Category Archives: personal

World Religion Day 2019: Protestant-Catholic relations in 2 American towns, in the mid-1800s

On this World Religion Day, an international observance dedicated to interfaith dialogue begun by American Baha’is in the late 1940s, I’d like to spotlight Protestant-Catholic relations in two locations in the United States where a branch of my family once lived. The first is Fitchburg in northern Worcester County, Massachusetts, where the first Catholic church in that part of the commonwealth was built in mid-1800s. The second, is Kalamazoo, Michigan, which also had a young Catholic congregation in the same period. This article is prompted in part by a remark heard last year about anti-Catholic attitudes in the latter town.

St. Bernard Church, Fitchburg, Mass.

The last St. Bernard Church (with tall pointed spire), built in 1880 to replace the 1852 church.
Source: “St. Bernard’s Church, Laurel St. Cemetery from Rollstone,” M.J. Caton, panaramio.com

The first Catholic church in Fitchburg and northern Worcester County, Massachusetts was St. Bernard’s. According to the parish history, a growing Catholic population in Fitchburg had to hold mass in the street in summer 1845, due to lack of a house of worship and being prohibited from using public buildings.

In the US during this period – roughly 1840s to mid-1850s – there was both growing immigration of Catholics from Ireland and Germany, and a nativist, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant movement called the “Know Nothings.” For a brief time (1854-57) this group actually controlled the Massachusetts government.

So, it is of interest that in Fitchburg at least, notables of the city who were evidently mostly (or all?) Protestants – among whom was my great3-grandfather Joseph Warren Mansur – assisted the local Catholic priest, Father Gibson, in the efforts he and his parishioners were making to obtain land and build a church.

The Catholics were able to do this in 1848, but storm damage required them to rebuild in 1852, and it was that church that the then bishop of the Boston diocese, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, consecrated in that same year.

Bishop Fitzpatrick and his delegation apparently stayed with J.W. Mansur (who at about that time was a Senator in the Massachusetts legislature) and family.

“The Bishop and Clergy, during their stay enjoyed the frank and gentlemanly hospitality of the Hon. Joseph Mansur; his kindness and that of his amiable household cannot be easily forgotten.— Mr. Mansur, Alvah Crocker, Esq., and other Protestant gentlemen of the town, have, from the beginning, shown an active interest in the success of the Rev. Mr. Gibson’s efforts, to provide a fit place of worship for his increasing flock.”

New Church at Fitchburg,” Boston Pilot 15(39):5, 25 Sep 1852

All of this transpired, of course, before the electoral victories of the Know Nothings in 1854. While the apparent comity around the creation of St. Bernard’s tells us something about Fitchburg, one wonders whether these events could have played out similarly under a radically different Massachusetts government.

J.W. Mansur’s wife, and my great3-grandmother, Anna Fitzpatrick (no known relation to the bishop) was Irish-born and evidently a Catholic. In a small way, perhaps, their marriage added another dimension to the Protestant-Catholic relations in Fitchburg of that era.

St. Augustine Cathedral, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Cathedral of Saint Augustine (this building completed in 1951) Source: Bill Dolak, Flickr.com

Fast forward to a summer 2018 visit to St. Augustine Cathedral in Kalamazoo, Michigan (which by coincidence also had a preceding smaller structure completed in 1852). I was seeking some specific information concerning the Mansur family, who moved there when J.W. bought the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1862.

I knew that Anna Mansur was connected with that parish from a mention of a gift she gave on the occasion of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ordination of its then priest, Rev. Isadore Antoine Lebel (c. 1864):

“Mrs. J.W. Mansur presented a rich antique vase, of foreign manufacture, and also a set of knife racks.”

“Old TImes,” Kalamazoo Augustinian, XXI(13): 5, 7 Feb 1903

Although I did not find the particular information in Kalamazoo that thought I might (which itself was useful), one of the take-aways was an unexpected mention in conversation of prejudicial attitudes of some Protestants towards Catholics in local interfaith gatherings.

As context, it turns out that the Kalamazoo area was not considered friendly to Catholics back when the first members of that confession settled in the area (c. 1830). Also, the Know-Nothing “American Party” was victorious in the 1856 elections in Kalamazoo (and some other locations in that region of Michigan).

