As I sit here recovering from typhoid/malaria/whatever was living inside my body (aliens, definitely, aliens), I have been thinking a lot about the Peace Corps Experience. Some people question whether Peace Corps is a development agency or a government sponsored cultural exchange. Some people might even question if Peace Corps is where college grads go to figure out their lives and get a free trip to somewhere exotic.
Peace Corps is so much more than any of that. Peace Corps is what you make of it. And so far it has been the greatest experience ever. Why? Here are some reasons why Peace Corps has changed my life and continues to do so daily.
Seems strange to start a list of reasons why Peace Corps is amazing with “frank discussions,” but it is true. There is something in the filtered water here that allows Volunteers to speak freely, about anything. Nothing is taboo. Nothing is off the table. When you live in isolation, you start to observe much more. For instance, never in a million years would I have thought “I wonder why a group hut latrine is the method of choice in this town” in America. Weird and strange things like that, simple, but can spur a rousing discussion.
Other things we discuss often, loudly, and with no qualms: poo, mysterious ailments, rashes, things found in your latrine, sex, body hair, bug bites, cashews, bureaucracy, cutting snakes’ heads off, and things you can do with a machete.
It may seem trivial, but being able to have frank, open discussions, about any topic is incredibly freeing.
You spend 2 and a half months with a small group of people and you can’t help but make amazing friends. When you are together more than 12 hours a day, you are forced to make new relationships. Training, while stressful, was a great experience simply because I now have new friends that amaze me. Peace Corps is like speed dating, but with friends. Must be the water, the heat, or the food – but everything is more intense in Peace Corps. Your emotions, your experiences, your sunburns, your friendships. We are all going through the same thing (and it turns out sometimes we go through LITERALLY the same thing), so we are more in sync with each other. We are all on the same rollercoaster, experiencing the same pains, heartbreaks, and joys.
Going back to the isolation thing too, when you are isolated, every time you see a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer it is like seeing a ship pass by when you are stranded on an island. Finally, there is salvation. There is someone there for you. You are there for them. Other Volunteers are the best support system possible.
I’m so privileged to have the friends I have here.
Have you ever walked through a community of 40,000 people and had every single person greet you? And most of the time it is with a different name each time (at least for me). Have you ever walked into your house and had 16 people come out to welcome you home with the biggest smiles on their faces? Have you ever considered yourself a part of 5 different families? Have you ever sat in a circle and eaten mangoes from a pail with 4 people all covered in mango juice? Have you ever planned your clothes according to which part of town you were going to? Have you ever gone to the tailor and been complimented on how fat your bottom is?
To me integration is a lot of different things. To me integration is accepting a new culture, flaws and all. It is about not comparing the differences between your native culture and the new one, but appreciating the similarities. It is accepting that this is how things work here and working within those differences. Integration is about feeling like you are home in a new community. Integration is being yourself within the context of a different culture.
I feel integrated when I slip on a batik dress made by my tailor, then go into town. Greeting people in Twi as I go. I come across my friends and shake hands with them, I share a joke with them – in my usual sarcastic or snarky way – and they understand it. I still feel like me, but I feel like me has expanded.
When else in your life do you have the opportunity to work on something at such a ground level? I would say grassroots, but there isn’t really a lot of grass here. I can start projects, work on existing ones, or work with partners to create bigger projects. Honestly, I can kinda do whatever I want. How awesome is that? When you have a normal, American job, you have a job description and specific duties. Not here. As laid out by the three goals of Peace Corps:
1. Help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries.
2. Promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served
3. Promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people
Only one of these goals has anything to do with work. Peace Corps is a skills exchange. I’ll show you how to type, make an excel spreadsheet, and how to prune your cashew trees. You will show me how to wash clothes by hand, survive off basic foods, and use limited resources to do just about everything. In the process you exchange cultures.
I get to work with a phenomenal cashew crew on a truly meaningful project. I have watched fellow Volunteers find a need and create a solution. I have watched regular people go above and beyond to help an entire industry succeed in this country. I have helped with a project that will increase transparency in the value chain.
