What do you think of when you think of Peace Corps Service?
It’s been so long since I first thought of Peace Corps, I don’t really remember the reason I wanted it so bad. I was 16 when I first started looking into Peace Corps. I was taking a sustainable foods class and I wanted to change the world. Maybe that’s where it started, my naive God complex. I wanted people to care about sustainability and protecting the earth. I was even thinking of being an agriculture volunteer because you only needed an associates degree and agriculture experience. Getting that experience was a little harder than I thought, so I went back to pursuing my psych degree. I put Peace Corps on the back burner thinking it wouldn’t fit into my life path again easily, but it was still interesting.
When I was applying to graduate school, I was thinking I might want a break. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go straight to school for another 4 years, because at the time I was planning to go straight to a doctorate in clinical psych. What could I do that had a succinct timeline to ensure I went back to school and didn’t just get sucked into a job? Oh, Peace Corps. So I started looking into it again. In the process, I found my Masters’ degree. I had no plans with this Masters’ degree. It was literally just my way of getting a Masters’ with my Peace Corps Service.
At this point, I really had no notion that I was doing Peace Corps for anyone but myself. I didn’t think that I would somehow be able to impart some great knowledge to this other population. I don’t think that highly of myself, really. What do I as a 20 year old (at the time) with a psych degree and odd job experience have that is going to somehow change the world? No, I mainly was thinking about what Peace Corps could do for me. It was a way to travel for free, learn about another culture, become more open minded and culturally understanding, challenge myself, and maybe help some people in the process. It was a way of getting away from American society to put it into perspective. I really was cynical and depressed by what I saw in the U.S. and I wanted to see how other countries did things differently. I didn’t see myself as brave for traveling to a foreign country (especially the big scary continent of Africa, as a lot of people viewed it) by myself. I didn’t see myself as an inspiration. I just felt like I needed to get away; to view things from afar in order to put them into focus. I didn’t have a picture in my mind of all the change I was going to make in this country, but I had an idea of all the change I was going to make in myself.
Even to me, this sounds a bit selfish. I’m using all your tax dollars to move to another country for two years and my main motive isn’t to “save” people? Why didn’t I just do some magic mushrooms and get back to life like everyone else? Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to help people if I can here, but I think there are enough white people who think they can somehow solve the worlds problems; I don’t need to add myself to those ranks.
Peace Corps is everything you expect, while being nothing like you expect. My Masters’ program and RPCV friends really taught me not to have many expectations when it came to my service, but of course I did. I expected to not have electricity, running water, or even a tin roof. I thought I’d be living in a mud hut, have to send letters home that would take months, only be able to talk to my mom once a week and everyone else rarely, and be shopping in a local market instead of a grocery store. I thought I’d rarely hear English, and have all these Batswana friends. I thought that I’d have these big PC projects that would make some difference in my community. I absolutely did not think that I would be teaching because that’s not a sustainable project. What happens when I leave? None of those expectations panned out.
A lot of people would say that that makes my service easier. I get to speak my mother tongue, I have all the internet and electricity I can afford, I rarely have to send letters, and I occasionally have running water. I’m living the lap of luxury. “Posh Corps” as some call it. Every PC service has its challenges though. It doesn’t matter what amenities you have in the end. And at this point, there are very few “traditional” PC services because the world is changing. Botswana is not at all what America portrays “Africa” to be in its poverty porn. Of course, I got more of a “traditional” PC experience in my first village, but that was cut short. In fact, most of my service has been interrupted by one thing or another. I don’t even feel like I’ve really gotten started on my service.
We’re about halfway through our service now and this is the time when our cycle of vulnerability chart says we should be going through our mid-service crisis or MSC as I call it. This is the time where people freak out because they feel like time is going too fast or too slow, they aren’t accomplishing enough, or they don’t know why they’re here. It finally hits that we’re in another country and we’re actually supposed to be doing something. I do understand why people feel like they have an MSC on the one hand, but I think for other people, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re given this cycle of vulnerability chart when we first get here and people expect it to be true. Nothing about my service has followed this chart. But my service has been a strange one.
