How To Be A Global Villager
—Something 1,100 Canadian volunteers can teach a nation that plans to do more for the world’s hungry
HE IS A well-qualified student with graduation, marriage and a “promising career” immediately ahead of him, but his burning concern is to arrange his life so that he can spend two years at work in a poor country.
This is the portrait of the overseas volunteer as a young man — and, in particular, of Wally Platts at 20. Today he is a lean Maritimer with an honors degree in political science and a juniorexecutive job with Imperial Oil, and he sits shirt-sleeved in his suburban Toronto apartment and recalls the decision he made eight years ago. Now, as then, he sees it as a decision dictated by common sense rather than any particular dedication.
It was the political-science course at Carleton University that opened his eyes to the plight of the two thirds of the people in the world who live on less than two dollars a week. “I knew right then,” he says, “that I couldn’t do anything less than spend two years of my life working in those countries.”
He talked it over with the girl who is now Mrs. Edna Platts, and she agreed to share his plans, realizing that their future decisions — about jobs, about money in the bank, about babies — would be shaped by the commitment. In their first married years they’d both have to work — he at Imperial Oil, she as a schoolteacher — and save with an eye to the years overseas, when they’d earn too little to save at all.
They had something in the bank and a baby daughter when they went to the Toronto campus office of the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) and said they wanted to serve abroad — anywhere they were needed. They were given a form that asked why they wanted to go, and Wally wrote: “I want to live in a developing environment and learn some of its lessons for Canadians. I
expect to broaden my knowledge and experience and come to know myself better. I want to serve the government of the country of my posting in whatever way that government wishes.”
In 1966, the first summer that CUSO sent entire families abroad, the Platts and their three - year - old daughter Katie moved to a rented house in Kingston, Jamaica. Wally and Edna started work as teachers at the local rate of $1,800 a year in the secondary school in the shanty district called Trenchtown.
Each faced a class of some 50 Jamaican youngsters — genial in their prim-starched uniforms, but some illiterate and some unruly — and “we went home depressed many a night in those first months.” And the baffling Jamaican patois, English with African words mixed in, made understanding difficult. The Platts spent their evenings at conversational patois and West Indian history.
They felt they were winning when keener students began to gather at their home in the evenings. Others shared their skin-diving holidays. Within two years, reports to CUSO’s headquarters spoke of the Platts as “the best type of volunteer.”
SUE CAPLAN is tough and pretty — a dark, slim 22-year-old from the Downsview district of Toronto posted by CUSO to train teachers in India. She gave the job up after six months because, she wrote home: “I feel I could be put to much better use.”
She moved to the slums of Calcutta and went to work for Mother Teresa, a sari-clad Albanian nun whose 230 Missionary Sisters of Charity operate 59 centres — schools, leper colonies, dispensaries, clinics, “houses for the dying destitute.” Sue Caplan saw the lepers and wrote home: “You can only see the mass poverty, mass disease.
It is only after some time that the individuals come into focus and you can begin to find your bearings amid such chaos. I can see I’ll need all the strength I can get here — spiritually, physically, emotionally.” And she went back to feeding milk and a rice mixture to hungry children, giving an English lesson to the nuns in training and another to the children, dispensing medicine and visiting the sick in their homes (“I try to promote birth control. God doesn’t provide for 15 kids”).
“I have to keep fighting,” she wrote, “otherwise I would walk around with a perpetually broken heart. Just to look at the sights of this city, I can sometimes feel the weight of all the human misery on me. The only thing is to make a small beginning somewhere.”
That was before last summer’s monsoons when they wallowed in kneehigh floodwater in Sue Caplan’s quarter of Calcutta: “There was no hope of getting to work, so I went to the nearby hospital. The people there were without homes, food or dry clothing. I went all round the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking for articles of clothing.”
Eight hundred homes collapsed in the floods and soon Sue Caplan, too, went down. She was some weeks in hospital with lung trouble. She is still in Calcutta, still working.
WALLY PLATTS could give “no less than two years.” Sue Caplan felt it imperative to make “a small beginning.” What is the least Canada as a whole can give the poor nations? That question is a central one in the Trudeau government’s foreign - policy review. The government has a longrange target: one percent of the total of goods and services produced in Canada should be devoted to foreign aid. Meeting that target would demand a slice of new taxation — unless, as Postmaster General Eric Kierans has suggested, Ottawa diverts some of the money it’s been spending on defense to the needs of the poor nations. Whether Canadians at large are ready for such a gesture, ready to act as neighbors in the Global Village they live in, is something the ministers will decide. Wally Platts and Sue Caplan were ready. That is why they are topical people; why the group they work with has national relevance.
RON AND MARGARET UNGER are technical people and religious people, too. Last summer they looked at their lives as telephone technician and medical research worker in the little Saskatchewan town of Nipawin and, in Ron’s words: “Our world seemed small and centred around ourselves, our friends and local activities. We asked ourselves: ‘Is this all we want to contribute to life?’ The answer was no. We wanted to use our technical skills in developing a better life for others. But deeper than this was our belief in God and His place for us.” Ron and Margaret Unger joined CUSO and today they are working in a jungle town in Peru.
