My journey begins tonight and it's too late to back out now. As I've spoken with friends and family about my future a number of question have arisen about what my Peace Corps service will be about. So, I've decided to propose some of those questions here and answer them much more eloquently (I hope) than I have in actual conversation.
(1.) So where is The Gambia?
-Being one of the least discussed places in the world on the least understood continent, I didn't expect many people to know where The Gambia is, especially in an age where young Americans can barely find Canada on a map let alone Iraq or a tiny West African country. That being said, I was impressed that a few people I talked with actually had heard of The Gambia and knew where it was located in the world. For those who may not have heard of such a place however, I'll provide a map.
There, now everyone is intimately familiar with the location of The Gambia. For facts about the country, please visit the CIA World Factbook.
(2.) How do you feel about working for the United States government?
-While I'm not in agreement with all of the policies of the current administration to say the least, I have no reservations about being a Peace Corps volunteer. The reason is that the Peace Corps operates only in countries that request volunteers. I feel comfortable knowing that the community which I will eventually join wants a volunteer to assist them in any development work that they may want to pursue. Secondly I agree with the promotion of Soft Power. Soft power is a political science principle that is described by using peaceful and supportive actions to influence other nations into believing what you stand for. I think that the United States really does strive to be a free, fair and thriving society and that Americans wish for those ideals to be shared by every people in the world. Unfortunately, actions that are associated with Hard Power (military might) such as invasion, war and torture, sully the American image. One of the best ways to promote the positive image instead, I believe, is to engage in Soft Power programs that provide technical development and relief assistance with the goal of raising global standards of living alleviating poverty. Programs like the Peace Corps.
(3.) How do you pack for something like this?
-Well lets just say I should be sponsored by Ziplock. Packing has been a very slow and careful process. Of course I was provided with a packing list, but my mind has still been plagued with hesitations. Is there anything I should have that is not on the list? What items are really necessary? Will I be able to find these things in The Gambia? Will my bags be within the airline weight and size requirements? Everything needs to be functional, but still appropriate for the local culture. Each item I have selected to take has passed the test of my careful consideration. I have enjoyed the organizational aspect of packing, though now that it has come time to actually put everything into the bags I will travel with, I have found it dificult to proceed. As I write this entry I have made serious progress and I imagine everything will ultimately be under control, but there is still more to do...and I leave tonight.
(4.) Are you nervous?
-I have to admit that I am nervous, but probably not in the ways my fellow volunteers may be. For me, learning about and integrating into a new community is the easy part. I have no problem with taking bucket showers, using pit toilets, or spending long periods without electricity and other amenities. No qualms with riding in sketchy buses and eating the same thing for dinner, week after week. I've done those things before in my semester abroad in Tanzania. What gets me nervous is the pressure of actually helping the people I will be with. I hope I have, or will soon acquire, the skills to make positive changes in my future Gambian community. And I hope the friendships I make with Gambians and fellow volunteers will be lifelong.
(5.) How do you respond to those that say older more skilled volunteers are more valuable?
-That is a very important concern that I've had to deal with personally. The conclusion I've come to is that there is no denying that bringing skilled experts may often prove to be more productive than training younger volunteers from scratch. Yet a skilled volunteer without motivation or initiative will be worthless compared to a young volunteer who is serious and passionate about making a positive impact and gaining important experiences that they can utilize to continue to raise standards of living in the future. I may not have all the skills of an older volunteer yet, but I plan on bringing passion to the table which will hopefully allow me to learn and thrive, giving me the experience necessary to truly make the impact I wish to have.
(6.) How will you communicate?
-Internet access will most likely NOT be a regular thing while I'm in The Gambia, especially during the first few months. If email is truly your groove-thing though, feel free to shoot me a message, short or long, and I'll get back to you the next time I get a chance. Writing letters will be essential without the internet, so I've listed my address on the righthand side of this webpage. As far as I know, I'll be getting a mail delivery once per month and just like the emails I'll respond to every one. I love the idea of the handwritten word - each author has their own distinct handwriting characteristics and paper preferences, plus other worthwhile things can be put into envelopes like interesting articles, product labels or photographs. Letters written on typewriters are encouraged as well. If all else fails I hope to buy a cell phone and I will post the number here when I get it. It will probably cost me a months pay to make an international call so I'd suggest if you want to say hello, you ought to call me. Phone cards are available online.
(7.) What is the future of this website?
-While I have enjoyed highlighting fascinating resources, innovations and photographs thus far with this fine piece of internet real estate, this space will now be the online home of my Peace Corps journal. I hope to discover similar examples of innovation within The Gambia, but those entries will be mixed with other experiences I have as well.
So that's that, I'm sure there may have been more questions, but these were the ones that seemed most important to answer,,,and anyways, now it's time to finish packing and walk through the door. Don't forget to write.