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Peace Corps Volunteers Return to War-torn African Nations

Washington Informer, News Report, Alvin Peabody Posted: Oct 30, 2009

After decades of absence from several war-torn African nations, the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are making a comeback.

I was amazed at how quickly the people are rebounding from many years of war, said Barbara Manuelpillai, a volunteer who recently returned to the United States from Liberia, where she served from October 2008 to July 2009.

Manuelpillai also served in Sierra Leone from August 1974 to August 1977.

The Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961, after the then-U.S. senator challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.

Since that time, more than 190,000 volunteers have served in more than 139 countries, including Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The first group of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Sierra Leone in 1962 and focused primarily on education. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, volunteers expanded their programs to include the agricultural and health sectors.

But operations were suspended as a result of a military coup detat in April 1992. Eighty-two of the volunteers serving at that time were evacuated, but in August, 24 of the volunteers returned to Sierra Leone and reinstated the health, agricultural and education projects. However, due to the continued instability in the country, all operations ceased in 1994.

The Sierra Leone civil war was officially declared over in 2002, and the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are expected to return in 2010, according to the agency which is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

More than 4,400 Peace Corps volunteers served in Liberia from 1962 to 1990. They were involved in every facet of the countrys development efforts, from education and health to agriculture and rural development.

But the program, too, was soon suspended due to the Liberian civil war. One of Africas bloodiest; the civil war claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and further displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries.

A year ago, a bilateral agreement was signed between the governments of the United States and Liberia to restart the United States Peace Corps program.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has welcomed the return of the Peace Corp volunteers to Liberia, describing their return as timely.

The contribution of the Peace Corps, the Liberian leader said, will be critical as they develop the needed teaching skills which are crucial to a robust educational program.

When Manuelpillai went to Liberia, she was assigned to the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute, where she taught and helped mentor school officials emerging from a long civil war. The school is located about 35 miles from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Many of the people we met were very happy to see us because many of them, before the war, had experienced Peace Corps volunteers in their lives, said Manuelpillai, who now resides in Massachusetts.

In addition to helping renovate school buildings, Manuelpillai also worked with womens groups in weaving, pottery and carpentry.

Nancy Wallace was also among the first volunteers that returned to Liberia recently. She served from 2008 to 2009 and currently lives in Maryland.

I knew that being one of the first volunteers to return to Liberia was going to be an exciting and challenging experience, but even with high expectations, I was surprised to find that my time here has been more than I could have ever imagined, Wallace wrote on her Peace Corps blog recently.

Joshua Kamara is also excited about the return of the Peace Corps volunteers to Liberia.

These people [volunteers] really helped us when we had peace, so Im happy they have returned now that were rebounding from years of war, said Kamara, an elementary school teacher in Monrovia. Just as I was able to get a good education many years ago through the help of the Peace Corps, Im delighted that todays generation will be able to get the same, he said.

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