Keith Cressman works at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, Italy. He joined the US Peace Corps in 1981 after graduating in Biology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do once I had finished college, but when the Peace Corps recruiters came to my campus, the idea of working in a developing country seemed appealing, so I decided to join.
I was posted to Tunisia and was part of a group of twenty volunteers. We attended a three-month intensive Arabic language training course in a small village on the coast where we were hosted by local people and taught by elementary school teachers during their summer break. I learned a lot, not only in terms of mastering the language, but also in terms of human experience.
My daily routine
We lived and enjoyed meals with our teachers in a series of small houses by the seaside. A typical day started with a very noisy donkey waking us up shortly after sunrise. Breakfast was cold couscous, yoghurt, dates and fruit. Then we went to the village's elementary school and sat in tiny wooden chairs for six hours of Arabic lessons in which we learned how to read, write and speak. During the hottest part of the day, we had two hours to rest, study or go to the beach. At the end of the afternoon, we returned to the classroom for a few more hours of lessons. We usually had a light dinner after sunset of briks (fila dough stuffed with egg and tuna) and cucumber and tomato salad. After dinner, it was customary to join the other villagers in strolling through the dusty streets and practicing our Arabic conversation with the patient locals. We usually slept on mattresses, outside in the courtyard of our house, under the stars where it was slightly less hot than in the tiny rooms.
After this training, the PC Office posted me to one of Tunisia's Regional Plant Protection Centres in a small town called Khala Sgira which is in the centre of the country. I lived about 15 km away in a small village called Hammam Sousse and went to work every day by bicycle.
An experience like no other
When I arrived at the Regional Centre, there was no specific project for me – it was the first year they started working with PC Volunteers – so I had the freedom of developing my own job. The Centre was responsible for advising and training farmers and agricultural extension agents in controlling plant pests and diseases. I regularly joined the Centre's specialists on their visits to meet farmers and agricultural officers. During these trips I noticed that fruit flies were a big problem on olive trees in the area. I helped the Centre map out the affected areas and also taught some of the trainers how to collect and catalogue plants and insects. Such collections help the Centre to correctly identify insect and weed pests and to properly advise the farmers and extension agents what control measures to take.
Out of the 20 PCVs who went to Tunisia, only six completed their service because of the difficulty in learning and working in Arabic, particularly at a time when few foreigners lived in the country. Consequently, we were a very close-knit group and visited each other regularly. It was a wonderful experience and a turning point in my life. It was less about technical skills or problem solving, and more about human relations between the US and Tunisia. It was sharing different cultures and experiencing a different way of life.
I have numerous memories that I cherish from my stay in Tunisia. Many of these involved the families that lived near me in Hammam Sousse. They were extremely kind and looked after me, never forgetting to include me in special celebrations. Often, they would slaughter a sheep to mark an occasion. I also remember a six-year old neighbour boy who would follow me like a shadow whenever I was home. Often when we visited farmers, they would offer us a bowl of homemade olive oil which we would eat by dipping in hot fresh bread while sitting in the shade of an olive tree. I visited my village about ten years later and everyone remembered me, even the little kids who had grown up.
A new direction
The PC experience steered me into the area of agriculture development. When I returned to the US, I first worked for a couple of years on cotton pests in Phoenix, Arizona and then decided to do a Masters Degree in International Agricultural Development / Plant Protection at the University of California, Davis. I knew I really wanted to go back to work overseas, and just after I graduated FAO advertised an entry-level Associate Professional Officer post in the Plant Protection Service at its headquarters in Rome.
I applied for the post and in December of the same year (1987) I started work as an APO in FAO's Locust Group. After six months, I was posted to Khartoum, Sudan, where I spent one year working with the country's Locust Section at the Plant Protection Department. Less than one month after I arrived, Desert Locust swarms invaded the country and caused a terrible plague. Suddenly, I found myself in charge of a multi-million dollar, multi-lateral project in Khartoum, and having to manage the locust plague. During the same year, the Nile flooded – one of the worst in many decades – and I received food assistance from WFP. There were also hotel bombings and the Government was overthrown. It was an interesting and very intensive period. One year later I was back in FAO HQ analysing locust reports and learning how to forecast. Soon after that I applied for a more permanent position which led me to where I am today as Senior Locust Forecasting Officer, responsible for providing early warning and forecasts to affected countries and international donors as the primary strategy in combating the Desert Locust and stopping plagues.