During PST, I dealt with my first unimaginable loss. My friend Sarah died relatively unexpectedly. Before that, the only losses I had experienced were grandparents when we had months if not years to prepare. Luckily, I received some great support from my fellow PCVs and I managed to grieve pretty well.
Fast forward a couple months. I’ve been at site for 2 months and I get evicted. Not many people have to leave their site and when they do it’s frequently by choice. PC is an isolating experience and frequently our homes are the only places we feel truly comfortable. It’s the only place we can be 100% ourselves and not have to bridge cultural differences or explain our behavior. Being kicked out of the one place that is your sanctuary in a foreign country is very unnerving. I came very close to packing my bags at that point. I felt like I had gone to so much work to integrate in my village and to really determine what Ralekgetho needed, I didn’t feel like I could do that in another village. That’s when the last expectation of doing huge projects and making giant differences evaporated.
I realized then that just being here; being a strong, independent, young woman; breaking stereotypes and expectations; and showing youth that that’s OK is enough. I don’t need to do some big fancy project to help people. I don’t need to build a preschool, or run a ton of glow camps. I just need to be me, to be open and honest, and to be willing to have open discussions with youth that aren’t very open here normally. So that’s when I decided that it was more acceptable for me to embrace the selfishness of my service. It’s OK for me to focus on my personal growth and myself, because otherwise, I was going to go crazy here. And also because that sets a great example of individuation and autonomy that isn’t normally seen here. I didn’t feel like I could completely commit to another project and have it yanked from my grasp again. So I had to distance myself a little more and also recognize that sometimes the small things can have even bigger impacts.
Moving to Kanye was very hard. I struggled a lot with the new village, the tight role that they tried to force me into, the expectations that were held, but not shared by my counterparts, and the fact that I was back to the beginning of my service while all of my friends were getting into the nitty gritty of theirs. I felt even more isolated and confined. Again, I started questioning why I was here and if I should keep trying so hard. It really wasn’t until May that I finally felt like I was settling in and finding my place. I had one great month of teaching and then we went into a month of exams where I had nothing to do. Then came July when we had the entire month off for winter break.
Unfortunately, after my brother went home the second week of July, I got really sick. I had been having symptoms of gallstones for months, but just trying to live with them. I really don’t like asking for help or seeing doctors. I consulted with my dad to make sure they wouldn’t kill me and then just tried to ignore it. However, it became apparent near the end of July that I needed to get them dealt with. I was so sick and in so much pain that I couldn’t even go to work when the next term started in August. It’s been a month now of very little symptom management and tests as PC decided what to do with me. They’ve finally decided to send me down to South Africa, where PC medical HQ is, to consult a surgeon and likely have surgery.
Yet again, I’ve had to put a hold on my service. It feels like one step forward and ten steps back. But this is the first challenge where I’ve had no thoughts of going home. Yes, it feels like I’ve done nothing tangible, but I’ve grown so much personally. And that’s what keeps me here. That’s what gets me through my service. Every day I become more of the person that I want to be. I learn more about myself and fall more in love with who I am. I’m becoming stronger, more resilient, braver, more understanding, and happier everyday. And I know that knowing myself is only going to help me understand other people better. I can’t even begin to help others until I can help myself.
So you don’t hear me talk much about my Peace Corps projects, or my Batswana friends, because I don’t have many. But I don’t have a lot of friends anywhere that I am. And I think it’s much more important for me to figure out how to be my own friend here. Maybe I should be trying harder to do creative projects like music videos with my kids or do GLOW camps, but I’m doing the best with the cards I’ve been dealt so far. My students and I have already had many great discussions about personal development, sex, and growth and if that’s all I accomplish outwardly, it’s enough. Especially since my inward growth game is so strong.
This still may sound selfish, but I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in PC is that you have to know yourself and take care of yourself. You can’t be an effective volunteer at all if you aren’t taking care of yourself, because Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love.
I’m lucky in how much I’ve learned in this first year and I still have another year to go. I know that I have even greater things ahead of me and maybe they’ll include more outward accomplishments as well.