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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14 thoughts on “Is the Peace Corps worth it?

  1. Matt, you have given all of us readers a beautiful Christmas gift of your heart and your words and youR humor!! and the pictures of the kids are a gift to us all!!! Let’s hear it for the RESOUNDING YES!!!

  2. Matt, Missing you this Christmas but as I read and reread this post, I totally agree with you. I know I am a better person because of your dad and your service with the Peace Corps. Sometimes one of my students will share an interesting tidbit about Zambia or Africa and I will ask, “How did you know that?” and they reply, “Because you told us about your son in Zambia…..” and that inspired them to learn more. Thanks to you and all the other Peace Corps Volunteers for your willingness to serve.

  3. Matt, I’m so glad there are people like you in the Peace Corps. Though we all miss you terribly, we can take solace in knowing that someone with your maturity, awareness, character, and intelligence is representing our country in another land. I couldn’t think of a better person to fit that role. You’re an inspiration to us all, and we’re so very grateful for what you’re doing in Zambia, the sacrifices you’ve had to to make, the hardships you’ve had to endure. Keep up the good work, and please know that there are a good many of us back home thinking of you.

  4. Reblogged this on The Nicaventure and commented:
    One of the best things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is how universal the experience can sometimes feel no matter where you are serving in the world. One of our favorite blogs is from a Volunteer serving in Zambia. His blog is called Fishing in Zambia.

    His latest post, “Is the Peace Corps Worth It?” was so poignant, we decided to reblog it here. Especially as Michaela and I just spent our first Christmas away from friends and family, this couldn’t have come at a better time. Enjoy!

  5. A Peace Corps service is one of the most rare and challenging human endeavors. In this unique context a person can ask the tough questions you are asking. That in itself is a “worth” foreign to most humanity.

  6. Pingback: Is the Peace Corps worth it? | J and J Fish Farm Stay

  7. This is a great and inspiring post! I’m leaving on January 11th for Peace Corps in Ethiopia. The date is approaching quickly, and I’m starting to go through all of the things that I’m going to miss from home (friends, family, surfing, job, independence). I know Peace Corps will be challenging, and I hope it will also be worth it for me in the end.

  8. The true measure of the veracity and authenticity of your words is that this is the conclusion that every single PCV finally rests in by the end of their service (at least the ones that don’t ET.) I’ve often thought that PC goals should be upended: 2 & 3 are much more essential to our service that #1 has proved to be. Lovely post!

  9. Reblogged this on Finding Chimwemwe and commented:
    To make up for my two-week silence, here’s a wonderful post by a wonderful fellow Zambian PCV blogger – about a topic that, as he says, plays over and over in most PCVs’ minds. I’ve often thought about writing a post on this subject. But Matt has written so eloquently about it that now I don’t have to. It’s also a great introduction to his awesome blog.

  10. Reblogged this on The Wanderer in Zambia and commented:
    To make up for my two-week silence, here’s a wonderful post by a wonderful fellow Zambian PCV blogger – about a topic that, as he says, plays over and over in most PCVs’ minds. I’ve often considered a post on this subject. But Matt has written so eloquently about it that now I don’t have to. It’s also a great introduction to his awesome blog.

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