Why I Joined the Peace Corps at 60 Years Old

My Life As a 60-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer

I’ve never loved the United States, having been raised in the 50s-60s-70s, it was clear, from an early age, that my brown skin was going to forever doom me to being treated as “less than” my pink skinned counterparts. My college-educated parents, wanting to provide me with better opportunities than they had, felt it would be best for us to live in the then nearly all-white Highland Park, MI, a suburb of Detroit, and home to Ford Motor Company’s first automobile plant, and Chrysler Corporation’s World HQ. Though cars, car plants, and car designers were all around us, I really didn’t have much exposure to that because my parents were scientists. My mother, Edith Muriel Johnson, was a Medical Doctor, her degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I was born, and my father, Charles Bruce Lee (he preferred C. Bruce as his legal name), was a microbiologist, his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Invertebrate Zoology. Though many of my friends had parents and siblings who worked for the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler), unless my class went on a field trip to tour one of those plants, I knew nothing about the automobile industry.

We were therefore different from most of my peers, white and black, and though we could have been raised to feel elitist, we weren’t. Once white flight emptied most of the whites from Highland Park in the 60s, though most wealthy blacks were also moving to other, more affluent areas, my mother insisted that we remain in HP, our roots, which was something I always admired about my mother. She’d divorced my father in 1962, when I was six, a welcome event because that meant the constant fighting would end. My father was battling so many demons, not the least of which was his homosexuality, and I think each time he looked at us, his five children that he frequently reminded me that he never wanted (“I didn’t want any of you kids but I love you anyway”), it must have been like a stake through the heart – these small, innocent children were NOT what he’d have envisioned for his life. If he’d had his way, I think he’d have been born white, and probably a white woman. But he wasn’t. He was born a brilliant, black boy, stuck in a world where black and brilliance were at odds with one another, at least through the eyes of most whites. This realization haunted him his entire life, and caused him to constantly lash out as us, his children, simply because we existed. Though I understood the impetus for his anger and cruelty, his attacks still hurt, and it took me years of therapy and introspection to be able to finally forgive him. I hope that, now that his Earthly life is over, he has finally found the peace that so eluded him.

Bruce had worked so hard to attain the lofty title of Dr., but not one day in his life was he even allowed to work in his chosen field, simply because of the color of his skin.

Which brings me to why I’ve never loved the United States. I hated living in a country that, before I was even born, whites had determined that I was to be hated, mistrusted, derided, oppressed, attacked, and on and on. The luxuries of being white in America include never EVER having to think about the color of your skin.  And though many whites reject that they benefit from any sort of privilege, the truth is that they benefit from America’s systematic racism every single day, in everything they do, regardless of their personal views about racism – just as blacks are negatively affected by this same systematic racism, which we can ONLY escape once we leave the United States. Though some whites may not have easy lives, the one thing they cannot deny is that worrying about the color of their skin is never one of their problems, in fact, it’s doubtful this thought ever crosses their minds. While for blacks and other POC, we never, EVER get to forget we’re black in the United States, not for a second, no matter where we live, work, or travel. Racism is as American as apple pie and baseball. Whites will always benefit from America’s systemic racism regardless of their personal views about race, and though some may reject that they have a privileged status, not a single white person in America would be willing to trade places with anyone black. 

I’m writing about my experiences as a 60-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, but this story begins way back in the 50s, when I was born into the racist society that was and still is America. It’s just so exhausting, having to make accommodations for insecure whites, having to bite our tongues for fear of retribution from hostile whites, having to do far more work yet receive far less credit (and pay) as whites, and all the while, many whites fear that equity with POC means oppression of whites.

I’m so glad I finally took the step to leave the u.s. for good, but at a terrible price. If whites were forced to live just one day as a black American, they wouldn’t believe all the micro aggressions, all the ways, large and small, that their whiteness dominates our lives. Or maybe that’s why so many whites fear and hate us, because they DO know how badly we’ve been treated and are still being treated — and they fear Karma? Is that it? Is that why, before a black child is even born, it’s hated by countless whites?

