Believe it or not it's hard to escape the giant Congressional budget fights even when serving in the Peace Corps in Botswana. The debates are big news everywhere. Most of the people I work with have asked me questions about what is happening and how our government works. During one of these chats it really set in that just about anything I say greatly impacts their view of all Americans.
You may be thinking that I should have realized this much sooner, but to be honest when I prepared for Peace Corps service I never really thought about how much it would mean to others to know an American.
The second goal of the Peace Corps is to teach local people about America. When I knew I was coming to Africa I was focused on planning ways to learn the language, work with people and respect their culture as much as I could. I was also worried about how hot it is, but that's secondary. I came to a foreign land more concerned about what to do in that country, than what I represented to them. It didn't take long for me to find out what local people thought about America. I can't stress how important it is for people in developing countries to actually know an American rather than judge us solely off our entertainment industry exports.
The biggest stereotypes of Americans in Botswana are that every single one of us is mega rich, owns the best cars, has the biggest houses and basically wipe our noses with money. Music videos are the most watched export here and so the stereotypes kind of make sense. Throw in some movies and the people of Botswana's favorite export WWE (if I had a dollar for every time I was asked if the wrestling is real I may not need to volunteer anymore) and you start to understand how the beliefs persist.
The first couple of months in my village I spent a lot of time answering/dispelling myths about America and our citizens. I talked about working with homeless people in Los Angeles. The concept of someone not having a home was truly inconceivable to people in Botswana. The images of wealth are so ingrained that homelessness seems impossible. The government of Botswana offers free land, healthcare and food if citizens can't afford it, so some struggled to understand how Americans couldn't have a home.
I explained the median family income in America is around $50,000. Granted that's a fortune in Botswana, but when I explained the costs of living they generally understood it doesn't equate to owning a mansion. I also had to discuss loans, credit cards and how large of a role debt is in every American's life. College is free in Botswana and it was assumed schooling as well as other luxuries in America were given to everyone.
I told my new friends that my wife and I share a car and it's a Toyota Corolla, which happens to be the most common car in Botswana. The follow up statements were usually that we must also have a Mercedes, BMW or some other luxury car, but after repeating that most Americans can't afford those cars they got it.
I think the most important work I have done to dispel ugly stereotypes about Americans is really just being present in people's lives. I work at a center for people with disabilities. In my time there I have been fortunate enough to start some programs that have benefited people of all ages. The sports program I helped start gives kids the chance to do something different than focus on their disability. The database I created allows management to track everyone with a disability in northern Botswana. The HIV/AIDS committee I assist provides invaluable information to one of the highest risk groups in Africa. Doing this work goes beyond talking about the life in America. Outside of office work, just hanging out with people at their homes, riding in their cars, walking with them from work offers an opportunity far different from the constant images of music videos.
Those are all things I am happy about, but again the amazing part to me is that most of the people I have met view me as a representative for all of America. The kids tell me I am the only American they have ever touched and the difference I've made in their lives is because I'm from America. My co-workers are constantly grateful for the chance to learn computer skills, management ideas and communication from an American. Adults tell me Americans are the only people who take the time to learn their local language. This belief is held solely because of the Peace Corps legacy in Botswana. To an endless amount of people, getting the chance to actually be friends with an American provides a real life education and opens relationships.
Obviously stereotypes about every culture are commonplace. I have had many conversations with friends/family in America to break down the misinformation most people have about Africa. This is the third goal of Peace Corps -- teaching Americans about other cultures. We really are intermediaries connecting the two different worlds people see on TV with true experiences to dispel the myths on both sides.
When budget cuts are discussed, and I hear people argue the Peace Corps doesn't need funding I know they don't think about the affect volunteers have on behalf of America. Sure cynics can say who cares if some kid in a developing country has an American friend; we don't need the debt. But to me it is well worth the cost to keep 8,500 Americans giving a positive, realistic face in communities that need that presence worldwide.
I'm not saying Peace Corps is perfect. Recent stories about security issues and a bad incident in South Africa are troubling. However, implementing improved security programs presumably requires more funding, and one guy harming children doesn't negate the work of over 200,000 who made a positive difference.
The budget is a huge concern for all Americans. The fact that it is news in Botswana's media is proof that it's also important for the rest of the world. As the battle rages over monetary decisions that affect America's influence and actions on people worldwide, I hope no one forgets about the importance of the real relationships America's grassroots ambassadors develop every day. Those first hand experiences provided by Peace Corps volunteers can be invaluable for America's image.
Follow Ross Szabo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rosseszabo