After five years in the Peace Corps, Rich and Nancy Carlson are back home
They now live in Lincoln and are loving the quiet neighborhood
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Rich and Nancy Carlson took off in 2007, and went to Africa with the Peace Corps. They spent three years in Lesotho and then two years in Moldova in Eastern Europe. While their experiences couldn’t be traded, they are glad to be back in Minnesota with family.
Before the Carlsons packed up bag and baggage for their adventure, Rich was working as the city administrator for Little Falls. He had been in the position for 20 years.
Nancy worked at Community Federal Bank in Little Falls when they made the decision to join the Peace Corps. She said she was looking forward to doing something different in their lives.
“I was in the Peace Corps in Micronesia from 1968 – 1970 and knew I wanted to return someday. But, in 1980, I met Nancy and we married. That put the Peace Corps on the back burner. I got my master’s degree in public administration in 1981, then worked as the city administrator in Olivia for five years. After that, it was Little Falls for the next 20,” Rich said.
When the Carlsons decided to join, Rich applied for a staff position. He and Nancy passed the rigorous screening process and were hired. While they were on vacation in Puerto Rico, they got a call and asked if they could be in Fiji in 10 days.
“As much as Fiji sounded great, we were in Puerto Rico, we both had to quit our jobs, sell our home and store our belongings. There was no way,” said Rich.
Several other locations came up, but nothing worked out until 2007, when a position in Lesotho (pronounces Le-soo-too), was offered. His job would be dealing with budgets, money and volunteers.
While Rich was in Washington, D.C., taking a month of training in language, subject matter, etc., Nancy stayed in Little Falls and stored what belongings they wanted to keep, packed those they would take with them, sold or gave away the rest. She also sold the house they lived in.
She met Rich in Washington, D.C. and they flew together to Johannesburg, South Africa, landing in a snowstorm.
“We rented a car to get to Lesotho and drove through snow that night,” said Nancy. “We got lost, stopped in a village and went to the bar, the only place with a light on. There was a hotel, but it was dark. Luckily for us, the bar owner also owned the hotel and gave us a room.”
The Carlsons remembered the building had no heat and they piled many blankets on the bed, strategically placing the holes so their bodies would be completely covered.
The next morning they arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
The Kingdom of Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by its only neighbor, the Republic of South Africa. It is 11,700 square miles, about the size of Maryland. It has a population of a little more than 2 million and about 40 percent of those people live below the international poverty line of $1.25 (U.S.) a day.
The entire country is at least 3,280 feet above sea level, the only independent country that has that distinction. It is a cooler country because of its altitude with temperatures reaching about 85 degrees in the summer and 20 degrees in the winter. Snow is common in the highlands between May and September, the country’s winter.
Diamonds are one of the country’s main exports.
Rich said that since the Peace Corps has been in Lesotho for about 40 years, Americans are very welcomed.
“Because of the high crime, we were given guards at our home. It was a requirement of the American Embassy,” said Rich. “We were advised to be careful and not go out at night. Some of the Peace Corps volunteers were robbed.”
Nancy, not a Peace Corps volunteer, worked at an orphanage for the first year in Lesotho. It was a large complex with a school, homes, clinics and more.
“I helped in the clinic with baby check-ups each week,” said Nancy. “Orphans are a huge problem in Lesotho, due to the AIDS epidemic. It is estimated there are about 50,000 orphans living on the streets.”
In their second year in Lesotho, Nancy was able to take a position at the American Embassy.
“Any day in Lesotho could be remarkable,” said Rich. “One day, there was a coup attempt, with the military and mercenaries from Mozambique trying to overthrow the prime minister. It failed. The people do love the king, but not the prime minister.”
The Carlsons were able to attend the king’s birthday and they said it seemed as though the entire country was present.
“He is a young man and seems to be very shy,” said Rich.
Any funeral they attended lasted the entire day.