When I think back to all the shit I’ve had to personally tolerate, what I saw my parents have to tolerate, what my kids still encounter, there is no way I have ANY hope that America will ever change, that equity and kindness will prevail, that truth and reconciliation will even be a thing. It’s just so much easier to stop teaching the truth, keep doing all the racist things you’re doing, and blame blacks for being racist (which is impossible, by the way) when we have the nerve to call whites out on this.

And no, not all whites are racist, but I truly believe most are, it’s just the way they’re raised, and though they have plenty of black friends and colleagues they truly like, even love, where do they live? All-white neighborhoods? Attend all-white churches? Members of all-white clubs? Vacation at all-white locales, etc.?

“…but I’m not racist.”

Right.

Happiness is a choice. So is racism. If you know you wouldn’t switch places with any black person not even for a moment, then who are you and what do you really believe about black folk? Would having to live as a black person limit your choices? Would it condemn you to sub-standard medical care? Would it significantly increase your chances of being murdered by the police? What would it mean? 

And that you realize all these things are true, the fact that your pink skin means that you can simply ignore all these things because you KNOW none of this will ever affect you or your loved ones, that means that you KNOW you are benefiting from the color of your skin — at the expense of others.

The American Way. 

And this, my friends, is the main reason I abandoned the u.s. I just couldn’t take it any longer. 60 years of American oppression of POC was enough, and though no country may be “perfect,” in most African countries, my brown skin is actually a bonus, and I’m good with that.

I don’t care that “My ancestors built this country,” because though that may be true, your ancestors didn’t build the systems that ensure blacks and POC will ALWAYS be inferior to whites in all ways, finance, politics, education, sports, entertainment, housing, healthcare, you name it. Your ancestors who built this nation originated elsewhere, and I doubt that they had a choice about coming to what would become the United States. You want to honor them? Then honor their roots, wherever that may lead. 

No, America, I’m not satisfied with this way of life. I deserve more. My kids deserve more. All POC deserve more, and if this is the best you can do, then my advice is to leave. You’re not a tree, you can move. Life without systemic racism is SOOOO sweet, so much better than you can ever imagine. Blaxit is a thing, a wonderful thing, blacks exiting the u.s. and spending the rest of their lives in countries where their brown skin doesn’t automatically deem them “less than.”

THE ROOTS OF CHANGE

This all started several years earlier. I was living in the Oakland Hills, with my two kids, Dawn and David, making a decent living as a computer nerd, while pursuing my passion of also being a professional genealogist. I’d been divorced from my first husband about 30 years and truly loved being single, but the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area was getting harder and harder for me to maintain, alone. I was going deeper and deeper into credit card debt, pulling more and more equity out of my house, cognizant of the fact that I had been able to put away practically nothing for my son’s college, which he’d be starting in about five years. In this sense, I felt like a complete failure. I was doing the best I could but it wasn’t even close to being enough. I started wondering how different my life would be if I remarried, convinced that if I met a wonderful, caring man, I’d finally have some help, someone with whom I could work together, build a new life with a mate willing and able to help me. I wasn’t looking for a sugar daddy, as I intended to continue to work and build my budding genealogy business, “Got Genealogy?”

In my genealogy business, I’d been invited to speak at a genealogy conference in Toronto, so I planned to fly into Toronto, then rent a car and drive down to Detroit, where I’d been raised and had lived for 30 years, and fly back out of Toronto. This would allow me to visit my family and friends in the Detroit area, and the drive to Detroit is only about four hours, so a quick trip.

KEVIN DICKERSON

Kevin Dickerson (name changed to protect the guilty) was my first love. I’d met him in Detroit, the summer of 1969, I was 12, he was 13, and I think it was love at first sight, for me, anyways. Detroit used to have a flea market along Woodward Avenue, that stretched from Kennedy Square down to Jefferson, on both sides of the street. Kevin was selling cheap jewelry and other knick-knacks with his mother’s boyfriend, Rudy. Kevin was slick, super slick in the eyes of a very innocent 12-year-old girl, and when he saw me looking at some of their rings (I used to buy rings constantly, wearing a ring on nearly every finger back then), he immediately launched into his sell spiel, which rhymed. I have no idea what he said, but his rhyme, his captivating smile, and his incredibly handsome face had me swooning. I bought a ring that week. And returned every week after that, just to see him. Finally, on the third week, I was wearing a three-point pirate’s hat I’d gotten at a recent Disneyland trip, and determined to walk by and ignore him, I heard him call, “Hey, Captain!” I turned, and there was that smile – pulling me in, hook, line, and sinker.

