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Winter 2002
Marge Shannon Snoeren, Editor
Vol. 6, No. 2

Vasquez Faces Challenges
A Taste of my Father's Africa

The World According to VSO
FON Meets Ashoka’s Nigeria Director



By Mike Goodkind, 65-67

At the Senate foreign Relations committee hearing, Vasquez pledged to expand volunteer opportunities abroad.

The controversial nomination of Gaddi H. Vasquez to direct the Peace Corps headed toward a full Senate confirmation vote in January after the Foreign Relations Committee split 14 to 4 on Dec. 12 to recommend his confirmation.

The Senate postponed a final vote on a list of presidential nominees, including Vasquez, until the end of its holiday recess Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Relations Committee unanimously recommended Jody Olsen as Peace Corps Deputy Director.  Olsen, Tunisia 66-68 and a former Peace Corps administrator, is Senior Vice President at the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, DC. 

“Friends of Nigeria is concerned the long absence of a permanent director is a factor in delaying the stated goal of Peace Corps re-entry into Nigeria,” says FON President Greg Zell.  “When the director and deputy director are confirmed, FON will offer them enthusiastic support in achieving the re-entry of Peace Corps Volunteers into Nigeria.”

National Peace Corps Association took no official position, but the nomination of Vasquez created a groundswell of opposition among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).

John Coyne, Ethiopia 62-64 and a former associate country director, said Vasquez was the first Peace Corps Director nominee who failed to receive unanimous Committee approval.  Coyne led the ad hoc Committee for the Future of the Peace Corps in a lobbying campaign. Before the hearings, the group delivered to the Committee a 48-page petition — with 500 signatures — opposing the nomination.

Opponents criticized the 46-year-old Vasquez for his lack of chief executive, Peace Corps, international, and fiscal experience, and for his role as a supervisor during the Orange County, CA, bankruptcy.

Nomination proponents noted that Vasquez’ Latino origins in Texas and his experience as a police officer might offer insights into third-world and poverty issues and would provide diversity and perspective in the Bush administration.

Nominated by President Bush last July, Vasquez is a long-time Republican who helped contribute $100,000 to the Bush presidential campaign. He served as a campaign adviser to Bush who pledged to nominate an Hispanic Peace Corps Director.  Coyne's group suggested other Hispanic candidates it deem qualified.

FON President Zell observes, “A Director who has the ear and confidence of the President and his party, and who is seen as a team player, may gain more for the Peace Corps than an otherwise more qualified Director viewed by the President as a political outsider.” 

Some have noted parallels with other nominees.  George Bush appointee Paul Coverdell parlayed his Peace Corps leadership into a successful Senate bid.   Loret Miller Ruppe, appointed by Jimmy Carter, was widely criticized by RPCVs for her lack of Peace Corps experience but later won their affection and praise as the longest serving Peace Corps Director.

California's Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported Vasquez.  She testified that while RPCVs opposing Vasquez were well meaning, "the campaign that has been waged against this man has been very cruel and unfair.”  She said Vasquez “shouldn't be held accountable” for the 1994 bankruptcy of Orange County.

The Northern California Peace Corps Association's newsletter reported that Connecticut Senator and Foreign Relations Committee member Christopher Dodd, also a 66-68 Dominican Republic RPCV, said Senator Boxer would support Vasquez "as his home state senator since she is concerned about the Hispanic vote in California.”  Dodd told RPCVs who met with him Nov. 12 in San Francisco that he “had to pick his battles,” and while he considered Vasquez “a disappointing candidate in a changing world,” he would concentrate his opposition on the Bush nominee for assistant secretary of state, Otto Reich, whom he considered a danger.

“We are going to get a solid Deputy Director” in Olsen, Dodd added, according to the newsletter.

Frank Quevedo, Vice President of Southern California Edison Company where Vasquez now works as a public affairs/government relations executive, urged public support of the nomination contending Vasquez “has never turned his back on those in need or shied away from difficult issues that confront society.”

Vasquez resigned from the Orange County Board of Supervisors ten months after the 1994 bankruptcy, shortly after recall petitions were circulated for Vasquez and several other supervisors.  A 1996 Securities and Exchange Commission report was highly critical of Vasquez and other supervisors in connection with the bankruptcy.  Caused by risky investments made by a staff member working under board oversight, the bankruptcy left the formerly wealthy county with a loss of $1.64 billion.

“You may want to dismiss it…but [the SEC allegation] certainly [is] not a strong argument for making this person the Director of the Peace Corps,” said Senator Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., who voted in Committee against the nomination.  Other Committee members voting no on the nomination were Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Russell Feingold, D-Wis.; and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

At the December hearing, the second Peace Corps Director, Jack Hood Vaughn, urged Committee members to vote against the nomination of Vasquez "based on his lack of demonstrated financial management ability, his lack of foreign policy involvement, and his lack of large-agency management experience.”

