassies had worked. But I ended up staying in the capital I think for about a week or so while they worked all of that out. And it was really scary for me. Just because here are these people who have guns and power and, and I was just a little person living by myself. And so that was kind of freaky. But people were looking out for me. And it also made me realize how much people in the village cared about me because they were very upset that this had happened. And the police did come by to check on me and make sure I was ok. So 52:00that was good and one of my favorite stories I think I actually wrote this up for a Peace Corps publication one time. I had been walking home from this school that was like five miles away. And it was summer time and it was kind of hot and dry and I had water with me and I had just been fed at the school so I wasn't particularly hungry or thirsty but I kept sort of fantasizing about an orange. All I wanted to eat was an orange. It sounded so good, juicy and it was going to be perfect. I kept thinking oh I've got like four more miles to go before I can get to this orange. I just kept like I wanted it so much I could taste it you know. And pretty soon I heard this car driving up and it was a couple of the teachers from the school in my village and some of the like the standard seven girls they'd been at this net ball tournament in Mohale. So like they had won and they were victorious and very, very excited. And these very large women in the front shoved over so I could hop in and they were telling me about the game and all 53:00of a sudden one of the teachers said oh, I have something for you! And she reached into her purse and pulled out and orange I was just like oh my God. And I couldn't believe it because I hadn't said anything to her and she just here I got this for you. And it was just divine providence and I peeled it and I ate it and it certainly wasn't like the sweetest or the juiciest orange but I think it was the best orange I think I've ever eaten in my life. It was just one of those things where I was like wow. (Wilson laughs) It was amazing. So those are sort of my big stories I guess.

WILSON: Okay. Three good ones.

PERRY: But I think you wanted to talk about 9/11 too.

WILSON: Yes right. What was it like to be overseas during 9/11?

PERRY: It was really hard. I heard about it as it was happening because--

WILSON: This is and this is at the towards the just a few months before you came home.

PERRY: Yes it was like two months before I came home. And I was in the school. I think it was a school break. I don't remember what 54:00the deal was. But I had been working on painting maps in some of the classroom walls so that the older kids would have those for their geography lessons. And I would take my little short wave radio with me and listen to the radio and of course you know this happened at like 8:30 or something in the morning here but it was the middle of the afternoon there. And I was listening to my favorite South African program and they broke in with the news about you know the first tower had been hit and then the second tower. And I kept thinking well this is a joke. It's like Orson Wells and "The War of the Worlds." This isn't, this isn't and I kept thinking oh my God this is real and but I stayed in the schools and I kept painting because I just couldn't stop. I kept painting and painting and painting. And I was getting more and more upset and finally I went home to my house and other people in the village had heard about this because they all had radios and they were you know. And my counterpart came over to check on me and 55:00I was just sort of sitting petrified on my bed with this radio in my hands listening and it was awful. But everyone was so concerned in my village. My counterpart wanted me to come stay in her home with her. I said no, I appreciate it but I think I'd really rather be by myself for this. And she was so wonderful and I stayed in my village for almost a week cause I--For some reason I couldn't I just didn't think I could leave or I couldn't get out cause the bus was broken or something. But finally toward the end of the week I went into town to be around some of the other volunteers who were in town and they had all gotten together immediately. There were several who lived in the town at Mohale's Hoek. And they had immediately gotten together at this hotel that had TV and had seen it all.

WILSON: Had seen it all.

PERRY: But I hadn't seen any of those images and they were trying to explain them to me and umm that was really powerful to sort of be together with them and it was awful. It was just an awful thing to be away when that was happening and to not know what was going on and 56:00to think oh my God. But then on the other hand it was also such a different perspective having lived in another country while that was happening and seen the rest of the world's reactions to how we reacted and we screwed up. And how we sort of squandered the world's good will really, really quickly. And as soon as we started bombing Afghanistan my counterpart Tabitha came stomping down the road and she was this huge fat woman and she came into my house and she just was--"How soon until your country gets a new president?" And I said well it's going to be a while. And she said he's just going to make things worse. And she was kind of right. So it was really interesting to sort of experience that from far away. It was awful in some ways because you felt so isolated and felt so lonely. But on the other hand I saw how much people cared about us. And how not everybody in the world hated 57:00Americans. And how they just--it was really interesting. But it was so hard to be by myself in that village. I had family who lived in New York and I wondered I didn't know for a month that they were fine. Just things like that was it was really, really difficult. And of course I came home two months later and flew into Atlanta the day that moron ran back through security and they had to evacuate the whole--so it was such a--I came home--you always come home and it's a different world but I came home to world that was radically different. And that was really hard. That was really hard.

