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Is Peace Corps satisfying?

July 2, 2012

I can’t sleep tonight but I can read. Judging from that sentence, you might say that I should turn the light off, but my thumbs are going to write you a blog post on my Blackberry instead.

I’ve been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell during my downtime. In it, he enumerates three qualities work must have to be satisfying: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. Let’s examine if being a PCV meets those criteria.

  1. Autonomy: And how! No matter where your site is, you have no choice but to be autonomous. You’re the only American within miles (although some countries will give you sitemates who are working on a different project.)

    There simply aren’t the resources for Peace Corps to visit all the villages and monitor everyone, but even if they could, they wouldn’t want to. Every site is different, and because every place has different resources and needs, it’s impossible to have uniformity. Peace Corps just makes a cursory visit to the site to determine if it’s safe and if a volunteer can do effective work there. It’s up to every volunteer to figure out what exactly what that work is. Besides, it’s expected that every volunteer integrate with the community, which you can’t really do with a nanny lording over you.

  2. Complexity: There’s complexity in spades. One of the things you learn at training (or you learn the hard way at site) is that you’re on the job 24/7 because every little thing you do is going to be observed and judged by people who have likely never seen an American before and want to know what all the fuss is about. Every project you undertake has to be considered in a cultural context, and you must constantly work to overcome differences and difficulties in communication in order to work with your counterparts. Nothing can ever just be done and done with.
  3. Connection between effort and results: These can actually be rather disconnected. Nothing illustrates this better than the quarterly exam grade 8 took last term. I spent the term teaching from the department’s curriculum statement, and when the test arrived, I was frustrated but no longer surprised to see that the subject matter on the test did not even slightly match what I had been teaching all this time. It’s all like that. Frustration is a core part of the Peace Corps experience, and learning to live with it, and learning to focus your energy on plan B when plan A fails, is what counts as success around here.

    Something I’ve heard at training, or maybe I just heard someone say that it was said at training, is that you’re not going to change Africa. You’re not even going to change your village. It will change you.

    Still, even on days when you feel like you’re running in circles, it still means a lot just to show up. It’s the small things that count.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote to illustrate that last bit.

After spending the whole day running around on various errands for school and Scouts and everything else I’m working on, I was walking home dead tired but I stopped to sit for a moment with some girls from the primary school. One of them saw the tutor reimbursement form I was carrying and took it to practice reading.

“Name of Volunteer… ‘Volunteer’ ndi mini?” she asked What’s a volunteer?

Volunteer ndi… Ndi muthu u shuma a si tshelede,” I tried to explain in clumsy, tired Tshivenda. A volunteer is someone who works without money. “They work because they want to.”

Na nne,” she said. Me too.

“I don’t think so. You’re a learner. You have to be in school,” I told her. “And when you’re done, you can get a good job in the city.”

I got up to go home and rest. “Na nne,” she said again as I was leaving.

  1. Debby permalink

    Zack, I love your blog. You are truly making a different in the world. I read the complete blog, it was like reading a book about Africa. I look forward to more. I would love to see more pictures . I’m glad the you made the decision to join the Peace Corps. Take care. “one of the old Publix ladies.”.

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