Into the mind of a confused Peace Corps Volunteer

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Africa » Mozambique
August 2nd 2008
Published: August 2nd 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

You know, after a while it just gets to you. Everything! The culture, the people, the work, the daily grind. I can't lie, it just begins to wear on you. There is corruption everywhere, especially in the government, the force that is supposed to lead the people to a brighter tomorrow. The people governed don't help the situation. They say they want change, they say they can't tolerate the ways things are, but often times they just talk, and talk, and talk, they are too lazy to put action behind their words. The culture, although sometimes beautiful, can just be too much to handle on the days when you are just tired, just want to rest. It is a known culture across the world, sought after, stereotyped, even imitated, and it is great, but after the allure wears off, after the novelty is gone, there are days when it just doesn't really seem that special. You always hear about how great the people are, and they are the majority of the time, but you can't help but notice the mixed up priorities with some people. The guy who spends what little money he has on drinks at the bar, the family who does not emphasize education to their children, how long outdated traditions continue to shape the way the people think and rule, even when it is clear that progress is being impeded, and people are being subverted as a result. It can just get to you after a while.

Which is why I thought it would be best to do Peace Corps and get out of America for a couple years.

Woah, really threw you for a loop there huh? You see what I did? I made you think I was talking about Mozambique, when in actuality, I was talking about the United States! Do you feel silly for thinking I was referring to Africa, even when I didn't identify the place I was talking about? You should. I will let you talk a couple moments to reflect on what just happened here, and then we can continue when you are ready.

Ok, sorry I had to do that, but it was a lesson that needed to be taught. Well seriously though, it has been interesting being able to kind of straddle the line between the beliefs, culture, and doubts between some of the people in Mozambique and America. Kind of like being a man who dresses up like a woman to get into the girls locker room to listen to all the secrets that woman have. Although maybe there would be less listening in that situation, and probably more looking. I am not Mozambican now and I never will be, and this becomes more clear every single that I am here. However, people are beginning to relax with me more, and I feel as if I am becoming a part of this community, or as much as any white person can who is the first (as far as I have been told) in this town of around 8,000 to live in a house that is not behind a large brick wall (there is a very nice family of Canadian missionaries who live almost in my backyard).

Some stereotypes that Mozambicans have of Americans you might expect, others might be slightly surprising. Here is a short list of some things I have head/been asked:

- Americans are all extremely rich, with more cars than they know what to do with (partially true)
- There are constant battles waged in America, and Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme usually end up being the heros (now you have an idea of the type of American movies that end up in Mozambique)
- There are no black people in America (this belief despite the fact that many love the music videos of 50 Cent, Tupac, R-Kelly, and Michael Jackson. Well Ok, maybe it isn't clear to them that Michael is black, but those other guys should leave no doubt)
- White people don't die (no that is not a mis-print, a friend asked me that a couple weeks ago because she had never seen a funeral for a white person in Mozambique)

Now here are some of the ridiculous things I have heard from Americans since arriving in Mozambique:

- Starving children, visibly ravaged AIDS victims, and people infected with Malaria, are walking around here dropping dead every day, in staggering amounts (This things are definitely real, and they are without a doubt a huge problem, but nobody who I have interacted with has died, and if Africa is full of weak, barely functioning children, then I must be somewhere else, because everyday about 10-15 kids spend the entire day screaming and shouting and playing games right in front of my house. What a pleasure)
- Mozambique is a very dangerous place (once again, ok, lots of hazardous situations exist here that we don't often encounter in the states, but many times I feel safer here than I ever did in the states. If you eat properly, and don't get into stupid situations, you probably will be ok)
- I ride an elephant to work (I wish. It's actually a tiger, and without the shock and suspension system offered by your average elephant, the ride is a lot bumpier)
- People have large plates that they keep in their lower lip, and necks like giraffes because of all the tight necklaces they wear to be pretty (Nope. Actually, the men dress pretty similarly to men in the states, and many of them display a fashion sense that I am still struggling to find).

Yup, so there you go, just some observations. Although it still seems like I know absolutely nothing about this place more times than not, it has been interesting to hear the comments from both sides, if nothing else.

So believe it or not, less than a couple months from now will mark one year that I have been away from home, and in Africa. Even though I still have more than half of my service left to complete, I have developed a theory that characterizes the entire service time of your average Peace Corps Volunteer. I feel that at least in one way of thinking, it can be broken up into two parts: (1) THE FIRST YEAR, and (2) THE SECOND YEAR. Creative I know. So I think the first year is much more of a personal journey, a time when you question your commitment, your dedication, why you really wanted to do this, who you are as a person, etc. I think that the second year will be much more of a service/observing centered year, a year when you stop questioning yourself everyday and really begin to focus on the work you came to do, and the new culture that is surrounding you. For sure, you can find strong evidence of both these parts throughout your service, I would guess, but if it needed to be categorized (which I guess it doesn't) I think my theory would be fairly accurate.

So lets assume that I am right. Now since I am clearly still within my first year, I am still going through the more personal part of my Peace Corps experience, which I believe, entitles me to talk about myself as much as I want without being accused of being narcissistic. So here is some of that.

