During a dark time in the early 1980s, with no job prospects and hankering for adventure, Cynthia Helen Beecher started a lifelong love affair with the Peace Corps when a family member introduced her to one of its volunteers. She was enthralled by the idea of traveling the world, doing good work.
She was 34 years old in 1982 when she set off for Zäire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. She traveled to a place that “straddles the equator, a huge country isolated with far-flung ancient places where no roads go and much of the travel is by river,” to become a teacher for Harare International School.
Beecher’s first assignment was to open a new post along a small river, where no outsiders had ever been. She found the experience satisfying and her post a place of “love without waiting,” meaning the people were welcoming. The tribes were “soulful,” living on the land, not eating often or much.
Six days in a diesel Land Rover, carrying its own fuel, along a road that was a “hot, red strip, zipped up by forest behind us,” took Beecher to her post assignment. She was to teach English in a French-speaking country to offer students opportunities for higher education. Ikela was one degree south of the equator in the middle of the rain forest. The population in the regional capitol, Mbandaka, was 5,000. The people lived in a big clearing on a river big enough for trade.
The tropics are harsh with heat, humidity and diseases, snakes and poisonous plants. And she loved it.
She taught English to children using magic and included their cultural practices. She taught high school students, “wise beyond their years.” The classroom was tiny and dark, without electricity or windows. For the students there was an on-site dormitory, for her a small house. Her billet was at the school itself. There were few girls in the school.
And, while she loved the culture and the students, the tropics were not easy on her physically. She found herself often ill and suffered through malaria twice.
Beecher had to get used to being stared at. Her long blonde hair and pale skin were concerning to the people.
“Village life had a lot of drama. It was a small world,” Beecher said, as she looked back at her time. During her three years in Ikela, she got mail every four to six months. The area had a large number of coffee and rubber plantations.
Beecher came back to the United States in 1985, with nothing to her name but a few things in a garden shed.
She first taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and returned to school for a master’s degree in applied linguistics, then taught situational English. But she found herself restless and yearning for Africa, so when she got the opportunity to go to Cape Town, South Africa, she jumped at the chance.
She returned to Africa in March, 1992. But she felt unsafe in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and apartheid was ending, but it was a turbulent time.
Serendipity again touched her life when she found the Peace Corps was hiring staff to go to Zimbabwe. She applied and got the job, and she “taught trainers to teach Americans” and prepare them for their positions with the Peace Corps.