Alex woman reflects on her days in Peace Corps
Katy Mohabir (second from right) with her fellow teachers at the school.
“But that was such a long time ago,” is one of Katy Mohabir’s favorite expressions. “Things may be different now.” She is referring to her term as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana, a small country on the northeast coast of South America. She can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in her time there from 1967 to 1968. But her volunteerism didn’t end when she came home; it has continued throughout her life, even as she taught school and raised three young children as a single mother.
An Austin, Minn., native, Katy is a graduate of Austin Junior College and the University of Minnesota. Between her second and third years of college, she spent a summer in Ecuador, fixing up two schools and a mother center.
“That’s before people of my age were getting on planes and doing anything,” she says. “I was the adventurer in the family.” She graduated in 1967 and joined the Peace Corps. She was posted to Guyana, which wouldn’t have been her first choice.
“Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, so I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be learning a foreign language,” she says. The first year she taught high school math and science in Port Maurant, a small village. Some of the teachers were barely out of high school themselves.
“To be a teacher in Guyana you just had to pass your own exam. You could graduate from high school and the next day be a teacher in high school.” She lived with an Anglican priest and his family who were native South Americans. She explains that each country specifies what they want the Peace Corps to do for them, and teaching was the greatest need in Guyana. Occasionally other volunteers did other projects. One built outhouses over the school latrine, because the school had no plumbing. Natives spoke English, but with a heavy regional accent, hard for outsiders to understand. But since hers was a government high school, Katy had to teach students, properly outfitted in uniforms, to speak, read, and write the Queen’s English, in order to be in line with British standards. The population tended to be literate. Katy and other Peace Corps members were well accepted, but their white skin made them stand out.
“One little girl would pinch my skin and say, ‘Whitey, whitey,’” she recalls.
Katy was also in charge of an after-school girls’ club where she supervised crafts and sports, like rounders, which is baseball played with tennis rackets. Only the boys played cricket. Once Katy was in charge of getting everybody rounded up for polio shots.
The school was an old estate house from sugar plantation days. It had no electricity, since electric power in the villages only went on at six in the evening and ran until six the next morning. Stoves and refrigerators were powered by kerosene, and the occasional home had an open oven. There was no TV in those days, but there was one local radio station which specialized in reporting all the deaths in the country.
“Guyana is an interesting country because it isn’t Hispanic at all,” Katy says. “It was settled by the Dutch and British. It had been a British colony and gained independence a few years before I was there.” The capital city, Georgetown, was below sea level and had a whole system of klockers, or dykes.
“At low tide everything drained into the ocean, at high tide they blocked it off so it wouldn’t flood.”
The economy is based on sugar cane and bauxite ore, from which aluminum is made. In the old days, slaves were brought from Africa to work on the plantations and mines. When they were freed, they were replaced by indentured servants from India, but the descendants of slaves still constitute a large part of the population. The two groups did not get along, sometimes burning out the other’s villages.
“ There was one road along the coast, and one village ran into the next. You could go down the road and see a black village and then an Indian village.” It was possible to swim in the sea, as she did a few times, but the beach and the water, which was the backwash from the Amazon, were muddy.
After a year, Katy was transferred to the capital, Georgetown, where she worked for the Ministry of Education. She moved into an apartment, paying rent from her salary. There was 24-hour electricity in the city, but poverty was evident everywhere.
“In a home that would be considered middle class, if you had hot water, you had to be lucky enough to have a pump so you could pump water to a tank on the roof where the sun would heat it so you could have a shower.”
Back in the United States, Katy married a man she had met in Guyana and taught school in Amboy Good Thunder. She ended up in Alexandria, where she divorced and raised her three children by herself. Pictures of smiling, handsome children and grandchildren fill a shelf in Katy’s Alexandria kitchen.
One teaching assignment led to another, as Katy taught the math portion of the GED test, then was promoted to lead teacher of the ESL program.
“I built that up so we had 12 school districts involved. Then they said we need an alternative school in Alexandria, and if you don’t do it somebody else will. So with school support, I started the Runestone Learning Center, which is an alternative high school for at-risk students.” They might be pregnant or chemically dependant, have mental health issues, been abused, failed classes, or been expelled from their home school.
“The big difference was, in a regular school, almost everything is centered around time. You have classes for one hour, and everybody is in the classroom. Time was a constant, and what you learned was a variable. We took the time element away and said, this is what you need to learn to get the credit, however long it takes you. Our funding was based on the credits they earned, so all of the power plays that you have with students–you have to be here at this time and there at this time–we didn’t have any of that. They were free to come when they wanted to. They could schedule it around their work schedules and their family needs. If they missed school for a few days, they could start right in where they left off. The big difference was that we had learning be the constant and time be the variable, which is the opposite of a traditional school.” In a given year, there might be 400 students. Those who finished would graduate from their home schools.
Contrary to what most people might have thought, Katy says, “We did not have discipline problems. I think it was the way the teachers treated the students. It was very family oriented, and there was a certain norm of respect established. They respected the students, the students respected them.” She adds, “We won Outstanding Program of the Year from the state.”
Katy retired five years ago, but it didn’t stop her volunteering. She works for the Inclusion Network, a group interested in welcoming diverse populations. She volunteers to greet people who need help with taxes, and she also works for the food shelf and the food drop, two different programs.
“We have a (food drop) benefactor in Alexandria who donates $4,000 or $5,000, and we bring in food from the North Country Food Bank and distribute it to anyone who eats, working from the New Life Church.” This program is sponsored by United Way and the Salvation Army and is well attended.
“It’s an eye-opening experience for people in the community to realize that Alexandria has that much poverty,” she says. She modestly sums up her achievements this way: “I’ve always had a passion for helping people, and if I have a gift, it’s the gift of empathy.”