I am writing this journal entry in August. In all honesty, this is a month I never thought I would see in Mozambique. For those of you who don't know, although all Peace Corps volunteers are expected to complete their two year commitment, everyone has the option of Early Termination (ET), which is where you let those in charge know that you are unhappy and would like to go home. The first three months of this year were the toughest three months of my life, without comparison. In the 4 or 5 years before I did Peace Corps, I cried once. Between January and March of this year, I cried around 10 or 15 times. Times were rough. I never thought I would see the month of July or August in this country. The only reason I knew I would still be here is because I knew I wouldn't quit, or ET, but it was also impossible for me to imagine sticking around for 5 more months, when I didn't even know how I was going to survive the day. I am here, and I absolutely cannot believe it.

Why is it/was it so hard? I think this is one misconception that many people have about the Peace Corps. Many people assume that the toughest part is the living conditions. Living without electricity, without a car, without air conditioning, a shower, cable television, flushing toilets, sinks with running water, etc. Actually, getting used to this is probably the easiest part. Although it is quite an adventurous experience the first time you try pooping in a small hole in the ground, I almost never feel overcome by the difference in conditions between my life here and my life in the states. For example, in this country, I have a good friend who lives out in the middle of absolute nowhere. No electricity, no reliable transport, horrible options for food, and he is actually one of the happiest volunteers I know in this country. On the other hand, I know of another volunteer who lives in a small apartment with electricity, television, DVD player, shower, sink, and this volunteer has been having as tough a time as almost anyone.

So still, why is it hard? A lot of things.

The language. Obvious, but maybe not for the obvious reasons. It isn't that you can never speak grammatically perfect, or that you always forget the word for window. It is that you are forced to lose parts of your personality. If in English, you always make people laugh with jokes, or enjoy getting into conversations about politics, or connect with people by having long, drawn out, philosophical debates, these are things that you just can't really do in a new language, especially in your first year of learning it. So you leave these parts of you back in the States, and your friends here will never know the real you.

Living at home, you talk to people all the times: friends, family, co-workers. If anything at all happens in your life that you want to talk about, you will at least mention it in passing to your roommate, or you will call up your parents to retell the story, or whatever. Here, I think at least 10 things happen to me everyday that I would like to tell somebody at home about, just mention it. However, even though I talk with my parents every week, there is no way I can cram 70 things into our conversation, although I try. Unfortunately, there are a ton of things that happen here that will only ever live or die in my head, no one else will know. When they fade from my memory, they cease to exist, because I didn't get to tell anyone else about them. Although this can be sad, in a certain way, I think it gives you an opportunity to appreciate more the things that happen to you, just because they happened, and not because you would get the chance to brag about them or tell a good story to someone else.

The pressure of nearly 50 years of Peace Corps. In many ways, it seems like the volunteers of the 1960s, and 70s had it so much tougher than we do. Although I don't get internet access too often, I can still get it whenever I want, with just a short trip to the capital city. If I am ever really upset, I can call my parents and they can call me back, and even though it is expensive for me to call, I know that option is available when I want. I can only assume that this was not the case for the volunteers that came before me. With that being said, I think the volunteers of today experience a pressure that maybe those earlier volunteers did not. When I hear volunteers talking about what is tough for them, what is stressing them out, there is nothing I hear more than "I feel like I am not doing enough" or "I feel like I am not living the real Peace Corps experience". What the hell is the "real" Peace Corps experience? Well, in the minds of many, it is living in a dirt hole, eating rodents, sending smoke signals when they need help. What is "doing enough"? Curing the world of AIDS, stoping every case of malaria, feeding every hungry child. I get the feeling that Peace Corps almost started out as an experiment, like, can these spoiled Americans survive two years in the bush. Now that we know that is possible, volunteers feel like there is this imaginary bar set of Peace Corpsness that they need to measure up to. I feel it too. I wasn't able to take naps up until May, because every time I tried taking a nap, I got this horrible feeling in my stomach that said this isn't what a good Peace Corps Volunteer does. They build schools. They give shots to sick kids. They make friends with every single member of their community. They do those things, but they certainly don't take NAPS!!!

So anyone who is still reading at this point deserves the Medal of Honor, or at least a conclusion to this rambling, so I will end here. I really do not intend for this blog to be a cesspool of my thoughts on life, but I guess that is what it has become. My friend who told me that keeping a public blog is quite possibly the most narcissistic, self-promoting thing you can do, was maybe right. Even though it has come to that, I hope that along the way it also gives an idea on what really is difficult about being a volunteer in another country, and maybe eventually, what really is good about it too. I talk about myself because that is what I know. You know what though, this is my blog, and I shouldn't have to justify myself to an audience that probably does not even exist! I will write about me as much as I want, and not even feel bad about it. Yeah. So there. More dribble next time.


17th April 2011

Confused potential volunteer
Hey, I'm not sure if you still would get this or not and after I comment back it may be lost in the abyss that is the internet. I am currently about to press the "submit" button on my peace corps application and I'm worried. Not about how hard life will be but I'm worried I won't get accepted. I'm worried about it being the worst experience of my life. But mostly I'm worried that I won't be able to provide what they need from a volunteer. If you could email me and give me some insight into your experience I'd appreciate it a lot. Thanks!

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