With less than 9 months left in my service, I’ve started reflecting on what I’ve learned so far. With a new group of Agriculture Volunteers settling into their sites, I’ve seen many of them struggle with the same issues I first encountered. When I check facebook, I see many of my friends back home moving on with their lives. Peace Corps is similar living in a fishbowl. In your town, you are visible to everyone. Everyone is staring at you, yelling for your attention, asking you thousands of questions. You are the goldfish. As the goldfish, you look outside of your bowl and all you can see is the world passing by around you. My friends are starting families, at least 6 of my friends have had babies since I’ve been in Ghana. My parents always have something new to tell me every time I call. Life moves on, I’m just not there to watch it happen.
I want to reflect back on lessons learned, strengths and weaknesses uncovered, and how I’ve changed since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.
1. Never trust a fart. The wisest words an older PCV ever uttered to me. This knowledge has been essential, especially given my plethora of stomach problems.
2. I’m mellower, but more confrontational. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is true. I used to be slightly high strung, impatient, and a bit of a drama queen. I would get antsy if I had to wait more than 5 minutes. I would deal with it, but I was still in a heightened state of huffy sighs. Everything here takes time. I never wear a watch because it is rather useless. I still have moments where I actually do need to be somewhere on time and I can feel the anxiousness creep back, but I have to just shrug it off and realize, I’ll arrive when I arrive. I’ve adopted that attitude – it’ll happen when it happens. There are things you can control and things you cannot, it is useless to stress over the things you cannot control. But why am I more confrontational? That’s a direct result of two things – taxi drivers and my situation at my old site. Most people try to cheat you here, they see white skin and you can watch the $$$$ pop into their eyes. Market ladies are easy enough to haggle with, because once you speak in the local language they realize there ain’t no cheating her. Taxi drivers are a rare breed though. My fellow PCVs and I have often remarked that there must be a taxi driver secret school here in Ghana. A school that teaches drivers how to scream on top of their lungs, repeat a city’s name faster than imaginable, and how to cheat anyone and everyone out of their money. I’ve been cheated so many times that anytime a driver tries to cheat me, I go postal on them. Just a bit. Taxi drivers are my breaking point, they have no shame in what they are doing – so I like to make sure that shame resurfaces. It is hard not to let it get to you, you know they are just looking for more money – but I’m broke.
In fact, PCVs have recently diagnosed ourselves with “Obroni Travel Aggression.” This illness presents itself immediately upon entering a taxi station. Travel aggression is often manifested by rapid onset of bitchiness, short temper, and a low grade fever which induces blood boil. It is also common for patients to experience elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, and a low growling noise coming from the throat. By the time the traveller makes it to their final destination, the recommended course of action is a nap and possibly alcohol.
Back to the topic at hand, a part of that confrontational attitude has carried over though. I think it has made me play devil’s advocate more though and I think that is important. I’m no longer afraid of bringing up the messy alternatives because I might upset someone’s “perfect” idea. I think in order to have a great idea, plan, or direction you need to consider all facets.
3. Never go to the market “just to look” at fabric. Yeah, I’m addicted. It’s true. I love the feeling of getting a new dress or shirt back from the tailor. But going to the market just because the fabric is pretty often results in rapid loss of money.
4. Teamwork has been one of my biggest struggles so far, but for reasons I never would have expected. We work with such a variety of people and personalities here – both American and Ghanaian. With Ghanaians, you get the big man syndrome, with Americans you get the “holier-than-thou” syndrome. But there is one thing in particular I’ve noticed about working with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, everyone thinks they know it best. Volunteers all have an ego – we develop it when we join. We are sacrificing two years of our life to change the world, one person at a time, therefore we are awesome and our job is better than yours. We get catty when we think another PCV is doing better than we are. We compare ourselves to each other, despite the fact that we all have such different experiences that is pointless to try to compare. This ego gets in the way though.
When you join Peace Corps you imagine it will be a certain way. Most of the time people imagine Peace Corps as sitting alone in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere chatting with locals, eating the local food with a family, and teaching something under a tree in town. The key word in that sentence being “alone.” Most people imagine PC as a solitary assignment with little contact with other PCVs, friends and family. Maybe it is in some countries, but Ghana is small and we have a lot of Volunteers. My closest Volunteer is now a 5-10 minute drive away based on the taxi driver. If I took a car north, northeast, south, west, or east I’d be at another PCV’s site within 20 minutes.
