My "here's what it's really like" tirade - some caveats to bear in mind
1. I'm writing with with 5 months left on a 27 month stint. There's a little lack of end-game here but I thought it would be interesting to compare once I'm out of the woods.
2. This is my own experience and my own somewhat strange way of thinking about it.
3. Though it may appear as though I have a MFA in drawing with Microsoft Paint, I assure you it's not the case.
4. I've separated the tasks of living in a different culture and being a development worker into two sections for many reasons, probably most importantly because I find that they are often at odds with each other.
What shape is your Maslow?
The psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper in 1943 that proposed a scheme to understand human motivation. His "hierarchy of needs" was kinda a hit and is now well known even to those of us camped out on the lawn outside the ivory tower. I'm using this concept to elucidate the process of "integration" because so much of what volunteers talk/complain about to other volunteers is somewhere on this chart (for the initiated, notice "excretion" in the bottom right corner).
This is a nice and compact way of categorizing the various purposes behind how we spend our time. We eat the food we bought at the store as a way of satisfying physiological needs, and we do it alongside family and friends to satisfy love/belonging needs. We write capstone articles on our Peace Corps blogs to satisfy a need for self-actualization etc...
With this in mind let's also assume the Seussian assertion that people are people whoever you are, wherever you travel near or far.
Now, this is not a criticism, since Maslow didn't mean to sum up all human behavior temporally, sociologically, or holistically in a pyramid, but his scheme is unsatisfying for our purposes in any context because it fails to represent how much time and what people actually do personally attending to these needs. For example, this picture would not tell us anything interesting about a family of six except possibly that they don't bathe regularly:
This is to say that, while physiological needs take up a greater area on the chart, we don't all of us spend most of our time eating and drinking (Maslow's point in making it the foundation was that it's merely more essential and facilitates higher orders of motivation).
So let's temporally represent a typical American's "Maslow" like this (preserving the bottom = "physiological needs" top = "self actualization" orientation):
Basically, we don't labor significantly to find food or sustenance and we spend a great deal of time "expressing ourselves" or diligently suing those who try and keep us from wearing our sternum length death metal t-shirts and saggy pants to church.
In other cultures, as anyone can imagine and/or see to some extent on the travel channel, we find people living as differently shaped Maslows made out of different materials. In other words, people in different cultures, either out of necessity and/or because of different beliefs, spend their time differently doing different things differently and in differently proportioned amounts of time, which is itself understood "differently".
Again, and for the worthy cause of brevity, we are assuming here that fundamentally people have similar motivations for living and working. That being said, here's a PCV's first day at site seen through our working paradigm:
|Top right: "Look, it's an American. What a strange shape he has!"|
Running with this, we can say that a big part of Peace Corps service is learning how to fit a round peg in a square hole (hold for laughter at unintended innuendo).
|Top right: "What are you doing! You have a head in your hat?" (colloquial, meaning "are you stupid")|
Bottom right: "I don't agree"
So our task in this respect is to adapt ourselves to the place, and to some extent modify the context. This means changing the pace of our lives (how much time we spend doing what), as well as modifying what gets done with certain behaviors.
Here are some examples:
Learn to wait
Generally we understand time and space to have consistent properties throughout the universe. We know now that these things are warped by gravity and extreme velocity, but on the way to work nobody I know takes relativity or their changing proximity to the nearest neutron star into account when estimating their arrival time. So when we say "three o'clock" we generally mean 3:00.
Many other cultures have a less ridged view of time and especially of being on time. You can write books on how or why. The important thing here is that an American in a strange land almost always has to (re-) learn how to wait. This will effectively ruin any comedian's rant about doctor's offices, but it's absolutely necessary if one plans on leaving the house (indeed, even if you don't plan on leaving but like to have breakfast without becoming visibly agitated it helps significantly).
Living in a comparatively small community, I discovered the folly of, for example, taking the departure and arrival times of public transportation for granted - that is thinking that they had any real independent meaning at all. But coping required more than the development of expectations and practicing patience. Through observation and conversation one learns how the locals get around since, ostensibly, they also have things to do in other places.
Over the course of my first few months I learned where the best spots in the road were to stand and look bored so that a kind stranger driving in your direction would stop and offer you a lift. This learning occurred only after a few frustration inspired marches of 20 km to the nearest large town when a public mini-bus didn't leave because there wasn't enough passengers. The reaction of my Georgian friends when they heard that I hadn't just waited at the road involved a lot of brow furrowing and confused looks to my face, and no doubt concerns about my sanity behind my back.
Know when to run
The winter of 2011-2012 was an insanely cold one. Here, it was also six months long. The first snow at my site was on October 6th. It didn't get above freezing until mid March. This put a damper on many things, but most importantly it made actually doing things more than 10 feet away from the wood stove very difficult and uncomfortable. This lead to a bout of depression (or, if you prefer, my Maslow was lacking in self-esteem and achievement). I felt very little respect from my community and found myself offering less and less to them.
I found myself appalled at how these people could stand living on what was essentially a glacier. I began to wonder if they were people at all.
