WILSON: Tape one side one of Peace Corps Oral History Project interviewwith Robin Sither, December 2, 2004, interviewed by Jack Wilson. Born, Robin?
SITHER: I was born in a little town outside of the Fort Ruffner, Alabamacalled Daleville and that was just kind of happenstance. I mean I could have been born anywhere else in the south at any military base because my dad at that point was moving around quite a bit. So that was just kind of --
WILSON: Okay, well that's sort of what I was going to ask you next.Tell me something about your family and your general growing up.
SITHER: Well as I alluded to, I was a military brat growing up. Myfather was in the army and at that point he was an aviator. He flew 00:01:00a fixed wing and helicopters. And of course I was born in Alabama and moved around in the south quite a bit, but at that point I don't remember anything because I was too young. But my first memories were when we were stationed in Germany. My dad was stationed at Frankfurt am Main and we lived in this giant apartment complex and those are my first memories are of living in that city and, you know, looking out over the skyline and seeing, at that point it was the seventies so you could still see bombed out buildings from the war. And it was kind of a dreary landscape, you know, with being --
WILSON: So you would have been in elementary school at that point?
SITHER: No, at that point I was in kindergarten.
WILSON: Oh, okay.
SITHER: Preschool age, whatever. I was around five years old so. And00:02:00we were in Germany for about three years and then we moved back to the States and we moved to Marina, California which is outside of Fort Ord which is near Monterey. So it was quite a change from Germany; it was a really beautiful area, it's on the coast obviously. I mean I just, we lived just a rock's throw from Highway One. So I could just go, if I wanted to, I could just go under the underpass and go to the beach or something like that.
WILSON: And did you go to high school out there?
SITHER: No, we were out there -- my father got cut during the Carteradministration. They were cutting back the military at that point so he -- they cut him out and he went into the private sector and held down a few different jobs, and actually I just learned recently the reason 00:03:00we moved to Kentucky, which is where most of my family is, is that my father was promised a job by a good friend of his that he trusted really quite a bit. And we actually -- he actually sold the house and we were ready to move to another town in California to accept the job, and it turns out the job wasn't forthcoming. So moving to Kentucky was kind of like a -- you know, it was kind of a safety stop. His parents, my grandparents, lived here so we just moved temporarily to Lexington. Well, it wasn't temporary. We've been here ever since but --
WILSON: So your father had roots in Kentucky?
SITHER: Yeah, my father and his siblings -- my grandparents on hisside are Lexingtonians, but he, like myself, was a military brat. My 00:04:00grandfather was in the Army Air Corps during World War Two. He was a medium bomber pilot. My father was born during the war while he was away at service and he was the first born. He was born in 1943. When my grandfather returned from the war, like many other veterans he used the G.I. Bill to, I believe, get a law degree, and with that I believe he went into the O.S.I., which I think is the intelligence wing, --
SITHER: -- of one of those. It's now defunct I believe, but -- and sothey moved around quite a bit but they ended up in Washington D.C., and he along with his siblings grew up in D.C. in Maryland, in the Chevy Chase area. And my grandfather actually had a pretty illustrious 00:05:00career. He -- in addition to the O.S.I. he eventually went into the F.B.I., and during the Warren Commission they decided -- one of the things that came out of the Warren Commission was to beef up security for the White House, and he was actually the first appointee to kind of head that whole thing. In fact, apparently they even asked him if it should be a political appointment and he said, "Absolutely not. It should be a merit based type of thing." But -- and then after that he went into the private sector; he worked for Occidental Petroleum and worked -- I guess designed security for them and their overseas offices and stuff like that, so --
WILSON: Okay, so you have some roots.
SITHER: Yeah, a lot of strong Kentucky roots because their families werestill here and I've got a lot of cousins and uncles and aunts all over. 00:06:00A lot of them are scattered to the four winds, but the epicenter, if you will, is pretty much Kentucky and Lexington.
WILSON: Okay, what about college?
SITHER: I went to school in North Carolina. In Ashville, North Carolinathere's a school called the University of North Carolina--Ashville which is in the North Carolina state college system. It's a small school, about 3300 students; it is one of the few liberal arts schools in the North Carolina system. And it was a great setting for a school. I mean Ashville is up in the mountains. It's very -- fairly cosmopolitan for its locale and it's just a really interesting place to be and a great place to go to school. And I was originally attracted to the area because my father's brother, my Uncle Tom, for 00:07:00his honeymoon he and his wife -- I think it was, I believe, 1979 or 1980, they hiked the Appalachian Trail from north to south, Maine to Georgia, 2000 miles. And the place that really made an impression on them was western North Carolina. And of course, you know this is back in the '70s when you had that whole get back to nature movement and all that stuff. So they decided -- and he was in medical school at that point; he decided once he completed his residency and got his feet wet, that they would buy a piece of land down there and he would work as a doctor, you know, in the nearby community and homestead, if you will, I guess with a regular job. So they bought a plot of land in Madison County, North Carolina, which is one of the pretty remote and pretty -- not very densely populated. So they bought a beautiful piece of land 00:08:00that abutted this mountain and the national forest and all that and they did their thing there. And they actually built their houses from using -- I mean they used contractors, but it was my aunt and my uncle basically built these houses. First the guest house so they could stay in the guest house while they built the main house. And when I started going down there in the summers and helping them, and that's how I fell in love with the area, and so that's pretty much how I decided to go to that area for school.
WILSON: Okay. And what years were you there?
SITHER: I graduated in 1994, so 1990 to 1994.
WILSON: 1990 to `94, and that's your father's side of the family?
SITHER: That's my father's side of the family. My mother is from Korea,--
WILSON: Oh, okay.
SITHER: -- near Pusan. Now, her side of the family is an interestingstory, too. Her mother, my grandmother, and her husband, my 00:09:00grandfather who I never met because he died and he stayed in Korea, and I've never been to Korea but that's another story. But they were in Japan during World War II and my grandfather was a shipyard worker in the docks, I guess. I think it was Osaka. And my mother, I guess -- my grandmother was a homemaker or something like that; maybe she helped on some other things, but at that point, you know, because Korea was a colony of Japan at that point, it was not uncommon to have Korean communities in Japan. And, of course, it's history now, but they were subjected to quite a bit of prejudice.
SITHER: Because at that point in Japan's history they were quite anexclusive society, still are to some respects but not as badly. But 00:10:00it was pretty rough going for them, and of course to boot it was a war time and they were getting bombed by the United States military, you know, and a directed civilian -- I mean they made no bones about it; they were targeting civilians. So they got caught up in that and in fact, and this is pretty family lore is that I don't know if it was Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but one of the two, they were actually fleeing Osaka or wherever they were near Osaka and they were going to one of those--one of the two places and you know the whole time along road they were getting strafed by, you know, aircraft and you know-- Apparently my mom and my grandmother saw somebody, you know some shrapnel take the head off some guy and the head was rolling around in the street and it was pretty gruesome. And they were having to duck into bomb shelters and what not. And they were just a day away from reaching either Hiroshima or Nagasaki before they dropped the-- 00:11:00
SITHER: Yeah, or one of the two. So it was kind precarious. Butthen after the war they moved back to Korea, and then of course what happens, what five years later, is that the Korean War breaks out and they were-- If you're familiar with that conflict, in the initial stage of that conflict the North Koreans pushed--
WILSON: The U.S.
SITHER: Well, a few of the U.S. but it was mainly South Koreans and abit of the U.S. but all the way down to a perimeter what they called a Pusan perimeter and they were one of the last villages inside the perimeter. So they kind of got lucky in that respect. So you know they endured one war and return home and then endure another war. And my mom met my dad, my dad after he was-- He served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader. After that I guess he decided he didn't want to be on the ground getting shot at so he'd rather be in the air getting shot at, so he went to flight school and learned how to fly 00:12:00helicopters and fixed wing, and then his first assignment-- Well I don't know if it was his first assignment, but he went to South Korea in 1969 and he met my mother and they married I believe 1971, moved to the States, and I was born in 1972 so.
WILSON: So you graduated in '94?
SITHER: I graduated in '94, yes.
WILSON: And then what?
SITHER: I had no inklings of Peace Corps at that point. The first thingI did is I had a seasonal job. I was working for the state of North Carolina; they had a horticultural research station and I was-- It was a seasonal job that I had held the previous summer.
WILSON: And what did you-- Let me back up.
SITHER: I majored in environmental science.
WILSON: In environmental science.
