• TABLE OF CONTENTS
HIDE
 Copyright
 Interview














Title: James Wilson
CITATION PDF VIEWER THUMBNAILS PAGE IMAGE ZOOMABLE
Full Citation
STANDARD VIEW MARC VIEW
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006210/00001
 Material Information
Title: James Wilson
Series Title: James Wilson
Physical Description: Book
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00006210
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Downloads

This item has the following downloads:

UF285A ( PDF )


Table of Contents
    Copyright
        Copyright
    Interview
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
        Page 18
        Page 19
        Page 20
        Page 21
        Page 22
        Page 23
        Page 24
        Page 25
        Page 26
        Page 27
        Page 28
        Page 29
Full Text



COPYRIGHT NOTICE


This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Florida.

Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.

This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
used.

For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida











Interviewer: Jim Meir

Interviewee: James Wilson

UF 285A

February 4, 1996



M:This is Jim Meir. It is February 4, 1996. I am conducting

this interview with James Wilson at 2635 Southwest Thirty-

fifth Place, Unit 301, in Gainesville, Florida. James, what

is your full name for the record?

W:James Arthur Wilson Junior.

M:I take it your dad had the same name. How about your mom's

name?

W:Bessie Ball Wilson. She goes by Bess Wilson.

M:Do you know your grandparents names?

W:Annie Ball and Walter K. Ball. My grandmother on my father's

side was Millie Whitmore and Charles Whitmore.

M:You know your family well. You were born in Texas I think.

W:Texas City, Texas.

M:Texas City?

W:Texas City is a suburb of Galveston, Texas. It is right on the

coast. I lived there for nine years of my life before

moving to Dallas when I was ten years old. My father is

from Dallas, Texas. The hurricanes and the awful weather in

Texas City drove my parents to move up to the northern

section of Texas. Every year there was very turbulent

weather. My parents bought a really wonderful home. It had

a lot of damage. Every year they had to do repairs. They











just got tired of it. It is similar to the weather that I

think people in Florida have to be subjected to.

M:No doubt. Where were your grandparents from? Were they also

from the Galveston area?

W:My grandfather and my grandmother on my mother's side are from

Crockett, Texas, which is in east Texas. My grandmother and

my grandfather on my father's side are from the Dallas area.

My dad is a third generation Dallasite.

M:A lot of Texas in the family. I take it you grew up in Texas.

Did you go to school there? Where did you go to school?

W:I grew up in Texas. I went to Catholic elementary and high

school, actually a Jesuit high school. I did my

undergraduate work at the University of Texas in Austin.

All of my primary, secondary, and my first degree is from

the University of Texas. So all of my education is from

Texas.

M:You were born in what year?

W:1961. I was born on Kennedy's inauguration day, during his

speech.

M:In a special state. What did you do your degree in at Austin?

W:I did a joint degree in political science and English. I

looked at American politics in the 1960s. The English that

I did was a combination of modern European English. I did

not do an honors thesis in English. I did an honors thesis

in political science.

M:Did you enjoy your time at UT?

W:It was mixed. I have to say that [I was] a student that was











actively engaged in student activities. I was president of

my fraternity. I was the first black member of the Longhorn

Band to be an officer of that organization since its

inception in 1900. The school was very difficult in terms

of both academic and social adjustment for African American

students. There were only 800 of us out of 50,000 students.

It was a rough, rough period of my life. I think I made

the best of the situation by being vocal and active. I

learned a lot. If I had to do it over again, I would

probably not go to the University of Texas.

M:Where would you have gone knowing what you know now?

W:I probably would have gone to Morehouse University which is a

prestigious African American, all male, university in

Atlanta, Georgia. I think it is important for people to

culturally be in an environment that nurtures them as well

as an academic setting. I did not get that. I struggled

tremendously socially as an African American student. It

was treated with very little regard.

M:When you said the adjustment was a difficult one going to

Austin, what specifically do you have in mind? You said in

a social sense and maybe academically too.

W:Well, when you are in a class of 300 people and you are the

only African American in the class, and you raise your hand

to ask a question or to participate, everyone scorns you or

makes fun of the fact that you are not dumb, but in fact you

are intelligent. When you go to a large university like

that with some very close friends that you grew up with who











decide to just drop you because socially they would not be

viewed in a favorable light. So they cannot be seen with

this African American friend. It is very difficult for one

to adjust, particularly when these people were someone that

you knew since you were ten years old. It was a very

traumatic experience.

