Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Arthur Dobrin, November 24, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:00 - Pre-service information

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Partial Transcript: Today is November 24, 2020.

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin recounts his professional career with the American Ethical Union Society and then as a professor at Hofstra University. He applied to Peace Corps during the idealist time of John F. Kennedy, meeting either Shriver or Wofford at a recruiting meeting on campus; he approached Wofford after the meeting and decided that serving was something he wanted to do. He and his fiancée decided together that that was what they wanted to do. Dobrin wanted to give back to the community, as he had attended both public secondary and public college in New York City. Their friends supported the idea, but parents were skeptical. As a part of the application process, he completed various forms and then the FBI interviewed people who knew him. Only several months passed before they were to leave for Nigeria. However, Nigeria terminated the history teaching positions, so they decided to go to Kenya, as opposed to Thailand.

Keywords: Application process; Harris Wofford; Professional background; Sargent Shriver

Subjects: Hofstra University; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kenya
Map Coordinates: 1, 38
00:06:54 - Training and starting service

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Partial Transcript: Um, tell me about training.

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin's recollection of training involves being in Milwaukee at the end of January. Classes were purely academic, starting early in the mornings and finishing after dinner. He learned Swahili in a language lab combined with individual instruction with native speakers; the rest was learning information about the country. There were about 60 volunteers in his training group; some left the program during and after training. Dobrin and his wife went to Kisii from Nairobi: they were dropped off in the community with little fanfare. There was little contact between them and Peace Corps Kenya, as there were no phones. However, when Lyn became pregnant, the Peace Corps officials were concerned about her health. Lyn gave birth in September and they left service in February.

Keywords: Language training; Learning about the country; Training

Subjects: Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
GPS: Nairobi, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -1.286389, 36.817222
00:12:31 - Dobrin's Peace Corps work

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Partial Transcript: So what was your reception when you got to Kisii?

Segment Synopsis: When Dobrin arrived in Kisii, the reception was warm yet confusing since two men were expected instead of a married couple. They lived in a house that was condemned but they loved the house in the community where they worked. Peace Corps was unclear as to what they were to do with marketing co-ops. He consulted with people about the needs for help, and translated the co-op bylaws into Swahili while figuring out what he wanted to do. At the community center, he spoke with the women who attended agricultural courses there about co-ops. Dobrin arranged to give week-long courses to the men who ran the co-ops about co-ops, and then followed up with the students in their communities. He also spoke to students at local high schools about co-ops. One of these schools was the Kisii high school where a student asked if he and friends could put on a play about co-ops for the community, which they did. It was the first play many had ever seen. Years later, he and Lyn led educational safaris to Kenya, and unexpectedly met the man who'd staged the play and now ran a co-op store, inspired by Dobrin. Dobrin tried to start an agricultural co-op as well as a financial co-op to limited success. His biggest challenge was lack of sustained contact with his initiatives, which involved traveling about the district giving the educational courses. He had little on-going contact with Kenyans at the time.

Keywords: Co-ops; Community centers; Cooperatives

Subjects: Intercultural communication; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:26:00 - Transportation and hardest adjustments

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Partial Transcript: How did you get around?

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin used a bicycle and then motorcycle to travel around for work, while Lyn met with the women in their house, which became the club house. The hardest part of service was loneliness despite having been married. They had no electricity, no running water, and no neighbors in their first house which was up a hill (usually a muddy hill) which left them isolated from the community. They hit the proverbial wall and worked around it, especially when they moved into the condemned house. At one of the Christmases, Dobrin and Lyn joined another Peace Corps couple on a vacation to Uganda and the Congo border.

Keywords: Club houses; Interactions with other volunteers; Loneliness; Motorcycles; Uganda; Vacations

Subjects: Acculturation; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Uganda
Map Coordinates: 1, 32
GPS: Republic of the Congo
Map Coordinates: -1.44, 15.556
00:31:44 - Proudest accomplishment

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Partial Transcript: What are you proudest of, of your time there?

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin is most proud of the fact that "Peace Corps never left us." Kenya remains an important part of their lives and their identity. When they first arrived on site, they had time to spare, and so they met with administrators at the regional hospital where the nursing staff was overworked and wanted Dobrin and Lyn to help care for abandoned babies -- feeding, playing with, and changing diapers. They did that for several months.

Keywords: Babies; Children; Hospitals

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:32:57 - Medical situation

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Partial Transcript: Were there ever any times that there was a medical crisis, other than Lyn having the baby?

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin got sick while living in a hotel - a high fever. The Peace Corps medical officer told Lyn that Dobrin should not, under any circumstances, be given an injection. The local doctor was about to do that when Lyn returned from calling the medical officer; the local doctor left in a huff. Dobrin recovered and all was well, but it was an awkward situation at the time.

Keywords: Fevers; Health issues; Illnesses; Medical officers; Sickness

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:37:05 - Surprises in Kenya

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Partial Transcript: Was there anything that surprised you about Kenya?