WILSON: Yeah. Talk more about that because probably the other event that Peace Corps volunteers experienced that had some of the same feelings overseas but did not change us back home was Kennedy's assassination.


PERRY: Sure. Sure.

WILSON: Which some of us were overseas for. But, but yeah the thing with 9/11 was it changed a lot here.

PERRY: Right.

WILSON: So talk about what it was like to come home.

PERRY: Well it's hard enough to come home I think because you've suddenly had your eyes opened and you see the world in a very different way. And you're hopefully a lot more tolerant and I think it sometimes happens sometimes that you are not. And and you've you understand different world views and yet I came home to a country that was suddenly like hype- patriotic and we're the best. And suddenly I felt like such an alien because I had had these experiences and understood the world in different ways and that was not necessarily a valued experience. And well part of it that was difficult for me was that my mother had moved to Michigan while I was in Africa. So I came home to a place that wasn't my home and I didn't know anyone. And so that was hard enough. But it was just very isolating to have this intense 59:00experience that had opened my eyes and yet to come home to people who were suddenly terrified of the world and, and so hyper-patriotic. It was just it was a very strange world. And we had this president who I didn't agree with. The president had changed while I was in Africa. And it was I remember being in the taxi and listening to the news in Sesotho when they said that Al Gore had conceded to Bush I swore out loud and it was just one of things that the world had changed so much while I was gone that I felt like a foreigner in my own country. Like I think it was almost harder to come back here than it was to go over there. Because I expected things to be the same but it wasn't. So I think it yeah that was really hard just the changes in people's attitudes and we were gearing up for war and that it was not 60:00something I agreed with. And so it was just shocking. It was really disorienting. I wanted to just go back to Africa and be back in my village where things seemed so much simpler to me and more clear cut. And I don't know even though that's not true but that's how I felt.

WILSON: So you came back and went on to graduate school? Had you decided already that that's what you were going to do?

PERRY: Right. When I went to Africa I thought that I would come back and go back to the elementary classroom and teach some more. But while I was there I'd almost known that I would go to graduate school. But while I was there it just sort of showed me that I was really ready to do that now. And I had so many questions and things that I wanted to keep exploring and just needed to do it. I felt like I couldn't just go back to the classroom cause it wouldn't be intellectually stimulating enough for me. So I came back right before Thanksgiving 61:00and most of the graduate school applications were due by January first. So I had I think I took the GRE like two weeks after I got back from Africa. My mother had sent me some materials to study while I was there. But suddenly the GRE was all electronic and I didn't have any way to practice that in my village. I had the little GRE for dummies book but no electronic way to practice. So I came back and took the GRE and got my applications in all within about the space of three weeks. And that was intense. But of course I didn't start until the following August so I had about seven months and I lived with my mother until the middle of June.

WILSON: And this was in--

PERRY: This was actually in Lansing. She had moved--

WILSON: Oh in Lansing. And you were applying to--

PERRY: I applied to several schools. It was funny because my mother, I said I'm having a hard time researching schools here but I'm looking for a school that's really good in educational psychology. And she 62:00said well you're never going to believe this but Michigan State is actually one of the top--Yeah, right you just want me to stay with you.. Actually it is the top, one of the top schools and had such a wonderful African studies program. So I ended up staying at Michigan State even though that was not really what I wanted to do. I didn't think that was what I wanted to do. So I lived with my mother until about the middle of June and then I bought a house in Lansing. So I lived with her for about six months which was interesting. And then I started graduate school that fall. I worked over the summer just as a clerk at the gardening store which was kind of fun. I got to be outside with the plants and stuff so that was fun. And I really wanted to maintain my connection to Africa and to you know was volunteer work. My mother knew people who were working with the Sudanese "Lost Boys" and I don't know if you're familiar with them--



PERRY: They were looking for tutors and I thought hey this is something I can do in my spare time until I start graduate school and it would be a great way to maintain my connection , even though Sudan and South Africa are very far apart. But you know, whatever. So I got involved with this program that was supporting, Michigan has tons of refugees. Especially Sudanese and umm so I got involved with tutoring the lost boys and that ended up leading into my research and my dissertation--

WILSON: Oh really?

