The Peace Corps Experience; Perception vs. Reality
When I was applying to the Peace Corps, I saw their ads and wondered if the stories were real. Promotional materials seem to capture the perceived stereotypical experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers. There are images of one volunteer surrounded by 40 smiling children, or a person learning new tribal dance moves, the sweat of someone doing hard labor in extreme heat, or another person simply seated in what appears to be the oldest office building in the world with her co-workers. My favorite quintessential photo shows a volunteer hand washing his clothes in a flat bucket next to a family with a traditional mud hut perfectly placed in the background.
People in America often ask me what the Peace Corps is really like. I immediately think of how I couldn't possibly answer that question in one conversation or one convenient American sound byte. The initial culture shock, intricacies involved in adjustment, life changing moments and personal growth seem impossible to describe. For example I have been in Botswana for two years and still can't comprehend how different my job working with people with disabilities is from the life I had in America.
So, when people ask me what it's like being in the Peace Corps, I ask them if they have ever seen a public service announcement. They answer yes and I say well it's just like that! As much as I hate clichés, there are times I am living one.
I've gone through some of the conventional ideas of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer including:
1. Living with a family in Botswana for 2 months. They completely embrace me as part of that family and none of them hesitate to call me brother, son, cousin, uncle or whatever fits. It was a little weird at first, but now feels totally natural.
2. Just about every time I walk down the sandy roads in my village children run up to me or yell hello from their yards. On the few days this doesn't happen I wonder what's wrong.
3. Going 6 weeks with water coming from a tap for only15 minutes a day. In what can best be described as a game show I could only lose, I would leave the taps open and as soon as any water came out I would rush to fill buckets. Most necessities are sporadic and volunteers learn to live without them.
4. At my job almost all of my co-workers are eager to learn anything new, especially with computers and are endlessly thankful for what is taught.
5. I learned 6 different African dances when I was in my friend's wedding.
6. 2 months of language training. I know the language well enough to hold long conversations, often to the surprise of local people.
If you look past these exciting highlights you will find life is pretty routine. I wake up at 6:30 every morning. I walk a half-mile down a newly paved road to a center for people with disabilities where I work. I sit in an office with a co-worker. I spend a lot of time with different people in all departments of the center or playing with the students. My workday ends at 4:30.
I go home and workout or when it is over 100 degrees, like it is half of the year, I do nothing. Then I eat whatever meal I cooked for the week. While I eat I watch American television shows from a hard drive on my computer. I go to bed around 9:30, which is much earlier than when I lived in America. On the weekends I attempt to hand-wash my clothes, see friends in my village, and spend a large amount of time just sitting in my yard.
Volunteers are able to do a lot of projects in schools, communities, clinics, NGO's and anywhere else they can find. In Botswana last year volunteers reached over 30,000 people with prevention interventions. Planning those events has a natural ebb and flow that can lead to jammed packed weeks followed by a short lull. Each volunteer's work varies, but we are all trying to make a positive impact.
Not everyone has a great time in the Peace Corps. A lot of factors for what can make or break a person's service can be out of his/her control. A volunteer could be placed with people who may not be open to working with him/her. Some volunteers deal with harassment, isolation, extreme homesickness, struggle with how women are treated or unique cultural differences. Others don't feel they are making the impact they hoped to have. Challenges can come up with a crisis in the country a person is serving in or home in America. Sometimes just the overwhelming feeling from dealing with the world's largest problems can be defeating. The reality for most of us is that we have more downtime than we are used to, which can be spent staring at dirt or fascinated by what ants can carry across a room. All of that time to think can take people to many places.
People who have the best time in Peace Corps seem to focus on the positives. It's about truly immersing oneself in a culture, dealing with the frustrations, growing stronger from failures and celebrating shared successes. It's being willing to open yourself to completely different ideas, people, food, customs and environments. The experience strips you naked in a way you may have never seen yourself. Who you are during that process and who you become after it takes years to process. The most important part is getting through the days that aren't fun or exciting and don't have the potential for a commercial.
For me being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a mixture of having no expectations and being completely fulfilled. Each person's experience seems to be truly unique depending on the country they are placed in, where they live, the jobs they have and the people they meet. The best way to find out about Peace Corps service is to do it!
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