Vaughn noted that although some praise Vasquez’ human relations skills, he “voted against allowing individuals with HIV/AIDS to gain access to public housing.  As Peace Corps director, Mr. Vasquez would be in charge of one of the world’s largest international AIDS education programs.”

Vasquez and two other supervisors who voted against the ordinances in 1989 said they did so because existing state and federal laws already protected people with HIV and AIDS from discrimination, according to a Nov. 14 Los Angeles Times article.

Like Vasquez, Vaughn is a Republican. “It pains me to no end to sit here before you today in opposition to a fellow Republican nominated by a Republican president,” the Richard Nixon-appointed Peace Corps director told the committee.

“Today, the mission of the Peace Corps is more urgent than ever, and more difficult,” Vaughn said. “The new Peace Corps director must possess a depth of knowledge about the democratic and economic transitions in the countries where volunteers serve. The director is the key person, not only repositioning the Peace Corps to play new roles in the transitions under way in country after country, but in inspiring volunteers and staff to the maximum effort. It is in this context that the president and this [Senate] committee need to work together in identifying and confirming the best possible leadership for the Peace Corps. This nomination is incompatible with a forward vision of the Peace Corps."  •
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A Taste of My Father’s Africa

Obaa Koryoe - 3143 Broadway (between Tieman and LaSalle Streets) (212) 316-2950.  

by Zoe Singer, daughter of Ron Singer, (10) 64-67

If you’re in New York City for a few days eager to take advantage of the cosmopolitan dining scene and hungering for West African food, Obaa Koryoe might not look like what you had in mind. The slightly-bedraggled, green dining room contains an eclectic collection of light fixtures, statues, calabashes and paintings. A tropical tree in one corner looks like it’s been neglected since the grand opening ribbon was removed from its trunk 14 years ago.     

When you enter, the waitress will notice and seat you in about the time it takes most people to finish a beer. This isn’t the place to go when you have theater tickets, or if you skipped lunch.  But this uptown Ghanaian/Pan West African is worth the subway ride when you have almost forgotten how to relax and dine well with friends you haven’t caught up with in a while.

On my first visit, I blustered into Obaa Koryoe a full hour late. It is a testament to the transporting calm of the place that my friend seemed unperturbed. Sarah was sipping an intense ginger beer. She knew all the people in the restaurant and all the words on the menu, and she pointed out Chef Obaa Koryoe wearing a splendid dress of her own creation.

When our orders arrived, it appeared that Sarah’s advance preparation had served her well. Unless you’re Ghanaian—or one of the place’s many regulars that hail from as far as Africa and as near as Columbia University—you need to speak with the waitress a few times before the menu makes any sense. Words like jollof and banku are interspersed throughout the Vegetarian, Western, and Authentic African sections of the menu.

Ron Singer and daughter Zoe, a professional food critic, enjoy a meal at the Ghanaian restaurant Obaa Koryoe.

Sarah was presented with a huge wooden bowl containing pieces of chicken, equishie (a stew of spinach and crushed pumpkin seeds) and omotuo (a mashed rice log) submerged in spicy, rich peanut soup. The contrast of smooth, warming soup, savory stewed chicken and spinach, and dense, bland rice created a harmony that led you to taste from one to the other again and again. Although vegetarian options are plentiful, I went for the fish stew.  This would prove to be my only disappointment—the fish was heavy-flavored, crusted in barbecue sauce, and served with uninspired accompaniments including a crumbly mixture of rice and pigeon peas (wachey), and some frozen vegetables. A glass of wonderfully refreshing mango juice brightened my meal, and Sarah’s steaming soup was large enough to share.

Impressed by the unfamiliar flavors and textures of the omotuo and the warm calm of the restaurant, I came back with my Dad, Ron Singer, 64-67. During my childhood, the three and one-half years my father had spent in Nigeria were present in many ways, although not particularly in a culinary way. He had stories about eating crisp termites, and once in a blue moon he made fried plantain, but for the most part, my Dad’s Nigeria existed in wooden statues and masks, beautifully woven pieces of cloth, and stories of motorcycles, bars and the school where he taught.

When we got to Obaa Koryoe, my Dad noted some familiar words on the menu, particularly fufu, the bland mashed yam that he remembered Nigerian women pounding in an enormous wooden vessel.  He ordered fried plantain, which we washed down with cold beer.  For the main course, he relished a tender beef soup and reminisced about scooping up fufu the Nigerian way, with his hands.  This time I tried a fish soup, and at first whiff I thought I was in for another disappointment. But as soon as I brought the broth to my lips I realized that there are foods in this cuisine similar to pungent cheeses in the surprising disparity between how they smell and taste.  I savored every drop of the lightly spiced orange broth and every delicate slice of fish.