M:Had you ever been exposed to that kind of experience before?

W:I do not think so. I think it was the first time that I truly

understood what racism means. It is not a unique situation.

If you talk to many African American graduate students,

even here at the University of Florida or anywhere, there is

a general pattern of socialization of African American

students who go to predominantly white institutions.

Undergraduates here at the University of Florida could

probably tell you similar stories. I think it is how one's

family supports you or how one has the tenacity to do well

in light of the experience that separates those who will

succeed from those who will fail. So the retention rate at

the University of Texas was horrendous because some people

thought why should I put up with this. They quit or they

transferred. I am a proud Texan. I did benefit largely for

my struggles. I did learn that if you can make it at the

University of Texas during the 1980s, you can make it

anywhere.

M:It sounds like it was a consciousness raising experience. Did

you during your stint at UT develop a lot of your ideas

concerning racism and your place in a predominantly white











world such as UT? Had you experienced that before? Did

this force you to think things through where before this had

not been the case?

W:I think beforehand when you go to a school where there are only

four African Americans in the whole school you do not

necessarily think about it. In a larger broader context,

where you have an institution like the University of Texas

at the capital of the state where a lot of energy is devoted

to the articulation of proud Texas, and you do not see the

inclusion of people of color, including Latin American,

Asian, or African American students, let alone people from

foreign countries, you start to wonder very quickly, "How am

I going to survive in an environment like this?" I think

your consciousness is immediately tapped, maybe your first

week that you are at the University of Texas because it has

such a bad reputation among African Americans throughout

Texas. If you go home or go visit somewhere, even in Austin

on the east side, which is the predominantly African

American section of town, and you say you are a University

of Texas student, you are treated as if you are a king of

queen because they know the type of pressure you are

enduring. So people support you and empathize with the

struggle that you have. Even indirectly, you learn the

legacy of that institutions identification or relationship

with racism.

M:I think you made the comment a minute ago that you knew of this

reputation. It is not a secret that the university has this











reputation. You went there anyway and you knew what to

expect.

W:My parents were some of the first blacks to graduate from

Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In fact, my

parents wanted me to go to SMU. I had received a music

scholarship there. My concept of going to the university

meant you were leaving home, you were going to have new

experiences, and you were going to be an adult. I could not

see how that transformation was going to occur if I lived at

home and went to SMU. So I consciously chose not to

confront an institution that was racism because in the

abstract I really did not know what that meant. I knew that

it meant a lot of white folks. I did not know that it would

impact my life so dramatically. I think that I consciously

wanted a challenge, both academically and socially. I knew

that living in this country and wanting to be successful, I

was going to have to deal with these issues sooner or later.

I might as well learn them during the period where academic

development would take place.

M:So you did well at UT and got your degree in four years?

W:Four and one-half years.

M:What did you do after that?

W:The half-year I had to take education classes because I wanted

to again break from a tradition in my family. My parents

had groomed me to go to law school. I was going to go to

law school until my senior year, [when] I decided that I

wanted to join the Peace Corp and see the world. The Peace











Corp Recruitment Office said, "What can you do with a

political and English degree? Can you teach?" I said,

"Well, I never taught." So they encouraged me to take some

education classes to help my chances of being accepted into

the Peace Corp. For half a year, I took a semester of

education classes and then became certified to teach high

school English. From there I applied through the long

process of becoming a Peace Corp volunteer. I got an

invitation to go to Kenya in October 1985. I accepted the

invitation and became a Peace Corp volunteer for three

years.

M:Were you given any choice? Was it Kenya or nothing at that

particular time?

W:At that particular point in the Peace Corp, you were given five

choices, five places that you could choose or you could

suggest. Kenya was my number one choice. It was only

because I had a friend who I went to college with who was a

Peace Corp volunteer in Kenya, and had wrote and said it was

a great place. So I said Kenya. The likelihood of getting

where you request is not high. I was lucky.

M:So you went off to Kenya. Did you go directly to Kenya then?

