Thursday, May 21, 2009

Peace Corps as seen from the U.S. and the host country

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the words “Peace Corps?” If you’re like most Americans, you picture a dreadlock-wearing, Birkenstock-clad, shower-hating, peace-love-and-harmony hippie walking the streets of some tiny African village helping them build latrines. This is not unlike the view many of my friends and family members had when I announced to them that I was really joining the Peace Corps and would be serving in Nicaragua. “You mean, you’re joining the hippie corps?” one individual (who shall remain nameless) from my family asked me in a surprised tone when they heard the news. While I have always enjoyed being environmentally conscious, am a vegetarian, and have volunteered at various organizations over the years, the word “hippie” is definitely not a synonym for my own name. It may have surprised people that I joined, and I have to say that I was surprised when I finally met the other volunteers in my group since many of them didn’t fit the mental mold that I had created for the typical Peace Corps volunteer. The answer is; there isn’t a typical volunteer.

There are about 180 PC volunteers in Nicaragua, and every one of them has a different story of how they came to apply to Peace Corps. They range in age from 22 to 61 and come from a variety of backgrounds: farmers, married couples, single 20-somethings right out of college, teachers, biologists, aspiring med students, business majors… I have yet to see a dirty hippie (except for the European and American backpacker tourists you glimpse on the buses and in hostels every once in a while. They give us “gringos” a bad name. I have been asked before why we westerners don’t like to shower…) The Peace Corps requires quite a commitment; both of time and of effort. We have to community-organize from the grass-roots, and those roots can be difficult to find and hard to hold on to in a developing country like Nicaragua. While there are some volunteers who manage to waste away their days and slack-off more than they should, the majority that I have met are dedicated and professional, and are doing some amazing projects in their communities of service.
The Nicaraguan (or arguably any country that hosts Peace Corps volunteers) view of Peace Corps is quite different from the average American view.

Every Nicaraguan I have met who is familiar with the Peace Corps, from my Health Center Director, other counterparts, NGO directors, host families, bus drivers, and even waiters have practically hugged me and started regaling me with a story of a previous volunteer they met or worked with and how they collaborated together, how the volunteer showed them some pictures of their family in the U.S., how they chatted away an afternoon talking about Nicaraguan recipes, or how the volunteer still remembers to call every once in a while to say a quick “hola.” I even met a Nicaraguan SeƱora who had hosted a Peace Corps volunteer in her home in the 1970s. She remembered his name and his home city, his family’s names, and even what he studied in college after all these years had passed. The Peace Corps has had a remarkable impact on these people. The Nicaraguans I have met all view Peace Corps volunteers as very professional, motivated, inspiring, creative, and friendly people who are all undertaking a very challenging task in order to help out the people of Nicaragua. Often, our ideas and projects, being seen as ¨foreign¨ and somehow ¨better¨ are taken more seriously, and we are thought to have a world knowledge beyond most of the people that we work with. We are looked at as professionals, not as lazy hippies looking to take two years off to play around in the jungle.

Most people I meet here in my site can’t believe that I’m 22 years old and live so far away from my family, or that I went to college so far away from them in the first place (I did go to college in-state, but since Alaska is so large, it took about a half a day by plane to get there). Nicaraguans can’t understand why we as Peace Corps volunteers would all want to leave our comfortable, washing machine-and-dryer lives to come down to a developing country and get dirty making a brick oven, talk about diarrhea, get bitten by scorpions (yes, that happened to me last week), live on a couple hundred dollars a month and go without hot showers just in order to help them. Although they might think us Peace Corps volunteers are a bit on the crazy side, they see no “hippie” or “slacker” in us. To some people that I meet, especially youth, I may be the only American they have ever met, and I may be the only educated female role model that some of these young girls that I work with have ever had.

It can be difficult at times ¨fitting in,¨ things like my height and blonde hair certainly don´t help. Some people may feel threatened by an American presence or intimidated, so right now at the beginning of my service, I´m working at trying to integrate and make as many friends as possible. It´s hard to balance my ¨American personality¨ with the ¨Peace Corps image¨ that we have to project as well. You definitely have to watch what you say and do here since you´re constantly under a microscope.

The contrast between how many Americans view the Peace Corps and how the host countries do is often diametrically opposed. However, I think that this view is changing. There are the many returned volunteers who have gone on to complete higher education, obtain successful jobs in the government and private sector, and establish their own foundations, NGOs and activist projects. These volunteers are highly respected and seen as adaptable and talented individuals. Another bright spot: the Obama Administration promised to double the size of the Peace Corps in an effort to improve our international relations and to instill the spirit of service in more Americans. I can’t think of a better foreign policy.

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