Their impulse was like that of the missionaries who started the whole business of volunteer service abroad; but that impulse is not representative of volunteers today. Something happened to Canada between the time of Suez and Biafra that produced a generation involved in the fate of hungry peoples, though not necessarily in churches, the generation Arnold Toynbee calls “the first since the dawn of history to believe it practicable to make the benefits of civilization available to the whole human race.” At the last annual count, 6,500 Canadians served in 103 countries under the sponsorship of 111 voluntary agencies. The total keeps growing.
The growth spurted in the early 1960s. A number of small volunteer groups merged on Canadian campuses and formed CUSO to offer “trained, educated, low-cost manpower” on twoyear engagements to governments of developing nations. CUSO would select volunteers and pay their way to and from their postings; each individual would be chosen for his job and paid the “local rate” by the foreign employer. Ottawa started paying cash grants to CUSO in 1965 and put $2,374,360 into the 1968-9 program.
(It costs CUSO $5,000 to send a volunteer abroad for two years.)
The 1,100 men and women in the field today were posted by six key officials at the Slater Street headquarters in Ottawa. They are responsible for programs in six regions — Francophone Africa, East and Central Africa, West Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Latin America. They function like corporation executives running a worldwide job-placement service. They stress they’ve no time for dreamy do-gooders.
These directors in Ottawa, overseas veterans themselves, sent Gertrude Chamberlain, of Vancouver, who’s in her 60s, to show young Ghanaians how to make factory meals; Dianne Glosson, 25, of Guelph, Ont., to be matron of Nigeria’s National Home for Motherless Babies; David King, 25, of Vancouver, to lecture in science at the Wild Life College for Game Wardens on Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya. The Francophone desk posted François Rodrigue, of Ville Brossard, Que., to teach physical-training instructors for the school system in Togoland and was amused when he reported back that he was also coaching the Togo soccer team.
This massive flow of volunteer specialists — computer programmers from the community colleges are in
demand now — is convenient for Ottawa’s foreign relations. Maurice Strong, who is in charge of the government’s program of aid to 70 nations, says, “If there had been no CUSO volunteers overseas, we should have had to send them ourselves.” At the receiving end, Habib Bourguiba, President of Tunisia, recalls the work of Canadian nurses in building the public-health system of his country and praises their “devotion, self-effacement and competence.”
FRANK BOGDASAVICH, 29, has the authority that goes with a $2,600,000 budget and carries it well. Grey-suited, bulky and soft-spoken, he sits behind a wide modern desk like the rising junior partner in an upper-bracket law firm (he is, in fact, a law graduate of the University of Saskatchewan) and broods over the direction he must give to CUSO as executive secretary. He is the central link between Canadian universities, the volunteers abroad and the government, which provides 85 percent of CUSO’s budget; the rest comes from university fund-raising, business and volunteer efforts such as the Miles for Millions marches. He is also the author of “CUSO’s law”: The success of a development program is directly proportionate to the degree of confidence the recipient has in the donor.
In approving programs overseas, he worries that no one has measured the overall, long-term results of the work of thousands of volunteers; he insists that the world needs a laboratory of knowledge on developing countries. CUSO, which appointed its first full-time research director only last November, should help build it. “Our real function,” says Bogdasavich, “is to learn our place.” He’s haunted, too, by the problem of ethnocentricity — the kind of arrogance displayed by two Canadian technicians who responded to an anti-American protest in Tanzania by telling students that the West worked out an advanced technology “while Africans were still in the trees.”
To DAVID BEER, a 27-year-old Toronto anthropologist, ethnocentricity is not an abstract word. Beer, a founder of CUSO, served as a youth specialist in lamaica and Zambia. In 1966, while working as a probation officer in the copper belt, he married a nurse from Ndola, named Irene. They respected the traditional African preliminaries, including third-party negotiation with the bride’s family and the settlement of a bride price. Though there was “ethnocentric reaction” from some Europeans and ultranationalist Africans, Beer insists that the marriage was “easily accepted.”
THE TELEVISION TUBE brought the agony of Biafra into Canada’s living rooms, but few Canadians were as deeply stirred as CUSO’s small corps of African-service veterans. When the Nigerian civil war broke out, CUSO withdrew the 44 volunteers, mostly teachers, working in the Biafra region. A decision last summer to send a new program of 70 volunteers to the remainder of the Nigerian federation scandalized some of the old hands.
“It seemed to us that CUSO was endorsing the Nigerians,” says Toronto architect Grant Wanzell, who led the fasting group of protestors who argued with Mitchell Sharp on Parliament Hill in October. Ibos, the victims in Biafra, had captivated Wanzell when he lectured at Zaria, northern Nigeria, before the civil war. “Ibo students were so eager to go to school, they’d go through hell or high water. They were writing exams, with rioters all over the place.”
Those rioters were out for Ibo blood. Trapped in a Zaria demonstration one day, Wanzell had turned at “a sound like someone chopping wood” and seen an Ibo beaten to death on the ground as police stood by.
