One (wo)man army

I have a couple questions for you, my readers:

  • From what you see in the brochures, blogs (this one and others) and facebook photos, what is your impression of the Peace Corps Volunteer’s job? What exactly is it that you think we do?
  • Do you (or don’t you) think it is difficult? Why?

I ask because it seems to me that it’s not very clear, not even to other employees of the US Mission in Nepal (such as an US Embassy consultant who recently visited me here).

It seems to me, friends at home predominately see photos of cute kids, exotic vacations, and smiling poor people. Sometimes they also see photos of volunteers in front of a classroom or delivering a training to a group of community members sitting around a shade tree. Clearly, if you think about it for just a moment, these paint a limited picture. They tell the story of cultural exchange and display our hard-earned successes, but they do not tell the story of all the work it takes to get there. As someone excited to join the Peace Corps, I myself did a lot of research, read many blogs, asked returned volunteers questions – but none of it really prepared me to actually understand what I’d be doing, nor what makes it so difficult.

To begin to answer these questions, let’s review the Peace Corps Mission and three Goals:

The Peace Corps Mission: To promote world peace and friendship.
Goal 1: To help the people of other countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women;
Goal 2:  To promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served, and;
Goal 3:  To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.

As you can see, both our mission and 2/3rds of our goals focus on cultural exchange. Yes, it is part of my job to sit down and discuss religion with a local over a cup of tea. It is also my job to attend weddings and local festivals dressed in a sari. It may seem sort of crazy and possibly even trivial or easy to those of you who haven’t spent much time living in another country before. But cultural exchange does in fact carry a great many challenges, especially at first. Are they what makes Peace Corps work so difficult?

The brunt of the challenges of cultural exchange are emotional. I believe these challenges are generally well-documented by PCVs and thus fairly well understood by those who are close with PCVs (or closely follow their blogs). You, my readers, have probably come to understand the challenge of being given a couple months lessons on language and culture, then sent out to a community in middle of nowhere with a handful of guidance books, a mosquito net and your wits. The challenge of the intimate living situation – of sharing a home with locals, eating every meal with them (plate after heaping plate of rice and spiced lentils), following their house rules even when they don’t make sense to you or even upset you – for a full two years. The challenge of spending hours upon hours sitting down to tea with new people, answering the same five questions; of being exhausted by the obligation to socialize virtually every waking hour. The challenge of being a foreigner in a place that knows almost nothing about other countries aside from what they see in movies, or in tourist hot-spots (“all white people love to hike, don’t they?”). The challenge of being the butt of many a joke – at first beyond your understanding, and then, worse, to your understanding.

Additionally, the immersion model of Peace Corps also brings many life-style challenges, which arguably cover the most apprehended challenges of prospective volunteers. Blogs and photos frequently document the shock and awe of developing country infrastructure and relative lack of sanitation (as many of my posts have here). Yes, it is initially quite shocking to realize that a 200km stretch of road takes 7 hours to cover by bus (subtracting two bathroom stops, the average speed is then ~20 MPH). Food lacks variety. Shop keepers frequently serve tea out of freshly washed glasses – washed with untreated water, but not dried. Rooms tend to be much more basic than rooms in the US: hot water is a rare luxury; bucket and public bathing are common; and a great many undesirable critters tend to invite themselves inside.

So yes, challenges of cultural exchange and developing country life-style are undeniably difficult – when we first arrive. But, if you ask any Peace Corps volunteer or other international field worker, the difficulty of these challenges diminishes with time. Somewhat remarkably, one’s patience does in fact grow. The fact that it does is a testament to our innate ability to adapt. After a year, volunteers meet all of these challenges with a self-satisfied smile on their face. “I’ve got this,” we think to ourselves. And thus, I would argue, the challenges of cultural exchange do not in fact encompass the greatest difficulty of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Then – what does?

Cultural adaptation – “adjustment” – once achieved, the volunteer is properly equipped to jump to technical work in a culturally sensitive way without inhibition, right? Well – sort of. Effectively, each volunteer is a one wo/man army for development projects. Yes, we are given training on proper project design and management and lectures on responsible development practices, and yes, ideally we are working alongside motivated locals each step of the way. But executing each step in the field by oneself is much easier said then done, especially as we begin to juggle multiple projects. By “each step” I am referring to the basic steps in project design:

Needs-assessment (and base-line data)

To put this in perspective, in the world of development work (USAID, UN, NGOs, INGOs), each step is often a job unique to itself. They have project teams – program managers, program developers (planners), field workers (implementers), and MR&E staff (monitoring & evaluation) all working together on a suite of projects. This de-bundling of project tasks is a clear result of job specialization precisely because each part requires a different set of skills. For the Peace Corps Volunteer: it’s all bundled into one. And we have to fill in all the gaps between: We’re motivators, trying to get community members engaged and interested in new projects because development projects cannot and will not succeed without community buy-in and ownership. We are facilitators of problem identification and communal planning. We help delegate project tasks to the community members who say they can achieve them, and spend a lot longer than we’d like following up to keep things moving. We make connections, informing community members of services and resources already available to them, waiting to be used; bringing national NGOs to communities that need their services the most. We are resource-gatherers, figuring out who’s got what and where and for how much. We are fundraisers, working with locals to both locate and obtain the funds for their projects – while simultaneously fighting the expectation that we can procure money out of nowhere without their assistance. We are mentors, helping build the skill set of community members so that they have the capacity do development projects on their own when we leave. And so much more.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s unachievable. What I am saying is – it’s challenging! – and truly is the most neck-deep in any project we are likely to ever be in our lives. Peace Corps work is just about as on-the-ground as it gets; definitive field-work. Additionally, because of the cultural immersion aspect of our program, we are personally close to most or all of the individuals involved in each project – and thus have an emotional investment in getting these projects to succeed. We are the foot-soldiers of development work. We are community movers and shakers. We are tireless campaigners for positive change from the ground up.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer has been a crazy experience that has me learning more things then I could have possibly imagined. After you’ve been through it all – the cultural mis-haps, the landslide bus-delays, the full suite of development project skills – you truly understand and appreciate the Peace Corps Motto:

The toughest job you’ll ever love.