SITHER: Yeah with an ecology focus; they had different tracks youcould take, hazardous waste management and what not. I chose the 00:13:00ecology track, so what I basically-- Right after I graduated I stuck around Ashville and I worked at this horticultural station; it was a pretty interesting job. It basically amounted to driving around apple orchards counting various types of bugs in the wake of different types of pest management experiments. They were based on using pheromones to disrupt the mating pattern of these moths that attack apples. West North Carolina, the Hendersonville area is a very apple growing region so that was our focus. But that was seasonal and it kind of fizzled out. After that, you know that was the still a recession at that point and Ashville--there's not much going on there and I wanted to stay there but there weren't many jobs. I took a job telemarketing and at that point I had already made up my mind that what I was going to do, like my Uncle Tom, was hike the Appalachian Trail. So I made plans to 00:14:00do that the following spring and I held down this job and just worked it and just stayed with it until I was ready to hit the trail because I needed some funds at that point so. And of course telemarketing, that was interesting. I did everything from selling-- Of course the big one was credit cards and credit card insurance, which is a scam by the way. Don't ever get credit card insurance. But everything from that to scholarship programs and legal programs and all kinds of funky stuff, it wasn't that much fun. It's not an easy job to do, being a telemarketer and I can definitely identify with those people call me and I try to be nice to them because I know. I paid my dues and I know what it feels like. I even did, and I'm ashamed to admit this, but I actually did what's called push polling. Which is that 00:15:00you know around election time when you just pick up your phone and you know the phone rings you just pick up the phone and somebody you know smears a candidate with some, you know gratuitous information and then, you know, "Would you vote for this guy?" or whatever you know. Or, "Just thought I'd let you know that," click. It's kind of-- Of course I only did that for about an afternoon before I said, "You can't make me do this. I'll quit." Said, "Alright, alright. We'll take you off this campaign and put you on another." So after that, 1995 I-- my thing at that point, I wasn't that ambitious at that point. My whole thing was to hike the Appalachian Trail, which if you're not familiar with it runs from the state of Maine to Georgia and it runs along the Appalachian Mountains which is contiguous mountain range that runs all the way up there, even into Canada and beyond. But it's just 00:16:002000 miles, so I started on the summer solstice June 21, 1995 and I completed in December 15 of the same year.
WILSON: And you started in Maine?
SITHER: Yeah, started in Maine. Most people start in the south inGeorgia; that's the most common because you're hiking with the season so it's a lot easier that way, logistically too. But I went the opposite way, which is the way of the more intrepid people, or at least that's what I like to think. Boy, it's definitely the least common way. It's not as easy because you have to start later in the season, May or June versus February or March in the south because you've got to avoid the weather--
SITHER: Yeah. And then you also run into bugs, which in Maine arepretty darn-- I mean it's one thing to have a few mosquitoes bite you but we're talking swarms of black flies and mosquitoes that will not relent. I mean you literally have to be covered with bug goo or you will just get eaten alive. And I experienced that but fortunately I 00:17:00was hiking even later than you're supposed to so I kind of missed the brunt of that.
WILSON: Did you do that by yourself?
SITHER: I started out by myself. I actually had an opportunity, I hada guy I graduated with--or I didn't graduate with him but I knew him from school--had started in the south. I eventually met him in Vermont but I declined to hike with him because I knew, you know you-- It's tough to be with someone; when you're hiking a trail like that, you're with someone 24/7 and any little personality quirks will start to wear on both people and I saw that in other people. Because I was never alone on the trail, although I started alone I can count the number of days I was alone on the fingers of one hand because there's that many people out there doing it. Because you have day hikers, you've got section hikers; of course you've got through hikers, not to mention you know the occasional hunter and stuff. So yeah, I was, you know, 00:18:00always meeting people and what not and there's a whole little culture that grows up along the trail and they've adopted a little trail moniker and they've got a system. Along the trail there's a system of free cycle lean-tos, which you can choose to sleep in if you want or you can tent camp or whatever you want. But in each one there's a register and that's how people communicate or at least this is in the age before cell phones. But I'm sure now people carry cell phones. But so there's a whole you know system of registers where people would stay and write in the register so people can keep track of where people are and if they're ahead of them. So that was, you know, memories sweetened with time. I definitely enjoyed it but it was difficult. I mean you've got to average at least twelve miles a day if you want to do it in a reasonable time period and you know hiking south you've got winter pushing you on in the south too. And I had the misfortune 00:19:00of getting--developing a shin splint in Pennsylvania. At that point I was making big miles. Once you start hitting the Mid-Atlantic States, the so-called boring states, you know versus the more glamorous states like you know North Carolina, Virginia--or I guess Virginia's not. But North Carolina, you know the southern and the northern portions are more glamorous portions because there's more scenery and more wildness and wilderness. But the Mid-Atlantic States like northern Virginia and Pennsylvania and Maryland all that, it's just kind of boring but it's flat and you can make major miles. So I was you know averaging about twenty miles a day and I got really, really hungry; I mean your appetite just goes through the roof. So I reached one road crossing in Pennsylvania and it was just a matter of hitchhiking down to the nearest town and getting some food and re-supplying and then hitchhiking back up. Well in this particular-- And I had not had any problem hitchhiking up to that point anywhere, but for some reason 00:20:00this stretch of road or that community or whatever nobody would pick me up. And people had pickup trucks with beds; they didn't have to talk to me. They could have thrown my grubby sweaty ass into the back of that truck; they wouldn't have had to do anything to me. But no one, I mean it was a busy road too, but nobody would pick me up so I had to walk all the way down and I tried, and I bought some supplies and I started hiking back up, and nobody would pick me up to take me all the way back. So I kind of have a grudge against people in that part of Pennsylvania. So in the course of doing that, it's one thing hiking a trail, it's quite another to beat the pavement with a full pack and that was all it took to give me a shin splint in my right leg. So when I got to Maryland it was pretty painful and I started hearing of all these horror stories about getting gangrene and stuff like that and I was like, "Damn," you know because I really wanted to finish the trail. So I laid up in D.C. at a cousin--a cousin of mine lives in D.C. and he had just graduated from U.M.D. and was still living in College Park--so I stayed with him for about a week and I just rested and hit 00:21:00the trail again and it hadn't healed. And I was pretty despondent at that point until I reached a, in northern Virginia one of the trail clubs that maintains the trail in that portion has a--not a hostel but kind of a cabin that they maintain for their own members to get away--and they had a person that they hired to just kind of oversee that place, and I stayed there for about I think it was two or three weeks. And it was just the greatest experience just being up there because he's the greatest guy and he'd hiked the trail about two years before and he had friends from his experience rolling through and there were parties, we built a sweat lodge. He was always cooking up these giant meals and he always had, you know, wine and beer and stuff like that; it was just a great time. So that kind of lifted my spirits and my leg felt strong enough that I ended up finishing the trail pretty 00:22:00late, I mean most people finished in October going south or November but I finished in December. But I did finish with a pack of people that were kind of late like I was. It was a good experience; I mean I look fondly back on those days.
WILSON: And it gives you good stories to tell?
SITHER: Yeah, definitely.
WILSON: So you finished in December of '95?
SITHER: Yeah, December of '95 and then I moved back with my folks inLexington and I think actuall, you know, I think I had-- I remember now that where I got the Peace Corps inspiration was sitting in my car in Ashville waiting to go to punch the clock to go into this telemarketing job and I heard a radio advertisement for Peace Corps and I'd never given Peace Corps a thought. And I was like, "Peace Corps? Okay. I'm going to look into that when I get back from the trail." And of course 00:23:00the whole time I was hiking the trail I was thinking about what I'm going to do next and at the forefront was Peace Corps. So when I got back I immediately applied and of course that's a long process. In some ways that's good and some ways it's bad, but whatever the case. It took me about six months before I knew I was going--before they accepted me.
WILSON: And what was that process?
SITHER: I never met a soul. I did it all by correspondence and myinterview was with some lady in Chicago and she called me and had it over the phone and then she was the one that placed me.
WILSON: You never talked to anybody here in Lexington or a recruiteror anybody?
SITHER: You know what, I never talked to a recruiter; in fact, I hadnever met anybody that had served in the Peace Corps until my Uncle John who lives in D.C. he brought a friend of his down and it was 00:24:00around the holiday period or something like that at my grandmother's or something like that. He said, "Well I want you to meet so and so." And they served in the Peace Corps in the Caribbean, it was some island like it was some you know posh post like St. Lucia or something like that. And I don't remember much about our conversation except that she, you know, basically led on that Peace Corps was you know, it's what you make of it because you don't really do much. And that's about all I can remember about that conversation. But of course that went over my head, I was like, "You know I don't care. I want to do this Peace Corps. It's exotic. It's foreign. It's you know and it's philanthropic and whatever." So but other than that I had never met anybody else that had been in Peace Corps or anything like that. I mean in a lot of respects I'm the most unlikely Peace Corps volunteer because I come from more of a military background. My brother who 00:25:00is younger than me is a captain in the Marine Corps. He's in Okinawa right now but and of course my father and my grandfather and lots of other relatives too. That's not to say that I gave the military any thought; I definitely-- Military was not an option for me. I can't take orders like that from people I don't trust, so that wasn't an option for me. But anyway they accepted me and I hadn't given any preferences about where to go and they said, "Well would you like to go to Cameroon? It's a country in west central Africa, and you're going to be doing agro-forestry work." I said yeah, I'll go.
WILSON: And so that would have been what, like the spring of--
SITHER: Spring/summer '96.
SITHER: And then I went to Cameroon in October '96.
WILSON: And did you have some training and what kind of training and00:26:00where was that?