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin was surprised that Kenya was so naturally beautiful, and that the people in their community were so welcoming to them. The latter was partially because whites had not settled there, so there was no sense of colonialism. He commuted to a co-op by bike when a man stopped him and asked him why he rode this route, and if he were British. The man grinned widely when Dobrin said that he was an American. By and large, people had not met an American before. Pre-service training concentrated on the central part of Kenya where whites were suspect due to their national history of colonialism.

Keywords: Americans; Attitudes; Colonialism; Treatment; White people

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:39:23 - Being a novelty in the town

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Partial Transcript: Were there any other times that you were frightened?

Segment Synopsis: At first, the noises in the community scared Dobrin because they were isolated in the dark. Lyn was scared as she walked to her work through a town with farmers carrying machetes, and they stared at her as she walked alone. She was a novelty.

Keywords: Attitudes; Culture shock; Machetes; Treatment

Subjects: Culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:40:58 - Pregnancy and changes in life

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Partial Transcript: Now you guys made the decision to get pregnant while you were there. What was the reaction to that?

Segment Synopsis: The initial reaction of Peace Corps to Lyn's pregnancy was to send Dobrin and his wife home. Other volunteers were happy for them. The reactions of the women with whom Lyn worked was exuberance. It transformed Lyn's work. Lyn went to Nairobi two weeks before the expected birth and Dobrin was left at the site. He thinks that Peace Corps didn't like them. However, Dobrin was invited to speak at an international conference in Nairobi about co-ops because of an article he wrote about them. The conference coincided with the dates Lyn was to be in the city to have her baby. They spent the night in the penthouse of a ritzy hotel thanks to the conference planners -- not Peace Corps. He realized that, once the baby was born, his life would forever change. He was anxious, overwhelmed, and thrilled. He is most proud of being a father and grandfather. He has no qualms about having the baby in Nairobi. After service, the three of them traveled for three months. They've lived their lives taking risks that others would not because it is interesting.

Keywords: Fatherhood; International conferences; Pregnancy; Reactions; Reactions of Kenyans to pregnancy

Subjects: Childbirth; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Maternal health services.; Medical care; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Pregnancy; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:47:19 - Communicating with their families

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Partial Transcript: What was the like reaction of your parents?

Segment Synopsis: The Dobrins invited their parents to visit them in Kenya, but they declined. They sent letters and tape recordings to their families. They called home once. Peace Corps immediately notified their parents about the baby. His parents called the local paper about the birth and an article was printed about them in it.

Keywords: Childbirth; Family; Letters; Parents; Tape recordings

Subjects: Families.; Interpersonal relations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:51:35 - Ending service

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Partial Transcript: So you're coming to the end of your two years there. How were you feeling? Were you anxious to get back?

Segment Synopsis: Dobrin and his wife were eager to travel after leaving Kenya, to see parts of the world that they hadn't seen. They felt that their work there was done and they had no idea that they would return to Kenya.

Keywords: Close of service; Travel

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:53:21 - Cross-cultural differences

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Partial Transcript: Were there any cross-cultural misunderstandings or problems that you ran into while you were there?

Segment Synopsis: During training, Dobrin learned that you shouldn't give anyone anything with your left hand. Another was remembering not to wear anything red, except that, where they were, people did wear red. Kenyans perceived Dobrin and his wife as outsiders. They fit into the category of "their customs are weird," as did people from other geographical areas, even relatives. What this meant for Lyn is that she was able to listen to women talk about intimate issues because she was an outsider.

Keywords: Acculturation; Cultural norms; Culture; Outsiders

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:56:15 - Reverse culture shock upon arriving home

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Partial Transcript: So what was it like for you when you came back?

Segment Synopsis: The inverse culture shock upon returning to the U.S. was very different than initial shock upon arrival in Kenya. Life seemed very fast; intolerance of people was noticeable. People in the U.S. were judgmental about life in Kenya. People in the U.S. were less friendly, less open. The door is always open in Kenya; strangers are always invited into homes. It was most welcoming there. He misses most the people whom he knew and the weather. He also missed taking safaris on their own.

Keywords: Acculturation; Culture; Culture shock; Reverse culture shock

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667
00:59:18 - Impact of Peace Corps on his life

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Partial Transcript: How would you say Peace Corps has impacted your life?

Segment Synopsis: Peace Corps has had an "immeasurable" effect on his life. It opened him to other ways of being, to a world of people he otherwise would not have met, to deep friendships. It deepened his marriage in terms of the experiences they shared, and the stories they tell and retell one another. Before service, Dobrin thought he'd study African Studies and become an academic. From one of the "green sheets," listing organizations interested in hiring Returned Volunteers, he saw one that appealed to him, the Ethical Society of America. He worked there for 30 years as a leader. He earned several graduate degrees, including a doctorate in social work, with which he became a full-time professor after leaving the Ethical Society.

Keywords: Careers; Education; Impact; Relationships

Subjects: Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Kenya; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Kisii, Kenya
Map Coordinates: -0.683333, 34.766667