Is the Peace Corps worth it?

At some point during their service, nearly every Peace Corps volunteer reflects back on the past month or year or two years and asks themselves the million-dollar question (er, well, in my case, the $280/month question):

Is it worth it?

Is the Peace Corps worth it for our host countries? Does the work we do really make a difference? Is bringing Americans to live in underdeveloped communities worth constantly provoking the jarring contrast between privilege and struggle? Is it worth the potential to incite jealousy and resentment, worth the possibility of engendering false hope and unfulfilled dreams?

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And is it worth it for us volunteers? Is spending two years of our lives here worth the infinitesimal gains we may make, worth the three steps back for every one step forward? Is it worth the job opportunities passed by and the friends’ weddings and grandparents’ funerals and annual family Christmas feasts that we’re missing back home? Is it worth the loneliness and frustration and restlessness and discomfort and despair?

I pondered this question many times before joining the Peace Corps, because moving halfway across the world to live in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa for 27 months was not a decision I wanted to make lightly. Before starting off on the path less traveled, I came to the fork in the road, plopped myself down, and camped out there for a year. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer meant giving up a good job with great benefits and fun coworkers. It meant bidding farewell to a Subaru-driving, organic-almond-milk-drinking, fixed-gear-bicycle-pedalling, sure-let’s-take-a-day-trip-to-Lake-Tahoe-and-then-come-back-in-time-to-watch-the-sun-set-over-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge-because-we-can yuppie’s wet dream. It meant leaving loyal and hilarious friends, weirdly and lovably simpatico brothers, unwaveringly supportive parents, and doting grandmothers. It meant walking with eyes wide open into a new world where I knew successes would be fleeting and failures would be constant.

But I decided to do it anyway.

And yes, sometimes my life here feels like one long and convoluted detour. I bounce over potholes and swerve around roadblocks on a daily basis. Meetings get postponed and postponed again, then canceled. Every great idea I have for a new project to start in my community is met with an equally great obstacle that is either cultural, social, or bureaucratic. Fish farming programs are delayed for weeks, and when they do finally come together the farmers focus on the most random things to spend two hours arguing about.

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Life outside of work is often even more trying. Every time I step outside my hut I get leered at and verbally accosted like a lissome blonde trying to slip quietly past a construction site. The same little kids who act like I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread one day throw rocks through my doorway and demand money the next. My neighbor’s youngest daughter is ill with a disease that is easily curable in America and the clinic and the hospital have both told him that there’s nothing they can do. I spend a lot of time doing nothing. An embarrassingly large, shocking amount of time doing nothing.

When I’m working on projects, I question my motives and wonder if I’m just trying to appease my sense of guilt at not doing enough, at never doing enough. When I’m sitting in my hut reading, that guilt spreads over me like the sticky sheen of sweat that slathers my body each evening.

But evaluating the worth of a Peace Corps service isn’t as simple as jotting down attendance at meetings or counting new fish ponds. Development may be the easiest of our organizational duties to slap onto a job description, but it’s often the most difficult foundation upon which to build lasting results. Perhaps more solid are the lessons that we’re learning and teaching here in our host countries, as well as the insights that we’re bringing back to America. The effects of cultural exchange, though harder to quantify, may very well last longer than wells and libraries and fish ponds. Because thanks to sons and daughters and sisters and college roommates and nephews and ex-girlfriends who live in gray tenement buildings in Algeria and sticky flats in Thailand and parched mud huts in Zambia, there is a growing network of Americans back home who are learning a little bit more about the world around them. And our neighbors in our host countries are receiving similar lessons as they observe and interact with American women and men on a daily basis, many of them young, most of them serving alone, nearly all of them coming from a radically different cultural and ideological background. They study our differences and answer our questions and reflect on our commonalities, as we learn their language and eat their food and share in their lives.

And through it all we ourselves are constantly changing. I think of the transformations we’ve undergone and will undergo, the strengths we’re discovering, the self-esteem we’re building. I think about the friends we’ve made, the tears we’ve fought to hide, the laughter we’ve shared. I think about the certainties that I’m coming to realize aren’t quite as certain as I once thought they were. I think about the humility that I am slowly learning, the compassion and respect for my fellow human that is surging within me. And I ask myself again if it’s worth it.

The answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes. Every single step of this incredible journey is worth it: the triumphs, the setbacks, the elucidation, the confusion, the disillusionment, the clarity. There are so many reasons why joining the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. And the number of fish ponds I’ve helped farmers dig is nowhere near the top of the list.

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Fun with glow sticks

Last week, ten volunteers organized and hosted a 5-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Mansa for 14 students and 7 adult mentors from communities throughout Luapula Province. The camp was a smashing success and great fun was had by all as we raved with glow sticks, made s’mores, and taught a delighted pack of pre-teen girls how to do the Wobble in between actual educational sessions on topics such as assertiveness, reproductive health, income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS sensitization, and gender equality.