SITHER: My training was all in country; we met in D.C.--the group. Andwe all flew together as a group. There were three different programs that I flew with: water sanitation, microgram--which is agro-forestry, and I believe TEFL, teaching English as a foreign language.
WILSON: But all going to Cameroon?
SITHER: But all going to Cameroon at the same time and all experiencingtraining together, and at that point-- You know, I guess, Peace Corps has gone through quite a different philosophies and protocols about training. At that point they were still in a more centralized mode of training, so we were sent to a town called Ngaoundere, which is 00:27:00a town right smack dab in the central part of the country on the--in the province called Adamawa on the Adamawa Plateau. It's kind of a high, flat plateau with more kind of savannah like; it basically separates the rainforest belt of southern Cameroon for the more arid part north of there that kind of abuts the Sahel. So savannah with a lot of mountains too, it's a very beautiful part of the country. And Ngaoundere was a town; it wasn't a village it was a town of pretty good size, kind of a commercial center. And we were parceled out to host families to stay with but our training was at this training center that we walked to every day or biked to or whatever, you know whatever people wanted to do or took a taxi to. And my training was three 00:28:00months, October, November, December, and I guess we swore in maybe early 1997 and then got to our posts maybe later on that month.
WILSON: And what did the training consist of?
SITHER: The training consist of first and foremost the French languagebecause Cameroon, although it's bilingual, it has a-- Out of ten provinces two of them are English speaking, but the rest of the country--the majority of the people are francophone or French speaking. And that's a whole story in and of itself; there's kind of a-- It's kind of like Canada in reverse where the English speaking minority is the repressed minority. At that point nobody knew where they were going so you had to learn some French. And I believe I took French 00:29:00until they gave us our post placements and I knew I was going to be in the English speaking zone. So at that point they started teaching me pidgin English, actually you can't really call it Pidgin English although it has a lot of English in it and English is the basis of that language, but it is a language in and of itself--Pidgin. It's all over West Africa, but the brand that's in Cameroon is pretty unique and it's even unique from neighboring Nigeria. So we learned that and also, of course, the technical part of our training, I was supposed to be ago-forestry extension agent so they were teaching us about the various types of interventions to teach farmers you know basic types of soil erosion interventions, contour, bund building, how to site contours, the various types of species that you can use for green manure to build 00:30:00up the soil, what we called improved fallows--which is using these seasonal legumes to build up the soil. And also, you know, learning about different, learning about their agricultural systems, which vary from region to region, and that was kind of tough but actually in Ngaoundere it was kind of a good microcosm of the country because it straddled the climate zone so you basically saw all different types of agriculture. All you had to do was walk around the local neighborhood and you would see all kinds of stuff because it was also a very cosmopolitan town because there was a lot of civil servants there and merchants and what not. And so it was kind of a place where people from all over Cameroon kind of converged. And they--
WILSON: A cultural component as well?
SITHER: Obviously, they'd always-- Of course you know it was understoodthat with your host family, communicating with them and living with 00:31:00them and eating with them, conversing with them, you know, going to social functions with them, you would learn that. But also there was in the training itself, you know we would always have these workshops or seminars talking about culture, cultural issues you might come into as related to gender or customs or attitude toward death, you know funerals, that kind of thing.
WILSON: So your training was three months, you got sworn in and servedin '97 and then what?
SITHER: Sworn in and sent to post.
WILSON: And what was your job?
SITHER: My job? Well, like I said before, my job was extending ago-forestry to subsistence farmers. And my post was in the northwest province, which is one of the English speaking provinces that borders 00:32:00Nigeria, and it's a mountainous area. Right next to me was a close to 10,000 foot extinct volcano with a volcanic crater lake next to it, very beautiful area, densely populated, very, very agricultural. Because of the volcanic soil, it was able to support historically a higher population density than any other areas. And my post was called Bamkika'ay but basically really my post was Kumbo town, which was a town of about 80,000 people so-- And Bamkika'ay was, although it was basically a quarter of the village ----------(??) it was so close to Kumbo and Kumbo had expanded so much, it was basically more of a part of Kumbo. So-- And I had inherited this post with, there had 00:33:00been three previous volunteers, and I overlapped just for about three days with my predecessor and he showed me all the people I needed to know, helped me. I guess he didn't help me do any protocol with the local ministries like the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of environment; I had to do that by myself. But he took me around all the farmers that he had had success with and got me on my feet as far as that's concerned so.
WILSON: So what was your living situation like?
SITHER: My living situation was pretty comfortable. I had a house, Ihad a compound which consisted of a house. And in Cameroon everyone has what's called a country kitchen, which is a building where you do your cooking inside of this room and there's no flue or no chimney to 00:34:00carry the smoke out; you just sit there next to the fire. So I had a country kitchen with an adjoining room where I hired a young man to stay and basically be my "wife," in other words--do all my dishes, do all the cleaning, and stuff like that.
WILSON: Wash your clothes?
SITHER: What we call a houseboy. You know it's not politically correctbut he was a houseboy so, which is good you know. It gives somebody you know, who wouldn't otherwise have an income a source of income. So I had a garden you know in the front of my place, I had a garden in the back, I had this--what I called a sanctuary. I had this beautiful little tree canopied area where I planted some grass and had my fire pit and stuff like that when I had parties and sat out there and-- But it was very comfortable. I had running water; I had one spigot outside and no running water inside or any toilet. I had a pit latrine but I 00:35:00was very comfortable.
SITHER: I had electricity. If I wanted to I could have hooked up aphone but at that point you know, what's the point? So I was outside of a major town where I could get, even at that point 1997, I could even get access to the internet. They even had a supermarket there where I could get cheese, dairy, anything I wanted in terms of western food. And of course they had a market there that was an every day market.
WILSON: Did you have access to a computer?
SITHER: Yeah, I would go-- What they would have-- There was a littlebusiness where you could go and have you know documents typed up or you 00:36:00could make a phone call or whatever, and one of those businesses had a few PCs and so whenever I needed to use a computer I would-- But at that point I was not-- I didn't have, I wasn't into email so I didn't use the web at all at that point but I did use a computer.
WILSON: What was the most difficult adjustment to living in Cameroon?
SITHER: Without a doubt the most difficult, you know people talk aboutfood and comfort--creature comforts and stuff like that. Mine was just interpersonal issues with Cameroonians. You know it's all about you know, there's different cultures all around the world and you have to 00:37:00feel out cultures before you kind of know what to expect and what you can say and what can't you say and that kind of thing. And even though I had had the cultural part of my training, I still had to adjust to the local reality of my site. Because Cameroon is really a, you know it's a country, I forget how big it is; I think it's the size of Texas, but there's over 250 different languages. And we're talking about not just dialects; we're talking about mutually unintelligible languages and every one having its own culture to boot. So it's-- They call it Africa in miniature because not only do you have everything from rainforest to the Sahel and mountains and every climate and every type of biome, ecological biome, but culturally too it straddles central Africa and western Africa which have completely different cultures. And it kind of has aspects of both those cultures, and in addition to 00:38:00that you've got you know the Sahara with that influence too, and you've got Christianity and you've got Islam and stuff. So I had to adjust to the local culture and I think definitely that was the hardest part, yeah. Because I'm-- creature comforts, food, I'm really adjustable; I can roll with any punch as far as that goes. But it was mainly just interpersonal type issues.
WILSON: And I guess maybe this is along the same line, what then wouldyou say you were prepared for and what weren't you prepared for?
SITHER: I wasn't prepared for people taking advantage of me. I remember00:39:00when I got sworn in, we went to the capitol city Yaounde. I was with some volunteers sitting at the local bar and there was a pretty cynical volunteer who actually was posted near me and we were just all, you know, sitting around this round table just drinking our beers. And he turns to me and goes, "You know you can't trust any of these Cameroonians." You know I was kind of taken aback, you know. I had heard some stories you know, because we had site visits too. I mean I site visited with a volunteer from the southwest province, so I got an inkling of what it's like to be a volunteer and the kind of social situations you find yourself in. But I mean I guess I was really naive still at that point and that kind of took me aback. That's not to say 00:40:00that no you can't trust all Cameroonians, but Cameroon is a pretty wild and wooly place in that respect. There's a lot of opportunistic people there and it's a very opportunistic culture, and you have to be on your guard. And there's various ways that you know people would try to steer you in one direction or another. It's-- I don't know.
WILSON: Okay, what would a typical day have been like for you as avolunteer?