He finally asked me for my phone number, which I was only too happy to provide. After that, though he lived way on the far side of Detroit’s West side, on Sussex, he would walk all the way to Highland Park to see me. We’d spend the day just talking, listening to music, getting to know one another, and as it was getting dark, my mother would throw us, along with my three younger siblings, into our Buick station wagon, and take David home. My family adored him, his family adored me. Match made in heaven.

But we grew apart, and within a year, I’d moved on and so had he. But those original feelings were still there. I’d remained a virgin while dating Kevin, he was intent to respect my desire to be a virgin at my wedding, and since we knew we were gonna get married, I thought he was the best thing, ever.

Flash Forward

Nearly 40 years later, as I was preparing for that Toronto genealogy speaking gig, I made it a point to reach out to Kevin. Even though we’d each married other people and had each had kids with our respective spouses, he always made sure to call me every year on my birthday and, with his deep baritone voice, sing me Happy Birthday. I called him and we agreed to meet for dinner at one of Detroit’s new casinos. I’m not a gambler and don’t really enjoy the casino scene, but I was curious to see what Detroit’s casinos were like. Our dinner was fantabulous, all the old excitement like we’d just met, yet 40 years of individual experiences – I was captivated by his every word, though in time I came to realize that pretty much everything he said was utter bullshit.

Bless his heart.

Lot of Happenings While in FB Jail

I’ve been in FB jail for about three weeks now, serving a 30-day suspension. I won’t bother you with the details, but it’s utter bullshit, both on the part of FB and on the part of whomever reported my post as offensive. It wasn’t, and my appeal didn’t matter.

With 25 of the orphanage kids with me at the beach, I took a quick cruise around the bay on this outrigger.

I’m spending my time with dozens of dogs, and at both orphanages. I also cut added sugar out of my diet, completely, and I’m loving how the inches are slowly coming off everywhere, especially my waist. It’s now back down to 34, but it was 30″ before Covid, so that’s my goal.

Oh, How I LOVE My Fridays

Ms. Lala, my favorite masseuse at Dety Body Nature massage parlour.

Friday is the only day of the week that I’m not committed to doing something with or for someone else. It’s the one day a week that’s just for me and I truly love this day.

I decided to start off this latest Friday with a massage. I’ve been having a niggling problem in my right, lower back, and my Yoga and stretching hasn’t been able to get rid of it. I need one of those small balls folks use for this sort of thing. I don’t know where I can find sports equipment here but I thought I could probably find various balls at Shoprite — except they’re starting to put out all the cheap, Chinese crap masquerading as Christmas toys, so my search for small balls failed.

Back to the massage. I have LOTS of options for massages here. The high-end would be at the Baobab Tree Hotel & Spa, a 4-star hotel, with a spa like every other high end spa you find in the States. I LOVE their spa, and their prices, by u.s. standards, are quite reasonable, especially for a 4-star hotel (around 100,000 ariary, which is about $40 USD for a one-hour massage). The low end massage would consist of going to someone’s house, and laying down on a grass mat on the living room floor (where most of the family sleeps at night – in fact, you’re probably laying on someone’s bed right now), and a crazy old woman starts “massaging” you like she’s trying to puncture and/or rearrange your internal organs from the outside. Oh, man, this experience left me sore for DAYS, and the worst part of it wasn’t the IMMENSE pain (this old lady obviously hated my guts – literally – the way she was jamming her fingers down into my torso), it was that she laughed at me each time I yelled out in pain. See, the Malagasy are known for their stoicism, never audibly expressing pain, even during childbirth, so when this American woman showed up at this old woman’s home (highly recommended to me by a friend), and actually had the nerve to wince, cry out, and exhale loudly during my massage? Well, I’ll give her something to wince about!

