Sunday, September 21, 2008

ET and other unexplained Peace Corps phenomena

Hey, friend.

You haven't been asking questions, but all the same, I feel like I haven't explained this whole Peace Corps thing too well. You know that it's an agency of the U.S. government. You know that they've sent me abroad to Cape Verde, which is in AFRICA (for some reason it really amuses me a lot that you write that in all-caps when you address letters to me). You know that I'm a Volunteer… that I'm here to help people.

But what, you wonder, am I actually doing?

Some background: for most of my life I knew nothing about the Peace Corps. Subconsciously, I think I assumed that it was part of the military. When I found out —oh so long ago — that my friend Gwen was considering the Peace Corps, I actually looked it up on the Internet and found out that it's an independent government agency dedicated to community service. Much better! So I attended an info session at my college, where — coincidence of coincidences, in retrospect — I met a returned Volunteer who had served in Cape Verde. After procrastinating for about a year, I submitted my application online. A few months later, they interviewed me in New York City. I said I wanted to work with youth. They said I was good with computers. I said I wanted to help the environment. They said I was good with computers.

A month later, they nominated me to teach computers to youth "somewhere in Africa." Fair enough. I can still do environment stuff on the side. So I jumped through medical clearance hoops for the next three months (thank goodness I had health insurance). Despite some dire concerns about my very mild cat allergies, they passed me and invited me to Cape Verde. My initial reaction was "sweeeet! paradise!" After that, "but will I really feel like I'm doing Peace Corps if I live right next to the ocean?"

After that, "sweeeet! paradise!" one more time.

I quit my wonderful job with RecycleBank in Philadelphia, moved home to North Carolina for six weeks, and then — on July 14, 2008 — began the Peace Corps.

It's a two -year commitment. Except that it's not exactly two years, and it's not exactly a commitment. The initial 2-3 month training period (called Pre-Service Training, or PST) is in addition to two years of service, so you actually stay abroad for closer to 27 months. And since this isn't the military, you aren't legally bound to stay if you change your mind. They'll even pay for your plane ticket home. But of course, they do everything they can to convince you to stay, because it's their money and their reputation on the line.

It may or may not be intentional, but part of the pressure to stay lies in the fact that they talk about Early Termination (ET) as if it were some sort of disease or social malady. Consider the following:

Let me tell you a little story: there once was a girl named Suzie who always treated her mother nicely, always did her homework, and always took a bath at the end of the day after her soccer games. But when Suzie moved to a new school, she decided to quit soccer. Without healthy friends to guide her way, she began to hang out with the wrong sort of people — girls that liked to park in cars with boys, and girls that smoked. They said school was a waste of time. Pretty soon, Suzie listened to them and dropped out. Now Suzie lives in her parents' basement.

Sounds like a public service announcement from 1956, right? Well, just change a few key words and phrases, and you'll hear the way our trainers talk about ET:

Let me tell you a little story: there once was a Volunteer named Chase who always cooperated with his counterpart, always did what he was asked, and always took a bath at the end of the day after his soccer games. But midway through his service, a new Volunteer named Mau moved in with Chase. Mau was the wrong sort of person — the kind that joins Peace Corps just to party, and complains that grassroots development is a waste of time. Pretty soon, Chase became so disillusioned that he ETed. Now Chase lives in his mom's lakefront basement.

Okay, so it's not exactly like that (my mom's still working on the lakefront basement). But ET is definitely one of the biggest elephants in the room. It doesn't help that for the past few years, the ET rate among Volunteers in Cape Verde has been a little higher than the global average. People get scared. People make guesses. Heck, I made guesses. But we were all wrong! We've lost just two people (an amazing, wonderful married couple with — sadly — a medical issue). Everybody else not only stayed but — as of today — graduated from training. All of us will swear in as Volunteers on Saturday. From what I hear, 100% is kind of rare, so I'm proud of us. Hopefully everyone will take this as a sign that they have the strength to persevere and we'll buck the trend of our predecessors. For all I care, that ET elephant can just go back to the savannah where he belongs. We're here to stay. For [to do] good.

But I'm getting ahead of myself! Back to the beginning…

It all starts with something called "Staging," which lasts for two days and happens in a U.S. city (usually Washington, D.C., but it can vary for logistical reasons; Boston has direct flights to Cape Verde, so my Staging was in Boston). Peace Corps flies you to Staging and puts you in a hotel room there. It is at Staging that you meet your training group — the people who will be your peers, your allies, and your best friends during Pre-Service Training (PST). My training group had 29 (now 27) people, and Peace Corps/Cape Verde does a PST every summer, which creates a staggered rotation (about half the Volunteers leave/get replaced every year). Other countries do it differently depending on their needs; because Cape Verde is so small, we have the fewest Volunteers of any country in Africa. Training groups at other posts usually have closer to 50 Trainees and "intakes" (as they're called) can happen more than once a year.