So in this regard, Michigan and Massachusetts shared some trends. On the other hand, there did not seem to be as much civic support in Kalamazoo for St. Augustine’s as there was in Fitchburg for St. Bernard’s. (From descriptions, it seems that Father Lebel had to carry most of the load himself, while Father Gibson had some well-placed allies.)

Inter-denominational prejudice & interfaith dialogue?

One of the things I like about World Religion Day is the opportunity for people of different faiths to come together on an equal footing. Interfaith dialogue during the rest of the year is where the work gets done, I suppose, and maybe it is in those settings that residual and deeper prejudice might seep out. In any event, it was a bit jarring to hear of such attitudes between denominations, or towards one denomination, within one faith in the 21st century US. How common is this elsewhere in the country?

The initial intent of this article was to highlight what seemed like the more positive story from Fitchburg in 1852, but I found that the more vexing issues raised in Kalamazoo, as well as the later ones in Massachusetts as a whole, belonged in the same discussion.

So what does this say about the potential for ongoing dialogue among religions when even denominations may harbor negative attitudes? Of course we are aware that it was not that long ago that Northern Ireland had open conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and that in several countries, there is frequent violence between Sunnis and Shi’as, etc. So it is a measure of how much work there is to do for religious understanding more broadly.

Also, I was coming at this from the viewpoint of genealogical research. That is the process that led to focus on these particular locations, and in the telling, it’s another thread to connect the two. Bringing it back to that point, I am wondering how Protestant attitudes towards Catholics in Kalamazoo (and perhaps the other way too) in the 1860s compared with those the Mansurs, as a denominationally mixed family, experienced in Fitchburg a few years earlier.

J.W. Mansur sold the Gazette in 1865, after the end of the Civil War, and the Mansurs left Kalamazoo. The few cursory mentions of that portray it as a business decision, but was there more to the story?

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“They” – a 1971 perspective on othering

As a sophomore at Willowbrook High School in 1971, I penned a short piece entitled “They” for the holiday edition of the school’s newspaper, The Skyline. It is republished below with 3 minor copyedits (!). There is a lot I’d word differently if I were to write this today – after lots more education and life experience. Such as it is, however, the article reflects an emerging awareness about formation of attitudes (and prejudices) towards groups different than our own, and about what we call today, othering. And sadly, its theme is still relevant almost a half-century later.

It is “they!” Are “they” coming? No, they’re here. Are “they” invading us? How could they, we created them. Then who are “they”?

Most every day, each one of us, to differing degrees uses a stereotype or generalizes about some group(s) of people. “They” are the objects of generalization and often degrading stereotypes. “They” can be those of any group, as seen by someone from the outside. “They” are nobody in particular, but everybody in general.

Generalization is lumping all people of one group in one category (“all blacks are lazy,” “people over 30 are untrustworthy,” etc.) without regard to the fact that sub-groups and more importantly, individuals within each group are different.

A stereotype is an image tagged on to a group. For example, the typical stereotype of a Mexican is a man taking a siesta sitting against a wall, with a big sombrero pulled over his face. Like generalization, stereotypes are unfair, because they put one label on each individual of a group.

Generalization and stereotypes usually are caused by lack of understanding about others. In turn, they promote more misunderstanding among people. But, an even worse problem is that unfound[ed] prejudice or hatred also give rise to stereotypes and generalization. Whatever their cause, it is incumbent on us to strive to eliminate these two promoters of misunderstanding in order to keep alive the hope of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men.”

“They,” by Don Osborn, The Willowbrook Skyline, 16 Dec 1971, p. 2

Remembrance

A quick note of remembrance for my journalism teacher at the time, and the longtime advisor for the Skyline, John M. Rowley, who passed away in 2012. RIP.

Mr. Rowley, as we knew him, was patient, generous with advice while not imposing his solutions, and had a good sense of humor (which more or less he had to). His lessons about concise headline writing I particularly remember, as they turned out to be transferable many years later to writing 140 character tweets!

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Earth Day 2018: One family’s small example

This Earth Day I’d like to share some small measures my household has taken and/or does take for the environment. These are not that special (well they were a little bit to us), but such efforts small though they be are not insignificant, especially on the very local level, and if joined by those of others has cumulative value.

Of course individual and even collective efforts to be environmentally responsible pale in comparison to the potential positive or negative effects of policy decisions affecting whole waterways, air quality of entire regions, and vast hitherto unspoiled natural areas. But we have our parts to play.