After about 20 minutes, I couldn’t take anymore, and this was supposed to be the first of two one-hour massages that day. Needless to say, I never returned. So that’s the low end.

In between the very high and very low ends, we still have lots of options for a massage here. There are decent massage parlors designed to relax and pamper you, with dimmed lights, plushy decorations, comfy tables with lots of fresh towels, meditation music playing in the background – just like the kind of unique massage parlors in the u.s. My favorite massage parlor, Dety Body Nature, is one of these, located in Mahajanga Be (sounds like BAY).

It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it’s a great massage parlor inside. Clean, well maintained, great price, and Lala is a wonderful masseuse.

Just last month, for my 64th birthday, my friend, Jemima (juh-MEE-muh), gifted me with a massage, so we met outside my favorite massage parlor, Dety, but like many businesses who close each day at 11:30 for siesta, on this particular day, they didn’t reopen. That’s yet another thing you have to get used to. In general, whenever I have banking or anything else important to do, I try to get there in the morning, because there’s a good chance they’ll reopen late in the afternoon – if at all.

When my parlor didn’t reopen, we went next door to Lilai, the place where I used to go, before I discovered Dety Body Nature. Lilai is where Frenchmen go to get happy endings. It’s that simple, and though I’d had massages there, months ago, the day Jemima and I went, it certainly had that sleazy feel to it. There was one too-small towel for the massage table, so I had to pull the towel up over the pillow (which had no case). It was not a great experience, contrasting this with a Facebook post I wrote in March 2020 about these two parlors, below.

Casual Quest #1: Mahajanga’s Massage Parlours — I continued this quest yesterday when, on a whim, I decided to go have another massage. The first salon I’d visited last week (Lilali Massage) was nice enough, cost me 20,000 Ariary (about $8 USD) but I decided to try a different one, just down the street from Lilali, named Dety Body Nature (odd name, I know). The moment I walked in, I noticed the difference between the two salons. This one, on the ground floor, looks, feels, smells, and sounds like a massage studio should, and though their price was 50% more (30,000 Ariary, which is about $10 USD), I splurged. The actual massage room (sorry I didn’t get a better picture) had dimmed wall sconces, and the massage table was padded with about 4” of foam, making for a VERY comfortable experience. My masseuse, Lala is her name, left the room while I undressed (yippee) and put on some relaxing meditation music. Okay. So this is starting of pretty good.

The entry way to Dety Body Nature.

When she came back into my room, she started on my feet. My FEET!!! Do you have ANY idea how many years it’s been since someone massaged my feet? When I released an audible moan of utter delight, she chuckled because, as you know, the stoic Malagasy don’t express sounds of pleasure or pain in situations like this. My feet … oooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh yyyyeeeessssss. Don’t stop. Never. Ever. Stop. I have no idea who she is, but I’m in love with her, I tell you that. From there, my right calf, where she continued to work her magic, releasing every stress, every kink, using only her hands and forearm, no elbow. I hate it when masseuses use their elbows to dig into our flesh, trying to break a bone. It’s the lazy way to massage, in my opinion. May be quicker for them, but an elbow used in a massage means only two things: pain now, and pain later. Thankfully, my masseuse knew this and spared me pain. The left foot was even better than the right, if that’s possible, and I’m thinking, this feels so good, I never want to walk again, and spoil this groove. She worked magic all over my body, and when she asked if she could massage my face, I opted instead for a scalp massage, but this was out of her comfort zone. She didn’t really know what to do with my scalp, so after a few minutes, I asked her to spend the last bit of my massage — on my feet! I’m no fool. Oh. This place. Clean, well appointed, great location near Bazar Be (sounds like BAY), totally affordable, soothing atmosphere, and a phenomenal massage. I may have to rent a room there. At this rate, I may not bother to check out more massage parlours (they are quite plentiful, catering to the huge number of visitors Mahajanga gets all year long). On a 10-point scale, a solid 7.3. My room even had a shower stall, which is used for other procedures including body wraps and such. The lady sitting at the reception desk was my masseuse. I highly recommend this place. Phone 032-046-6780.