When we came in, reggae was playing at a volume conducive to conversation.  As we ate, some old High Life tunes came on and my Dad’s satisfaction was complete.  By the end of the meal I had concluded that this restaurant is really very good.

I came back again, with more friends, and we sampled our way through much of the menu. Favorites included jollof rice, cooked in sweet tomato sauce, and bean stew, a heap of black-eyed peas in a sauce that seems derived from roasted red peppers—its savory, almost smoky flavor has left its enticing mark on my memory.  With peanut soup you have the choice of omotuo or banku, a slightly tangy, almost nutty cornmeal log.  My meat-eating friends favored beef and chicken dishes over the tougher goat meat, and tripe remains untried.  Boiled plantains were another discovery in texture, their firm, chewy consistency yielding a sweet, banana-like flavor with a mildly citrus undertone. If your party is large, ask the waitress for platters of jollof rice, bean and meat stews, equishie, and fried plantains to share family-style.

Although the food at Obaa Koryoe is wholesome and satisfying, it took me several wonderful meals before I could write about it.  As a food writer, I have a single-minded fascination with ingredients and how they are prepared and combined.  When I asked my Dad about West African food I didn’t get the information I was looking for.  Instead, he told me about the festive masquerade that took place at a celebration of the new yam harvest.  He recalled the amusement of his Nigerian friends when he encountered an incendiary chili hidden in the akara, fried bean patties they would snack on at bars. At first, my Dad’s stories did little to provide a context for the meals I’d had at Obaa Koryoe.

But thinking about it more, I’ve gained new appreciation for the role of food in this culture that I am only beginning to discover.  The technical approach that I take to dining seems beside the point at Obaa Koryoe.  The cooking is good, the flavors distinct, intriguing, and to me exotic, but this food does not require undivided attention—rather, it fosters a sense of leisure.  The truly unusual aspects of the meal lie in the pleasure of conversation that occupies both diners and staff, and the confidence that one could monopolize a table for hours without occasioning impatience.

If I can generalize about a cuisine that I have only just encountered, I would say that West African cooking is well represented at Obaa Koryoe:  the dishes are time-tested and meant to be enjoyed with ease, in an atmosphere that is as nurturing and fulfilling as the food.  ▪
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The World According To VSO

by Andy Philpot, (VSO) 65-67

Andy seems to know his Land Rovers inside out.

When last I wrote, I was flying to Nigeria after a somewhat inauspicious start to life as a VSO and the rest of my life.

It was a bit of a shock when we landed in Kano to let off some our number and refuel. Nobody had told us how cold it could be in the middle of the night in the desert.  Was there anything else they forgot to tell us? 

We arrived in Lagos well after midnight.  No one seemed to know who had our work permits so there were further delays until the right people and the appropriate pieces of paper were found.  We finally got to bed at the Lagos Teacher Training College in the small wee hours.

The next three days were spent being shown the steamier side of Lagos by a member of the British High Commission and attending a number of receptions given by various organizations.  At one of these, I was lucky enough to meet someone who actually been to Sabongidda-Ora and thought I would enjoy myself the school.

And then early one morning it was off to Lagos Airport for the final leg of our journey.  Instead of getting on to the rather swish looking Fokker Friendship in front of the terminal, the 14 of us, bound for the Mid-West, were escorted round the corner to an ancient DC3.  At Benin, Don Barton, the British Council representative, and a fleet of Morris Minor taxis met us.

We were supposed to be picked up by the headmasters from each of our schools. As the day wore on, our numbers dwindled, until by about teatime there were only two of us left. Don was getting decidedly edgy by this time, as unless he got rid of us, he would have to find something to do with us for the night and then perhaps have to drive us to our schools himself.

Finally, Father Tobin, from Otwa, arrived to pick up Ted.   Auchi was on his way back home and as Auchi was sort of northeast of Benin and Sabongidda northwest, Don thought if I got as far as Auchi I could catch a bus the next day to complete my journey.

It had been a long day and soon Ted and I were sound asleep crowded together in the front seat of the Peugeot 403.  At one point I woke up to find us racing down the middle of the road with the sound of gunfire in my ears.   Father Tobin was driving like a soul possessed, gripping the wheel tightly and in his mouth a cigarette with about an inch of ash hanging precariously from the end.  In my innocence I had assumed that Catholic Priests didn’t smoke.  The gunfire, of course, was just seedpods from flamboyant trees exploding as we drove of them.

We were made very welcome at the mission house in Auchi.  Drinks were offered and the fathers seemed a little surprised when I asked for tea.  I was soon persuaded to change my mind and ask for something a little stronger.  Apparently they drank as well.

Everyone, except me, had a good laugh when I explained my move.  Not only was there no bus from Auchi to Sabongidda-Ora, but in fact there was some doubt whether the road was even open as some of the bridges were reported washed out.  However, Chris D’Arcy, an Irish contract teacher from Otwa and Father Tobin said that they would try to get me to Sabongidda the next day.  If the road turned out to impassable, we could go up to Otwa and then south from there, along a road they knew was open. 