W:Yes, directly to Kenya. We had a one week crest. Crest stands

for something--I cannot remember at this point. It is an

opportunity for you to make up your final mind and an

opportunity for the Peace Corp to actually see the person

behind the application. Within that week, they do a lot of

mental preparation. At the end of that week, you can decide











if you actually want to continue. After that, we were in

Naivasha, Kenya for three months. Naivasha, Kenya was where

the training site is, and that is where we learned to speak

Ke Swahili. We learned cross-cultural training. There are

a lot of cross-cultural things that one would need to know.

We learned the native food and greetings. It was an

opportunity to put us in a cross-cultural think tank before

we accepted our permanent sites and before we were sworn in.

M:Did you have a knowledge of Ke Swahili prior to this?

W:No, I did not.

M:How long was this preparation?

W:Three months.

M:So you came away with a working knowledge of Ke Swahili?

W:Yes. It was very intense. It was a six hour day in language

and culture. You had to take a foreign language speaking

exam in order to be sworn in. You had to at least have a

one level proficiency mark. A native speaker is at five.

One is just basic--how to travel, how to order food, how to

identify yourself, and how to get directions. It is

functional. Not a tourist level but definitely someone who

had been in the country.

M:Otherwise, did the cross-cultural sensitivity training

adequately prepare you or did you still make a few cultural

faux pas?

W:I think the cross-cultural part of the training was a joke,

quite honestly. I think whenever people try to exaggerate

the differences in people, they tend to overcompensate and











then therefore distort reality. For example, the Peace Corp

packets said do not wear blue jeans because Kenyans do not

wear blue jeans. You will look tacky. You want to look

like a professional. So being naive of colonial history

prior to becoming a Peace Corp volunteer, I brought all this

khaki clothes because at the time in the 1980s, khaki was in

style. I was the only African American out of eighty in my

group. From the first day to the last day of training,

every day I wore khaki--khaki shirts, shorts, jeans, hat,

cap, and everything. It was ridiculous. Consequently, my

reception was not very open because I was completely naive.

I had followed a dress code. Of course every single Kenyan

that I saw was dressed in blue jeans. It was a problem.

There are a lot of exaggerations. I think when people find

out that universally there are a lot of commonalities across

cultures, we are better of being trained or being exposed to

the subtleties of differences instead of these very broad,

specific examples.

M:Can you speculate on the source of that overcompensation?

W:For example, men and women in Kenya can hold hands. In fact,

if you go to any village you see very close friends holding

hands.

M:Same sex?

W:Same sex. They are walking down the street. It is not even a

second thought. At the height of my Peace Corp experience,

leaving the United States was the beginning of AIDS. The

Peace Corp said, "If you see two men holding hands or if a











man holds your hand it does not mean that he is trying to

come on to you. He is not trying to make a homosexual

move." Generally, people said, "Oh that is cool that men

cold hold hands and no one thinks anything." As soon as

someone greeted someone and held their hand as they walked,

you would hear Peace Corp volunteers say, "Ooh, these people

are weird. This guy tried to hold my hand." Yet, there is

this distortion of what certain things mean, even after you

explain it to people. A better example would be if you go

to a pub and a woman is at a pub, she is a prostitute. If

you buy her a beer, you just bought her for the night. Some

people thought that was cool and would go and try to test it

out, and would insult a host country national by buying a

woman a beer and expecting something to happen. Nothing

would happen. Then they would be like well I bought you a

beer, as if something was going to happen on script. I

think that a lot of times just the subtleties of culture, if

there is something very extreme, should be approached. To

make anecdotal type of situations that clearly evolve

because cultures change constantly [[please finish

thought]]. I do not think you can teach people extreme

things and expect them to go out and those vignettes to be

mirrored perfectly. I think it is a bit extreme. I hope I

have made myself clear on that. It is kind of difficult to

respond.

M:So you got this training. Where were you placed within Kenya?

W:I was placed in Taita Hills. Interestingly, when you are in











the Peace Corp you are given regions. The regional

director, Richard Tolevor, was this very pompous, African

American. He did not like me. He thought that I was a very

privileged person. He decided to put me on the very top of

the mountain in the middle of nowhere, about ninety

kilometers from Kilimanjaro. There were sixteen volunteers

in Taita, which is a lot for a general region. I kept

saying, "Where is my site?" We kept dropping off everyone.