PERRY: Oh yeah because I had fully intended to go back to Africa for my dissertation work but I was so heavily involved with the Sudanese community and it was such opportunity and I thought I can not pass this up. And nobody was doing research with their refugees and it was a big deal. So that, it was amazing that here was my Peace Corps experience, just wanting to maintain some little clinging hold to Africa and that ended up being, and you know I just got an award for that research so--

WILSON: Wow! That's wonderful.

PERRY: You never know where these things are going to take you.

WILSON: So you got, did you go right on for a doctorate.


PERRY: No no I went straight into a PHD program.

WILSON: Straight into a PHD program.

PERRY: Right.


PERRY: Educational Psychology.

WILSON: In Educational Psychology.

PERRY: But the program at Michigan State is wonderful. And the Ed Psych department has a very socio-cultural slant to it. And so our program was actually called Learning Technology and Culture which was why I chose to be there.

WILSON: Oh, okay.

PERRY: Because that's my, learning and culture is what I do, literacy and culture. And so that was why I stayed there was they had that focus plus that Africa center and so it was just perfect for what I wanted to do. Yeah so that's what my PHD's in. With a focus on literacy.

WILSON: So talk a little bit about your dissertation that won the award.

PERRY: Okay. Well let me tell you first--

WILSON: Because that relates to this I think if it's Africa.

PERRY: Absolutely. So I had been volunteering with these lost boys 65:00doing tutoring and the woman who eventually became my advisor, I was taking a class with her and she had heard about this work. And she said oh I've got this big project I want to get started up and this sounds like it would be a perfect slice of it. And it was looking at the ways the different cultural communities used literacy in their everyday lives. And we were going to a number of different case studies in different communities. And she said oh well this would be a wonderful case study. Do you want to do this? And I thought well okay why not. I mean these are high school and community college students and I'm really interested in elementary but this is you know I love these guys and this is a great way to get involved in research why not. So I started doing this study with her and we developed it together. And it sort of an ethnographic case study of this particular group and umm--

WILSON: How many lost boys are there in Michigan?

PERRY: In Michigan at that time there were--.

WILSON: And a lot just in Lansing alone.

PERRY: Oh yeah. I think in Lansing alone there were probably over 66:00a hundred. I mean there were, it was a sizeable community. And so anyway so I was working with them and this then sort of morphed into my practicum. We had to do a pre dissertation sort of research project before we did our comps and everything. And so this became my practicum. And it got published and everything. And it was really wonderful. And I thought well okay this is great but for my dissertation I really want to work with young kids. And Lansing also had a huge population of Sudanese families. You know the lost boys were orphans but these families had come over intact and so I said well I'm really interested in thinking, looking at literacy among these families and what's going on so umm one of the guys who I had been really close with among the lost boys sort of introduced me to several families and I started looking at literacy among these families and spending just oodles of time with them. And what I ended up doing 67:00my dissertation on was what's called literacy brokering where people don't understand some aspect of the text and so they go and they ask somebody to help them with it. And usually people think about it as just translating. But what I found was that that was not the issue. The big issue was that these were genres that these parents had not ever encountered before in Sudan. But suddenly in the U.S. they had to use them like phonebooks. If you don't have a phone you don't, how do you navigate the phonebook if you've never seen something like that. So it's like English wasn't the issue, it was the genre or that was or yearbooks. Like the schools would send home order forms for yearbooks. Well the parents thought they were study guides. And so they would want to order, so if you don't know what the purpose of a yearbook is you know so all of this stuff that relates to culture and the experiences that you've had and how that shapes your understanding of literacy and what we do with it. That's what I was looking at. And so I found that these people were relying on the parents were relying on 68:00a lot of different people to help them understand text, especially the ones that the schools were sending home. And the really interesting thing was that they were relying on their really young kids who were in kindergarten and first grade. Even though the kids couldn't read the texts themselves they still knew a lot about the texts.

WILSON: Right.

PERRY: Like you know what does a permission slip do? Well it lets me go on the field trip. And stuff like that so I was looking at that whole issue of how do people understand literacy when they, how do they figure it out when they're moving across context like that from a radically different, now all these parents were literate in Arabic and they were becoming literate in English. So they were literate in, some of them were very well educated but like one of the moms in my study, her father was the Minister of Justice in Sudan. So some of them were very well connected. But it just sort of, I sort of fell into this project. That's not at all what I thought I would study when I, I thought I was going to go back to Lesotho and do some research there and but this was just such a wonderful opportunity that I could see so 69:00much need for that. Because we have more and more refugees coming out of these countries.