I took up running and found that it became a great way to lift the spirits. When students didn't even come to school because it was so cold, or when the ones that did come wouldn't go along with my lesson plans, I could find some sense of accomplishment taking my handheld GPS out and trying to beat my best 5 km time.
Now this may be a very American response to the problem, informed by studies of serotonin levels and physical activity. My jogging jaunts didn't go unnoticed however, nor were they altogether dismissed for being "foreign medicine". One of my good friends at the local government office started running himself after we talked about how good it was at combating the winter blues.
|Top right: "Where is the crazy boy going?"|
Top left: "He's not crazy, he's a true sportsman."
Making More('s) Utopia
The popular image of the Peace Corps has a lot to say about helping out in developing countries. Indeed, many new recruits get off the plane with delusions of world saving altruistic grandeur.
The Peace Corps policy on development is fairly clear, largely straightforward, and well tested. The first step in doing any kind of development project requires that you ask the people you're developing what they want and that you prove that they need it.
A popular project for those of us that work in schools is to build a new classroom for language learning. This starts with a "needs assessment".
|Top right: "I think he wants us to raise our hands"|
Bottom right: "Teacher! My head hurts!"
It's not a perfect system and volunteers are prone to inadvertently "suggesting" a little too strongly ideas that they have. That being said, the ones that are diligent and thorough with this step have much less difficulty getting the community to help with the eventual project (or so I'm told).
As far as I can tell, this is the part of a PCV's experience that will vary the greatest. It depends on so many factors, everything from how persuasive a volunteer can be in a language she or he has only spoken for six months to how much free time host country national counterparts are able or willing to dedicate to an initially very abstract endeavor.
Our country director in Georgia likes to tell trainees that they should be thinking about "managing expectations". I suppose he means your own and your communities' to whatever extent possible. This seems like the real name of the game, and as anyone would probably agree the first step towards managing is figuring out what it is exactly that you're supposed to be managing.
Going through the Peace Corps motions with needs assessments and measurable objective writing is not nearly enough. Taking the spirit of the idea to heart has broader implications and requires that you and your Utopian ideas get an immediate divorce, not only so that you don't waste your time doing projects that aren't necessary, but also so that you don't miss the fact that you're working with and around people who know much more about their communities than you do and ergo a PCV only facilitates development.
Here is an example:
Don't get in the way
In my classes I posed the question to students: What is the biggest problem with your school? We got an array of answers, but the top two went something like this:
1. The classrooms are threadbare and there are no resources for learning with anything but ministry assigned textbooks.
2. There is no running water in the school or anywhere on the school grounds.
I also offhandedly asked some people in the village what the biggest problem in the community was. The only common answer I got that wasn't "there's no work for the men" was that the stairs that lead from the main village to the upper section (where the school and community auditorium are) were dilapidated and there was no railing so in the winter it was a life or death struggle just to get up there.
My counterpart and I went to a workshop in the early part of winter to talk about how to get some of these things done. We had grand plans on how to fund and implement all of them before we left and were brimming with enthusiasm.
Twelve months later there was a shiny new classroom in the school and the stairs had been completely re-done and painted a glistening white.
And I had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
The school had already gotten some money from a Georgian corporation to build a computer lab, so when they heard our plans to make our own they essentially said "easy there turbo... one large construction project at a time."
When my director heard that we wanted to rebuild the stairs he said he'd have no part of it because people would tear off any new railing and sell it as scrap metal.
When we returned and proposed putting in new pipes for running water we were told that a group of students were already working on the project.
Essentially I hadn't done enough homework - I'd asked my neighbors what I could feasibly do but I didn't talk to the local government (people who are normally responsible for this kinda thing). I asked my students what we could improve at the school, but I didn't check with my director about what he was doing about it (the guy who would normally be in charge of this stuff).
Yikes. Well done highly trained and competent American youth, well done.
Yes. You're absolutely correct Sir Thomas. Thank you.
So now we're working with the students to make their water project more robust and taking time out of English lessons every week to have health lectures (the topics were chosen by ranked voting among students).
The take homeThis thing takes patience, time, and dedication. It means learning, to some extent, a new language (or in some cases more than one). It means going for stretches of time where your deformed Maslow pathetically limps along. It means being hungry and bloated, lonely and overwhelmed, cold and hot, etc... and dealing.
It means reconstructing life out of locally available materials and in keeping with the native architecture as much as possible until there's some kind of workable arrangement. This is akin to one of those engineering challenges where a group is given one hundred toothpicks, a candle, and two feet of string then instructed to build a bridge connecting Nova Scotia and northern Ireland.
As for re-making the world, knowing your world is a really important first step. My mistakes lead to a blaring lack of local secondary projects outside of my role as the American English teacher. I've worked in other areas on multi-regional summer camps, and a university level English immersion program, but it worried me for a time - what my community thought about this un-Peace Corps like lack of world-transforming behavior. As it turns out, my school just wanted an English teacher and they're apparently somewhat satisfied with what they got.
I'm sure after putting some distance between it and myself I'll have more to say about the Peace Corps (though hopefully in a good deal fewer words). Thanks for reading.