He said, "Oh, it is just there." We dropped off the person

next to me, which was about forty kilometers close to me,

the nearest to me. My location was so high that the truck

could not continue to go up the hill. It was ribbing, and

ribbing. It finally started to roll. We had to walk

something like eight kilometers to get to the top. They had

something like fifty people bring various supplies and

things for me. It was ridiculous.

M:This had it in for you then.

W:He had it in for me until he noticed when he came on the site

visit that my house was fully furnished and I had all types

of foods. It was because there was a Norwegian volunteer

who was also at my school who had a Jeep. It turned out to

the most beautiful site and the most wonderful experience

because every week Marinne Anderson [[he spells her name at

the end of the tape]], who was the Norwegian volunteer. I

drove to Nairobi and Mambasa. I had cheese and all type of

American, European, as well as African things in my home

that otherwise would be impossible to have.











M:How high were you up?

W:I was 7,500 feet up.

M:That is pretty high. You must have had quite a view.

W:Yes. It was an incredible view of Kilimanjaro every single

day.

M:So your responsibility is to teach at this high school?

W:I taught the whole school English. What is interesting was

that it was the British system, so I taught from one through

four, which is like freshman through senior. I taught A and

O level English, which would be like the first two years of

junior college.

M:So the range of ages would span?

W:They would be from fourteen to twenty-one, twenty-two.

M:You taught in what language?

W:I taught in English.

M:I am sorry. Did you use Ke Swahili as well?

W:No. The medium of language and education in Kenya is English.

English is the official language. Ke Swahili is the

national language.

M:What kind of reception did you initially get from your

students?

W:I am from Texas as you well know, and the accent that you hear

now is a reformed Texas version, although some would argue

that they still hear how long that I pronounce my words. At

the time, I sounded something like this. The students just

could not understand one word of what I was saying. So I

think for the first four months, one students just stood up











and said, "We thought we would be learning the Queen's

English. We just do not know what rubbish that is that you

are speaking. I am a little afraid that I am not going to

be able to pass my qualifying exams if I continue to learn

English from you." So I had to modify my pronunciation. I

think they were generally taken by me. They had never seen

an African American before. They had never fully understood

that America was not a multi-cultural country or multi-

ethnic country. They had the impression that it was all

white from the previous volunteers who had worked at the

school. I was a good teacher. I had very few resources. I

mean something like forty students in a room and something

like eight books. I had to be extremely innovative. I was

really happy that I had taken the educational courses at the

University of Texas because they helped me tremendously in

terms of using other teaching strategies.

M:What kind of resources could you draw upon and what kind of

strategies did you employ?

W:I was able to take exercises from the book and type them. They

had a stencil machine that we probably used back in the

1930s. I would supplement the books with creating my own

text, or I used many different teaching devices other than

the board or lecture. I would use group learning projects.

I used weekly out of the classroom projects to center

discussion around. I used different types of teaching

strategies other than relying on the teacher versus the book

versus learning.











M:Did you find that a rewarding experience? Do you feel your

students got a lot out of that?

W:It was a struggle. You are talking about teachers who have

followed a script, a little book handed down by the

Department of Education. This little book was the Bible,

which was the universal syllabus. My level of trust in

terms of creative teaching had to be reiterated by

illustrating that what I was teaching really did not differ

from this subscribed script of what was to be taught. The

latitude that I was given to be creative was questioned, but

over time people saw that in fact my students knew more than

other students previously of the English language.

M:You were living in a community of sorts. You were perched up

on this hill, but were you surrounded by a town? How many

people were living there?

