“It was the most rewarding time of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Frank Milano about his 1984-1986 Peace Corps experience in Zaire, a time when the country was host to between 65 to 70 Peace Corps volunteers. Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Milano was sent to teach biology and chemistry to high school aged young men, though he confesses he had to study harder than his students to stay ahead of them in chemistry. He spoke some French and a combination of lobbying and luck landed him in a French speaking country. But speaking French is one thing he says. Teaching biology and chemistry in French was quite another. Luckily his students were “sweet, motivated, and wanted to be sponges in order to soak everything up.” The students had no textbooks, but relied on Mr. Milano’s notes and the information he put on the blackboard.
Growing up in the South Bronx, Mr. Milano thought he had seen serious poverty, but nothing prepared him for the poverty in Zaire.
“My students came to school on empty stomachs, some walking two miles to get there. Each student had just one notebook and one Bic pen for the entire year. I would often catch them blowing at the other end of their pens to get every ounce of ink out of them,” he wrote. But, the biggest shock, he said, was when he encountered people with leprosy, a disease he mistakenly thought was long gone.
Mr. Milano had his personal struggles as well, including bouts of malaria, giardiasis, depression, loneliness, culture shock and home sickness.
Still he says he regrets nothing, adding “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” noting that on his last day, the students and villagers greeted him by chanting his last name, “Milano, Milano.”
Come to the Friday Night Dialogues, September 21, from 7 to 8 p.m. and hear more about Frank Milano’s years in the Peace Corps.
Up Next: Join us on October 12 at 7 p.m. when Nola Thacker will present “Three Dog Knights” a look at romance novels and the role that dogs have played in some of them.