COMMENTARY: Measure for Measure: Getting Back More than You Give

By Philip A. Yaffe
It is often said that an excellent reason for becoming a volunteer is that you frequently get back more than you give. For me this turned out to be true on two crucial occasions.


In the 1960s I was a mathematics student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). At that time it was expected, but not required that you participate in so-called extracurricular activities in order to broaden your general culture. I volunteered to work on the student newspaper.

For your general culture, you should know that a many American universities, the student newspaper is published daily. The UCLA Daily Bruin, a tabloid, published 20-24 pages a, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of every week. I seemed to have had somewhat of a talent for journalism because in my last year at UCLA, I was elected editor-in-chief of the newspaper.

Working on the newspaper and then running it was a telling experience for me because it opened my mind and stimulated interests far beyond the world of science and mathematics. It was like having my brain rewired.

Immediately after graduating, I joined the Peace Corps. If you are not familiar with it, the Peace Corps is a government-sponsored organization that sends volunteers to Third World countries who request them to help them with their nation building. 

In September 1965 I was sent to Tanzania, in East Africa, as a volunteer teacher. My first posting was to an isolated village in the middle of the central plains. I virtually lived in a mud hut, suffered through a drought, saw leprosy, and contracted both malaria and dysentery. All of these things affected me, but they were pretty much expected. What really struck me the things that were unexpected. One of them in the lives of Tanzanians was only a detail; the other was literally of mind-blowing importance.

I was teaching in a boarding school, housing approximately 300 students. About twice a week a note would appear on the school bulletin board expressing sympathy to a certain student for loss of a loved one. As an inexperienced California, I assumed that this would be the death of a father or mother. Then I began to notice that more than half the time, it was for the loss of a brother or sister. Compared to the West, life expectancy in Tanzania was quite low. For an adolescent to lose brother or sister in Europe or North American would have a very unusual and tragic occurrence; in Tanzania it was simply an every day fact of live.

However, the thing that really blew my mind was the political and social structure of the country.

Before heading off to Tanzania, we Peace Corps volunteers underwent nine weeks of training. We were told that Tanzania was a one-party, socialist state. For many of us, this was a euphemism for a communist dictatorship. We were told that when Tanzania became independent in 1961, TANU, the party that had led the country to independence, was so popular that in the first elections any TANU candidate automatically won against any opponent. TANU’s unchallenged position was confirmed in a following election. TANU could have put up a giraffe as a candidate and it would have won by a landslide. 

To inject a bit of democracy into the political process, we were told that President Nyerere decided to abolish all other political parties by folding them all into TANU. This way, several candidates could vie for seats in parliament. Since they would all be TANU, the voters would have a real choice rather than automatically electing the candidate with the TANU label.

Again, this sounded like camouflage for a dictatorship. However, when I arrived in Tanzania, I discovered that this was actually the situation. The Western idea of multiparty democracy at that time in Tanzania made no sense, because in the minds of the voters there was only one party, TANU. Shortly after I arrived, there was a parliamentary election, where nearly half the sitting MPs were turned out of office. Under the previous multiparty system their seats would have been totally secure.

These and other experiences as a volunteer, both as editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin and a teacher in Tanzania, broadened my world view way beyond anything I could have imagined.

I expect that volunteering in most other circumstances would have the same result. Volunteering offers you the opportunity to see a segment of the world which otherwise you might never touch, or even know existed. 

I don’t know if it is true that all volunteers get back more than they give. But I do know that in my case it was true. I am almost embarrassed by how much I gained in comparison to what I gave. The younger you are, the more important it is for you take up some kind of volunteer position, either in Belgium or elsewhere. What you will learn could be of inestimable importance in guiding you through life.
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Philip A. Yaffe was born in Boston in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles. In 1965 he graduated in mathematics from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, the daily student newspaper. He has lived for many years in Brussels, Belgium. For David M. Kinchen's reviews of his books, search the Huntington News Network site using the engine in the upper right hand space on the home page.


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