W:I lived in a town called Kitumbi. Kitumbi was a Harambee

community. Harambee is a slogan which means to pull

together, pull all your resources together. It is a

national philosophy of Kenya. Essentially it is a farming

community, an agricultural community of maybe fifty people,

fifty families. This whole community built this boarding

school, which was a very fine boarding school only because

it received assistance from the Peace Corp and NORAD, which

is a Norwegian organization. The community surrounding the

school was very intimate. All of the farmers provided the

food for the school. All of the bricks and the labor to

build the school was done by the families. All of the











churches around the school were built by the community

center. I ended up doing a solar electricity proposal where

I introduced solar electricity. I introduced solar

electricity and I wrote a proposal to USAID, the United

States Agency for International Development. I had to meet

with all fifty families to make sure that they understood

how effective this solar electricity would be for the

community. It was a small community but a very intimate

community. The solar project was award a grant of 27,000

shillings. I ended up putting a huge rotating mound in the

middle of the campus which allowed lights at night for

students to study. The teachers could also teach additional

classes at night. Because of that, some of the first

students ever at Kitumbi were able to pass their national

exams to continue to go onto the university level. This was

a rural boarding school so it was highly unlikely that a

large number of students would be successful enough to pass

the national exams. That was a landmark. Now the school

receives government funding because once a Harambee school

can prove that they have the facilities to compete with

other government sponsored schools, the government takes the

school over.

M:That is fascinating. Do you mean prior to the introduction of

solar electricity that students could not study at night?

W:They studied with very dim kerosine lamps, which were very

awful. In fact, I wore contacts. As I told you, I taught

the entire school English. I just thought I was going to go











blind. I initiated this idea because I could not see

properly with the use of kerosine lamps. I think the

purpose of using kerosine lamps was just to see, not to use

your eyes to strain. I wrote my parents and asked for a

small loan for a solar panel about the size of a notebook.

I put it in my home first, also to generate enough energy

for radio so that I would not have to use batteries. I

wanted to demonstrate the appropriate technology of how

effective this would be first in my home to demonstrate how

useful it would be for the school and the community. I

think people were genuinely interested. It was because of

that that they then said they would contribute 10 percent of

the overall cost to implement this project. That was the

reason why USAID found that development strategy was

something that they could support.

M:You mean that they were convinced by your example, these fifty

families, who comprised Harambee to contribute 10 percent.

What was your initial reason for doing this? Did you just

see a need? This was not part of your responsibility as you

were a teacher here. What was the catalyst in making you

undertake this? Was it just for your own needs, and then

you thought it might have an application for the community?

W:No. Every Peace Corp volunteer had to do a secondary project

beyond our teaching responsibilities. Peace Corp has

various sectors within the organization. Education is a

large sector. You have fishery, forestry, small business,

and women groups. So you have various sectors. Within the











education sector, each volunteer has to do a secondary

project. It could range from anything. It could range from

establishing a library. It could range from setting up a

permanent student exchange program in the United States.

Some people introduced agricultural plots, like block plots,

for the school or financed plots themselves. Some people

bought cows and used their stipend to set up a dairy project

for the school. I was more or less interested in doing

something that would be more permanent and useful. When the

solar idea came up, there was a secondary fund with USAID

that we could apply for. So I wrote a proposal under the

secondary project fund for Peace Corp volunteers, and it was

approved.

M:How much would 27,000 shillings be approximately in U.S.

dollars?

W:I think it is something like $1,500.

M:So it is not a great deal of money but it did make a

difference?

W:Right.

M:Was there any problem in introducing it? Was there cultural

resistance to the introduction of solar panels? Are they

not a bit unsightly? Were these large panels that were

introduced to the community?

W:What is interesting is that the Norwegian volunteers had

introduced solar before me. They had these solar panels

attached to a laboratory that NORAD had introduced so that

they could do experiments. I had to write a letter to the











Norwegian government to ask them to dismount the solar

panels for the laboratory which is a separate building that

built completely, and to put it on a rotating mount. A

rotating mount meaning that wherever the sun was, you could

rotate the solar panels to be in the direction of the sun

and to connect the laboratory to the other buildings of the

school and put these two huge panels right in the middle.

They had already had an introduction to solar energy in

terms of experiments, but they really did not have any type

of understanding of how solar would be used in their

individual homes. So I somehow demystefied the sense that

solar was only for science purposes, but tried to illustrate

and demonstrate that solar could be used to make hot water,

for batteries, like I said for the radio, and also for

general lights. You are talking about a very simple system.

The solar panels are connected to wires that are connected

to a car battery. The solar rays are generated each day

depending on the rays of the sun. There is kind of a

converter to tell you how much energy has been stored so

that you do not overuse the battery. There are little light

indicators to let you know if the solar battery is

completely charged so you know how long you can use the

lights. It is what one would call appropriate technology.