The structure within the Agriculture sector here is focused on working together as PCVs on a set of projects – cashews, shea, bees, maize, and chickens. Working together is truly better than sitting alone trying to change the world. Here is where the ego comes back. Teamwork is essential in any job and it is becoming increasingly important in Peace Corps Ghana. In college, I had group projects in every single class I took. In all of my jobs prior to Peace Corps, I had to work closely with other people (wait, what? you do that in an office environment?! MIND BLOWN.). I’m used to working with people, but most of the time it is people from similar work backgrounds. There is only one other Volunteer in Ghana that has a similar work background to me – and she lives in the capital and I’ve seen her maybe twice. Here though, I work with people from all over the spectrum, people whose majors range from Philosophy to Environmental Science. This combined with the Peace Corps ego has made teamwork one of my biggest challenges and learning moments.
When everyone thinks they know best, wants to try and be the superstar Volunteer, is judgmental of everyone else’s work as a Volunteer, and has different priorities – it makes for a very interesting meeting or group dynamic. It has been challenging trying to balance the notion that Volunteers are largely self-serving with the idea that we are here for others. But Volunteers have to work together, we have goals larger than ourselves that we all find important. I know that I haven’t been the perfect team player and I have certainly been all of the above Volunteer ego categories. If Peace Corps teaches you anything though, it is how to deal with people.
I’m still struggling, learning, and actively working on improving my teamwork skills – but I have learned something invaluable. You won’t always be surrounded by people with similar backgrounds. In work and life, you have to work with people from all over the spectrum. In order to be effective as a team, you need to accept each other’s weaknesses, play off each other’s strengths, compromise, be willing to accept defeat, and share responsibilities. You have to accept that people might not like you and may not like working with you. Do your best, know that you are doing the right thing and it won’t matter. You can’t please everyone, but you can do your part to be inclusive, supportive, and a team player.
5. I now know what it is like to be a minority. I told my friend the other day – some days, I feel like I’m a lesbian Pacific-Islander living in a small town in Alabama. Sounds strange, I know. (I’m not by the way, clearly.) Being white in Africa makes you stand out, period. But even within Peace Corps, I feel like a minority. Here in Ghana, we have about 9 people who are business focused out of about 190 PCVs. And even being from Oklahoma puts me into a minority (although we are representing in Ghana). Oklahoma has only 47 Volunteers worldwide serving, 4 of which are here in Ghana. It’s hard to have your voice heard when it seems so small. But lucky for me, business tends to run the world so my voice isn’t drowned out so easily.
Part of being in a Peace Corps minority has made me also realize that I’m not a typical Volunteer. I’m not doing what I expected to be doing. I’m not alone in the mud hut. My work as a Volunteer is different from just about everyone else here in Ghana. I’m not really working in my village – I travel to other Volunteers’ sites to teach business basics in their communities. Just last week, I was in another PCV’s site teaching recordkeeping, how to track expenses, how to calculate profit, and how the global cashew market impacts their bottom line. I’m the Chairman of the Cashew Initiative, so I work on facilitating trainings, working with Peace Corps Staff, coordinating with partners. And with that I’ve also started basically doing business consulting. Entrepreneurs and businesses have started approaching me asking me how they can get involved with our communities, how they can bring new business opportunities to Peace Corps villages. And since the beginning of my service I’ve been coordinating pilot programs with SAP.
Sometimes I think: “This isn’t Peace Corps!” But my expectations of Peace Corps were romantic. I expected Peace Corps to be the 1960s version – cut off from the world. I’m something different and that’s perfectly fine. My responsibility is still to the farmers, the market ladies, and the communities in which they live. If my role is to connect them with resources and partners they otherwise would never have encountered, that’s perfectly fine. After all, Peace Corps is about finding ways to help locals help themselves, and sometimes that means connecting them with the people who can help them. Grassroots development of the value chain, or something like that.
6. Be grateful for the luxuries in life. I’m grateful I have a seat to my latrine. I’m grateful I have plenty of girls near me that help me fetch water. I’m grateful when I get to take a shower. I’m grateful when I am cold. I’m grateful when I can talk to my parents on the phone. I’m grateful for cheese. I’m grateful for the love and support of my friends. I’m grateful for learning to live with less.
There you have it, six ways I’ve changed, six lessons learned, and six reasons I’m happy to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.