‘It was crazy, like nothing I could have imagined’ Hiller changed lives with Peace Corps in Ethiopia

Local Life August 12, 2011 0 Comments

‘It was crazy, like nothing I could have imagined’ Hiller changed lives with Peace Corps in Ethiopia

by Jean-Bernard Hyppolite
Peter McVeigh, 65, who was born and raised in Mt. Airy and then moved to Flourtown in 1966, was in the Peace Corps from 1968 to 1970, stationed in the African country of Ethiopia. It all started in 1967 when Peter, who has taught English at Germantown Academy for the past 40 years, was in college at St. Joseph’s University. The Peace Corps came to visit the campus.

“All of my other classmates were going off to insurance companies and real estate offices, graduate school and so on,” said Peter. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something very different.”

After applying, Peter was immediately subjected to language tests and what he describes as “crazy stuff.” He received a letter in March, 1968, welcoming him into the Peace Corps; this was an opportunity that Peter could not pass up.

He spent seven weeks training in the Virgin Islands; five of those weeks were spent learning the Ethiopian language of Amharic.

“You woke up and started speaking Amharic, and you went to bed speaking it. Within a week I was dreaming in Amharic. It was like boot camp,” said Peter.

Ethiopian instructors were flown over to train the volunteers. They worked in a food line that had dry cereal at one end and exotic food at the other. It was up to the members to learn the language efficiently enough to make it down to the other end.

“Not good enough,” is what the instructors said when Peace Corps volunteers spoke the language incorrectly. Trainers enticed volunteers (in their 20s, mind you) with alcoholic beverages and exotic food to motivate them to speak Amharic fluently. If they didn’t speak Amharic correctly, they’d be left with unappealing meals.

“(The instructor) was firing all these questions at you in Amharic, and you needed to answer in fluent Amharic, or he says, ‘see ya.’ They had us in class from 6:30 in the morning, with a half hour lunch break, to 4:30 in the afternoon, speaking nothing but Amharic.”

The Ethiopian instructors even had to teach the volunteers different dialects because they didn’t know exactly where they would be stationed in the country. Despite rigorous training, only 15 out of about 120 volunteers dropped out; a testament to their fortitude.

(right) Peter McVeigh, 65, who was born and raised in Mt. Airy and who has taught English at Germantown Academy for the past 40 years, relaxes with his best friend, a seven-year-old Beagle named Artie. (Photo by Brendan McVeigh)

“It was a bonding experience because it was sorta like, us vs. them. They’re not gonna beat us. They’re not gonna drive us down. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna learn this language,” said Peter.

While in Africa, Peter lived in Buno Bedelle in the rainforests of Western Ethiopia, near the border of Sudan. The nearest city was two hours away. Peter found that students from Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University) resented the U.S. government, even though it was basically subsidizing Ethiopia.

“One day we were out on bikes. These guys with motorcycles pulled us over. They weren’t police. They were university students. They wanted to know in no uncertain terms what we were doing in their country. They were speaking fluent English. They said, ‘How do we know that you guys are not CIA.’”

Peter unloaded his arsenal of Amharic to get out of the situation, but some Peace Corps volunteers were roughed up by Ethiopian students. “It was like their attitude was, ‘Who do you think you are, you uppity white guys coming into my country saying you’re gonna save my kids?’”

From the students’ point of view; they were fighting for their independence against an oppressive government run by an emperor “with a highly trained military propped up by American dollars,” said Peter.

The Mt. Airy native described watching “viciously staged” demonstrations at Haile Selassie University. Tanks were on campus grounds. Military personnel told the students to disperse, or they would open fire. Peter and the volunteers saw all of this unfolding from a hotel.

Despite the turmoil, Peter never wavered from his decision to join the Peace Corps. “I was there to help people make a difference in their lives, but it was very frustrating because I thought at certain times like I was batting my head against a stone wall. The education system was basically geared to cut off about 97 to 98 percent of the kids from moving on with their education.”

Peter taught an English and African History class and noticed the eagerness of the students (ages 10 to 17) to learn. “These kids would literally run to school for five miles in their bare feet to learn in a class with 60 students, but they always paid complete attention because they all knew that education was their only way out. I would think, “They’re running home to work the last couple hours of daylight and then studying by a candlelight since there was no electricity, then running back in the morning. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What am I really doing here?’”

Over time Peter became skeptical of the U.S. government’s involvement with Ethiopia. He became angry when he realized that U.S. taxpayers were subsidizing Ethiopia’s repressive, autocratic government. “American foreign policy, in my humble opinion, has been an absolute disaster for the last 60 years,” said Peter, who insists that the U.S. government has propped up “thugs, dictators and bullies” around the world, including Central America and Africa, as a part of its Cold War policy.

He adds part of the reason the U.S. is so suspect in the Middle East is that we have propped up governments that have oppressed their people for many years.

“They hate their own governments for oppressing them, but they hate Washington equally as much because we have basically turned a blind eye while these countries have imprisoned and tortured and slaughtered their own citizens.”

Despite Peter’s opinions on the US government’s foreign policy, he added that the U.S. excels in foreign aid, specifically humanitarian aid. He still keeps in touch with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. “It changed my life. I left the U.S. in 1968, basically a big boy. I came back two years later, a young man.”

Peter returned to the U.S. in 1970 with a new-found sense of what’s important and what’s not. Ethiopia unfortunately has some of the highest infant mortality and illiteracy rates on the planet, but Peter was inspired by the pride of its people, who have never been colonized.

“I’ve never met a people who were prouder of their own identity, of what they had endured and where they were going. It was heartbreaking to see the level of poverty.” In villages Peter saw pregnant women squat down, deliver a baby, get the umbilical cord cut, rest for a few hours and continue to work immediately afterwards. “But they still lived with courage and dignity. Once you’ve seen this, you can’t be the same … The experience was crazy, nothing I could have imagined, but I would not trade it for anything.”

Peter’s time with the Peace Corps acted as a catalyst for his journey into adulthood and set the foundation for his life’s work. There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about his experiences in Ethiopia.

At Germantown Academy he teaches World History and recently developed a course called The History of Genocide. Peter also does community service with Habitat for Humanity, Project Home and various soup kitchens and shelters. He’s highly involved with a service organization he founded at GA and speaks of how kids come up to him saying their volunteer work has changed their lives.

Peter attended La Salle High School, earned a B.A in English and Masters in Education from St. Joe’s University and Temple University, respectively. Peter has seven brothers and sisters. He recently had surgery to remove his gall bladder but is recovering well. Unfortunately his wife, JoAnn, passed away on April 18, 2008. They were married for 36 years. Their three children all attended GA. The oldest son is Ian. Peter’s recently married daughter is named Megan. His youngest is Brendan. Peter currently lives in Oreland.

“I’m going to retire when I don’t feel that I can give those students 100 percent of me, each and every day,” he said. “When I can’t do that, that’s when I’m gonna say, ‘You know what? I’m done.’”

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.