M:How many years ago did you leave Kenya?

W:I left in 1988.

M:And you still correspond with these people? Do you know if

they still have these solar panels in use?











W:I recently got a long letter from Marinne Anderson, who was the

Norwegian volunteer.

M:Is she still there?

W:She married a Kenyan who was from Mambasa, a Swahili man. They

live in Sweden, but she has continued to pay for the

education of one particular student from Kitumbi. The solar

energy is still going on there.

M:You had mentioned that thanks to this Marinne Anderson that you

had gotten some of the amenities and packaged foods because

she had the Jeep. Did you experience a cultural shock?

When you moved to this location, were there certain things

you missed more than others, or was it tough adjusting in

other ways? What are the things that stand out?

W:It was very tough. I am from the city. What was very

interesting was that very few people believed that I was a

Kenyan at first. My Swahili was okay. People thought that

maybe I was from another ethnic group and that I was just

pretending.

M:Which ethnic group?

W:The Taitans. In Taita Hill, they are Taitans. They thought

maybe that I was Kekuu. In Kekuu land they do not speak

Swahili. The mamas would speak to me in Taitan. I would

say, "," which means I do not understand, or

"," which means I am a black American,

and this is Swahili. They would say, "Oh, black American.

You look like us though. How could you be a

black American?" I would have to explain, "











," which means I am from Texas. They would say, "

,but you look like us. How could you be from Texas?"

There was no running water in my house. There was no

electricity. The house was cement. The floor was cement.

It was very cold up in Taita because I was up in the

mountains, so the cold was retained in the house. I did

have stores. I lived in an agricultural forest and had

never seen agriculture up front. I kept complaining, "Where

are the stores? I will not have food." The people kept

looking at me like this one must be retarded because I lived

in the middle of the agricultural forest that fed all of the

tourist industries in both Mambasa and Nairobi. So

eventually people understood that I was a Wazungu. Wazungu

really translates to be a white person, or it can be a

foreigner. So they would say, "Do you want wazungu

chacula," which means do you want white peoples food. White

peoples food was zucchini, squash, eggplant, or different

vegetations that they did not use in their regional diet.

So I think at that time I became a vegetarian. It was

probably some of the best food I have ever eaten and

prepared in my life because it came directly from the

ground.

M:But you are eating so-called white peoples food at this point?

W:In their view, but it was American food. They would make

spaghetti and quiche. I did not know too many Kenyans who

made quiche, eggplant parmesan, or food that would be

considered wazungu food.











M:This term, wazungu, white person, did that have

connotations?

W:You have to understand that children did not see a wazungu

everyday. If a white person walked in the village, kids

would say, "Zungu, zungu." White people typically in the

world are called white person, white person. Some took it

as an offense because they wanted to blend in and they

obviously did not blend in. Having an African American

identity at first, I thought, "I am being left out. No one

is identifying me." I quickly found out that it was nice to

blend in. It was a wonderful experience to be an African

American living in Africa and somehow having a foot in both

worlds.

M:Did you find that people warmly accepted you once they realized

you were not Would that have been a problem if

they had perceived you from another ethnic group?

W:No. I think generally people understood who I was when I kept

having white visitors come visit me. They quickly

understood that this one here may look like he is not one of

us.

M:Did they eventually create a separate category for you given

your anomalous past?

W:I would say that they came to be very proud of who I was.

There were many funny days. They would say, "Why is your

name not Jackson? We know Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson,

and Janet Jackson, but you are Wilson. Is the Jackson a

different tribe from Wilson?" I would say, "No, it is all











the same tribe." There were a lot of fun opportunities to

explain what it was. At the same time, I think I was forced

to learn more African American history than ever before

because I had to really explain the historiography of

African American origin from its inception of slavery to

Jesse Jackson. I never really in this country was forced to

do so. I had an interest, but I really had to be able to

entertain some very interesting questions, questions ranging

from why is it that African Americans are still poor in

America; why is it that African Americans do not come to

Africa; or why is it that African Americans do not have

African names? [They are] very basic questions that really

require a complex answer which forced me to write home. I

ended up creating a library of African American literature

for the students there.

