Peace Corps Kids
National Peace Corps Association
The Toughest Job They Ever Loved
For the briefest of moments, Christine Shirley wondered what she had gotten herself into. Just a week before, she was running through the streets of Paris, soaking in the sites and sipping café au lait. A few days before that, she was hanging out with friends and family back in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now, she was huddled in a tiny mud hut with only a mat, gourd and suitcase for company. Her kitchen consisted of a box of matches and some sticks and her bathroom was a hole in the ground. Enormous spiders crawled overhead, and she heard rats scuffling behind the walls. Her host mother and 12-year-old sister spoke no English, and Christine knew only a few words of their language, Chichewa.
Doubt overwhelmed Christine. What was she doing here? She'd just graduated from college -- how could she possibly make a difference in this strange, foreign land? Just one year ago, she couldn't have even pointed out Malawi on a map!
Over the course of the next two years, Christine would teach English to an eager group of 150 schoolgirls. She would hold workshops on self-esteem, hygiene and AIDS awareness, and show 20 young Malawi women how to build a house out of mud bricks. In return, they would teach Christine an extraordinary amount: How to carry water on her head. How to pound maize into corn flour. How to make a fire out of rocks and twigs.
And the thunder rolls… As Nick and I tore across the U.S.
Perhaps more than anything, she would learn about a rich culture outside her own and realize that things like laughter and friendship are universal. In other words, Christine had a successful Peace Corps tour. Since 1961, there have been 162,000 just like her in 134 developing nations across the globe.
The United States had considered the idea of creating an international service organization for decades, but it was a group of students from the University of Michigan who really got the ball rolling. When Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at their campus at 2 a.m. in October of 1960 for an impromptu rally, he found an impassioned group ready to get out in the world and Do Something. He challenged them to give two years of their lives to helping people in the developing world (which, in his mind, included curbing the spread of communism). The students responded by forming an organization called "Americans Committed to World Responsibility" and gathering more than 1,000 signatures.
During JFK's inaugural address a few months later, he announced: "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves." That August, a group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) set out for a two-year tour of Ghana, Africa, with the following goals: helping people meet their needs; promoting a better understanding of America; and, upon their return, teaching their fellow Americans all they'd learned.
They arrived at a critical period in that nation's history. The people of Ghana had just won their independence from the British. They perceived white people to be imperialists who thought their own culture superior. So when the PCVs stood on the tarmac of their airport and sang the national anthem of Ghana in Twi, the local language, it made quite an impression.
"They were seeing white people speak their language, which the British colonialists never did. A lot of the Volunteers were also wearing African clothing, which the British never did. It was an instant success in terms of public relations," said Tom Miller, who helped train the volunteers. This display of cultural sensitivity set the pace for the thousands of PCVs who have followed since.
"In Malawi, there is such a mysticism about the West, especially America," said Christine. "And so for them to see me speaking their language, carrying water on my head and wearing their traditional clothing was to realize that we are all the same, we are all just people. We go to their funerals, their weddings, and their births. We become part of the group."
At present, there are 7,300 PCVs out in the field, doing everything from business, community development and education to the environment, agriculture and health. Their motto is "the toughest job you'll ever love" - and every volunteer has a story or two that backs it up. Dennis McMahon's dream during his stint in Mali, for instance, was to help his village build a dam. They all seemed interested in the project, but he had one condition - they needed to raise at least part of the money themselves. Dennis had solid ideas for fundraisers, but every time he tried to implement one, something would happen and his plans would fall apart. This dam became an incredible source of frustration for him - until he had an epiphany of sorts.
"One day it finally occurred to me that I was the only person in the community who was stressed out about this dam. So I let it go. Eventually, my tour was over and I left," he said." Then I happened to return to my village a year later, and saw that they had finally gotten around to doing one of the fundraisers! They just needed to do it on their own time."
Patience is just one of the virtues PCVs have picked up over the years.
"We've also learned a lot about development. For one, we've seen how dangerous it is to apply money to a problem. Solutions have to be generated by the community," Dennis said. "We've also learned that women need to be included in the decision-making process. We used to go to a country and, out of respect for its customs, try to work through the men. But we quickly learned that if we tried to do a project at the exclusion of women, it wouldn't work."
This has become one of the more interesting dynamics of the Peace Corps. While the organization itself is largely female-dominated (61 percent of volunteers are women while 39 percent are male), it often deals with male-dominated cultures - which makes for even more interesting stories.
For the longest time, Christine thought the father of her host family was dead. He was never around, and the mother and daughter lived very meagerly. One day he appeared out of the blue, wearing nice clothes and riding a bicycle - two sure signs of wealth in Malawi. When she asked where he'd been all that time, she was informed that he'd gone to visit his other wife in a nearby village. "I was making a meal over the fire when I met him, and I felt like I was perpetuating the stereotype that women belong in the kitchen. It just infuriated me. When all of the village children came in to keep me company, I started yelling in English: 'In America, this is what we call a 'dead-beat dad.' They didn't understand a word I said, but it sure felt good to vent!"
Cultural differences aren't the only challenges PCVs face during their two-year tours. The volunteers often live and work in very basic conditions. One of Christine's friends, for instance, had to teach English without a classroom. So she held her classes beneath a shade tree, stopping on occasion to reassemble the chalkboard that collapsed with every gust of wind and chase away the goats who wandered in, but, like other PCVs, she wouldn't have had it any other way.
"We want people who are innovators, who are motivated to take something without definition and create a definition. We want people who can change their perspective on the fly, and change their plan on the go. We want people who are flexible and self-starters. You might be assigned to be a schoolteacher and show up and find that the schools are out on strike, or there are no books. A PCV would enter that situation and thrive on that adversity," said Dennis, who has already applied for a second tour.
All the PCVs I interviewed agreed that if you have the right attitude, two years in the Corps can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. "If you walk in as a know-it-all American, you achieve nothing," Tom said. "But if you walk in with humility and listen and learn, you can really do something."
*Photos courtesy of Christine Shirley and the Peace Corps office in San Francisco, California
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Links to Other Dispatches
Jennifer - Q: What's better than a high paying corporate job? A: Bringing hope to Americans in poverty
Rebecca - Laying down the law of the land
Neda - Teaching democracy through the barrel of a gun
Stephen - It's not a race. It's your life!
Rebecca - America's royal family