Greenwood brothers give time to the Peace Corp

As the two youngest siblings in a family of six, the DiDiego brothers weren’t often without a loved one nearby. John and Bill DiDiego, however, sought to spread their good fortune to others around the world. “They have always been aware of the needs of others,” said their mother, Ann DiDiego. So, the two brothers from Greenwood joined the Peace Corp, proving the organization’s motto, “The hardest job you’ll ever love,” to be true.

Immediately after graduating from Notre Dame University, John, the older of the two brothers, joined the Peace Corp as an English teacher at a Maritime Academy in Morocco. He lived in Casablanca, where he was just getting settled when the Peace Corp Volunteers (PCVs) were pulled out of Morocco due to the Gulf War.

John returned to the United States working in New England and in Charleston before entering the Peace Corp master’s program at the University of Wisconsin. After completing his Environmental Education courses, he accepted a Peace Corp assignment in Russia. He left in February 1997 with his guitar and lots of warm clothes.

He lived with a Russian family in their three-room apartment, which was walking distance from the training center in Vladivostok. The family was better educated than most, according to John. Their young son tutored him each night in Russian, which John had studied at Wisconsin.

Most of the food the family ate was raised in their “dacha,” a rustic structure in a rural farm community, where families tend to large gardens. Families often “get away” there for the weekends during the summer, though the houses have no water or electricity.

John said that most young people there know little about religion. A Catholic Church once stood erect in Vladivostok, but it was torn down, along with most other religious structures, and replaced by an amusement park.

After completing training and being sworn in to the Peace Corp, John was assigned to the Amursk Ecological-Biological Center; Amursk is in northeastern Russia. There he investigated his concerns about the way the people extract from the land.

At the center, which is staffed by local teachers, John taught and led excursions and camping trips. As part of his PCV job, he introduced new programs and activities to improve living conditions. He urges the Russian people, who are not accustomed to communicating, to make an effort to improve their relations.

Away from home for the holidays, John and five other PVCs spent Christmas in Amursk under their make-shift tree (a plunger with greenery attached) and singing carols to John’s tunes on the guitar.

The PCV director decided John’s expertise would best be used at another site. He is now at Fikhote-Aun, a biosphere reserve in Ternei, Russia, that protects wildlife, such as the endangered Siberian Tiger. Since being in Russia, John says he’s “amazed at the unimaginable generosity of the people.”

Bill, John’s younger brother, upon graduating from the University of South Carolina in May 1995, told his parents that he was applying to the Peace Corp. Already having one son traveling halfway across the world, they weren’t too excited, but supportive. Once accepted in the program, Bill left in January 1996 to train in Senegal, West Africa, for three months with 47 other volunteers.

After the swearing in ceremony in April, Bill was assigned to Zorofla, a village of 1,600 inhabitants located on a dirt road in the forested central west area of the Côte d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast). PVCs are supposed to live as much like the inhabitants as possible. Most of the families live in mud brick houses with thatched roofs. Bill lives in a building constructed as a health center with no water or electricity. His first mission was to make the people realize he was their friend, and that he was there to help improve their lives. Eventually, Bill earned their love and respect.

Once settled, Bill found a counterpart from the village who was willing and able to learn and work with him. His counterpart, Blaise, says Bill is bright, enthusiastic and “works harder than anyone I’ve ever met.” Together they decided it was necessary for each family to have a sanitary latrine and bathing area, which would help eliminate the maladies of Zorofla and minimize the risk of being bitten by a snake. The latrines will also decrease pollution and contamination.

Bill and Blaise attended training workshops that prepared them for the job of building latrines and showers for each family. Bill said, “With the first two concrete slabs that went up, everyone came to watch the white dude get his hands dirty!” Gradually the people became more and more interested and excited about the project.

Bill then turned to the people back home in Greenwood, who he thought might be interested in sharing the cost of this worthwhile project. Father Hayden Vaverek, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, became interested and allowed a collection to be taken up for the project in Zorofla. Bill was overwhelmed by the response. He said the people of Zorofla found it hard to believe that people in the United States want to help them.

Bill will be home in April, but has signed on for another year and will return to Zorofla. He wrote home: “Things are coming together in the village; I can’t leave now.” He requested that the villagers build him a mud house in the village, where he’ll work in his own garden along with the others.

Upon returning to the states John will give a presentation of his experience as a PCV in Russia to the three doctors he worked with at the University of Wisconsin. He will subsequently receive his master’s degree.

Reporting on President Bill Clinton’s increase in funds to the Peace Corp, a Greenville journalist, David Bradley, wrote: “The Peace Corps’ members are the best ambassadors the United States could have.”

Photo: Bill DeDiego (top left) poses with the people of Zorofia, a village of 1,600 inhabitants located in the central west area of the Ivory Coast.