WILSON: Absolutely, absolutely.

PERRY: And we need to understand that that we need to help our schools figure out how to work with these children. So I thought well this is, I can really have an impact here. If I go back to Lesotho I might have an impact there and I might sort of get into the international literature. But here, this is something I can really do that might make a difference. And so I have no regrets. And the award that I got was for contributions to adult literacy research. So I never thought I would be in adult literacy either.

WILSON: But there you are.

PERRY: And it all makes since when you look at the progression of just how things fell together after Peace Corps. But Peace Corps helped me really define what I wanted to study. Like I knew that I wanted to look at literacy. And I knew that I wanted to look at culture and how that impacted. One of the things that always stuck out in my mind is this story that I was sitting in the bus and this, and I greeted this old man in Sesotho and he was so amazed that I could speak some Sesotho 70:00and then finally he said well that's because Sesotho is easy. And I said well I don't think it's easy. And he said oh no it's easy I can prove it to you and he said, "Even little babies can learn how to speak Sesotho but you have to go to school to learn how to speak English." And I said oh ok. But in my country little babies can learn how to speak English. And he said ah no no no. He said that is because white babies are smarter than black babies. And I thought--But it was beliefs like that English is hard, it was things like that that really made me want to study literacy and culture and understand why is this happening. It was things like why was I so surprised to see someone standing in line at the bank reading a romance novel. I saw that once and it nearly knocked me out of my socks. Then I thought, why is that so surprising to me? And it's because people there didn't read for pleasure. That was not something they valued the way that we do. Like white middle class people might and but yet they were very functionally 71:00literate. And so it was just those sorts of experiences that made me think, I really need to figure out what's going on here with culture and literacy and how culture impacts literacy development. And that's that's how I decided to go to grad school in this area.

WILSON: How did--how did the knowledge of Arabic and the fact that some of these parents were literate in Arabic, what difference do you think that made? And I say this partially because I know that the British, for example, in Nigeria did not count Arabic as literacy.

PERRY: Right.

WILSON: And we've, they've tended to do that in Africa. And there are many, many people who are literate in Arabic.

PERRY: Right, right. So you're wondering how does that play into their 72:00literacy?

WILSON: Yeah. I mean the genres would be different.

PERRY: Right. The genres would be--

WILSON: That they would be familiar with in terms of literacy.

PERRY: Right.

WILSON: And what was here. Is that what the--

PERRY: That's part of what it was. You know and also it's--

WILSON: Yeah. But I think people--

PERRY: There's some similarities and differences too in the languages. I mean both Arabic and English are alphabetic languages. And that makes a difference because you, if you already can speak if you can already read in Arabic you already then understand the alphabetic principle which is that we, you spell phonetically. And so you've already got that. Even though it's a totally different alphabet, and it goes the other direction, you understand that. Whereas if you are literate in a language like Chinese or Japanese, that's not a phonetic alphabetic language. So you're already in some ways a leg up because you get that principle.

WILSON: Well I was just thinking of it because people would assume I think that if you were working with people from an African country that that they wouldn't necessarily be literate in another language.


PERRY: Right. Well there's a lot of assumptions about that.

WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.

PERRY: I certainly encountered that. But what I did in my research was I did a lot of interviews about their past experiences. And, and things like religion was a very powerful umm motivator for literacy in Sudan. The Bible was very important because these were Christians.

WILSON: Right.

PERRY: They were not Muslim. And so they often talked about reading the Bible and that was the big, and even people who had never been to school sometimes learned to read the Bible. And very much like the history of the U.S. So that was a really big deal but they also talked about going to school and how that was sort of a family literacy occasion too. People were trying to help siblings with homework or help children with homework. These were families who had been to school and I'd get families that haven't.

WILSON: Right. Right.

PERRY: But that's another study for the future.

