Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Secret to Being a Happy and Integrated Peace Corps Volunteer

I wanted to post the piece I wrote for the Peace Corps health newsletter in Gambia that was published shortly after I departed. Having heard a number of volunteers vent their frustrations with the experience I wanted to share some thoughts with newer volunteers and even people looking towards the Peace Corps in the future about how to make their time worthwhile. The piece has been adapted slightly for appeal to a wider audience. I'm on my way to Lesotho next week for my third year as a Peace Corps volunteer. I hope to hit the ground running with these thoughts as my guide...

The Secret to Being a “Happy and Integrated Peace Corps Volunteer”

Relax. Nearly all of us struggle to find a sense of purpose as Peace Corps Volunteers. Our challenge is to maintain a semblance of sanity and good health while actually making a worthwhile contribution to the development of the country where we live. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I have enjoyed my service and when I leave I'm going to genuinely miss the Gambia. Because most of us wish to look back on our service as productive and beneficial, not a complete waste of time, I want to share a few strategies that I've found to be effective in making me feel good about my service.
Number one is language. Being able to communicate well with your community is essential for revealing the true opinions, attitudes and needs of the people around you. Having language skills in your toolbox helps put your mind at ease in that you can be more confident that you are not insulting people with your strange American behavior. You never know when a casual conversation will give you an idea for a new project or present an opportunity for an ad hoc, informal teaching session. From young, squirrelly children to wizened elders of bygone generations it's important to be aware of the sentiment people harbor about development issues in your community. Good communication will help exhume village ingenuity and contribute towards the sustainability of your efforts. Plus, it's comforting to know that when you make connections with people instead of them talking trash about you behind your back, you can feel more confident that they've got your back when you need them. Of course it's possible to make solid connections without amazing language skills, yet the ability to understand others' needs and preferences and for you to articulate your own certainly helps. Anyone has the power to become proficient in at least one local language during their service, but doing so takes commitment. I suggest making best use of the Peace Corps resources, writing down new words as you hear them and seeking out local language adult literacy books that tell stories and progress in difficulty. Of course just speaking the language regularly will be the best way to train your tongue and sharpen your ear. I'm far from being a social butterfly, I've even been called an outcast and I may not reply to your texts anytime soon, but yet I have been able to reach a very solid level of Mandinka. Yes, language, the nemesis of many volunteers, has greatly enriched the quality of my service. And if you get good enough you can always go back to America and open a school to teach your language and make a lot of money. Oh wait, almost nobody has ever heard of Mandinka.

Number two is legitimate counterparts. If you are having difficulty finding meaningful work, take the time to observe who is active in your community and link up with them. Nearly every village has a couple of motivated individuals who just seem to get “it”. People who aren't afraid to try new things will be the most receptive your ideas. Assisting them in their work or collaborating with them on projects you propose will ensure sustainable and simply make it more likely that quality work happens. Working with solid counterparts is also a way for you to utilize your best skills, whether artistic, technological or whatever. Good counterparts present you with a platform to really show your stuff. I've heard many volunteers saying the maxim “No change in the Gambia.” Oh, I get it, it's a pun. Funny. Except that it's not true. Almost nobody is saying that change is particularly fast here, especially social change, but let me assure you that change is happening. Imagine what the Gambia was like 20 years ago with no mobile network, few paved roads, more conservative gender roles for women, lower school enrollment etc. The Gambia has come a long way and the people you take as counterparts are the change agents that make the process happen. The same can like be said in every country where Peace Corps operates. That's why it's so important for us as Peace Corps Volunteers to share ideas with local people and expand the scope and quality of projects that we deem to be truly worthwhile. I've met many Gambians who are intelligent, innovative, respectful and want to see their country develop. Those people are out there waiting for you to partner with them.

Number three is attitude. In experiencing life in West Africa and other developing countries you have to be open minded. If you think Gambians are fatalistic, listen to many Peace Corps Volunteers. It doesn't help much to make generalizations or condemn people for their views. Try to realize how people form their perspectives and see if you can chip away at any misconceptions they may have. The process goes both ways however and it's enlightening to know that once you spend a significant time in the Gambia, you will never be able to think about Africa the way you did before. But to be enlightened you have to get out of your hut or whatever type of shelter you call home. You have to put away the 100 in 1 Disney movies DVD and the blue films and get in the dance circle. Sure, a foreign culture can be overwhelming at times and we all need a break once in awhile, but don't let the periodic escape characterize your service. Instead take difficult local circumstances to be a challenge to your American ingenuity. Know that the way we approach our community will determine how they view us and how they respond to our ideas. Personal time is important, but use that time to recharge so you can stay positive and have fun with people in your community. As Americans we come from very different backgrounds as the people in the communities we're posted in (of course even Americans are a diverse crowd) so there's plenty of learning and exchange to be done. A little cultural sensitivity with Gambians can actually be quite enjoyable if you know what I mean. Learn to appreciate the simple things such as cold water and electricity as luxuries and not rights. Life can be a struggle and my colleagues here all know it's one hell of a struggle here in the Gambia, but the struggle demonstrates our strength and gives us some damn good stories to tell.

Lastly, number four is creative release. In a stressful environment, especially one with ample free time, catharsis can soothe the soul. Personally, I'm a madman of a photographer. My cursed photographer's eyes sees inspiration everywhere. If I'm not carrying my camera I'm probably wishing I was. Writing can be enjoyable as well, except if I'm dripping sweat all over the paper. In the Gambia my views about development are changing all the time, so there's plenty to write about. I think pretty much everyone feels an urge to creatively produce from time to time. And there's no better time than now to hone your skills and get the creative juices flowing. In the Gambia there's always open mic night and the annual Peace Corps photo contest to present your genius to the world.

That's about all the advice I have to share. From one “happy and integrated” volunteer to another, I hope you can have a worthwhile experience wherever you are. Oh yeah, one more thing. Relax.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! My husband and I have just sent in our medical packets and it is nice to read something like this as we look forward to (hopefully) getting an invitation. Also, I completely relate to the "photographer's eye"... sometimes I have to force myself to put the camera down and enjoy the moment rather than trying to capture the moment for later.

Joan McKniff said...

I was an early volunteer, 63-65, and totally agree with these 4 "secrets." I would add one, except for inside your hut, room, tent,or villa, get those damm earbuds out of your ears. YES, YOU...NOW! Why on earth do you want to give the villagers, fellow teaching staff, folks on the bus the message that you've come half way around the world to listen to Cold Play and not them, that you don't give a damm about what they are saying, what's going on in their lives? Talk about rude! Plus you're flaunting a piece of equipment most people could not begin to afford. Rude again! It is also throwing away the experience of a lifetime for yourself: to real live in the culture and the moment, to be fluent in their language. it is close to impossible to be effective unless you are fluent in their culture and that is hard to do w/o being fluent in their language. Plus w.o that you miss all the funny jokes, wordplay, and stories of life and death. I GO NOW BYE BYE does not convey the local language message of " I have to leave the village. My father wants me to go live and work in my uncle's house so my brother can go to school. And I'm sad and scared."

I'll now try to stop but it's hard because I'm turning my legacy over to you new volunteer and I want you to recognize how valued it is.

Margaret aka Peggy said...

Thanks much Zach for your words of experience and wisdom. I'm anxiously awaiting my invitation as a retiree. I hope I haven't "gone soft" in the 40+ years since I first thought of joining the Peace Corps. Volunteering takes effort and I want to believe I'm ready to embrace it!
Best wishes to you.

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