Composting

For the seven years we were in Falls Church, Virginia, we used a backyard compost pile. Into this went virtually all readily decomposable vegetative matter from the yard – to the extent that I even stripped green leaves off of pruned branches before discarding the latter (this went quickly with garden gloves) – as well as all kitchen scraps (non-animal and non-cooked) from meal preparation. The kitchen scraps were buried in the existing compost to reduce potential smell (which we never found to be a problem). Ashes from the fireplace insert also went into compost. If there was any hint of any animal getting into the compost, I’d add powdered red pepper.

System was 2 pile, with 6 month rotation (each batch having 6 months active, and 6 months curing), and use of the old pile in late autumn and in spring. Mainly on the vegetable garden.

Compost pile. Left was active, then shifted to right in compost ring. Pole separating halves is marked with a red dot.

Lawn serf

We had a very modest front and back yard, which were easy to mow with a manual push mower (once as late as December), which also was a kind of exercise. Grass clippings were allowed to fall back into the lawn (not collected). Some hand weeding – moderately extensive on a couple of summers – with the plants of course going into the compost.

Never put chemicals on it with the exception of a couple of products (one supposedly eco-friendly) in 2011 or 2012 to reduce the mosquito population.

The big autumn leaf-fall went on the curb for pick-up (hand-raked and carried, not blower driven). The payback in Falls Church was leaf mulch offered by the city in the spring.

Yard wood

One ash tree brought down by an ice-storm, one magnolia branch that fell on my car in a thunderstorm, and a range of cut branches over the years from a small but exuberant lot, all were cut for use in the fireplace insert. Only the thin branches and thorny ones would go out for pick-up (again, probably the only household that had those stripped of leaves).

Fireplace insert

We had an insert put into our fireplace to allow for efficient use of firewood. This was expensive, but the year we did it we were able to take advantage of a significant tax deduction. Ultimately it paid for itself, notably one winter when the old furnace gave out and had to be replaced. We used yard wood, in one case a neighbor’s tree that had to be cut, and purchased local wood from felled or cleared trees. (My writing on criteria for “good” biofuel, in 2016 and on Earth Day 2017, were influenced in part by this experience, as well observations from living in rural West Africa.)

Rain barrels

We ultimately had five 50-60 gallon rain-barrels out during the warm months to collect rain for use on the flowering plants and vegetables. This was useful, but it sometimes seemed the barrels were full to overflowing during rainy stretches, but then empty during the dry spells. It is significant how much water one can use on gardens even in a humid temperate zone.

Vegetable garden

We had two 3′ by 11′ raised beds for vegetable gardening (size convenient from four 14′ planks (I think they were 2″ by 8″).  The story of the garden itself would be a whole different write-up, but suffice it to say that it was a mixed success depending on crop, but on balance a lot of production and some very tasty results. The residues were all chopped up into the compost in the fall.

Kitchen

As mentioned above, all kitchen scraps went into compost. For a while we included eggshells as well. These were collected in a double plastic bag held in a small container attached to one of the under-sink doors. So basically things to throw out were: 1) trash (see below); 2) recycling (handled by the city); 3) compost; and 4) the few items that went down the disposal (minimal food waste is fundamental for any environmentally-conscious system).

Cooking is cooking, but since I’m currently living alone, I’ve added an innovation to steam something on top of whatever I’m boiling to get double use from one burner (e.g., pasta below, and broccoli on the steamer insert on top of that pot). Conservation in meals is another topic for another day, however.

Shopping bags, not trash bags

I forget where we started this, but it may have been in China. We have used smaller waste receptacles that permit use of plastic shopping bags or the smaller bags you put loose vegetables in to take to the checkout. We really didn’t need bigger bags even in the kitchen given we recycled or composted so much. I can’t recall buying packages of trashbags except for a specialized packing need almost a decade ago. We also bring reusable bags to market, but it always seems that one collects plastic bags from stores. Some of these handle trash no problem; the rest can be recycled.

Hardly exceptional, any of this, but useful perhaps in illustrating one family’s system, and more or less coherent approach to the proverbial reduce, reuse, recycle.