WILSON: Sure. Yeah. Yeah

PERRY: So they were, they'd had experiences with texts and some of them were the same like the Bible. They knew the Bible in Arabic and so that was, they didn't have problems with that. That they might need help 74:00with just translating and you know in church they talked about Luke, verse whatever and so they got that. But things like phonebooks, they didn't have telephones. And so how would they know how to, or they had never used computers before they came here. And so thinking about how do I navigate a website when you've never seen a computer before and you suddenly have to use one to apply for jobs. Like, that's a big, so it was things like that that, and then also a lot of the cultural expectations that were sort of embedded in texts, especially the ones that came home from the schools. Like you know you have all these forms that come home but how are parents expected to respond if there's an, we expect parents to attend parent teacher conferences but you know getting a flyer about a a meeting with the superintendent to discuss possible budget cuts, that's not as important. That's optional. And so helping parents understand some of those levels of expectations that 75:00aren't obvious, that was you know, a lot of that cultural stuff was hard for them. So that was the other big deal. So it wasn't so much the language. I mean that was certainly part of it, but this other stuff was really important to them. That figuring out how to navigate literacy in the U.S. was so much more than just the language.

WILSON: So good. Well so finished your dissertation and your doctorate in--

PERRY: This summer.

WILSON: This summer. Okay. And then you came to the University of Kentucky.

PERRY: I did. Yeah. So I'm a brand spanking new professor at UK in the College of Education.

WILSON: Have you found any African refugees here?

PERRY: I'm just starting to. I've been trying to keep my head above water this first semester.


PERRY: But I just last week contacted umm some folks at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

WILSON: Refugee Ministries.

PERRY: And they're gonna put me in hopefully I'm gonna start just in fact today finished writing a little mini grant proposal to for some summer funding to spend some time getting into the community and doing 76:00that research.

WILSON: With Congolese, Liberians and--

PERRY: Right. I'm hoping to find some Somalis too.

WILSON: There's Somalis at least, well they're in Columbus. Are there some in Louisville too? I don't know that they are here.

PERRY: Well I'm, I think there are some here because the guy that I bought my house from owns one of the bike shops in town.


PERRY: And he told me that they participate in this like bike donation program. And he was saying oh yeah they've got all these Somali refugees that we're giving bikes to. So he which, I don't know how many that is. But I'm hoping, because that's a community depending on what tribe they are from, that is traditionally illiterate and has had very little if any access to school. And I would love to try to look at literacy in that community. Like what happens when you come from a very illiterate culture to here where literacy is so fundamental to what we do. And just how do they figure that out? So I just made 77:00contact and hope to start doing that too. I really like my work with the refugees and want to keep doing that.

WILSON: Okay, let's do some of these impact questions which you've really already begun to talk about. Certainly in terms of your career. But what do you, first of all what do you think your impact as a Peace Corps Volunteer was on country and people? And then the other side of that, what's the impact on you.

PERRY: Okay. My, my impact you know I can always ask myself, did I really make a difference? And, yes and no I mean I think people sometimes are naive going over there. They think oh I'm going to change the world and make this huge impact. And I think some people really do. Like you know Tara just is really good at organizing things and she wow you know. She just set up some things that were really powerful. And I think my impact was on a much more micro level. I 78:00developed some really good relationships with people. And I think helped to you know that one goal of the Peace Corps which is to foster understanding of the American people. I think I did that. And, and I think that that the HIV/AIDS program that I started probably continued for a while. And really did some good in the village. It got people talking about it which that was a hard thing to do in Lesotho. And I know that the girls in that program, I saw them just blossom so much as they were working with me over a year and a half. And they so you know maybe I didn't change the world but I changed their world. And that was important. So, so I think that that's, that's certainly what I did. I think I may have left a little bit of a legacy in that in the school with some of the permanent materials. Like the alphabet letters and the maps and things and the books that we got donated and umm things 79:00like that. So I think there's a little physical legacy like that but umm I know that the Peace Corps Volunteers in that village were always remembered very fondly. And umm there was definitely that connection. There was a woman from my first site that I kept in contact with for some time and helped her get a scholarship to go to college. So I think my impact was much more on an individual level with individual people and that's fine with me. That's that's great. What was my--

WILSON: What was the impact of the Peace Corps experience in Lesotho on you?

