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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewer: Jim Meir
Interviewee: James Wilson
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
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.
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
M:You were born in what year?
W:1961. I was born on Kennedy's inauguration day, during his
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
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
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
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
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
M:Were you given any choice? Was it Kenya or nothing at that
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?
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
M:What kind of reception did you initially get from your
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
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
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
M:How much would 27,000 shillings be approximately in U.S.
W:I think it is something like $1,500.
M:So it is not a great deal of money but it did make a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.