One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced in Peace Corps isn’t what you’d expect. I knew coming to West Africa that I’d be in the minority. I knew that I’d be treated differently because I’m a white woman. I knew that I’d have to work that much harder to prove, as a woman, I’m just as capable as any man. I expected this from the locals. I didn’t expect it from my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.
My first job out of college was working with red-blooded Oklahoman natural gas engineers. I know what it’s like to be in a man’s world. But that was Oklahoma, this is Peace Corps. When you think of Peace Corps, you imagine a bunch of liberal hippies off in Africa holding babies and living in a mud hut. That was the 60s, this is 2013. Volunteers join Peace Corps for different reasons now, such as travelling the world, trying new things, slapping it on a resume, giving back, challenging themselves, etc. I’m sure people had the same idea in the 60s, but the variety of people in the Peace Corps today is staggering. We have one thing in common though – we are all Americans.
As Americans we share a cultural history, which includes inequality and discrimination. We may not like that aspect of our history, but it is there. Maybe I was naïve, maybe I was idealistic, maybe I just didn’t even think about it, but I didn’t expect to face these issues during my Peace Corps service. I felt the cold hand of discrimination in my first year of service, but primarily with locals, or at least I thought so. As I look back on my service, I can see now that my first year was very difficult. I fought an uphill battle, lost a few battles, but in the end I feel like I won the war. Some of those battles involved me having to prove I was good enough, qualified, and capable to my fellow PCVs.
There exists currently an identity crisis within Peace Corps. I believe Peace Corps, as a government organization, knows where it is going and what its vision is for the future. Peace Corps is focusing more and more on partnerships with other governmental organizations, NGOs, businesses, and universities. It is also pushing heavily the Peace Corps Response positions and their new health/nurse program. You also see many recruitment efforts directed toward older individuals. Peace Corps still has the same focus though; the three goals have always remained the same: helping others in developing countries, sharing American culture with locals, and sharing local culture with Americans. There is always a difference between perception and reality though. While many people know of Peace Corps, they rarely know of all three goals. Most people think Peace Corps is just goal one, helping people in developing countries.
Peace Corps’ identity crisis stems from its perception and reputation among Americans. I haven’t met a single Peace Corps Volunteer yet that didn’t have the same general idea of what serving would be like. I like to refer to it as the Peace Corps Ideal. It may not be the expectation, but everyone imagines that when you join Peace Corps you will be sent to some far off corner of the world (generally Africa). You’ll live in a mud hut among the locals. You’ll sit under a shady tree sweating profusely while you speak to the locals in their native language. You’ll forgo electricity and running water and live simply for two years. You’ll have little contact with the outside world and the nearest Peace Corps Volunteer will take a bus, train, donkey, and bike ride to get to. You’ll be alone for two years. No matter how much research you do (I did a ton – reading blogs, reading books, talking to people), it is hard to shake that image of what Peace Corps service should be. Peace Corps might have been that at some point in its history, but not anymore.
There are varying reactions once you get to country, get to site, and realize that your service does not fit into the Ideal. Some people embrace the new conveniences of service: rapid expansion of cell phone networks in the developing world, close proximity to other volunteers, electricity either in your village or the next biggest one, and living in a house made of anything but mud. Some people balk at these conveniences. Some people struggle to accept them. Some people will fight to live simply, even purposely forgoing convenience to conform to the Ideal.
The biggest issue I’ve faced with the Ideal is people refusing to work together because the Ideal dictates that Peace Corps is an individualistic activity, the living and working alone factor. The fallacy inherent in this thinking is striking. Peace Corps is about people: living, working, and sharing with people. That includes other Peace Corps Volunteers as well. In Peace Corps Ghana, we have over 160 Volunteers for a country the size of Oregon. My closest Volunteer neighbor is 15 minutes away. In my region alone, we have 25 volunteers. Volunteers throughout the country work together on sector projects, clubs/groups, and events. For instance, we have the Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative, an agriculture sector project in which 17 volunteers focus on cashew projects. We all work together in some capacity, whether resource sharing, a direct project, or knowledge transfer. There’s also the SWAT team, a group of Volunteers who focus on malaria prevention and education for Host Country Nationals and Peace Corps Volunteers. Then there are events such as the GLOW camp: a leadership and girls empowerment weeklong event for girls. I know of very few people who have not worked with another Volunteer in some capacity.
So, you’ll understand my surprise when I found myself having to prove my credentials, worthiness, and ability to Volunteers who subscribe to the Peace Corps Ideal. The same individuals who believe Peace Corps should be about individuals doing things alone and isolated. I’ve had to pass the same tests everyone else has to to join Peace Corps. We are all qualified to be Volunteers, otherwise we just wouldn’t be here. Then why have I consistently needed to prove myself to my fellow Americans? I think I finally realized what it boils down to: being in the minority.
Minorities throughout the years have struggled to prove to the majority that they are worthy of having their voice heard. Women continue to fight to prove to men that just because we have different parts and hormones we are not inferior. Racial minorities make it known that skin color does not affect your capacity for greatness. Within Peace Corps Ghana, I’m in a small minority of business people. Most Volunteers have agriculture, environment, health, education, or science backgrounds. Business people have a different mindset, we see things differently from say someone with a degree in biology. I see a problem and I analyze it from every angle. I’m always thinking of contingency plans. I see a problem and I want to put numbers to it. I want to maximize opportunity and minimize risk. I see every problem as an opportunity. For a lot of people who haven’t worked with people with business mindsets, it can be quite jarring. And for a lot of people who haven’t worked with me I can come off as quite strong.
But does this make me inferior? No. I’m worthy of having my voice heard. I’m a capable Peace Corps Volunteer. I will continue to face adversity from individuals who don’t understand my point of view or don’t think my voice is loud enough to listen to. The only thing I can do is continue my work. I will continue to work hard, pursue the three goals of Peace Corps, and initiate projects. Eventually, people will stop limiting their judgments based on the superficial. This isn’t unique to Peace Corps. This happens in every workplace, in every country.
So I hold my head up high and know that I’m doing my best. That’s all you can do.