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September 11, 2001 in Niamey

For Americans (and many others), “where were you on 9/11?” is in the same category as an earlier generation’s “where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?” There are some events that are etched in the common memory, and a few that then stay there as their longer term impact becomes apparent. Here is a brief personal retrospective on that day 15 years ago, and its immediate aftermath in Niger, where I was at the time.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in the weekly meeting of the senior Peace Corps/Niger staff in Niamey. In those days, senior staff meetings were held in the office of the Country Director, Jim Bullington. a third-floor suite along one side of the Peace Corps building that accommodated his desk at one end overlooking the busy Route de Ouallam, and a conference table at the other end, close to the door.

Partway through the meeting, Jim got a call from the US embassy. Routine calls would not go through to his phone during staff meetings, only calls from the embassy – under whose authority the Peace Corps country operation functioned – or calls of an emergency nature. Jim returned to the table, looking rather grim, and told us that the office would close for the day, saying somebody had flown a plane into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers.

There was no further information, and no context. I remember my first thought was of something along the lines of a small plane. We retreated to our offices to check online, and then the dimensions of what had happened – and what was still unfolding – became clear. I remember seeing a photo on the New York Times site of one of the towers gone and the other standing, then of that one gone too. Then even that far away, a torrent of news – the Pentagon, flight 98, air traffic shut down, and much speculation about what, who, why, and whether anything else might be in the offing. Watching from afar the immediacy of the infamy and tragedy seemed somewhat buffered, but the perspective from a distance also amplified concerns about what was happening.

As Peace Corps staff, our primary concern was about the volunteers posted in several regions of the country – their safety, as always, but in this case getting in touch to make sure everyone had the news and was handling it. As I recall, we reasoned that there was no need to bring volunteers back to Niamey, and may have advised against travel for the time being.

There was one volunteer however who somehow had not heard and called me to ask what happened. Apparently neighbors had told her something terrible had transpired in the US before other volunteers in the network reached her. When I explained, she was particularly distressed, as she was originally from one of the communities near the WTC. I spoke with Steve Peterson, the Admin Officer at the time, and a vehicle was sent to pick her up and bring her in. As I recall it turned out she did not know anyone who was in the WTC at the time.

The embassy for its part, was extremely concerned about possible local ramifications of the events of 9/11. I wasn’t privy to their discussions, but we were at one point told that Peace Corps staff such as myself who traveled outcountry to visit volunteers would have to go with armed escorts. Some number of the American staff of the embassy in Niamey had been directly or indirectly affected by the 1998 terrorist bombings of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies, and that may have been the lens through which they saw the risks after the 9/11 attack. In any event, Jim, who had been a career foreign service officer and ambassador, had dealt with crises before, and was able to argue (as I recall) that this order would be problematic and counterproductive for Peace Corps volunteers.

Ultimately it was decided to revisit the issue of volunteer safety and security with Nigerien government partners in the regions where we had volunteers – namely visiting the regional governors and their staffs. The embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, Stuart Symington IV, led this mission on which I was the Peace Corps representative, in my capacity as one of the associate directors. This did have an armed escort of Nigerien troops – a first in my experience – but we did not go to volunteer posts.

Eventually things settled into a new normal. Mostly the day to day operations of Peace Corps were the same in Niger – life and work there has its rewards and challenges that are the main story (see for example a personal take on the situation the year after I left Niger). And through it all, our Nigerien friends, colleagues, and counterparts were very supportive and sympathetic.

But there was greater attention to safety and security, and a higher level of the usual concern overseas about potential impacts of US actions elsewhere – such as the invasion of Afghanistan – on life where you are. It was a transition period about which more could be written. I have not yet read Jim’s 2007 book Adventures in Service with Peace Corps in Niger, but perhaps he has some mention of 9/11.

For me personally, I did not return to the U.S. again for two years. Many Americans recounting their experience witnessing 9/11 abroad write of returning home to a different country. That was to some extent true for me too, but by 2003 when my family and I were again in the U.S., that change was not unexpected.