Peace Corps gives you the freedom to go into a community and do something the community actually needs. You have control over your projects. I know that this will be the only time I will ever have a job that lets me be me.
Trying new things
Food, clothes, dances, experiences, languages. I get to try them all. I love trying new foods. The excitement of your first hand dip into the bowl of questionable soup. Suddenly, you discover that – hey this bush meat tastes pretty good! I feel like Peace Corps has really opened me up to trying new things. Before, I would try new things if I really wanted to. Here, I kinda have to. No excuses. Try it. If you don’t like then, hey at least you get to tell all your friends back home – no river crabs, do not taste good.
Learning a new language
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to boast that they speak a tribal language from Africa. It is pretty cool. Granted my Twi has decreased greatly since training, it is still wonderful to use the local language. The look on peoples faces when you attempt to use their language, it is priceless. It is like watching a lightbulb turn on when your power has been out for 2 weeks. So satisfying. The best way to learn a language is through immersion. Peace Corps is not only a development/culture organization it is probably also the best language program in the world.
Friends back home
I am constantly amazed at how supportive my friends back home are.They don’t have to keep in touch with me. They don’t have to send me care packages. They don’t have to skype me. But they do. And it makes life here so much easier. My friends back home actually further my experience here. It also helps you to realize who is truly important to you. I love my friends so much and I am so glad they get to live vicariously through me in Africa.
Some days you think – for gods sakes, just cure me! Other days you think – if I were back home in America, they never would have treated this in time. I would have had to pay through the nose with insurance and waited for weeks to have this test. Peace Corps is by far the best medical you will ever have. The doctors here care about your well being. They might be snippy when you forget it is Saturday and call them at home, but they still want to help you feel better. When I had typhoid and it got really bad – the doctor went into OMG LET’S FIX THIS NOW mode. Could you imagine having typhoid fever in America. They probably wouldn’t have figured out what it was until my spleen was popping out. The medical team makes sure you are in tip-top shape so that you can serve your community to your fullest. American medical teams just want your money.
Testing your limits
Peace Corps tests everything inside you. Your willpower, your strength, your patience, your resilience, your determination, and your initiative. You find out quickly what you are made of. I found this to be especially true during the first few months at site. Guess what? You are now living on your own in a little town in the middle of nowhere Ghana. Make it work. And you do. You figure out how to survive on little money, little food, and a lot of alone time. Being alone for so long, your mind starts to discover new things about you. I had some serious self-discovery this year and I have Peace Corps to thank.
If you can make it in Peace Corps, you can survive anything. If you can live two years on your own, dealing with loneliness, boring food, and horrible transportation, you can live in a tiny studio apartment in NYC or DC dealing with too many restaurant options and your neighbor stealing your wifi. Your experience here is what you make of it and part of that is learning to make it. There is such a satisfying feeling when you look inside yourself and realize, yes, you can do it. You are strong, you are patient, you are independent. You are everything you didn’t think you could be. You can put up with more than you can imagine. It sure makes moving back to the states look like cake walk.
One of a Kind Moments
You may just be sitting on a tro or sitting at home, but all of a sudden something will happen. Something you never expected would happen and it makes you smile. It doesn’t matter if it is a funny incident, a great story, a quip text from a friend, or something you watch unfold, one-of-a-kind moments happen often here. You will never be able to replicate them at home. You will forever have this fabulous memory of that one time. You will experience new things, meet new people, and share in new traditions. I have had some truly great experiences that will forever be with me, in my heart and soul. I’ve met people that have changed my life. That have helped me grow. I have been touched by the kindness and goodness in people’s hearts. I have beautiful memories that I will always hold dear. I have a whole slew of one-of-a-kind moments that float around in my mind and remind me that this is why I am here. This is why I love this. These moments are what make all the hardships and bad days worthwhile. These moments make me.
Even if Peace Corps isn’t the perfect development agency (show me one of those…). Even if Peace Corps is still searching for its identity 51 years later. Even if Peace Corps is basically an extremely cheap way of promoting public diplomacy. Peace Corps is still a truly one of a kind experience. It will forever change you for the better. I know it has changed me.