SITHER: There was no typical day. There would be typical days-- Because00:41:00I would, either I was at my post-- And if I was at my post I might be doing some work, I might not. I could also be in provincial capital Bamenda, which is a beautiful city, one of the nicer towns in that part of the country. And all us volunteers in the northwest province pooled our money and rented a very nice house with a walled in compound and a guy to take care of it so that whenever we came to the provincial capital, we'd have a place to sleep and we'd get a shower, you know go out. And of course there's more western food if you crave that; at that point I didn't care, I could eat anything. But and it was a way station. Because to get to the capital from where I was-- For most people to get to the capital where Peace Corps administration was was at least a two day journey. You could get there in one but it would be quite a long haul and you would get there really late and it's 00:42:00you know not that fun to try and get a taxi that late with a bunch of cargo. So that was like a way station. It was also a place where we would all converge as volunteers to socialize with other volunteers and stuff. I would either be there or I rarely went to the capitol. I was there for three years; I went to the capital more times in my third year than I did my first two years. I just didn't-- I just avoided Peace Corps administration. I had a lot personality conflicts with them and we had different philosophies so I just kept them at an arm's length. Or I could be in the other large city in Cameroon, which is Douala which is the commercial center. Go down there and then there you've got everything under the sun. You've got really nice hotels that you stay in or you know French food, boulangeries, great grilled fish, great braised, I mean roasted chicken, whatever 00:43:00you know. Not the safest place to be but a lot of fun and there's good markets there and stuff like that. Or I would be any place around the country traveling, visiting volunteers and visiting. They had a game park in the north called Waza where you could go and see your, you know, your giraffes, your lions, your elephants and stuff like that. Or there's various rainforest treks you could do, various mountains to climb. Mount Cameroon is a volcano in the southwest province, it's 14,000 feet. Guinness Beer sponsors a race to the top of this mountain every year, and it's pretty much every volunteer goes down and climbs this mountain. It's kind of neat, you go everything from-- It's got rainforest at the bottom, mountain forest, then you go through a savannah belt, and then you've got a like a not an alpine but close, a sub-alpine type of environment. So it's kind of neat to get up on top there. And when you do reach your peak if you are very, very lucky you can see into Nigeria. You can see Malabo, which is a part of 00:44:00equatorial actually, yeah it's part of Equatorial Guinea. And that's a series of two volcanoes in the ocean, and that view is just insanely gorgeous over the ocean. So there was no typical day I would be-- But if I was post--
WILSON: You were saying if you were at post, you would be?
SITHER: Yes, I don't want to let off that I'm, you know, spent verylittle time at post. I spent a majority of my time at post, but-- And even there was no typical day there. I mean sometimes if I wasn't busy that day I would go to the market and just meet up with people and go to the local membo house. Membo is any type of alcoholic beverage. And in Cameroon in addition to beer, which is ubiquitous even in the bush, I mean you can get a big ole 65 cent liter beer, you know, 00:45:00anywhere. But there's also the indigenous drinks, you know palm wine and corn beer. So I would just meet up with people and just go to a bar and shoot the shit, what they call-- You know it's a bar, sometimes you call an off-license. A harking from back in the day is when you know they actually licensed these bars and stuff like that. But or I would choose a market day. Now in that part of Cameroon or that tribe, they have what's called a traditional week. It's an eight day week as opposed to a seven day week. And I would carry around a little pocket calendar with me so I could tell which traditional day it was. And in their eight day week they would have various market days for towns around that division. I guess division would translate to county here. 00:46:00And most of the smaller villages had one market day and it would be on one of those traditional days. There were some markets that would fall on a specific seven day weekday like Saturday or Sunday or something like that. But most of the market--
WILSON: Side two of tape one of Peace Corps Oral History interview withRobin Sither on December 2, 2004. Robin, you were talking about market days and--
SITHER: Yeah, market days so--
WILSON: And the purpose of your interest in the market days was?00:47:00
SITHER: Market days were very good means of reaching people. I wouldalways take an intermediary and what we called our farmer leaders. The whole idea behind the project that we had, agro-forestry extension, was to work ourselves out of a job by grooming what we call farmer leaders to take over our position once we had you know basically saturated the area with information. And those would be like resource people that would carry on the quote unquote agro-forestry message. So market days were great ways to meet new people and new farmers to try and get them to give it a shot or come and see examples of it. And of course you know that's also protocol. You know when you go to these things, they see you out, they know what you're about, you know they don't think 00:48:00you're some stuffy guy that's driving around in a Land Cruiser with air conditioning or whatever. They see that you're out and about and you're down with the customs and what not. So they warm up to you and then they, once they see you in other situations, they are quicker to--
WILSON: So you had some demonstration farms or farmers that--
WILSON: As well that you would take new people to?
SITHER: I would always work with-- There are church groups, you havesocial groups, you've got-- I lived in an area which was predominantly Christian but had a lot of Muslims there, or the Muslim groups. You have what's called njang which is a phenomenon that's all over Cameroon. In fact, it's something you see here in the States with some 00:49:00immigrant groups. It's where you have a group of people and you meet either once a week or once a month, and everyone pools their money and gives it to one of the people. And you know in places where there is very little credit or available credit, that's an access to a large lump some of money that you can, you know, do something with like start a small business or something like that. So they have what's called injangis (??). Now most of those were mainly social groups. I mean they would meet and the whole idea is that you bring, you know, ten liters of palm wine or something like that. Everyone throws a little 100 franc piece in, which is very little money. So it was kind of more of a social thing, but there were other injangis (??) that were more serious and they would actually throw down some real serious money. So those are all-- Because the whole idea was to reach as many people as possible and in that you might reach a few couple serious people. So I was always meeting with those groups. You do an animation, you get 00:50:00up in front a chalkboard or your invite them out, you arrange for some food and some palm wine or whatever corn beer. And I had some existing demonstrations at that point left over from my predecessors and I would bring them in and we would do some animations on some hands on stuff such as building an A frame level so that you can cite a contour across and mark a contour across a slope. Or building a nursery or out planting seedlings or building contour buns, how to cut and incorporate green manure into you know your field or whatever; it would be all kinds of stuff.
WILSON: And were you working mostly with men?
SITHER: I worked with women as well. In that part of Cameroon,farming is the woman's domain. That's an interesting shift because 00:51:00traditionally men, the role of men was to clear the fields for the women to farm. And they would have their own trade or they would hunt to provide for the family. But this is a very densely populated area and there's no game left, well at least not that you could depend on. So there's really no farms for them to clear because all the land is clear. So they're kind of left-- And traditionally it is the woman's role to actually bend down and work the farm, dig-- And because it's very, very labor intensive; they have no animal traction in that part of the world mainly because of the slope but also because-- Of course there's a whole history about why there's no animal traction in Africa 00:52:00and they say it's because of the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness, but whatever the case it's pretty labor intensive. I mean they have these wide handled or these wide bladed hoes that they basically bend down at the waist and dig the soil with; it's really labor intensive. And you would think that men would participate but traditionally that's not their role to participate. So what happened was that missionaries I believe brought in the cultivation of coffee as a cash crop and that was wildly successful for a long time because they grow-- This is in the highlands; my post was at 2,000 meters which is about 6,000 ft. so this was up in the highlands, very pleasant place to be climatically. No extremes of hot or cold although it would get pretty cold, almost close to freezing, but you never have a frost. So Arabica coffee, 00:53:00which is the best type of coffee, grows there. And for a long time that was a very good, reliable income generator up until about the early '90s. And then what happened was I guess-- Well, in more recent years what has happened is countries like Vietnam have been dumping Robusta coffee, which is the cheaper version, in large quantities on the world market. And what that did was depress the price of coffee so low that people were just abandoning their coffee orchards and just letting them grow up or just not tending them or not even picking the beans or whatever because it just wasn't even worth it to fool with it. And so that left men with basically nothing to do.
WILSON: So they had worked the coffee?
SITHER: They were the ones that worked the coffee and they would alwayswork the coffee around their own compound and make the women go out in the fields and have to trek about a mile or two or three or four 00:54:00to work the farms. Well, once the coffee price hit bottom they were left with nothing to do. Now in other parts of Cameroon, either they had always been working--men always worked--or they in the wake of that recession, if you will, they started working the farm. But in my corner of Cameroon, although there were a lot men working the farm, it was still a little bit of a resistance on their part to-- they definitely looked down on it. So the majority of farmers were women, but the interesting this is the whole thing about agro-forestry is that you're trying to get people to do sustainable farming on a permanent farm. And in their system of farming, a given family would have four, 00:55:00five different little plots that would be scattered to the four winds. And they would go work one plot, get that finished and plant it or whatever, and they worked in the next plot and worked like that and come back and weave the next one and just rotate like that. And so most of the time these little plots were-- The idea of land ownership is really vague there. Traditionally you have what are called landlords, but they don't call them landlords but that's basically what they are. And the traditional landlords and you would just go and what they call "begging a farm;" you go beg a farm by visiting one of these land lords--these traditional chiefs--and you present a rooster, a chicken or whatever and about ten liters of palm wine. And then he would go out and he would stake out a plot for you and that was your plot. But that wasn't really your plot; that was just your plot until he decided to give it to somebody else. So land tenure was a very big 00:56:00impediment to this idea of improving this land because it's not your land really and I mean you're not sure whether it's going to be in your possession indefinitely. So but the issue is gender, and women definitely very rarely would own a piece of land. Now you would have men that would own farms and it happened that most of the people that I worked with that were successful with the agro-forestry were men who owned their land, or women who were married to men that owned the land and they worked it, or people with substantial means enough to purchase a farm, that they cared enough about it to start thinking about a permanent farming system. So that really limited the number of people 00:57:00that I could actually motivate to do these interventions. And that's pretty sad because really I mean the whole sustainable farming system is predicated on having a permanent farm, but yet the land tenure system was such that there wasn't much of that. So that's really a fault of the project design on the part of Peace Corps in the way that they, you know, constructed the whole construct.