One other note: The first, and for long the only, bridge over the Niger River in Niamey, is named after John F. Kennedy.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mountainbiking in the Futa Jalon, 1986-87 (a Peace Corps retrospective)

A recent story in Wired magazine, “The Roots of Dirt: How Mountain Bikes Went From Clunkers to Global Phenomenon,” brings to mind a brief personal experience with the genre in Guinea, West Africa in the mid-1980s. Since bicycling in the Vienna, Virginia area was a topic on this blog previously, I thought it would be interesting to recount this rather different bicycling scenario. And because this also coincided with the restarting of Peace Corps in Guinea, it additionally provides an opportunity to relate some of that history, which I did not find elsewhere on the web.1

BMX-Mongoose-ATBpro-1985

In January 1986 I brought a new BMX Mongoose ATB Pro (picture on left from the BMX 1985 catalog, via VintageMongoose.com) to my new Peace Corps post in Pita, a town in the middle of the Futa Jalon2 highlands – perfect country for cross-country biking.

At the time, this Mongoose had very favorable reviews. I purchased mine in suburban Chicago for something on the order of US$300, including a rack for the back (this was to be used for work) and mud guards (I knew the roads & weather). Before discussing how I got it there, and used it, here is some context on how I came to Peace Corps Guinea and had the opportunity to choose a bicycle to take along.

Peace Corps’ return to Guinea

map-africa-guinea-EBIn 1984, following the death of Guinea’s long-time dictator, Sékou Touré, that country’s government requested that Peace Corps be re-established in the country. (The story I heard was that this interest was first conveyed to then US Vice-President Bush during the latter’s short visit to Conakry for Touré’s funeral.) Peace Corps had been in Guinea during two brief periods in the 1960s, and despite having to leave due to political issues related to Touré’s rule, had apparently retained a positive image.

So the Peace Corps administration fast-tracked its return to Guinea. The normal Peace Corps procedure for (re)entering a country, as I learned much later, was to first have a team evaluate the potential based on several criteria, and then to bring in limited staff to set up an office and identify volunteer work assignments and posts, and then to bring in new Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). In this case the sequence was sort of reversed, bringing experienced PCVs in first.

Carroll Bouchard, who was at about this time transitioning from serving as Peace Corps Country Director in Burkina Faso to filling the same position in Senegal, was asked to lead the process. Somewhere along the line, a specialist named R.J. Benn was brought in to research and report on aspects of getting Peace Corps going there again, including specifics of the volunteer assignments. Chris Kopp, the Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for forestry in Senegal also participated in the process.

So, sometime during the rainy season of 1985, four volunteers responded to the internal Peace Corps offer to extend their service to go to Guinea – three from Senegal, and me from Mali. We were convened for a week-long orientation in the beginning of October at the PC/Senegal training site in Thiès. The plan was for two of the group with more agronomic background to work with a USAID-funded agriculture research station in Faranah, and the two others with reforestation background, including me, to work with a “community forestry“/agroforestry project in Pita, whose USAID funding was coming to an end. Prior to the conclusion of the orientation, however, the two scheduled to go to Faranah dropped out, each for their own reasons.

The two remaining – Phil Comte and I – then went to Guinea to start work with the USAID “Projet Forêts Communautaires.” The plan was to meet all the principals in the forestry service (including the director, Kalidou Diallo), USAID (including Mark Wentling and Bob Hellyer), the US Embassy, and of course the project in Pita (including David Laframboise, the outgoing USAID project head, and M. Sangaré, the Guinean project director). After 6 weeks there was a break – the home leave given extending volunteers plus vacation time to cover from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day – and then return to Guinea.

The mountain bike idea

Personally I was primed to the idea of a bicycle even though I enjoyed the dirt bikes that we rural development volunteers were assigned in those days. When in Djenné, Mali, I fixed up the unused bicycle of the neighbor family I ate with (the household of Madani Koné in Kanafa), and and used it from time to time to go to work in the project nursery on the other side of town (rather a long walk, but also kind of short for a motorcycle every day). Also, there was a PCV in another part of Mali – Koulikoro as I recall – who brought a mountain bike back from a US vacation break. It should be noted that PCV teachers based in towns were assigned bicycles as a matter of course, so volunteers on bikes was by no means a novelty, but mountain bikes were.

I do not recall any specific conversations on the topic with Phil or anyone else at the end of 1985, but two main factors made bringing mountain bikes back to Pita an attractive idea:

  • the Futa Jalon, a beautiful rolling plateau region, was ideal for that kind of biking – all roads off the main highway from Mamou to Labé were unpaved and unimproved, but mostly hard clay as opposed to sand or other loose material, and there were not nearly as many thorny tree species as in the Sahel; and
  • the project’s CJ-7 and CJ-8 Jeeps were a scary proposition to run on a regular basis – despite their image they were not built for rough roads, and needed frequent repairs often without proper parts or “Jeep special tools” (one of the vehicles with brake problems was involved in the death of a child before we arrived).

