A lot of people have a vision of what "the Peace Corps experience" is. It usually involves some combination of living with no running water/electricity, an outhouse, maybe a mud hut, hand-washing clothes, cooking over open fires and definitely eating local foods. The jobs envisioned are building classrooms, digging a water system or saving babies. I have heard a lot of jokes from people in America and in the Peace Corps community about this stereotypical image of the Peace Corps changing into easy living and thought it was worth a solid look.
I interviewed a former Peace Corps volunteer named Peter Dow, who served in Botswana from 1977-1980 and still lives here. It would be impossible for me to quantify all of the changes in every country the Peace Corps serves. I am focusing only on Botswana, which is different from every country in Africa.
What did the application process require for you?
PD: "In 1976, I filled out about a 2- to 3-page application. I didn't hear from PC for one year. They called me and said I had 2 weeks to decide between 3 countries. By the time I called back they informed me the other spots were filled and I was going to Botswana. They said I needed to go for a physical exam and shots at a local government facility near my house, then go to Philadelphia."
In the 60's, the application consisted of a note card. Fast forward to 2011, the application is on-line, about 5 pages long, also requiring 3 reference letters and transcripts. Then there is an in-person interview, more documents needed and a medical screening that can take months to complete. After medical is complete, PC lets you know what country you are going to. The process takes about a year or longer.
What did you do during your pre-service training?
PD: "We had two weeks of meetings in Philadelphia. Then we flew from Philly to Boston, to Rio, to Johannesburg to Gaborone. We had 12 weeks of language and culture training in or near the village of Molepolole. We lived with host families, which helped a lot. After that we went to the villages we would be posted in for 2 years."
In the 60's, pre-service training could be done in America or at a remote site and some volunteers went through boot camp-style training. In 2010, we had a 4-hour meeting, also in Philadelphia. We flew to Gaborone with fewer layovers than Peter and also did our training in Molepolole. We had 8 weeks of language/culture training while living with a local family and then we went to our villages.
How was the housing situation?
PD: "I was offered 2 options for my house. I could have had a house with running water and electricity inside or a more traditional house with a water pipe in the yard, outhouse and no electricity. I chose the traditional house. It was next to a local drinking place, which offered a lot of entertainment."
Most volunteers in Botswana today have running water in their homes, even if it is just a bathtub, and have electricity; however, there are still around 10% of volunteers here who are living the way the first volunteers did without the amenities. Volunteers have been enjoying the fun of hand-washing their clothes since PC first came to Botswana.
What were the food options for you?
PD: "I had some larger stores in my village where I could buy vegetables, starches and canned goods. We ate goat, chicken and cows that were owned by people in the village. I started cooking over open fire, then gave it up for a gas canister."
Currently most volunteers have access to large supermarkets with just about every kind of food from Botswana and South Africa. Some volunteers have to travel 2-3 hours to get to supermarkets. I cook with a stove and occasionally choose to cook over open fire. I think everyone who eats meat truly enjoys knowing it's all grass fed, free-roaming, sometimes seen walking in your yard before it's on your plate.
What did you do for transportation?
PD: "We weren't allowed to have cars. I walked, took rides from anyone when I could get them and there were buses, but I didn't take them often. There weren't a lot of paved roads. In some cases it took a full day to get to a village that it now takes 2 hours to get to."
Volunteers in Botswana still aren't allowed to have cars. Currently, the major routes are all paved and it's possible to fly the longest distances. Most volunteers rely on their feet, taxis, buses, combis (vans) and sometimes their thumbs for the amazingly convenient hitchhiking.
Did you get sick?
PD: "I got tuberculosis from drinking non-pasteurized milk. With my background in biology I should have known better. They flew me to DC to evaluate me, but then flew me right back to Bots to get treatment at the hospital in my village. I also got amoebic dysentery, which was treated locally."
Mentioning my stomach sickness in the same breath as Peter's doesn't compare, so I'll skip it and say that I was also treated locally.
How was the social life?
PD: "Can you imagine the differences in social interaction before the threat of HIV/AIDS? I got to know my neighbors and people in the village really well. We had a lot of braiis (barbecues), dancing, social events and parties. People in my group including myself dated locals."
Social life is pretty much the same now. A lot of volunteers date local people. Although I will say people in my group are a bit more cautious considering the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the age group they are dating can be as high as 50%.
What did you do to communicate with people at home and were there any modern types of entertainment?
PD: "There was a phone at the school where I worked. To call someone, I dialed the switchboard operator in my village, who dialed the operator in the capital city, who then dialed the number I wanted. Some volunteers lived hours from a phone that could reach the operator in the capital. I mainly communicated with letters and sometimes my family would call me at the school. When I used letters, I was usually 6 weeks behind on what was happening. One of the highlights for entertainment during my service was being able to see movies in the capital city, Gaborone."
Times have definitely changed with this one. Today most volunteers have cell phones and access to the internet to talk to family members daily. Some volunteers are using Skype. Movie theatres are still in Gaborone. I just saw The Hangover Part 2 last week.
How did you report the work you were doing?
PD: "I would check in with the country director when he came to see me in my village or when I went to the capital city. We worked for highly reputable government departments that ran well. Heads of schools could monitor if volunteers were not performing, so our reporting was done in person. People in my group were teachers or doing trade instruction."
The changes in communication brought a big change in reporting. Presently volunteers have to fill out what can be up to a 14-page report every 3 months. Peace Corps quantifies the reports from around the world and provides information to Congress. The rise of HIV/AIDS also changed the work done in Botswana. All of the work is focused on HIV/AIDS awareness and mainly behavior change.
Conclusion: I definitely have more luxuries than Peter did when he served in Botswana, 1 year before I was born. I guess that definitely could lead some to say this experience leans more toward the Posh Corps. However, the world has changed a lot in the past 50 years and volunteers are still living near the level of the average person in their village, which is a goal of Peace Corps service and a point I will focus on in my next piece.