Now Wanzell worries about the new volunteers in Nigeria. “Too many are unable to make a moral judgment,” he says. “They don’t have enough facts.” Having served in Africa, Wanzell and Beer are keenly conscious that, in spite of foreign-aid and volunteer programs, the gap between developed and underdeveloped nations is widening; the hatred of poor peoples for rich grows with it. They wonder if CUSO would not be better sending fewer, more carefully informed volunteers.
And Bogdasavich himself warns: “We do not have a mandate from anyone to suppress, nor do we have the right to act as a catalyst of any revolution. If we are as participatory as we claim to be, let us allow others to ‘do their own thing’ in their own time and place.”
IN HIS KITCHEN in Don Mills, Wally Platts sips his nightly tot of white Jamaica rum. He flips through photographs of the Jamaican teenagers who shared his skin-diving holidays, and he tells you that this one and that one are at university now. That was a thing he had encouraged in what he calls “the most rewarding two years in a lifetime.” Now it’s over, is he settled in his executive job, really settled? He pauses and turns the question: “You know,” he says, “I’m not sure that two years abroad is enough.” I’M REALLY NOT a heroine and my contribution is not that outstanding compared to the competent and dedicated Biafrans I work with. But I guess I am what you would call an old-fashioned girl because I believe God has a purpose for each one of us.
After I finished training at Toronto Western Hospital and my nursingscience degree at Queen’s, I worked for a while in Canada. I was searching ... I didn’t want to be a missionary as such but the CUSO program seemed to fit. They offered me a nursing job in eastern Nigeria and I came. That was in 1964 and I finished my two-year term with them in September 1966, which was just when all the trouble was starting in Nigeria.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Umuahia in Biafra offered me a private contract to return as acting nursing tutor in the nurses’ training school ($146 a month before taxes). I came back in March 1967.
We have been very lucky at the hospital. The Nigerian planes have flown over the hospital many times, but they have never hit it. The closest has been rockets about two blocks away. In the earlier days we used to run outside when they started firing. We are much more sophisticated now — we stay inside and just tell people to go where they feel the safest.
At the Itigidi Hospital, which was well marked, three planes made several reconnaissance passes before they hit it. Fortunately, the doctor in charge saw the planes and got all the patients out into the bush. The bombs missed the hospital on the first run, then the planes returned with another load.
Bombing the market at Umuahia was equally senseless. In the worst raid, several hundred people were killed and hundreds wounded. I was on duty in the matron’s office when we heard the jets go over and some firing. Suddenly, the out-patients’ department was jammed. From then on we didn’t stop for three days. Our surgeons performed more than 90 operations in 72 hours. Bodies were stacked three and four high in our mortuary.
The heartening thing was the cool and dedicated way our surgeons kept going. I’ll never have so much respect for all our sophisticated equipment at home again. All those lights and buttons are insignificant compared to the skill of a good man.
One boy of about 13 had the whole side of his jaw blown off and since then they have been making a new cheek with skin grafts. They have had to immobilize his face by splinting his injured arm in a terribly uncomfortable position. It’s now been more than three months but I think he will
be able to eat normally once again.
Before the war the hospital was modern and well equipped by most standards, but it was designed for 200 beds. Now we are trying to cope with up to 800. Because we are at the centre of the relief distributions, we have been comparatively well supplied.
The military casualties are the inevitable by-products of war. It is what is happening to the children that is so shameful and so saddening. God only knows the extent of the damage that has been done and many who survive will bear the marks of this for the rest of their lives.
Often, by the time the children are brought to us, it is too late. Even a well-equipped hospital with modern drugs is futile. There is a limit to what the human body can stand and these little ones are just too weak to respond to resuscitation treatment. Many die of diarrhea.
It is amazing how little makes the difference. Often just a few cups of milk will bring back the sparkle to those eyes. I picked up one little fellow at Umuhu, one of the refugee camps I visit, and brought him back to the hospital because I was sure that he wouldn’t survive the week until the next visit. He was at least four years old and he weighed less than a normal child of two.
One of the most rewarding experiences is the spirit that is still there. We have been taking along my ukulele and singing a few songs and telling stories as well as giving out relief food and some basic treatment. I was thrilled when on a second visit to one camp the children ran to meet us and demanded that we sing first, before we prepared the food.
Another aspect of this spirit was evident when I saw a mother watch as nurses took away the body of her son who had just died. Without a tear, she said, “Go well, and may your spirit protect the rest.” The little boy’s sister didn’t realize what was happening, however, and the father had to restrain her from attacking the nurse.
We have attempted to carry on as much like normal as possible. We have continued the nursing-training program and, in fact, have absorbed 80 student nurses from hospitals that had to be abandoned during the fighting.
As far as I am concerned, it is the people who had to leave who are the unlucky ones. Many other Canadians didn’t want to leave but were forced to by the Canadian High Commission before the war started because they were with CUSO or on government contracts.
I was the lucky one because I was able to stay and help. □