M:Were you sort of a folk hero on a small scale? You introduced

solar electricity. Were you a fairly well known teacher in

this community? They obviously took a lot of pride in their

school given the fact that they were paying towards it.

Were you a well known personality in this community?

W:I would say so, also mainly because I was the games master.

The headmaster of the school would make these new

assignments each year. When I got there, I will never

forget the headmaster said, "You are a native English

speaker, isn't it?" He said, "Therefore you will teacher

every single student English. You are an African American,

isn't it?" I would say, "Yes, I am an African American."











He said, "African Americans are known to be extremely

talented in the sports industry in your country, isn't it?"

I said, "Yes, we have fared very well in that department."

He said, "Therefore you will teach every student sports in

this school." I laughed because I had never heard of net

ball. I had heard of cricket but I had never really played

it. [[end of this side]]



W:I never thought that by having an African American identity

that it meant that I would have to teach sports. I think

very quickly people within the Taita Hills knew who I was.

That was evidenced in the fact that I would go to Wundani.

It was the major town that you would have to travel to in

order to take a bus to go to Mambasa if I wanted to go to

Nairobi. I would walk to Wundani, which took about an hour

and one-half. As a Peace Corp volunteer, you would gage how

far someone was away from you by a tape on your walkman. If

someone would say, "I am only two tapes away," which would

be two hours. It is amazing to think that you would tell

someone I am walking to visit you in two hours. You would

be walking when in fact we drive to a location in two hours

in this country to get somewhere. I would get to Wundani,

and I would go to eat. There is a staple food called ugali,

which is kind of like cornbread. It is kind of a mixture of

cornbread and oatmeal. It is kind of hard to describe. I

did not like it. I would sit down to eat in a town that was

very far from me, and they would say, "Oh, you do not take











ugali." I would say, "How do you know? I have never eaten

here." They would say, "Oh, I heard about you. You teach

at Kitumbi High School. You are the African American, and

you do not like ugali." I found that was pretty

interesting. Then I would go to Mambasa which is three

hours away, and eat at a place. Someone would say, "Oh do

not give this one ugali. He does not eat ugali." I would

say, "How do you know that?" They would say, "Because you

teach my nephew, and my nephew has written me letters about

you." People knew who I was. It was quite funny because

you never knew when you would run into someone.

M:A very communications network. You were saying before the

deprivations that you suffered or felt in terms of adjusting

to the new environment. Were there certain physical things,

pleasures, or comforts that you missed more than others?

You did not have any running water.

W:It is funny. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that

maybe I was a little bit more privileged than I had

previously seen myself. I realized that there are

compromises in life. I think that would be generally my

philosophy in development, that you have to culturally meet

people halfway. I built plumbing with the help of a local

carpenter, and put running water in my house. I built a ran

tank, which was to collect rain, which would be the source

of my water supply because there was no stream that I could

tap or pump water up to. Then I put solar electricity

throughout the house, and plugs for my music. I built











furniture with the help of this local carpenter. The

furniture came from the trees within the community which

have to be cut and dried. We then designed the furniture.

I created a home. When I left my school, they had a public

auction for who would live in my house, which got to be

pretty horrendous because the headmaster just decided to

take it of course without giving any type of credence or

acknowledgement to this public auction. He just decided

that because he was the headmaster that he should be given

the house. He just took it. It was not very popular.

M:Is that what happened?

W:That is what happened. At the time, those who have power

simply take.

M:Initially, [to whom] did this plot of land belong?

W:It belonged to the school. He just pulled rank and took it

himself. What is interesting was that he thought it was

going to be a fully furnished home. When I found out that

he had decided to take the house without asking for the

school's permission (or anyone's permission), [[please

finish thought]]. He had assumed that the furniture would

stay. The furniture was my property. I had purchased all

of it. I had stained all of the furniture mahogany, and

bought the stain from Nairobi. I really fixed this house

up. I had built a whole kitchen and built shelves. I

simply sold everything and removed everything that was

inside the house. He did not know it because he was too

busy plotting and trying to take money other ways. By the











time he got back to my house, it was completely empty the

way I got it. That was pretty funny.

