When John F. Kennedy signed the executive order founding the Peace Corps, he cautioned those present that the life of a volunteer would not be easy.
The project was untried, the methodology untested and the perils unforeseen.
Jay Bell agrees.
"Life was chaotic, dangerous and unpredictable," he said.
Not that something like "danger" prevented him from fulfilling two full tours, first in Ethiopia then Nigeria.
Bell, 81, of Columbia, served on the front lines of Kennedy's grand
experiment when it launched in late 1961 and early 1962.
He oversaw volunteers in Ethiopia and Eritrea for the first two
years of his Peace Corps career, and then in Nigeria for his second
stint, before taking over as regional director for the continent of
Africa in the early 1970s.
In that time, Bell witnessed the formation of countries and the
dissolution of governments in the violent upheaval that characterized
Africa as it fought against European interests and among its own people.
The Peace Corps was nary a twinkle in Sen. Hubert Humphrey's eye when Bell first got the itch to travel to far away lands.
He was 17 years old in 1947 when he joined the Army out of high
school - despite a four-year basketball scholarship to a nearby college
- and left his hometown of Providence, R.I., for Fort Dix, N.J.
He left the Army and managed to get two years of that scholarship
back. After two years, however, he joined the Air Force Reserves.
"Me and a friend requested active duty in Korea," Bell said. The
pair didn't get that far. Instead, they remained stationed in Falmouth,
It wasn't until the fall of 1960 that Bell got an inkling of his
future exploits. He was at a retirement reception, and the organizers
had hired a fortune teller for entertainment.
Despite his reservations, Bell assented to a palm reading.
"You are going to take a long journey," Bell intoned, imitating the voice from his past.
He informed the palm reader he had joined the military twice to take a long journey, and nothing had worked so far.
"That reception was in the fall of 1960. By the middle of 1961, I was 10,000 miles away in southern Rhodesia," Bell said.
He still isn't a believer, but he's in no rush to run across that particular fortune teller again.
Bell traveled to southern Rhodesia - what is now Zimbabwe - with a group called Crossroads in 1961.
He had been working as a vocational guidance counselor with the
Urban League, but the youth he counseled seemed to have internalized a
view of themselves as second-class citizens, doomed to fail in a white
In Bell's view, the kids lacked knowledge of their cultural
heritage on which to build their own identities, rather than accept the
destructive image imposed on them by society.
"They had no sense of identity, past, connection," Bell said.
"Italian Americans can look to Italy. Polish Americans can look to
Poland. German Americans can look to Germany."
So Bell decided he would get them acquainted with Africa. Through
his exploration, he became fascinated with the continent, and when an
opportunity arose to go there with Crossroads, he took it.
He and 13 volunteers traveled with Crossroads to southern Rhodesia,
not knowing they were participating in the program that inspired what
many hail as the best program the United States has ever fostered.
During the 10-week program, Bell got his first glimpse of the desperate trouble that many African countries faced.
The poverty was intense, and the political situation unstable as
fractious groups vied for dominance, sometimes jeopardizing the mission
of the Crossroads volunteers.
"The southern Rhodesian government tried to deport us," Bell recalled. "We were on thin ice."
Bell showed his ingenuity by turning a possible deportation into an actual tour of the country, courtesy of the government.
After that summer, Bell had caught the travel bug. He wanted to get
back to Africa, and in 1962, he found a way. A friend introduced Bell
to Democratic Party operative Robert Sargent Shriver - the husband of
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and father of future California first lady
Maria Shriver - whose newest charge was the fledgling Peace Corps.
After initial weeks of in-country training, Bell found himself in
charge of nearly 20 volunteers spread across Ethiopia united in a
three-fold mission - to serve a need for trained men and women, to
introduce Americans to other cultures and to introduce other people to
Many of the volunteers taught in local schools. They fought to
release stores of books so that Ethiopian youth could benefit from the
exposure to literature.
"We had a tremendous impact," Bell said.
Bell faced challenges of his own.
There were no cell phones to keep in contact with his volunteers
and the operating procedures were untried, so management became an
exercise in improvisation.
"Nobody knew what policies were needed," Bell said. "It was loose.
Each director in each country ran their own program. The goal was to
keep people safe, stay out of trouble and get invited back."
That wasn't always easy.
A Fulbright Scholar driving a Peace Corps volunteer struck and
killed an Ethiopian boy. Bell negotiated a settlement with the family
in the dirt behind the court house.
Another volunteer was blamed for fathering a child with a local
woman. Bell ensured the child was provided for and the volunteer was on
a plane home before the matter went further.
Bell returned home in 1965, and accepted a second assignment in
Nigeria almost immediately after. In September, he was on a plane back
Between September and December of 1965, 3,500 people died in the
violence that erupted in Nigeria. Two successful coups d'etat occurred
there in his tenure.
He traversed the countryside, cashing in on goodwill built with the
local military leaders by coaching the base's basketball team.
When Bell returned to the United States for the second time, he
moved to California to work with the Model City program of the Housing
and Urban Development Department.
He was tapped to run the Africa region for the Peace Corps from the Washington office, which he accepted.
"It was a lot safer," Bell said.
Life is much safer now. Bell now lives with his wife, Marlys, in
Columbia. They have two giant Schnauzers, one named Chaka, who recently
ranked fourth in his breed in competition.
Nearly 40 years later, Bell looks back at the chaos that reigned in
Africa during his tenure and is amazed that it didn't claim the lives
of his volunteers or himself.
"I can't believe where I went and how I got there," Bell said. "You have to be young to do this."