WILSON: Peace Corps and the host country I assume.
SITHER: Well that's another story. I mean supposedly we're supposedto be working with the Ministry of Agriculture and we were supposed to be allied with their local extension agents. But those people 00:58:00were wildly unmotivated because Cameroon-- The government is not that reliable in paying their salaries and people are always having to chase arrears, going to the capital and chasing down the salaries that they're not receiving or whatever like that. So not only that but you know they were promised motorcycles and what not, and they weren't getting those, and they were just-- You know they might do a little work but they weren't serious about it and they tended not to be from that area; they tended to be people that I think took a-- If not had a degree from the agricultural university that several-- They have quite a few universities in Cameroon and several of them have agricultural programs. They tended to be graduates from those programs and so with the university degree they kind of looked down on the fact that they've had to take this agricultural extension position with very low pay and 00:59:00no means and you know that kind of thing. So when you say the host country, yeah, yeah, but you know there's no way we could have worked with these people because they didn't care and they always came from somewhere else so they didn't care about their community.
WILSON: So you had general interaction on a daily basis with hostcountry people and in your job.
SITHER: Yeah, socially.
WILSON: And socially.
SITHER: You know there's a gray area there anyway.
WILSON: What about interaction with other foreign nationals or otherAmericans?
SITHER: Yeah, I was, yeah my community-- Kumbo has two different, it'spretty lucky in the fact that it has two different hospitals, one of them being a Catholic hospital and one of them being a Baptist hospital and there are always people from Canada or the United States or various 01:00:00English speaking countries around the world coming there you know and people doing their, I don't know, residencies or whatever, you know internships or what not. So there were always people at those places. The Catholic mission would always have people coming from the States or whatever or Europe or whatever. Development workers were few in that part of the country. But you'd see westerners on, if not a daily basis, on every other day or whatever. I didn't really-- Also missionaries too, Church of Christ, I knew two Baptist missionaries who-- he Baptist missionaries lived up in the grazing lands; they had these government delineated grazing lands and they lived up there. And 01:01:00they were the pastoral people in the northwest province or the Mbororo people and they are a member of the Fulbe tribe. And I don't know if you're familiar with the Fulbes but they are the pastoral people that are all over West Africa. And their language Fulbe you can go probably anywhere in that region--
WILSON: Called Fulani elsewhere.
SITHER: Fulani; Fulani is the Hausa name for the Fulbe people andFulani. You can call it the Fulani language too. So this is the nomadic element of that and in this particular part of the country or Cameroon they were encouraged to settle down, and so they put them in these government delineated grazing land. So they missioned to those people, and he was actually a large animal veterinarian so he would work with them and their cows and stuff like that and give like a gospel lesson or something like that before he did that. So there were always westerners. I would come into contact with them but I made no 01:02:00great effort to because I had mainly dealt with Cameroonians and then Peace Corps volunteers. I didn't really deal much with--
WILSON: And I think you said early that you traveled around the countrysome.
SITHER: Quite a bit. I saw every province except the east province so.
WILSON: Did you travel outside of Cameroon during your time?
SITHER: No I did not. Most of the countries around Cameroon are notplaces you want to go to. They had evacuated Chad; they had evacuated the Central African Republic; they had evacuated Congo Brazzaville. There were volunteers in Gabon; that was a place you could go but you wouldn't want to because that's just-- It's not any different from Cameroon really. Equatorial Guinea; I don't think we had any volunteers there. That was just a-- I went to right across the river from Equatorial Guinea and I came really close to Nigeria but I never 01:03:00went. And of course Nigeria you don't want to go to unless you want to throw your life on the line. But no I did not leave Cameroon during that point.
WILSON: And I believe you said earlier that you were there three years.Tell me something about your motivation for extension or what you did that third year.
SITHER: I did quite a lot that third year but my morale was very low.My motivation to extend was basically I had nothing, I had not really thought about what I was going to do next and I was really comfortable in Cameroon at that point. And I wanted to see a lot of the projects that I had started come to fruition. My real aim was, since I was a what--one, two, three--fourth volunteer, I wanted to close out that 01:04:00post. I wanted to and I did. At the end of my third year I convinced the APCD [Peace Corps associate director] or whatever it was, the Agro Forestry--yeah I guess it is APCD, and he was convinced that yeah the agro forestry had gone on far enough or as far as anyone could take it in that area and then he would close it. Now he rescinded that and about I think a year later he put someone not specifically in my post but in an adjacent part of Kumbo that was basically my post, but that's another story. But yeah, my motivation to extend to a third year was I was very comfortable, I wanted to see some of our projects come to fruition, but also I had really nothing going at home. I was like I didn't know what I was going to do next so I was like, "Well it's just easier. Pick a path of least resistance and just extend a third year." Now what happened was I-- I don't know if-- Now other volunteers who 01:05:00have served in Africa during this point will no about the prophylactics called mefloquine also known by the name larium. Now I had been taking-- That's a pretty famous drug and what you do--
WILSON: For malaria suppression.
SITHER: Yeah, malaria prophylaxis. Now I believe there has been a classaction lawsuit against it in England; I think was it the-- I think they called it the Twinkie defense or something like that; some principal embezzled some money from a school or something like that and blamed it on Twinkies and it turned out he was taking larium and then he I guess he blamed it on the larium or something like that. But it's a pretty famous drug for being psychoactive. They've had instances where volunteers have completely wigged out and went psychotic on just taking you know one or two doses or something like that. In my case I seemed to tolerate it pretty well but what happened was when I extended for 01:06:00a third year I was coming home and I felt, and I had malaria before. Actually in my whole time in Cameroon I never ever tested positive for malaria, you know they still had the rudimentary you know you prick your finger, you make your own slide of your blood; and then they come and you send that to a lab and they have to look under a microscope and see if they can't see the organism. And that's not the most reliable method because you know the reservoir for the malaria is inside your liver and other organs and it's not necessarily present in your blood. But it comes out into the bloodstream, so it's not a reliable thing. So I never actually tested positive for malaria the whole time I was there but I had episodes that were obviously malaria. And so what happened was I extended for the third year and I was coming home from my home stay or whatever you call it, which is a month when you're 01:07:00at home.
WILSON: Break between tours.
SITHER: Yeah, break between tours, whatever. And I started coming downwith malaria. I mean the night before we're supposed to board the plane I'm like, "Oh my god, I can't. This is a long flight. You've got to fly to Paris and then you've got to fly whatever it is, New York or Philadelphia, and then I've got to fly to Kentucky." So I just-- No way I can make it. So the standard procedure was if you felt like you might be getting malaria was to take a three dose therapeutic thing of fansidar, which is a sulfa drug that I think by now there's a lot of resistance to it, and I think even then there was but-- And then the whole idea is you take that as a precaution against-- Because the falciparum type of malaria in Africa is-- You know there's of course different types of malaria. I think there's ovale, there's like malariae and there's like one other, and then there's falciparum. Well falciparum is about 99.99% of the malaria in Africa. Falciparum is not 01:08:00found elsewhere; it's the most fatal form of malaria and if you-- It can take you down. So the idea is that you take the fansidar and then you prick your finger and you make your slide and then you seek treatment. So I was like, "Shit, I'm going on this plane. I don't want to stick around. I want to get home, so I hope this fansidar takes care of it." Well it didn't. I think it suppressed it enough until I got home and then I started coming down with it. So I was like, "Hell, what the hell am I going to do? Because hospitals here, they don't know anything about Malaria." So in Where There is No Doctor, which is the famous book you know about you know bush medicine or whatever, it had what they called a therapeutic dose of mefloquine where you can take five tablets and it should take care of anything. Well I took those five 01:09:00tablets and I completely wigged out, I mean I was--
WILSON: And by this point you were in Lexington?
SITHER: At this point I was in the States, in Lexington, and Icompletely wigged out. I mean my blood pressure rose, I was having severe-- I had never had a nightmare in my life. I had severe nightmares; I was talking in my sleep; I was just completely wigging out. And it was quite a few days until I felt normal. I mean my heart was just racing, I mean it just, it was unbelievable. It was the most uncomfortable I've ever been. But it kind of subsided but I never quite regained my same inner constitution if you will. I mean I was a little tweaked at that point and so that was what I was like going back to Cameroon. And that put a whole damper on that whole year; it was 01:10:00just because like I said before, it's a pretty famous drug for being psychoactive. I mean it definitely changes your perspective and it definitely made me at least minorly depressed and a little aggressive and irritable and that definitely put a damper on my year. But actually my third year was very productive; I did quite a lot. And one of which was obtaining funding for a grinding mill for a group and installing the grinding mill so that they could grind both their flour and also animal feed and stuff like that but among other things. But yeah that definitely put a damper on the whole third year.