So Phil and I each decided to bring mountain bikes back with us.

International travel with bicycles

My return flight originated at Chicago O’Hare airport o/a January 2, 1986. The procedure for traveling with a bicycle, in those days at least, was fairly easy and straightforward. Narrow bicycle boxes were available from the airline, and to fit one in, it was necessary to loosen and turn the handlebars. Fortunately the airline (which one, I forget now) had tools available for the latter task when people forgot to bring their own.

I met up with Phil at JFK International in New York for the flight to Dakar and then Conakry. At Conakry airport we actually had to go out onto the tarmac to call the baggage handlers’ attention to the bike boxes that hadn’t been offloaded.

Mountain bikes and Peace Corps/Guinea

We were met in Conakry by the new Peace Corps Country Director for Guinea, Jerry Pasela, who was already busy finding an office and residence location. It was during this time that the formal agreement was signed to re-establish Peace Corps in Guinea after a 19-year absence.

On my first spin on the Mongoose in Conakry I shifted gears and something unexpected happened. The rear rack had been retrofitted with the screw in such an orientation that it would snag the chain, in this case pulling the derailleur and bending the flange on which it was mounted (that was done at the shop, but I should have checked). Fortunately it was possible to bend it back without the alloy cracking, so the bike needed no serious repair and worked fine.

Before going up to Pita, Phil decided to terminate his stay for personal reasons. (He sold his bike – as I recall, to one of the Marine guards at the embassy in Conakry.) That meant that for the next nine months or so, I was the only PCV in country.

Mongoose in Futa Jalon

In Pita, a small upcountry town in a nation that had been largely closed off for years, no one had seen a bike like this. But then, folks were already used to seeing things they hadn’t before. Still, an obvious foreigner on a bike of novel design naturally got attention.

It was probably not just coincidence that shortly after moving in, a nice thin-tired racing bike appeared briefly on the streets (I never met the owner – probably the father of the rider I saw from a distance – who must have had it in storage).3 The Mongoose, however, was made for all the unpaved sidestreets of Pita and roads beyond.

I took the bike on several trips related to work, the longest of which was to Timbi Madina about 30 kilometers to the west. It was a really nice experience taking roads on bike that I had previously taken in a Jeep – with the slower pace you take in a lot more of the nature, visually as well as aurally. A totally different appreciation of the environment. And of distance and terrain. These were not easy jaunts as the terrain is mostly hilly. I remember one road to a village whose name I forget being basically a series of hard climbs and careful descents. The way to Timbi Madina was more like the top of the plateau, or perhaps it seemed more level because the route chosen for that frequently-used road minimized steep passages.

The main problem with using the bike, however, turned out to be that as a mode of transportation it did not facilitate involvement of my counterparts in field visits.

Honda vs. BMX (vs. Jeep)

Not too much later, my Peace Corps issue motorcycle – a Honda 125cc dirt bike – was delivered.4 This changed the transportation and work equation. The Jeeps in theory could now be reserved for instances involving transport of multiple staff, materials for nurseries, or seedlings for outplanting. For regular extension and monitoring of activities, I could go with one of the Pita-based staff on the moto.

So, soon after the moto arrived, the mountain bike was relegated mainly to in-town travel.

As a practical matter, my work as the only PCV attached to the project (instead of one of two) expanded over a wider area than originally foreseen. That territory, as it were, then expanded further with site selection in preparation for a new group of volunteers, and my subsequent decision to stay on as volunteer-leader when they were posted in September 1986.

Jerry was during this time building the Peace Corps administrative staff with local hires from Guinea – including an APCD for administration, Tafsir Thiam, and at least one third-country national – but there was no programming APCD until after I left in July 1987, so in some ways I served as kind of a brevet APCD.

On to other roads

All in all, this BMX Mongoose was a worthwhile investment. Even with regular use only on the hills and unpaved roads of Pita, and a limited number of trips out of town, it was a nice way to get around. And often the best way to do so.