Anyway, after Staging (which touches on safety, cultural sensitivity, and logistics), you fly to your country. That's when PST officially begins.

Again, this varies by country ("post," in PC lingo), but we spent our first three days doing orientation in a dormitory in the capital city of Praia. It was mostly medical/culture/safety training, but it also gave us the first fragments of the local language. Which was important, because after that we moved straight to home-stay families in an array of communities surrounding a smaller city called Assomada. This is what Peace Corps calls Community-Based Training (CBT); you come to a central point (in our case, Assomada) once a week for technical sessions on health/teaching/whatever, and you spend the rest of the time learning the language by living with a local family in a smaller town. They place 2-6 trainees and one Language-Culture Facilitator (LCF) in each town. The LCF gives formal language lessons all day long, four days a week. You are always learning. And it is exhausting.

But like I said, it's over. I'm going to my site on Monday — to my new home on São Nicolau.

The first three months there will be, in some ways, the opposite of PST. Not only will I not go to any classes, but I probably won't really go to work regularly or start any projects. According to the Peace Corps, the only thing I'm supposed to do with that time is go outside and meet people.

For three months.

That probably seems like a long time to you. It seems like a very long time to most Volunteers, too. After all, most of us joined the Peace Corps because we're starry-eyed and idealistic and want to make the world a better place; it hurts us to just sit around not do anything. Even if we weren't so antsy, we're still Americans — we're used to meeting people on day one and starting work on day two. And yet Peace Corps expects us to continue twiddling our thumbs months after any other program would have let us do our work and go home.

But this is deep, deep PC philosophy, and it's what makes Peace Corps so different from just about every other international volunteer organization. We are here to help people help themselves. In fact, it's probably kind of misleading to say that I won't be doing much work for just the first three months. If I'm successful, I won't be doing much real work for the entire two years! My role is to convince Cape Verdians that the work is important, and that they can do it. If they need help, I can answer their questions — that's why I came here with technical skills. But I can't do it for them.

Well, okay, I could. But that's what other organizations do. Other organizations come to Africa to drop off food and water. Other organizations donate money to build a school, or send a consultant out for a week to set up a computer lab. But then the food gets eaten, the school's roof starts to rot, and the computers die prematurely because the locals don't know how to take care of them. And then what? Another helicopter of food? Another crate of computers?

In some minds, the answer is yes. They're poor, we're rich. They can't provide for themselves, so we provide for them. As long as there's a gap, we keep passing stuff over it.

But there are a few problems with that. First of all, it creates dependency. The poor come to expect that the rich will always give, and they stop trying to fend for themselves. Subsistence farmers, for example, stop farming. In time, the poor may cease to believe that they can fend for themselves; they become disempowered. That is especially unfortunate because most of these "needy" communities actually have immense untapped resources, either in terms of physical assets (arable land, tourist-attracting natural beauty, etc.) or human capital (i.e., people with skills — or free time to learn a skill — that aren't currently contributing). Other organizations tend to ignore these resources.

Peace Corps Volunteers find those resources. That's what the first three months are about. After that, we spend the other 21 months mobilizing those resources … in other words, getting the community to take advantage of itself. Occasionally, yes, this involves aid from outside sources. For example, maybe my community can only pay for half of that new computer lab and the UN has to pitch in for the rest. Okay. But if locals write the grant proposal, then they'll be able to do it again after I leave. And if locals set up the lab (perhaps after I've told them how to do it), they'll take ownership. They'll maintain it properly, it will last longer, and the Western dollars that other organizations toss around so freely will stretch that much further.

More importantly, by making the local people work to improve their own quality of life, we empower them. They come to understand that the dichotomy between haves and have-nots is pliable; even in areas where we haven't given them direct training or guidance, they begin to take action. At that point, the change is sustainable. It will continue, even after we leave and even if we never come back.

And boy, doesn't it make you feel so warm and fuzzy inside? :-)

By the way, I don't mean to sound self-righteous or evangelical. The Peace Corps is just one (unfortunately small) fish in a vast sea of humanitarian crusaders, all of whom have good intentions and most of whom actually do significant good. I acknowledge that. But Peace Corps is what I'm doing, so I have to understand it … and because its philosophy is so unusual, it has taken me a while to pull it apart. Any tinge of evangelism in what I've written here is merely a side effect of the fact that I like what I am finding.

And that's good!

1 comment:

anonymous said...

Great writing skills.

Now forget all that for the next three months, sit in cars with girls and smoke.