The actual massage room is through the orange curtains, then through the red curtains. Lots of privacy, great, soothing music, attentive staff, and lots of fresh, clean towels.

How Living Abroad Has Changed Me

It’s funny, the things you used to do all your life that now you’ve forgotten about. Little things, things that we normal and commonplace in your old life – before you moved abroad. I’ve been living outside the u.s. just over three years and most of that time, I lived without running water, a flush toilet, and for about a year, no electricity, either. And my life is wonderful, despite losing all these conveniences, I have experienced such joy, witnessed so many magical things, and had the opportunity to touch the lives of countless people, giving of myself to help them live their best lives.

When you live your life from the focus of helping others improve their lives, it’s really easy letting go of all the “stuff” that used to define our lives. For instance, I eat lunch with my Peace Corps host family every Saturday and I always bring fish or chicken with me. It’s the one day a week I eat fish, because if I don’t, they’ll be offended. They know I don’t do chicken, but I’m not willing to go through the hassle, each week, explaining, again, why I don’t eat fish. So, I just eat a small amount of fish and everybody’s happy. In the States, I’d have just stood my ground, and if they didn’t understand that, too bad.

Aside from that, the cooking is all done outside, food prep is done inside. They have a large kitchen with running water, but they cook with wood, the pans resting on a triangle of large stones, so that has to be outside. My host father, Felix, has hinted that he’d love for Jacklyn (his wife, whom he adores) to be able to cook inside. I’ve already looked at propane stoves and have already added it to my December budget — a Christmas present for the family, and smaller gifts for each family member, too.

Fara, wife of Andrisoa, is cooking fish outside. She is holding a cuvetta, which has more uncooked fish, ready for the pan. Their daughter, Sanita, is behind her. They have two cooking stations in their side yard.

With the food cooked outside, and even with the food prep inside, there isn’t a lot of hand washing going on, and that’s true all over Madagascar. If nothing else, Covid got the government to require hand washing stations EVERYWHERE, and it’s a nice convenience to be able to wash my hands anywhere I want. But in private homes, most people don’t have running water, and even those that do, hand washing isn’t stressed like it is in the u.s. I had to learn to overlook a lot of things I would never have accepted in the States, and surprisingly, I lived to tell the tale. I have had food poisoning lots of times here, and I dread the next time, because it will most assuredly happen again. Walking around the open markets and seeing slaughtered fish, cow and chicken parts on wooden tables, covered with flies, it doesn’t faze me in the least. Nobody is gonna eat any of that raw, so when you cook it, the germs will be toast. It’s just the way things are, and it’s another way living abroad had changed me.

Running water is such a wonderful thing. I was without it for over two years, and now that I’m living in an “American style” apartment (their term, not mine), I have noticed that I’m still living as though I don’t have running water. When I did the dishes in Madagascar, I had to fill two cuvettas (wide, shallow, plastic pails) with water, one for wash, one for rinse. I’d used water from a Jerry can, which had to be refilled daily, and lifting those heavy plastic cans of water injured my right shoulder, tore my intercostal muscle, and I ended up in the hospital for four days. Wasting water wasn’t even a thing.

So, washing dishes meant using as little water as possible and reusing dirty water because you didn’t want to waste the water washing just a few things. I’d end up squirting a small amount of the liquid dishwashing liquid on each item as I washed it, so regardless of if the water was brand new or had been used a few times, this was my routine to ensure my stuff was clean. And just today it dawned on me that I’m still washing dishes that same, way, even though I have running water, and two sinks. I had to laugh at myself, then I filled up my plastic wash tub I use in my larger sink, and squirted a bunch of dishwashing liquid into it and watched all those lovely suds sprout up. I’d forgotten how to do this. Isn’t that crazy?

And it got me thinking about other ways I’ve changed since I escaped America. Eating in establishments that would have been condemned by the health department in ANY American city is something I frequently do. Once you get over a couple of food poisonings, your body starts to adjust to the input of all those new, strange bugs, and though you don’t get sick anymore, you often have very soft bowels, which tells you that you ate something your body struggled with, but you emerged victorious and you never even knew a battle was going on.