On the second-to-last day of camp, a British expat working with a local NGO came to assist with a sanitary pad workshop and mentioned that a girls’ group in a district further north in the province was doing a similar project, to great success. These girls were teaching and promoting the use of sanitary pads to classmates in their free time, away from school, because school policy forbade them from coming to class when they were on their periods. The really neat part though, she told us, was that evidently the leaders of the group, two young girls barely of menstruating age themselves and one older woman on the local PTA, had all learned how to make these sanitary pads at a camp which a Peace Corps volunteer had brought them to the year prior.

The first thing that came to mind was wow, that unsuspecting volunteer hit a sustainable development success story gold mine! I wonder who it is? Then it dawned on me: hey, the mentor I brought to last year’s Camp GLOW was a member of the PTA. I asked the woman what the name of the community was, and she told me that the group was in Nshinda. I swallowed. I live in Nshinda. That unsuspecting volunteer was me.

I should have been happy. Proud, even. But instead, all I could feel was embarrassment — I’d had absolutely no idea that this was going on at all. All of my attempts to start a GLOW group at the school with the teachers following the previous year’s GLOW camp had sputtered and died like a lawnmower running over an old shoe. I felt guilty for receiving accolades for something I didn’t do, ignorant for being completely oblivious that this was going on in my community without my knowing, and a little miffed that nobody who did know had told me about it.

Only later, after some conversations with more clear-headed volunteers, was I eventually made to understand that my not knowing about the girls’ group was not an indictment of my failure at community integration. Not only do the girls not speak English and I not know the words for period, menstruation, blood, or sanitary pad in Icibemba, but it wouldn’t matter even if we were best pals who chatted it up in homeroom every Wednesday morning, because talking about menstrual cycles and female genitalia in public is taboo in Zambian culture (and probably no less so if you’ve got a conspicuous foreign male in your midst). One friend reminded me gently that in America, most 7th and 8th grade girls would rather die than discuss their periods with their cute young male teacher. The only way that this group could have been a safe place for pre-teen and teenaged female students to learn and ask questions about periods and sanitary pads was if I were not involved at all.

Slightly mollified but still feeling like a bad volunteer, I resumed working on the slideshow that I was compiling for presentation the following day at the end of camp. But looking through the images captured during the week and then watching the campers’ sparkling eyes the next morning as they watched raptly and giggled every time they or their friends made an appearance on screen, I began to realize that it didn’t matter that I was in the dark about this. The fact that these girls and this mentor had the initiative and drive and leadership to create this project entirely on their own speaks volumes to the core of true development that it is building, a foundation that will remain long after the lines in a Peace Corps volunteer’s resume have eroded away. I realized that this camp is for these girls and women, not for me. It doesn’t matter what I try to do with it, it only matters what they choose to do with it. With this newfound knowledge and experience, these girls are carrying back with them seeds of inspiration that have the potential to grow and change some small but important part of their community, in their small but important part of our world.

And if they can do that, then I’ll be fine never seeing a sanitary pad or hearing about menstrual cycles. Because, I mean, really? That’s gross.

ZamTwitter, Month 19

Random news from my nineteenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

November 11 – Big crowd at school today to watch President Sata’s funeral on TV. Irony: the only time the kids are all present is when there’s no class.

November 13 – In a decade filled with not-exactly-erudite Google searches, this one might be the most embarrassing: “Which book comes after Twilight?”

November 15 – I haven’t eaten a fresh non-onion vegetable in a week. What’s the word for that? Scurvy? Come on rainy season, grow some plants.

November 17 – Visited Sebastian’s other house today. The best part of having a host with two wives is that they compete to see whose cooking I like best.

November 20 – First all-day rains of the season. Collected 50 liters of water and now my roof is leaking. Rain is great until suddenly it’s annoying.

November 24 – Heading down to Mansa for my last Provs. 35 volunteers, 16 beds, intermittent running water, and a Thanksgiving dinner with a Zambian twist.

November 27 – What I’m thankful for:
-Sweat that dries
-Bug bites that heal
-Parched fish ponds that fill with rainwater
-A world that abounds with hope

November 28 – Look up exasperation in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of your bus breaking down just two kilometers from your house.

December 2 – Third straight day the rains have kept me stuck inside my house. Gives me a whole new understanding of cabin hut fever.

December 5 – I have whatever is the opposite of a green thumb: only two of the 25 moringa seeds I planted germinated. At least two is better than none.

December 8 – If you ever thought you’d seen disgusting before, try stepping inside a boy’s dormitory at a rural Zambian boarding high school. Oh, my.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on my solar panel

It’s officially rainy season in Nchelenge District, which means there is approximately a 100% chance of rain every day, even if said rain is only a few meager drops struggling to escape a smothering wet blanket of humidity. The near-constant cloud cover also means that Matt is finding it approximately 83% more difficult to glean enough sunlight to write and edit consistent blog posts. He’s trying not to be a baby about it.

Anyway, the next installment of our Peace Corps Zambia newsletter Zambitious is out. Unfortunately, we had to find a new name because of a copyright infringement issue. Fortunately, it hasn’t changed much, so you probably won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. Check out the October 2014 edition of Zambition!

Zambition October 2014