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Summer 2011

First Class of Peace Corps

by Mary Hooper

Back in the early 1960s, some Americans were starting to worry about what the rest of the world thought of us.

This was the era of "the ugly American," the supposedly boorish, arrogant Yank lording it over the locals in foreign countries, and denunciations of "Yankee imperialism" by inflamed mobs in Asia, Africa and South America.

In October, 1960, during a campaign speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, John F. Kennedy announced that, if elected, he would form a "Peace Corps" of young Americans to work as volunteers in underdeveloped countries. They would live at the same level as the people, working on farms, in hospitals and schools, eat the same food and speak their languages, Kennedy said. They would endeavor to understand other cultures and, in so doing, promote American democratic values and combat Communism.

Kennedy could not have spoken to a more receptive audience. The speech was boffo, a smash, and it tapped a vein of youthful idealism across the country. On Mar. 1, 1961, in one of the first acts of his presidency, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Later that year, Congress passed a bill to fund the corps.

Among the first class of Peace Corps volunteers was Kinsley resident Boyd Mundhenke who opted out of finishing his undergraduate work at Kansas State to live in "the heart of the Punjab" in what was then West Pakistan, working at tasks as varied as building chicken coops to helping out at a leper colony.

Mundhenke, who grew up on a farm outside Lewis, in Edwards County, was in his third year at K-State when he went on a church-sponsored trip with other college-age youths to Washington, D.C. The theme of the trip was "Inside Government." The students went to the State Department and several foreign embassies, including the Soviet.

"This really got my interest up in what was happening overseas, especially since the Cold War seemed to be heating up," said Mundhenke.

The popular and influential novel, "The Ugly American," by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, published in 1958, also made an impression on Mundhenke. The title actually refers to the novel's homely hero, Homer Atkins, who helped poor villagers in a fictional Southeast Asian country build water pumps. In contrast to good guy Atkins were the ignorant, overbearing U.S. government officials whom the natives despised. These characters left a deeper impression, however, and the term came to be used as a metaphor for the obnoxious American abroad.

Peace Corps volunteers would strive to be the antidote for the ugly American.

"We had to be. Here we were in a tug-of-war with Communism for winning the hearts and minds of Third World countries," said Mundhenke.

When Kennedy established the Peace Corps, Mundhenke was ready to pack his bags. With his background in farming and production agriculture, he was the kind of volunteer the Peace Corps recruiter on the K-State campus was looking for. His application was accepted in August of '61; he signed up for a two-year hitch and was sent off for several months of training, including learning Urdu, West Pakistan's official language.

In those days, Pakistan was split into two sections, East, predominantly Bengali, and West, mostly Punjabi. East Pakistan and West Pakistan were separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. In 1971, the east successfully waged a war of liberation against the west, and declared itself a new nation, Bangladesh.

Mundhenke and 27 other volunteers were sent to Lyallpur, a city of almost 600,000, its narrow streets crowded with people, animals, bicycles, horse and ox-drawn carts, vendors and hawkers. Lyallpur was the site of the Agriculture University from which Mundhenke would go out and work in the villages as an ag extension agent. Some of his fellow volunteers also worked in agriculture, but others were assigned to teaching or nursing duties. They lived in a hostel and quickly became close friends, some of their friendships lasting these 50 years.

Much of his training didn't prepare him for the reality of life in Pakistan. For one thing, the people in and around Lyallpur spoke Punjabi. Mundhenke picked up the local language and learned to get along in a mixture of Urdu, Punjabi and English.

He also realized that he had to invent the position of agriculture extension agent since it didn't exist at the university. For the first few months, he helped another volunteer organize books in the university library according to the Dewey decimal system. He and other volunteers rebuilt a bridge. They befriended residents of a leper colony outside town, spending time with them, showing them American movies and attempting to show the local population that leprosy is not necessarily contagious.

"We learned that you need prolonged contact to have any risk of contracting the disease. You could even shake hands with them, have some physical contact, and talk to them with no risk. They really, really appreciated that. But I wouldn't say that we changed a lot of other people's ideas, among the native Pakistanis."

Mundhenke originally thought he would improve the genetics of water buffalo, but learning that their calving interval was one and a half years, realized he wouldn't have enough time. So he turned to chickens and began building pens to confine them for better egg production.

"If you treat chickens as scavengers, you don't have to buy feed for them and if you're lucky you'll find an egg every week or two. If you confine and feed and take better care of them, you could get an egg every day."
Although friendly, the villagers, like folks everywhere, were wary of new ideas and change.

"There wasn't an overwhelming groundswell for my ideas. You have to go to a village, spend a bunch of time, find somebody with the means and interest to do something different and work with them.

"With so many of the villagers, they had no means to do things differently. They were primarily workers for major landowners. There was a tremendous disparity in the standard of living between them and the landlords. They lived more in the direction of serfdom.

"But I found the people to be very friendly and receptive to us. They were a little unsure in the beginning of what we were up to, because most of the foreign aid people didn't work in village-type settings. They dealt more with the higher-ups in government. The villagers were kind of flattered that we had an interest in them, that we were trying to do something for them. We'd go into the villages to find out what their biggest needs were. Quite often, they would say we just need money, and we were there to improve sanitation. It was a time-consuming, slow-as-you-go situation."

But in the end, deeply gratifying. And it really changed a Kansas farm boy.

"I brought back a lot more awareness of the things going on in the world outside the U.S., and I think I can understand a lot of the conflicts we see in the news," Mundhenke said.

When his stint was over, he finished college and taught school in Kansas City for a few years before returning to run the family farm in Lewis.

"The Peace Corps was a tremendous experience that really has had a lot of impact on my life. I've never regretted doing it. It was kind of tough at the time, but I was young and idealistic. Travel itself was interesting and rewarding. You could travel and live like the natives, eat in the local bazaars, rather than like a tourist."

In the summer of 1962, he met Jacqueline Kennedy. She and her sister were visiting India and Pakistan, Mundhenke said.

"She especially wanted to meet Peace Corps volunteers. We met her in Lahore (the capital city). She wanted to know if we were busy in our jobs, but because we hadn't been there very long, we told her we were developing our jobs."

Not all volunteers were college kids, Mundhenke points out. His group in Lyallpur included a 76-year-old man. Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter, joined the corps in 1966 at the age of 68 and became a public health aide in India.

The original group of volunteers will meet for a 50-year reunion in Washington in September. Mundhenke hopes to attend and see his old buddies, especially his hostel roommate, a Portland, Ore., man, with whom he has sustained a close friendship all these years.

According to its website, the Peace Corps today has 8,655 volunteers working in 77 countries.

 


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