On leaving Pita, I sold it to Jan Cerny, a Czech forestry expert with the FAO project also based in Pita, who apparently had done bicycle racing in the past.

Much later, Peace Corps worldwide moved in a big way to mountain bikes for volunteers as it scaled back use of motorcycles. I have not seen any documents about that decision or ensuing transition, which was well underway by the time I joined the Peace Corps staff as an APCD in Niger. In any event, Peace Corps’ use of mountain bikes fits in a less-noticed utilitarian dimension of the “global phenomenon” that the Wired article alludes to.

My next bike was in East Lansing, Michigan a few years later, when my wife and I bought a pair of used bicycles for use on Michigan State University campus. The next one after was a hybrid that I purchased to take to Niger, which got minimal use in Niamey then went into storage when we relocated to China (in Chengdu I borrowed my wife’s bicycle sometimes to commute to work). I’m still using that same bike that went to Niger – with a couple of new wheel rims to replace the ones bent in the Vienna accident.

(Thanks to Carroll Bouchard, Bob Hellyer, and Mark Wentling for their help with information. Needless to say, any errors in this blog article are mine.)


1. Other accounts of PC/Guinea history, such as on the Friends of Guinea site, do not go into any detail about this period. This blog article is not intended to fully cover that gap.
2. The region name is also spelled Fouta Djallon or Fouta Djalon in French, and Fuuta Jaloo or Fuuta Jalon in Pular.
3. It is tempting to make a superficial comparison with Conakry for the occasional out-of-the-ordinary vehicles one used to spot on its streets back then.
4. This was planned, and typical for rural development PCVs in that era. Many Americans familiar with motorcycles scoff at a 100cc or 125 cc, but this size and power was ideal for rural development work. Even carrying a passenger. I hope to discuss Peace Corps and motorcycles in depth at another time.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Vienna bicyclist – epilogue

After 8 months of regular and sometimes intensive bicycling in and around Vienna – even through the cold months of winter – my number came up: I was hit at about 7:30 a.m. on April 28 by a car making a right turn on a red light (legal in Virginia). The rest of the details aren’t necessary here except to say that the significant injury was a fracture to the tibial plateau on the leg that the car hit (fortunately no worse a break and now seems to be healed), and resort to legal means resulting in a settlement.

I am very grateful to the doctors, my lawyer, and especially the two people who came forth after I had to advertise for witnesses. The incident was somewhat of a jolt, first for the accident itself and the injury, and then for the way the driver handled it. The fact two witnesses did come forth was extremely encouraging during what otherwise was a very difficult time.

I am not sure about the percentage of bicyclists who have an accident with a car at some time during their life, but some old statistics on bicycle-related injuries (not only accidents with cars) estimate that 1 bicyclist in 20 is injured every year and that on the average, a bicyclist will have a minor injury every three years and a serious one every 15. And per mile of travel, cyclists are 4.5 times more likely to be injured than motor vehicle drivers.

As far as car-bike accidents, a study in Toronto, Ontario showed that bicyclists caused only 10% of car-bike accidents (which apparently is much less than popular perceptions). And the bicyclist is always much the worse off for the encounter (same thing with motocyclists). Whatever the case, as a bicyclist it is worth going to a reasonable extreme to verify what a driver *might* do, and to try to make eye contact with them.

The experience raises a question for me about how practical the slogan of “share the road” is. Driver error, or cyclist error (or road problem affecting cyclist speed or trajectory), and the cyclist loses – paying dispropotionaltely more than ther driver, no matter what compensation the latter may possibly receive.

Well-demarcated bicycle lanes are a minimum for major roads. Maybe also there is a safety in numbers – more cyclists will get more attention and respect. I also used to bicycle in Chengdu, China and was grateful for bike lanes separated by curbs (even though these lanes have been narrowed in recent years to widen the main roads) and for the number of other cyclists around when crossing most major intersections.

On the other hand, even in a city like Denver, Colorado – a community with a lot of cyclists, apparently good bicycle infrastructure, and awareness on the part of drivers – has noted that with more bicyclists, there is an increase in serious injuries from accidents with cars.

The whole thing has also prompted some increased caution when I am behind the wheel. In any event, we have moved so I am no longer bicycling in Vienna, nor for the moment anywhere else. When the circumstances are right I hope to do so again.

Oh – and I was wearing my helmet (funny how many folks asked about that).Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail