CAR is perhaps the only place on earth where people believe Americans are particularly good at learning foreign languages. When I speak in Sango here, people say, “But, are you French?” “No,” I reply. “American.” At which point the person nods knowingly. “Americans are so good at learning African languages!” This reputation owes partly to the work of Yankee missionaries, but perhaps even more to the legacy of the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps volunteers worked in CAR until 1997, when army mutinies in Bangui encouraged the State Department to pull out. The embassy has since re-opened, but the Peace Corps has yet to return. To all the former CAR Peace Corps'ers out there: your students remember you! When presented with an American, educated men will often reminisce about the American they knew –
“We had a Peace Corps volunteer who taught English...we would go for picnics together on the weekends, up on those rocks...”
“We had a Peace Corps volunteer, she was so pale, I've never seen anything like it...and she liked to smoke hashish.”
Critiques of the Peace Corps abound. (Stuart Stevens provides a particularly funny and sad vignette about fish farming in his book Malaria Dreams, which begins in CAR.) And yet it seems like if the program could have a positive impact, it would be here. People yearn to learn English, and have a dire need for teachers. And, perhaps more to the point, as far as the State Department is concerned, the Peace Corps presence here seems actually to have achieved its desired goal: promoting a positive view of the US and Americans.