PERRY: Oh, it changed my life. You know it really helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It certainly gave me direction in my career and you know what I wanted to do in graduate school and my dissertation and my research. But I think more importantly it just, it changed my world view. I think I learned I became a much more patient 80:00person. Something I still work on but I became a lot more tolerant. I think I was able to examine multiple perspectives more easily. And to have an understanding of culture and difference that was on a very fundamental level rather than on a very superficial level. And of course that's you know what the Peace Corps hopes you'll get out of it. Not everybody does though. I know some people who came out of it less tolerant and that's unfortunate. But so I think it just it changed me. And the other thing that it really did for me was it sort of showed me what I was made of. That I could live with no electricity and no running water and I could stand up to the South African Army and I could you know it and I could deal with the sexual harassment and I could go spend two days in a village with people that I didn't know. And you know every day is a challenge. And you meet that challenge every day. And it's that's really empowering. So that that was really 81:00what it gave me. It showed me who I was and who I wanted to be, what I could be.

WILSON: What do you think the overall impact of Peace Corps has been? And what do you think its role should be today?

PERRY: In the world?

WILSON: Yeah. What should its role be today? For example I think that Barack Obama said last week that it ought to be doubled and that's something that National Peace Corps Association has been looking on for some years now.

PERRY: Right. I, I agree. I mean I think I think sometimes I question some of the development objectives. Just because I think you get all these people who are very well intentioned but don't know much and like me. It took me a long time to figure it out. And I think a lot of people go in with the attitude of you know we're Americans we know what's best. Even well intentioned and open minded we know what's best. And they don't. And I think you know I saw a lot of tractors 82:00that just had been donated but sat there idle because nobody then knew how to fix them. Or and so I think some of the development aspect can be misguided at times. And I you know the critical part of me also wonders too like is there a hidden agenda that I'm aware of? I just I just wonder sometimes. But I really do believe in the other two goals which is the cultural understanding both ways of getting Americans to understand the world and getting the world to understand real Americans and not just the ones they see on "Days of Our Lives" which is what most of the Sesotho sort of thought Americans were like. And that to me is really where peace building comes from. I think development is important and sharing knowledge is important. If it's done well. But fostering understanding is so important and that's really where I see 83:00the mission. And especially in this post 9/11 day and age I think that that mission is more relevant than ever. Because we see people who have a limited understanding of what Americans are like and then we see Americans who have a very limited understanding of what other people in the world are like. And that to me is really so important. So I would agree with Barack that we need to double the mission. One of the interesting things about my family which I don't think I mentioned is that my sister is in the Foreign Service. And so it's so interesting to compare my take on the world with hers. And you know the Foreign Service is very sort of elite and umm sort of this posh expat life and there's no getting in with the people. And I have a really have a hard time with that. And my sister actually spent a year in Baghdad last year during the war and came away with some very, very negative attitudes about Muslims and Arabs and that's hard for me. And I understand why she's you know it was awful for her there but it's 84:00so interesting to me that that's also some of the attitudes that the Foreign Service I think fosters is the sort of superiority. And so I think I wish more people had the Peace Corps experience. Umm it's hard. Not everyone can do it. But even if, I don't know, I would love to see even just shorter stints for people who can't give two years but could you know I love the Crisis Corps but I wish that it was for people who hadn't also, who hadn't yet been Peace Corps volunteers could do that just because I think there are people who could do it. So anyway I'm all for the Peace Corps. I think it should continue and be expanded and all of that. Absolutely.

WILSON: In terms of the third goal, bring the Peace Corps back home, you talked about your research. What about your teaching, how does Peace Corps experience come into that?

PERRY: Yeah. Oh, I certainly share my experiences with my students. I usually, each semester do a little slideshow with pictures for them and 85:00talk about it. I've been invited to speak in other professors' classes about my experiences. It's also influenced my teaching. So it's not explicit but I talk a lot more about you know diversity and language and cultural understanding I think than I might have if I had not had those experiences. So that's a very a strong thread throughout umm the courses that I teach. You know when I bring examples of books into the class for children's literature I often bring African stories or yeah you know "Jambo Means Hello." Just different African books that I'm just trying to expose them to non-stereotypical African things. And I like to share stories from my time. So I certainly bring, I wish that I did that more. I have friends who do lots of speaking about it and I just haven't because of grad school and things I just haven't been able to do that to the extent that I would like. But, but I certainly do. 86:00I do bring into the teaching.

WILSON: Last question is--What is a question that I haven't asked you that you would like to answer? (laughs) In other words is there anything else that you want to say?

PERRY: Gosh we've talked about so much. (laughs) It's so hard to condense two years of experience but this is good it's more than the usual two minutes I get. What would I answer. I can't think of anything.

WILSON: Thank you.

[End of interview.]

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