WILSON: Are there other particularly meaningful memories of your time in01:11:00Cameroon or stories, adventures of your travels, or particular success stories on some of the farm or farmers that you worked with?
SITHER: There's nothing that really sticks out in my mind. There's alot of-- You know I wish I had kept a diary. I didn't keep a diary and I really regret that because there were just-- The memories are starting to fade already and I'm like, "Wait a minute here, I'm not that old." I really should have kept-- Because there's just in any given day you would experience something that would just make you chuckle or just laugh out loud or whatever and just Cameroonians really have-- They're really-- They enjoy humor and they really have the gift of gab, and if you know anything about African languages-- I didn't learn a local dialect and the reason was is because there's really no 01:12:00point. I mean the people were so literate and they knew English so well and not to mention the fact that that dialect was useless once you left that area, which is you know a very, very small area. So I didn't bother even learning a dialect. But those languages are basically strings of proverbs and Pidgin itself is very proverbial. I mean it's just strings of proverbs; they use metaphors and when you get in these conversations with people they can be very, very entertaining just to use Pidgin and throw a little bit of the dialect in there too. There's a lot of little day to day interactions, you know meeting people in the market and you know dragging them over to a palm wine house and just having conversation, and dragging other people-- You see people outside and you bring them in or if you're out in the village and you see somebody doing something you'd go join in and you know a group 01:13:00would gather and it's just a lot of little things like that. In terms of my work, I actually had quite a lot of success but you know I set the bar pretty high for myself. I mean I didn't have any quote unquote secondary projects. I was completely devoted to doing this because I believed in the agro forestry. So I didn't do-- I guess you could call my grinding mill a project in my third year, you could call that a secondary project I guess. But either I was doing my job or I was you know socializing or I was traveling. There was no secondary project or anything like that and so I was pretty committed to, and I had some pretty good successes with it especially relative to a lot of the other volunteers. Now a lot of that had to do with the fact that I was in a large area around a town, so there's just a simple population density you're going to reach quite a lot of people. And out of those people it's just a matter of probability you're going to reach some people who 01:14:00are you, you know forward thinking and resourceful enough to say, "Well this is something that I want to try," stuff like that so--
WILSON: You were saying you wish you had kept a diary. Did you writeletters home?
SITHER: Yeah I did but the thing is people need context to understandyour stories. So most of the letters I wrote home were very superficial, very superficial because you need context to understand. I mean I wouldn't tell stories-- In fact when I got home I would try to tell stories that I thought were cool and they'd, you know they'd go right over their head because they didn't have the context and stuff like that, as opposed to getting together with another volunteer that had the same situation and you can relate and they can really relate to it.
WILSON: So you came home. What was coming home like and how did youcome home?
SITHER: I didn't come straight home.01:15:00
WILSON: Okay, tell me about that.
SITHER: What is it you can take?
WILSON: You would have finished up then in--
SITHER: I finished up--
SITHER: Yeah, early 2000, late 1999 early 2000. Yeah I was in Cameroonand experienced the millennium changeover. I was watching CNN when that happened expecting the lights to go out or something like that but nothing happened. But what is it, you can take part of your return home allowance in cash in country? I think that's what it is, and I chose to do that and I took that money along with the local currency that I saved up and converted that into dollars and--
WILSON: Let me stop you there long enough so that you'll tell us whatyour actual living allowance in country was, what that was supposed to 01:16:00cover, and then what your readjustment or your return funding was from the Peace Corps. Do you remember that?
SITHER: I don't know what my living allowance was in American dollars.I really don't. Maybe $300 a month maybe, I don't know. The readjustment allowance I believe is like $3000 or something like that; it's based on your service maybe.
WILSON: A year or?
SITHER: I think it's between-- At that point it was like between $800and $1000 for every year that you're serving or something like that maybe. I can't--
WILSON: Well anyway, go ahead. You were telling me you took some ofthat money and--
SITHER: But you know your living allowance they pay you way too much.I mean this whole philosophy of paying just enough to live with the locals at their level was a joke. I was able to bank a lot of cash and I wasn't you know that frugal so. And I converted that into cash, took my part of a portion of my readjustment allowance and converted 01:17:00that into cash and travelers checks. And I bought a ticket to Zimbabwe and with the aim of traveling around southern Africa and then from there flying out of South Africa to Europe and touring around Europe and then going home. So it's kind of interesting the first leg of my trip was flying from Cameroon to Zimbabwe and I flew Air Cameroon or Cameroon Air; it was pretty fun airline to fly. But on the way to Zimbabwe we stopped in Kinshasa, Zaire; at that point Kinshasa, Congo. And this is in 2000 so Kabila was still in power in Congo. He had you know of course I guess seven years earlier or, no not that long, but about three years earlier had deposed Mobutu and installed himself 01:18:00in a coup or a revolution, whatever you want to call it. So we were at Kinshasa airport and we were I guess waiting to pick up some more passengers to go onto Harare, Zimbabwe and all of a sudden this whole caravan of Mercedes pulls up; it was black late model Mercedes sedans, all of them alike about 15 of them pulled up. And I was like, "What the hell is going? There must be somebody VIP here." And then a band comes out, they roll out a red carpet and a podium, and they have these dancers. And I'm like, "Man, there's something going on here." And all of a sudden I see this Air Zimbabwe plane taxi up and lo and behold President Mugabe of Zimbabwe rolls up off the plane and Kabila comes out on the carpet. I'm sitting there on the tarmac looking from the 01:19:00window on the plane watching this right in front of my eyes, you know Kabila coming out to meet Mugabe. And they had the whole protocol you know there on the spot. And I guess at that point that was when Mugabe was supporting Kabila because he wanted a stake in the mining interest and all that stuff like that. It was kind of a corrupt affair but-- And this is before, right before Zimbabwe-- And of course from then I went to Harare, Zimbabwe and this is right before Zimbabwe imploded. I don't know if you're familiar with the story but basically Mugabe's become a despot and has refused to let go of power and to solidify his power he has done all kinds of crazy things like basically shut the country off to the outside world and all kinds of stuff. And so what 01:20:00was once a pretty prosperous country is now apparently a-- But at that point it was just right before that happened, so I saw Zimbabwe when it was still a nice, you know, fairly you know together country. So I just did a typical tourist thing in Zimbabwe. I went to the Eastern Highlands, I went to Victoria Falls, and what are those ruins there? I forget what they're called. It's whatever is on the Zimbabwe--
WILSON: The Great Zimbabwe.
SITHER: The Great Zimbabwe, yeah. And from there I, at this point I wastraveling with a Canadian guy I met there who had just finished-- They don't have Peace Corps but they have-- He was the teacher in Malawi and was basically like a Peace Corps type of situation and he was done with his tour and he was in Zimbabwe kind of tooling around. So he and I joined this overland safari trek and were-- You had this open bed 01:21:00truck, a large open bed truck with a tent canopy over that, and a group of people and a cook, and they would take you across. And the idea was we would go across Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, and stop at all these game parks and you know various places and stuff like that. So we did that, went to places like Okavango Delta, the Etosha Pan National Park in Namibia, various other places, and then ended up in Cape Town, South Africa where it ended. And then from there I traveled up the coast to various places along the coast and took a scuba diving, got my scuba diving certification in Port Elizabeth for $100. Four days of shore diving and boat diving for just $100 and I jumped on that, and first rate instruction too. I mean South Africa is a first 01:22:00world country basically, I mean first world country with basically a lot of poor people in it, but the infrastructure is first rate. So then traveled up the coast to Durban, I hitchhiked inland to the Drakensburg Mountains. I heard about a music festival there so I went there and actually met some Peace Corps volunteers from Lesotho and as it turns out they knew Tara. But hitchhiked back out to the coast and went to-- I actually hitchhiked into Lesotho too just briefly. It was really, really cold and desolate and I thought I'd spend one night there and left. But then I went up to Swaziland, spent a couple days there, and then I flew out of Johannesburg to London. And then I stayed with someone there that I met in South Africa and I tooled 01:23:00around London and then I went on a whirlwind, really, really quick tour of Europe. Went down to Spain, went to Paris, went to Venice, went to Munich, went to Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, various places and then flew out of London back to the States. And I didn't book a flight from JFK; I just got to JFK and thought I could just buy a cheap ticket to Lexington. Well, same day tickets are pretty darn expensive. So I was like, "I don't want to spend that money." So I just took the subway down to Penn Station and took an Amtrak train to Cleveland and then did Greyhound to Lexington. So that's how I ended up back home.
WILSON: So how was it readjusting to the United States?
SITHER: It wasn't easy. I think I had a pretty typical readjustment01:24:00experience. America definitely changed a lot since when I left. That was during that whole Clinton boom and you know the whole dot.com thing had exploded and the internet was just going wild and, you know, people were still full of optimism and stuff like that. This was pre 9/11 you know, and you know that's-- And with all that prosperity, people had become a lot more materialistic and there's a lot more conspicuous consumption and here I was. I mean I was always raised to be very frugal and thrifty and I've never really had a care in the world as far as material possessions and stuff. And going to Cameroon and seeing 01:25:00people living with a lot less than I had to begin with and then coming home and realizing that you really don't need that much to live on and then seeing all this going on was kind of disconcerting. Although I had kind of an inkling of that when I came home for my home visit and visited some friends down in various places, but that for me was pretty difficult and just you know, and of course the whole thing about relating to people and trying, you know, getting the stock question, "Well, how was Africa?" or "How was Cameroon? How was Peace Corps?" You know and you know how you answer that question in a nutshell and make it seem like it's nothing.
WILSON: And so what did you do after you came back to Lexington and whatare you doing now?
SITHER: Right now I work for Alltech Inc. which is a biotechnologycompany and it's a privately owned company. It's international and they own a microbrewery in Lexington called Lexington Brewing Company. 01:26:00And so I am one of the brewers. I started working for Alltech about I guess maybe six months after I got back from Peace Corps, and in that period I had when I got home I traveled around the States a little bit to visit some friends and family, got back and I started. Held down a couple other piddly jobs before I got that job, so that's what I've had ever since.
WILSON: Okay, what do you think the impact of your Peace Corps servicewas on Cameroon or the people that you worked with there?
SITHER: You know the old cliche is that, about Peace Corps, is that youalways benefit more than they do because they give you a lot more than you give them. And that's definitely the case for me. But especially 01:27:00in light of the fact that Peace Corps has been active not only in Cameroon but in that specific area where I served since at least like-- You know, I guess the first volunteers went to Ghana in 1961. Well the first volunteers went to Cameroon in 1962, and I think they even went to my area if not that year maybe a year later. So there's always been a long Peace Corps presence in Kumbo and various villages around. The fact that they even had a provincial office in Bamenda back in the day, this is before it was hard to get the capital. So they even had a larger presence in the northwest province than they did now. And while I was there in Cameroon there were, and I think there still are, at least 150 volunteers in that country, which is quite a bit considering 01:28:00the size of the country. And in my case it wasn't clustered that much. I mean I had neighbors I could get to in about you know 30 minutes or so if I wanted to--Peace Corps neighbors. But I definitely wasn't clustered with any other volunteers in that respect. But as far as the impact of me on Cameroon, that's hard to say. Like I say, I was fourth in line of, you know, four volunteers. Another volunteer ended up succeeding me and working on my work. I've since heard from some of farmers from Cameroon that she--
WILSON: But you did work yourself out of a job? That was-- You said it.
SITHER: I felt I did, yes. I definitely felt like I made-- Especiallyrelative to a lot of the other volunteers, I definitely made a contribution.
WILSON: But if you say you also feel you lived the cliche, what was that01:29:00impact on you do you think?
SITHER: Oh, like I said before you know, they have this whole movementcalled voluntary simplicity, you know where you're-- Well I mean I was always a voluntary simplicist or whatever you want to call it, but being in Cameroon you know just appreciating things other than that which can be found in material pleasures or what like that. You know and I think that's another thing that's pretty common in Peace Corps experiences is that you're with people who are pretty low on the totem pole but yet their happiness and content level even surpasses that we can find in this country. But these are people that have nothing and probably won't ever have anything, but yet they're enjoying life and 01:30:00smiling and laughing and carrying on like it's all hunky dory so.
WILSON: Are you still in contact with people from your Peace Corpsexperience, either Cameroonians or others?
SITHER: Yes, in fact a friend of mine--Peace Corps volunteer who servedin my province who is in medical school now--she actually went back to my post to do kind of an ethnographic study of attitudes towards medicine and sickness because she is in medical school and it was part of program or whatever. So she actually went back and I, before she left, I gave her a map and a list of people to look up, and I gave her some letters and some gifts to some people. And she tracked them all down and found them and they were all excited and stuff. Of course a lot of these were people that I had already been corresponding with anyway, but she did find some people that I had kind of lost contact 01:31:00with, which was kind of cool. I was keenly interested in seeing how some of my projects turned out, and she kind of looked over those and just a lot of them are still going which is good. A lot of that is due to the fact that I had a, like I said, I had a successor. And as it turns out, the person--my predecessor--brought his fiance to my post or his post too, and he got married there. And my successor brought her fiance there too and got married in the exact same place; it was at this farm that they call Reba. Reba's some village in the Bible or something like that; it's a common name thing. It was kind of a newer area so they picked a biblical name to give it because it was just bush before. But our most successful demonstration farm was there and it's very-- It's perched on top of a hill, it's got a very commanding view, 01:32:00and it's very inspirational and a lot of good workers there. So both he and her got married there, so it's kind of--
WILSON: Okay, what was the-- Was there any impact on your family fromyour Peace Corps experience?
SITHER: Yeah, my dad-- Apparently and my mom, of course he wasn't goingto tell me this because my dad's the strong silent type, but apparently my dad couldn't sleep for days after I left for Peace Corps. You know he's always been the grizzled veteran who, you know, the tough guy and what not, but apparently it worried him quite a bit that I was in this country where you know I was out of his control or something like that. And of course my mom, she's a chronic worrier too, so she worried a lot. But they--my parents definitely are proud of me for my service 01:33:00and of course my brother apparently hasn't told me that but he's confided to my parents that he is kind of envious that he-- Of course he's a Marine and that's kind of a polar opposite of being a Peace Corps volunteer. But he kind of privately wishes that he kind of did the Peace Corps route instead of the Marine Corps route, although it's been good to him though so far.
WILSON: What-- Would you say the Peace Corps had any impact on yourcareer?
SITHER: That's yet to say, I mean because I really haven't-- Like Isaid, what I'm doing right now isn't really related to my Peace Corps service, other than the fact it's beer and I drank a lot of beer in Cameroon.
WILSON: That association is it. Have you had any other international01:34:00experience--?
WILSON: Tape two of interview with Robin Sither on December 2, 2004for the Peace Corps Oral History Project. I think I dropped the last question Robin, and that had to do with whether you have had any international experience since you returned to the States either in terms of travel or local organizations or anything else.
SITHER: The only traveling I've done out of the country since I havereturned to Peace Corps has been to Mexico. And I went to the state of-- And this is with my job. The company I work for Alltech has built a facility in rural Puebla state kind of between, well near the-- 01:35:00Puebla is where the make the Volkswagens; they have a huge Volkswagen plant there. But I guess that's the only claim to fame of that area but-- And they built this plant. It's pretty interesting; it's what they called solid state fermentation plant. What they're doing is they're growing various organisms, what they are they're fungus-- various types of mold on a solid substrate such as wheat bran, and these organisms have been selected for their ability to produce certain enzymes that are used in fuel ethanol or beverage alcohol or various feed--animal feed applications and stuff like that. So they have a facility where they are growing this stuff, and so I went down there to 01:36:00kind of shadow some people down there and learn that process. And that was interesting because I stayed down there for about three weeks and they situated the plant in this local community in the shadow I guess it's Pico de Orizaba, I think that's the highest point in Mexico. So it's a beautiful setting, very agricultural with a, you know, fields on this-- It's still in the plateau in central or the Central Corriere or whatever it is. So it's very high in elevation and you have the agriculture, you have this beautiful volcano, and all this quaint little town and stuff, so it's very nice staying there and going to the markets and talking to people. I also went down to Oaxaca, which is really neat and I recommend anybody who goes to Mexico visit Oaxaca because it is a very interesting place. They have some really cool Zapatec ruins there and the markets there and the town itself are really nice. And I also went to Yelapa; so that's been my only international 01:37:00experiences leaving Peace Corps. But I definitely aspire to go some other places. Asia is at the top of my list. I definitely want to go to-- I think I really want to see Korea and China, maybe Japan so.
WILSON: Would you say that Peace Corps had any kind of impact on the wayyou look at the world and what goes on in it today?
SITHER: Yeah, yeah. To be honest with you, unfortunately I am alittle-- I think I am not as optimistic as I-- I think I've always been a glass half empty guy, but I kind of held it out there you know-- Because I don't think I ever was a very big American patriot. 01:38:00I mean I definitely appreciate my country and I know the value of the good things in this country, but I was-- And I kind of expected my experience overseas to corroborate my sort of bad attitude about this country and it didn't. It actually made me appreciate my country more and that was not what I expected. But yeah, I'm definitely not as optimistic. It's kind of scary to go overseas and see where the axe meets the grindstone as far as issues of pertaining to ecological destruction, HIV/AIDS, the impact of globalization especially when it comes to trade barriers as it comes to agriculture, the fact that these 01:39:00developing countries have very little value added manufacturing; they are basically relying on commodities. And witnessing the quote unquote oil curse and the fact that there's no developing nation that has oil that has managed to use those resources wisely to actually better that country--there's not a single one. And Cameroon is among those. If anything it has been a curse, it's just entrenched corruption and what not. In fact, you know companies there's what Shell Oil executives have admitted to bribing officials you know since you know the beginnings of the overseas oil industry and stuff like that. But I think it's yeah, it's definitely made me a lot more cynical because the patterns are just continuing unabated and there's really no end in sight and it's kind of sad that we're locked into the system that 01:40:00really we're going to continue on until we reach a crisis.
WILSON: What do you think the overall impact of Peace Corps over theyears has been?
SITHER: That's not something that I could tell you. I mean that wouldhave-- Some scholar would have to. And I think it actually has-- In fact in the case of Cameroon, I think there was a Cameroonian who actually wrote a book about the impact of Peace Corps on Cameroon. I think I'm going to have to track that down and read it. But as far as in a larger respect I really don't know. I mean I've read some books about Peace Corps through the years and some you know volunteer experiences from the sixties through the seventies and eighties and what not and how it relates to a larger context. But that's really 01:41:00not for me to say. I can say that for our own part in my part of Cameroon where I was posted, one of the great successes of Peace Corps was introducing the cultivation of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, market types vegetables that they would sell to market or they would market to people of means that preferred to consume those things. And also they'd kind of in turn, as they've grown these crops; they've grown to enjoy them themselves. They've kind of varied their diet too, so that's been a really good success. And in a larger-- Aside from Peace Corps, a lot of the-- There have been a lot of trades that have been introduced into Cameroon, not necessarily by Peace Corps but other development entities. I believe the Dutch were active in Cameroon in I think the sixties and seventies and they introduced various types 01:42:00of things like you know I think construction methods and tailoring and that kind of thing. So I think in a larger perspective you know when you think about development organizations, Peace Corps definitely has its place in there.
WILSON: What do you think the role of Peace Corps should be today or inthe future?
SITHER: Peace Corps the concept and Peace Corps the execution are quitedifferent things, and I think that Peace Corps as I experienced it could use a lot of improvement. It, I mean you know they say you have 01:43:00three goals as a Peace Corps volunteer. You're supposed to impart the knowledge that you're supposed to teach, in my case it was agro forestry. And another goal is to learn about the culture of your host country. And then I guess the third is to bring that knowledge back home and impart that knowledge to Americans. But it's implied that all three of those goals have equal weight and to me that's not, that's just-- it's not serious. You know Peace Corps is not a serious development entity--international development entity. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they have these nebulous three goals that they want you to accomplish and then there's very little oversight. 01:44:00And it's-- And there's very little institutional continuity or memory on the part of the Peace Corps and I saw this, witnessed this first hand in Cameroon. I mean you have situations where things have been tried and then abandoned and then three country directors later they come back and try that again without revisiting the fact that it failed the first time. So I mean and that's just you know that's just the tip of the iceberg. I mean there's a lot of things about Peace Corps that if I was in charge I would definitely change. And first and foremost is to make it more serious because there's very little oversight of the volunteer's activities. I mean you could go to-- And in my case, if I didn't want to do a damn thing and just party and drink and travel the whole time--and there were volunteers that did this--they didn't do a damn thing, I could get away with it. And I mean that's not 01:45:00acceptable. That's not good P.R. on the part of Americans, it's not-- You know it's not a good use of resources if you want to make an impact in terms of development and make friends around the world; I don't think that's good. So I don't know.
WILSON: Should the Peace Corps continue?
SITHER: Yes, but in a reformed manner. I think it needs to beoverhauled, I do.
WILSON: Okay, well that's all the formal questions I have, but I guessI would ask you if there are some things that I have missed that you would like to talk about or any other story or experience you would like to share.
SITHER: Well I should have brought my pictures. I can bring them out01:46:00and just look at them and I can--that's how I'd remember stories is visual or if I had something I just-- I'm having trouble conjuring up stuff but I will say I don't have any regrets about Peace Corps. I would definitely do it again; I don't think I would have served three years. I think that would be one regret; I would definitely-- I mean I did maximize my first two years but I feel very fortunate to have gone to the country of Cameroon. Like I said, the fact that it was-- The diversity was just incredible--the cultural diversity, the culture, the diversity in climate and ecology was incredible, and the scenic beauty, and relatively pristine traditional cultures that you could experience without feeling that you're like this tourist or whatever you know going 01:47:00to, you know, visit the Masaai on a safari or something like that you know. Which I kind of got an inkling of when I traveled to southern Africa, I kind of got that canned type of tourist experience but it was good to experience something very raw because I mean-- Actually I mean I found myself in situations where you know that seemed pretty remarkable but to me it, as it was then, it was pretty unremarkable. I mean there was one time I was meeting up with some volunteers and we were going to climb the local volcano in my area of Mount Oku, which is a forest preserve--a mountain forest preserve. And as it happened, the day before we were to go to Oku village to climb the mountain, a local- - Well it wasn't a local militia because there was no local militia, 01:48:00but a group of locals had taken over the local gendarmerie. You know in Cameroon as a legacy of the French system, not only do they have police and army, but they also have gendarmes, which are kind of, their role as related to the other two, I'm not completely sure about, but basically they go around harassing people and setting up road blocks. But they had raided and burned the gendarmerie and stole all the weapons, and they weren't around. And presumably they were up in the woods that we were going to walk into, but I mean we-- I can remember we walked up into those woods; we didn't care because we knew if we met them we would just, you know-- We knew we weren't in any danger because you know they were just the same, because I mean this is just over the hill from my post and I know these people basically. You know I know how to deal with them and I felt comfortable, but you know if you-- I can see that if I'd gone there as a tourist or just some visitor I might have been wigged out and gone, "Oh my god, this is insane." 01:49:00
WILSON: Would you ever go back to Cameroon?
SITHER: Yeah, I'd like to. Not in any hurry now, I mean it's kind ofexpensive to go there. Their currency is pegged to the Euro and your purchasing power is pretty low, and tickets to get there are pretty expensive. I'm not in any hurry to get there. There's a lot of other places in the world I want to go to, but I definitely want to go back and visit all the people that I knew. I'm just hoping that they're still going to be around because most of the people I knew were either older or like middle aged and you know, of course the younger people you know the whole specter of AIDS is just really scary. In fact, the last-- One of the last people I saw before I left Cameroon was a friend of mine named Shiyntum Richard , Cameroonian, who used to 01:50:00teach-- He used to be a motorcycle trainer for Peace Corps, a great guy, very worldly. His father was well educated, he was educated in Britain and he actually grew up for a spell in Germany and France. He could speak German fluently; he could speak French fluently, of course English too. Very great guy and just great to spend time with him, and he was very western in his outlook but also very Cameroonian, so it was a good balance. So he was just a great person to be around, and he was also very strong physically. He was-- He kind of manufactured this weight system from fly wheels of Mercedes trucks and he had this bench that he manufactured, so I mean this guy was really buff. I mean this guy-- And he could-- He was so strong he could do a pull up and then right himself this way and push himself up, which is something I've never seen anybody else do--maybe some small gymnast, but this 01:51:00is a big guy. So very physically imposing guy, very charismatic, and of course people like that tend to draw women to them and he enjoyed his pleasures in that respect to a fault, and it caught up with him. And he was actually at my post when he started developing symptoms. The first symptom was he started developing lymphoedema in one leg. And lymphoedema is when your lymph starts swelling; so his whole leg started swelling. And he kept on going to the doctors and they had no clue what it was, but one thing they did ask him to do, "Well you know, you probably need to take an HIV test." And he said, "No, I don't want to." And he kept on going to more doctors, and they couldn't figure out what it was. They said, "Yeah, but you need to take an HIV test." He said, "No, I don't want to." So I actually never suspected HIV until 01:52:00he visited the other hospital in Kumbo, and I happened to know some of the nurses there because I worked with them on their farms with agro forestry and I knew them really well. And they are the ones that confided me because they-- That he basically, although like I said he wouldn't let them test him, but it was obvious that it was HIV. And he was fortunate enough that his mother, he had a sister in France who was pretty well off and his mother was still receiving a pension from the government, so he had the means. So they took him to the capitol with the ultimate aim of getting him to France for treatment, but by then he was so ill there was no way any airline could take him on flight, much less if he could make it. And he was actually the last person that I personally was friends with. Other people took me to the airport, but he was actually the last person that I actually saw. And to see him 01:53:00go from being this, you know he was probably about 220 pounds--probably about 6 foot, 220 lbs--very big robust guy, strong, and seeing him on the ropes where the fat had drained out of his face, he was completely emaciated, he couldn't walk. And to see him in that state, it was not a good way to end my Peace Corps experience seeing him like that. It was-- And to double the hurt was the fact that I was visiting somebody else a few doors down who also was childhood friends--childhood friends of this guy--and he refused to see him because he just didn't want to see him in that state. So that was kind of a-- That was definitely not the way I wanted to end my experience but it was and kind of sad. But luckily I have-- There was one guy I knew who was older, he actually 01:54:00passed away last year and I was really close to him, so I was really sad.
WILSON: Also HIV?
SITHER: Not HIV but he was just-- But yeah, I mean I just hope that--Because there was a volunteer who served in the seventies in a post near mine, most of the people he knew were dead. And there's only one family that he was able to visit when he was there.
WILSON: Okay, anything else?
SITHER: Not that I can think of.
WILSON: Well, thank you very much for the interview, Robin.
[End of interview.]