Laura Ehmann’s Service in Barbados
Year of Service: 1984
Our group served in the Eastern Caribbean region in 1984-85. We were meant to replace Cubans working in some of the islands who were expelled after the US invaded Grenada in 1983. We were going to Barbados which at that time, we were told, had the lowest per capita income in the region with the exception of Haiti. My husband was assigned to work with an onion growers association-he was a agricultural economist-and I was assigned to the Barbados Cancer Society as an activity coordinator.
Our training was on the island of Antigua, where I have lovely memories of the people I met and the good food and drink at Brother B’s. I remember being surprised that our training focused so much on the political situation at the time — for example, the American charge d’affaires lecturing on the history of the Eastern Caribbean solely through the Soviet-US lens. As I was a student of Caribbean and Latin American history I made the comment that each island had its own indigenous history as did the region as a whole. That comment was to come back to haunt me.
My job at the Cancer Society turned out to be a make work job. There was no guidance offered by the mostly volunteer group of British descendants who ran the organization. I did the best I could, but the only meaningful thing I accomplished was convincing them to remove the ‘Barbados Cancer Society’ lettering on the van that carried patients to medical appointments. At that time, it was a stigma to have cancer-much like having AIDS would be in the not so distant future.
One day, after almost a year in Barbados, I was called into the Eastern Caribbean Peace Corps Director’s office and was accused of making un-American statements. I was completely baffled. The Director kept trying to get me to admit to the charge, saying he had worked in intelligence in the past and had raised a lot of money for President Reagan (I was so taken aback by these statements). Finally, he brought up the comments I had made during my training in Antigua. I was stunned and tried to explain that I didn’t believe those comments were un-American. He then asked me to think about how I wanted to proceed, saying maybe I wanted to ET (early terminate) my service. My husband and I decided to do just that.
When we returned home, I contacted my congressman, Robert Kastenmeier and he sent a letter of inquiry to the Peace Corps regarding my situation, but there was no reply. I am sure my experience does not reflect the experience of most Peace Corps volunteers. I had some beautiful experiences on the island. I still miss the Bajan friends we made, as well as our Peace Corps friends.