Living without TV has actually been pretty wonderful, especially since many of the stations here are in French, and I don’t understand most of the Malagasy stations because they speak so fast. So I haven’t missed TV. On Saturdays, Felix will turn on the news while we’re eating, and that’s always fascinating for me, but that’s all the TV I get. And I don’t miss it.

I have wifi, so I can watch everything on Netflix without using a VPN, and some things on Amazon Prime. I don’t want to use a VPN unless I have to because they eat up my data and I’m on a fixed plan, only 50 gb/month, and VPNs eat up data like crazy. My carrier, Orange, doesn’t offer an unlimited plan. I’ve begged them to just let me pay for more data, but they won’t do it. Instead, I have to pay overage charges every month, which is a total ripoff. It’s already expensive, $60 USD/month, which, when you consider that I pay less than $1.50 USD for water/month and about $13 USD for electric/month, so $60 for wifi is just stupidly expensive. I pay more for wifi than many Malagasy people make in a month. It is so bizarre. But I gotta have Internet access, and without wifi, my only option is to buy data for my iPad and use the SIM card for access, but then I won’t have the Internet on my 13-year-old Mac Mini, which is where I do a large part of my work.

I am so hopeful about Madagascar. I meet so many of these young kids, many with degrees, English speakers, brilliant people, with few prospects because there just aren’t a lot of jobs here. So, I’m spending a lot of my time updating resumés, helping them rework their cover letters, and rooting around looking for jobs, then finding the right candidates to apply for the job. The Malagasy way of creating a resumé or CV just doesn’t work well with American or European employers, and if it’s a job for an English speaker, their resumés need to have flawless English. Whenever I hear about a job, I post all the details EXCEPT how to apply. Then I tell them to send me their CVs, and only AFTER I’ve updated it (with their help and input), will I send it in. I’m working with one NGO right now, and I’m hoping to liaise with others and become the go-to person to fill their jobs. Doing what I can to help the people of Madagascar.

Helping Others

I served nearly two years with the Peace Corps in Madagascar (2017-2019), volunteering as an English teacher, and along the way, meeting the kindest, funniest, cleverest, and most generous people on the planet. Each one working to make their lives better and the lives of others around them.

Along the way, many of my FB friends have generously donated to help me help people, and critters, and here are some of the projects and ways we have helped those in need.

I am ever grateful for the kindness and generosity of my friends. Thank you.

Below: “The Green Dogs”

This family lives down the road from me, and unlike many Malagasy, they love their dogs, but with no form of birth control, the number of dogs has gotten out of control, with eight adult dogs, six of whom are female of breeding age, and eight puppies, from two females. Due to the costs, I work with a couple of Malagasy veterinarians who provide Depo Provera shots to about a dozen female dogs I’ve encountered here, in Mahajanga. It’s really my own option as birth control options in Madagascar are:

  • Spay/neuter – 300,000 Ariary ($80 USD)
  • Depo Provera shots, for the females, every six months – 8,000 Ariary ($2.10 USD)
One of the mama dogs who just gave birth to a bunch of puppies.
Eight puppies, two litters from different moms, living together.
Some of the eight adult dogs and eight puppies living here.

Stuff I Need!

If you would like to support me as I traipse around the globe, I am always in need of the following:

  • Origami paper (any size, pattern, style)
  • Dentek interdental brushes, normal size (can’t find these here)
  • Nutritional yeast – since I’m vegan, I used this a lot, and it’s very light, so it’s cheap to ship.
  • Crayons, markers, and pens.

Shipping to Madagascar is REALLY expensive (we’re an island hundreds of miles off the East coast of Africa), and I also have to pay a fee to receive all packages. I’m happy to pay the receiving fee if you don’t mind paying to get stuff here.

Quarterly shipments of school supplies (Origami paper, crayons, etc.) would be SO very helpful. Thank you, in advance.

OR, if you prefer to just donate a few bucks to my cause, ANY amount of money will help countless people (and a few needy dogs): sweetlisa@paypal.com.

Lisa B. Lee
Lot 205AF-0272
Secteur 6, FKY Mangarivotra
Mahajanga, Madagascar
Africa