M:I would like to get into your experiences in Kenya into greater

length, but time does not allow it. Tell me, what do you

remember most vividly about your experience in Kenya? What

comes to mind when you think of those days?

W:I got a tarantula bite. One of my legs swell up to the size of

two legs. I had to kill a goat, several times every Friday.

That is when I became a vegetarian. They would say, "You

are from Texas so you must eat meat." That just kind of

drove me insane to see a goat running around having a happy

life and then two minutes later it was on bread. I could

not make that transition. I guess it could be the fear of

falling through a pit. There is something called a choo,

which is an outhouse. Every morning I had to go to use the

choo to do the number one or number two. I take it you

understand what I mean by number two.

M:I understand this technical term.

W:You would have to squat because it was just a hole. One day, I

discovered that a Peace Corp volunteer was medivacced, which

means they had to be medically transferred back to the

United States because the wall of her choo had fallen

through. The choo was thirty meters deep, which was

incredibly deep. When they dig a choo, they mean that they

will not have to dig one for the tenure or the life of the

home. She had fallen and was in there for hours and hours,

until some of her students realized that she should be











teaching the class. She had leeches [on her]. It was just

the most awful visual experience that I had ever heard.

Having had that in mind, there was a really big tree near my

choo. I decided to tie a rope around the tree and around my

waist every time I used the restroom in case the wall of my

choo decided to collapse, which was the cement base. Just

the thought of squatting every morning with this rope around

my waist was kind of like Russian roulette, but it would at

least save my life if I ever ended up being caught in such a

horrendous situation. That is probably the most memorable

experience.

M:When you got back to the United States, did you still use the

rope, or was there a time of transition?

W:No. I do not think I used the rope here.

M:I hate to sum up your life in a few sentences. I would like to

ask from your experience as a Peace Corp volunteer, how did

that in some way guide you to your present vocation. I take

it there is a connection between being a Peace Corp

volunteer in Kenya and being a graduate student in African

studies.

W:I relocated and worked in corporate American in Washington D.C.

and New York. I worked in philanthropy mainly. I was very

much drawn to development issues. I realized that this

country was very fortunate. The development that I was

doing in urban school education was really fascinating, but

I found that I really was more interested in an

international career, specifically to get back to Africa.











So after six years, I decided to go back to graduate school.

I did my masters at Cornell University. I did a thesis on

resistance to missionary in colonial education in Kenya and

looked at how Kenyan African communities started to develop

their own independent schools. Then I decided that I would

go on and work on a Ph.D. A large relationship between my

Peace Corp experience and my desire to get a Ph.D in African

studies are all linked to one. That was an experience that

was very profound to me. Eventually, it encouraged me I

guess to want to go back. I have perfected my ability to

speak Ke Swahili now. In fact, my education here at the

University of Florida has been funded with a FLAS

fellowship, which is a Foreign Language and Area Studies

fellowship where I have to actually study Ke Swahili. Ten

years ago, I did not think I would ever be speaking fluent

Swahili even when I lived there. There is a direct linkage.

As you well know as a fellow African studies person, many

other people who we study have either been former Peace Corp

volunteers, or they have received training from Peace Corp

volunteers in language or cross-cultural analysis. I think

the experience is directly linked. I even hope to someday

maybe be country director of a Peace Corp location in

Africa. It is one of the professional options that I am

thinking about doing when I finally get my Ph.D.

M:So upon the completion of your Ph.D you might do that. Is

teaching an option too or there other options in addition to

being a Peace Corp area director?











W:I think I am most likely going to go and live in South Africa

after I finish my degree. I would like to work to establish

more African scholars in the field of African studies. I

have a lot of connections in South Africa. I hope to come

back and either teach or probably work for someone like the

Ford Foundation as a senior advisor in their educational

unit. Teaching is an option but I am not sure if that is

going to be my main priority. I have to see.

M:Well, I would like to go on and on, but time does not allow.

Thank you very much for your cooperation. I neglected to

ask you this at the beginning. Do you have siblings?

W:I have two.

M:And their names are?

W:Latisha Anne Hamilton and Samuel Craig Wilson.

M:Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure.




University of Florida Home Page
© 2004 - 2010 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.

Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement
Last updated October 10, 2010 - - mvs