Thanking the Fathers of the Otwa mission for their wonderful hospitality, we set out with Chris at the wheel and after a few alarms and excursions we made it through to Sabongidda, only to find that they weren’t even expecting me!  ▪

In the last five years, VSO has diversified its programme.  Volunteers are now sent to Eastern Europe during their period of transition and recovery.  Various short-term contracts are organized to meet the specific demands of host countries, lasting from 3 to 18 months.   VSO has also developed a programme to give students practical experience overseas in conjunction with their training.

To meet the need for qualified volunteers, VSO have opened offices in the Netherlands and Canada, ironically enough in the same building that CUSO occupied in 1961.

In 1997, 1939 VSO volunteers served overseas in 59 countries with an almost equal numbers of men and women serving.  103 of these volunteers served in East Europe. 

Since 1958, 23,000 VSO volunteers have worked overseas.
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FON Meets Ashoka’s Nigeria Director

ChiChi Aniagolu, Nigeria Program Director for Ashoka, made an informal presentation to FON members at a luncheon in Washington, DC, early in December. Ashoka is the international non-profit organization that FON chose as its official charity this year.

“If all Nigeria RPCVs had an opportunity to meet and talk with ChiChi as we did,” said Director Ken Sale, (15) 65-67, she would energize and reward them with hope and even confidence for Nigeria’s future.” Holding a PhD in sociology from the University of Dublin, Ireland, ChiChi was born in Eke, near Enugu, and graduated from Federal College, Ilorin. Asked at the luncheon if she could speak with an Irish accent, ChiChi’s sophistication and wit showed through when she quipped, “Only with a Cork County accent.”

ChiChi was a lecturer at the University of Dublin when she decided to leave academia and return to Nigeria to work with Ashoka. “I felt Ashoka is an organization that really helps Nigerians help themselves,” she explains. “Ashoka doesn’t come into a country with programs, but supports local people who have solutions to local problems and just need the financial support to make those programs work.”

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, has funded over 1100 Ashoka Fellows in 41 countries. Ashoka invests in people. It identifies and gives financial support to social entrepreneurs when no one else will. Currently at work in 14 African nations, Ashoka supports 18 Nigerian Ashoka Fellows who developed innovative programs for social change in education and youth development, health
care, environment, human rights, access to technology, or economic development.

ChiChi Aniagolu explains the Ahoka program in Nigeria to FON members at lunch in Washington

ChiChi became Ashoka’s Nigeria Director two years ago when Ashoka Fellows there were working individually without any organizational networking. ChiChi has brought Nigeria’s Ashoka Fellows together to share ideas. She has involved Fellows in the selection process of new Fellows, oversees a newsletter about Ashoka Nigeria, and tracks and helps evaluate the work of the Ashoka Fellows.

Potential Fellows submit an original proposal of how to attack or solve a local problem. Those chosen are given stipends of $6-7,000 a year for three years. “I was surprised that Ashoka stipends are rather low,” said FON member Karen Keefer, (26) 66-68, one of the luncheon attendees, “and that the Fellows are so committed that they give up their full-time jobs to devote full-time energy to do what they were committed to doing in their evening and weekend hours.”

ChiChi’s grilled fish lunch got cold as she ignored it to answer questions with enthusiastic animation. She deeply impressed FON attendees who also included Ron Raphael, (13) 64-66; Steve Clapp, (6) 63-64, Sandra Fraizer, (26) 66-68; Frieda Fairburn and Marge Shannon Snoeren, both (9) 63-65; as well as Danielle Goldstone, Ashoka Africa Desk Officer.

“Meeting ChiChi certainly revitalized my interest in Ashoka,” said Fairburn, a member of the Board Committee working to raise funds for the program. “She is so vivacious and committed she barely ate her lunch as she talked about Ashoka in Nigeria.”

ChiChi was brought to the US by a major Ashoka supporter, The Packard Foundation, to make a presentation to investors in San Jose, CA, and ask for continued support before visiting Ashoka headquarters in Arlington, VA.

Of 11 new fellows named by Ashoka Nigeria this year, ChiChi elaborated on the work of Ibiyemi Fakande, a nurse who has developed ways for AIDS victims to help take care of each other.
“Her story of Nurse Ibiyemi, an Ashoka Fellow bringing care and understanding, respect, honor, and dignity to those poor souls in her village who are dying of AIDS was very heartwarming,” notes Sale. “As the director of Ashoka Nigeria, ChiChi reflects an organization that has the potential to do important and meaningful social outreach work in Nigeria.”

Biographies of the each fellow, as well as more information about Ashoka, are available on the Ashoka web site at www.ashoka.org.
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