“Since we were usually the only white people present, we would become the guests of honor,” said Rich.
And no matter how many times a day two people saw each other, the formality of greetings took precedent over the matter at hand.
“They had to shake hands, talk pleasantries, talk about the other’s family, before getting on with business. One time I was taking a stabbing victim to the hospital and he died in the car. The friends of the dead man who were along went through those formal greetings to the family of the deceased before telling them about the death,” said Rich. “There is no getting right to the point.”
While the Carlsons lived in a furnished home that was fairly nice, the volunteers lived in dirt-poor conditions, right alongside the Sothos.
“They are so dedicated, living in dirt-poor conditions alongside the Sothos,” said Rich. “They always seem to be happy and content with what they have. And since the Peace Corps program in Lesotho is a pilot program for older volunteers, there weren’t many younger ones.”
During their stay, each of the volunteers was required to teach the Sothos about AIDS prevention. Fifty percent of the population is affected and there is lots of superstition surrounding the disease. Education is the key, said the Carlsons.
Each weekend, the Carlsons would cross the border into South Africa to camp and hike. They also did much of their shopping in South Africa for there was so much more to offer.
The Sothos ate mostly chicken, but they also made a dish called pap, similar to hominy grits with a sauce. Rich enjoyed it thoroughly, Nancy did not.
“We did a lot of shopping in South Africa,” Nancy said.
When their three years in Lesotho were up, Nancy was back in Minnesota for the birth of their first grandchild, Anton Surma. When she flew to meet Rich again, it was to the country of Moldova, another landlocked nation bordering Romania and the Ukraine.
Moldova covers about 13,000 square miles, with a population of 3.6 million.
Moldova was once part of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the Moldova Parliament adopted a declaration of sovereignty which stipulated the country’s laws were supreme over those of the Soviet Union. After a failed coup in 1991 by the Soviets, Moldova declared its independence.
Today, the Carlsons said it’s one of the poorest countries of Europe. Its biggest export is people, for all the factories have been closed since the fall of the Soviet Union. People have to go elsewhere for work.
“It was also much safer than Lesotho and we were able to walk around at night with no guards,” said Rich.
Moldova has many vineyards, said the Carlsons. That is due to an idea of the Soviets before their country collapsed and Moldova became independent.
“The Soviets wanted the country to be a wine area,” said Rich. “But now that the government is no longer communist in Moldova, the Russians refuse to import the wine.”
While in Moldova, Rich held the same position as in Africa, the director of management and operations. Nancy again worked at the American Embassy, this time in the political and economic division.
They said the Moldovans were a very educated people. They met receptionists who were doctors and drivers who were engineers. The capital of Chisinau had available a fabulous arts community with a beautiful opera house and playhouses that were packed whenever there was a performance.
Again, the country was snowy and cold, but not as cold as Minnesota.
The younger residents of Moldova spoke Romanian and the older generations still spoke Russian. It was the job of the Peace Corps volunteers to spread goodwill and teach English.
“While the people took time to warm to strangers, once they did, it was good. Maybe that was from the memories of the secret police,” said Nancy. “And, the general customer service was terrible, probably a holdover from Communism.”
“There’s a joke the Moldovans say,” said Rich. “‘I’ll pretend to work and you pretend to pay me.’”
The food in Moldova was what people think Russian meals are like.
“It’s very hearty food,” said Rich. “Lots of beets and breads and soups and potatoes. The people also made a pastry dish with either fruit or meat filling called plăcintă which was very good.”
For the two Peace Corps jobs, the Carlsons were stationed in large cities. They now live in rural Morrison County where they can watch the deer and enjoy the quiet.
Most volunteer positions require a bachelor’s degree, but the Peace Corps takes into consideration work history, hobbies and past volunteer experiences. Most volunteers are younger, but 5 percent are 50 years old or older. There is no age limit to volunteer with the Peace Corps.
For more information, go to www.peacecorps.gov.