How to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (er, kindof)

In 1961 JFK created The Peace Corps with three goals in mind:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

So then what makes a successful volunteer?

During our training there was a massive push towards funded projects and APCDs (assistant program country directors) were constantly asking us what our next funded project was going to be. Most countries don’t even have access to funding but those of us in Mali are “fortunate” because we can access SPA (Small Project Assistance) and PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program). Out the gate we were roaring to get started on projects by asking the experts (second-year volunteers who have been in country exactly a year longer than us) what to do. But what is the point? Is that really why we came to Mali? I imagined sitting under a mango tree sitting around singing songs and dancing, etc.  Never did I imagine I would oversee the construction of not one, but two buildings. I never thought I would hold any sort of training for locals nor did I expect that Peace Corps would ask me to come in as a so-called expert to train the new batch of recruits because of my experience (little under two years but in my case I actually held a session during the training of OUR stage).  It’s almost a Catch-22 sometimes where some volunteers spend a lot of time out of site frolicking about the country and these are, many times, the same expert volunteer trainers called in, to…..spend time out of site.

When I think of a volunteer who can leave Mali considering his/her service a success I think about the three goals. Instead of focusing on short-term projects most volunteers SHOULD just get to know their communities and work with their friends on subjects like English, bookkeeping, or basic nutrition.  I remember coming in thinking of all these crazy ideas like “mobile banking, microfinance, sustainability, etc.” when this is a country where a majority of the population either don’t know about or don’t care about germs.  The thing is it’s EASY to do a project but it’s hard to teach someone something.  If I could do my service over again I would have found a group of youngish kids and spend my entire time teaching them all I know about finance and accounting from scratch.

But then again, maybe we should just spend our time simply hanging out with people? I never thought I would come here and have political discussions about Malian history or the remnants of colonialism in Mali and yet I have those kinds of thoughtful conversations with my language tutor and friends quite often over glasses of tea. We talk about girls and sports too but a lot of the burning questions they have are centered around much of the same things I would talk about in The States.  I came in thinking “oh everyone’s poor, no one knows anything” only to have one of my friends update me on how Obama’s not doing so great in the polls.  It’s astounding how little we know about how little we know.

But, in many communities we may be the only “white people” some Malians will ever meet. It’s important to let Malians know that Americans aren’t necessarily evil and that (on the whole) we’d like to help them. Then again you run into the issue of breeding dependency. Some small villages have absolutely zero means and many depend on rich uncles living in Bamako or in France to send them money every so often. When volunteers enter these villages all of a sudden “Daddy Morebucks” is living next door. And what? He wants to build a school? Sweet!  There’s a point where people stop looking at us as the carefree volunteer who came to learn tribal drum beats and eat mangoes and they start looking at us in terms of dollar signs and things we can buy them.  Most NGOs try to do good in these unreached communities but some end up doing more harm than good. It’s a delicate balance that requires a good relationship with the community and the dialogue to help them understand we’re in fact trying to help them help themselves. Some volunteers may leave not having done a thing at all but what they fail to see are the ideas they have planted in the minds of the youth. Ten years later that little kid who annoyed the crap out of you every single day screaming “Tubabu!”  may very well become a teacher or a doctor because a volunteer told them that anything is possible and that education is important. Who knows?

I’m coming towards the end of my service. Most of the things I have set out to do here will be done within a few months. I’ll most likely spend the rest of my time here enjoying time with my friends and traveling the country. I have probably burned a few bridges and done some things that at the time were questionable but I don’t look back and regret not spending more time with certain people or having failed to do certain things. I look back and see that I did the best with what I was given. It was important to me that I help certain people here and I feel I can leave knowing that I made a tangible difference. Not much longer til I’m back “home” and although I feel like ending on a cliche I’ll just say I’ll be glad when I leave but also glad that I came.


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