Revisiting a Peace Corps Experience in Pakistan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Leslie Noyes Moss has a lot of experience working in Pakistan. She was fresh out of college in 1962 when she became the first Peace Corps volunteer in the small Pakistani village of Dhamke. Moss spent a frustrating year in the poor dusty town. She struggled to begin an education program for women and started cottage industry making in straw purses. But after a year the project collapsed. Nearly 50 years later Moss returned. In her new book, Back to Pakistan: A Fifty-Year Journey, she describes the initial reception she received from the people of Dhamke.

Leslie Noyes Moss: I had a wall of eyes sitting on my compound wall watching every move I made, 24/7. The Muslim women, the majority of the women in the village were Muslim, were not allowed to come visit me. Back then, and this is very traditional in a Muslim village, they were isolated, and we're talking a very small village with dusty lanes, mud houses and that sort of thing.

Werman: It must've been pretty frustrating because men in the village had hoped the volunteer would be a man, they hoped you would've been a man.

Moss: They did, yeah, and when my first encounter with the basic democracies that the men in local government, sitting around looking at me with expressions of what's she doing here, this isn't what we asked for. So my initial contact was what are you supposed to be doing? And I wasn't quite sure myself. I knew I was supposed to be working with women and children. I was supposed to be changing the pattern of village life and quite frankly, that...

Werman: That's kind of a vague assignment.

Moss: Sort of vague, yeah.

Werman: Whenever you head to a village like that, obviously to get anything done as any kind of development worker you need to corral the leaders. The village head men or the chief if you will was a guy named Rana. Did he have a clear sense of changing patterns of village life?

Moss: Oh, I'm not really sure. I don't think so. He was a wonderful man and he really did take me under the protection of his family.

Werman: Rana actually also proposes marriage to you to be his second wife. I guess he really wanted to make sure you were protected.

Moss: I guess! I mean I didn't really take it seriously at the time and he found a stable so that I could live there. And I lived in one room and turned the other room into a social center, which for me was the beginning, or hopefully the beginning of a school for women and girls because they didn't have a school in that village.

Werman: And then as you put it, rumors, jealousies, and hard feelings raced from one compound to another and your plans unraveled. What happened?

Moss: Well, I did start a social center and finally the women started to come, but we didn't get a lot of cooperation from village women. They somehow were prevented from actually going out and getting the straw, so the project just kind of fell apart. And after that first year in the village I did with the coworker that I had, a young Pakistani woman, we went to Sheikhupura, which is the headquarters of the town. And we actually did start a program the second year to do the similar kind of social center.

Werman: So the lessons and successes you acquired your first year in Dhamke you were able to duplicate in your second year. After the second year of course, Peace Corps volunteers go on home. You returned to the US, get a PhD in childhood education and then one day you and your husband are in a plane that's flying across the Atlantic. The plane gets into trouble. It does not look good and at that moment you make a decision. What is it?

Moss: Well, we really thought we were going down, but had time to talk to each other and say goodbye really.

Werman: Wow.

Moss: And thinking about my life and talking about it it had been a pretty nice life you know, except that I really did have one regret and that was I felt that I had never really given back to the people in Pakistan all the things that they'd given me. They were really generous, giving people and they were wonderful to me. I mean this scared, young liberal arts graduate who I didn't think I had ever made much of an impact, and of course, I was out to change the world and I knew that I hadn't done that...

Werman: But the plane doesn't go down obviously.

Moss: No, thank goodness.

Werman: And you returned to Pakistan in 2009 with the NGO, the Citizen's Foundation, and you actually get back to your village, Dhamke. How did the people receive you there?

Moss: It was uncanny because I sort of knew exactly where to go though I hadn't even consciously thought about it in 45 years. But I went up to Rana Sahib's house...

Werman: The former head man.

Moss: The former head man, yeah. And people kept coming in and we started talking. And well, they remembered all kinds of things about me and about the time that I had lived with them, even people who hadn't been born yet, which kept telling me stories about my time in Dhamke.

Werman: Hm, you entered Dhamke folklore apparently.

Moss: I guess. Well, sort of I all of the sudden realized that you know, my impact there had been not really so much in the things that I had done, trying to show them how to build a latrine...

Werman: Make a straw basket, yeah.

Moss: And that sort of thing, but really just living among them, being with them and I guess opening their eyes perhaps to just a wider world that they didn't really know existed. I became their American.

Werman: Pakistan has been through a lot of turbulent history since 1962 when you were there. What struck you most about how this one village, Dhamke, has changed in that time?

Moss: Mud houses have become brick houses. There were more of them and there was a new mosque and a cell tower. Everybody has a cellphone. Now, I saw a lot more in Pakistan this time, a lot more conservative Islam than I had experienced even in a traditional Muslim village in the '60s. It was much more conservative. But the schoolmaster at the end of my visit said you know, your coming here and showing us that we're still friends, we can still be friends. And that meant a lot to me.

Werman: Leslie Noyes Moss is a retired educator in Columbus, Ohio. Her new book is called Back to Pakistan: A Fifty Year Journey. Leslie, very nice to speak with you, thanks.

Moss: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Werman: As we noted, Leslie Noyes Moss was a Peace Corps volunteer in Pakistan. We have the stories of other former volunteers about their best days and worst days in the Peace Corps. Check it out at theworld.org/peacecorps.

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