Posts Tagged ‘Peace Corps’

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Fame

Written by Kate • June 27, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsI am sure this sounds like the most ridiculous idea but during my Peace Corps service, I really got a taste of fame and I didn’t much like it. Lemme esplain.

I lived in a small town in West Africa, maybe 3000 people in Sekou and all of the several villages surrounding Sekou. Essentially no one but the Proviseur, who I mentioned in my last post was the only other person I knew who had traveled,  and I had ever traveled more than 100 miles from where people were born, grew up and lived and died.  Certainly no one had been on a plane and no one but the Proviseur and I had ever left our families for any length of time.

So my arrival, like all other volunteers in the small communities we were placed in Benin, was big news and I was big news.  Children would freak out with joy at seeing me and rush me and want me to give them money, wisdom, and lots of attention.

Author with High School Kids - HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

Author with High School Kids – HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

The long and the short of it is that I was a thrilling and novel presence wherever I went. Children would watch me read. Whenever I went for a run or a bike ride, strangers would want to race me because if they could beat me, well life just got better for a moment.  Walking past an elementary school became something I avoided. Children would yell for me, surround me, want my money, and to touch me.

I soon learned what living a fish bowl constantly being watched felt like. I finally really understood what it’s like not to be able to go about doing the ordinary things that all people must do without others following you, watching your every move, judging and commenting on you in the moment, and wanting a piece of you.

Because of my own experiences, I respectfully ignore famous people that I randomly encounter. A few examples are of once boarding behind John Cusak on a plane and sitting in a secluded airport waiting area with David Lee Roth.  Not a word to either of them.

In my experience, fame isn’t what is cracked up to be. And it’s amazing to me that I was able to learn this lesson through living in a very small town in West Africa. You never know what life will serve up to you.

 

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What Peace Corps Taught Me- Connection

Written by Kate • June 21, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsIn an ongoing series about what I learned from my service in the Peace Corps, this article is on connection. My first two articles in this series are:

What Peace Corps Taught Me- A Series

What Peace Corps Taught Me- Presence

I arrived in Benin with the largest contingent of volunteers to ever arrive in one training group. Apparently, our Peace Corps Director at the time decided to minimize the disruption to Peace Corps Benin by unifying the normally two separate training groups and creating one large group to be trained at the same time.

Side note: This wasn’t a total disaster but let’s just say not every detail was understood about what effect 80 volunteers would have on training resources. For example, there weren’t quite enough rooms for everyone so some of us had to live in the teachers quarters. Not a problem at all. But in the mess hall, there was never quite enough to eat as the staff didn’t know how to make meals enough for the 80 Benin volunteers plus the [unknown to me] number of Togo volunteers with whom we were training. I began to feel a vague “Lord of the Flies” mentality descend over the group as we all started to make sure we were there at the start of the meal and to take as much as we possibly could have wanted because there was never ever going to be seconds. For this reason, I still avoid buffets to this day because, despite their obvious abundance, it invokes in me a sense of lack.

Back to the main story…We 80 Benin Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) trained in Togo together for 6 weeks and then another 6 weeks in Benin. Obviously, with 80 people living together in stressful circumstances, it wasn’t easy going. I fell in with a group of volunteers that I really liked right away but thought that many of the others and I just didn’t click. There weren’t many that I outright didn’t like but I just didn’t make that heart connection from the first. And so I, and many others, started to form the inevitable cliques where we sorted ourselves with other with whom we had a natural affinity.

Off To Post

We then all got sorted out and shipped off to our posts, where we would live for the next two years. I had wanted to be in the south of the country because I felt I wouldn’t have been ready for the tougher life au Nord (in the North) where there was no water, electricity, or other Western comforts. As it turns out, I was posted in the only 10 KM area in all of the south that did not have electricity.  And there was no running water. So I ended up in a very small village that was the heart of voodoo without any of the comforts I had been hoping for while in training. But life often knows better.

I learned to love my life where I was, as did the vast majority of the other PCVs. Learning to love your experience wasn’t universal. Some people just never adapted and left early. Once I figured out my water situation- I paid someone to bring me water from the town pump. -Let me tell you, water is very very heavy. I once tried to carry it on my head in a large bowl the way the Beninoises did it and I thought I would crush my neck downward.-  But living without electricity, without street lights, without light pollution became one of the true joys of my life. I had a shower next to house- which consisted of a cement flooring and 3 and 1/2 sides of screening that were created by lashing together 10 foot dried palm fronds. Because it was so hot there, almost everyone ended up taking two showers per day, one in the morning and one at night, to cool down and to get rid of the day’s sweat.  Taking a cool shower outside in the warm night, looking at the stars and seeing the sky’s vastness, is something no one should miss.

Circumscribed World

As you can imagine, pre-internet, information became a one-sided affair. Newsweek was provided by Peace Corps so that we would have an understanding of what was happening in the wider world and I became a BBC and VOA junkie. And I would call my family once a quarter and write to them as often as I could, as would they. But life got simpler, smaller, till it felt like my life was about me, my village, and my fellow PCVs.

As I settled in, dealt with my homesickness, and adapted to my new living situation and Benin’s culture, I started to make friend with several of the villagers in my town. One of my closest friends, Romaine, just showed up one day and wanted to see the new PCV in town. She was wholly different from anyone else I met in that she had enough courage to just come over and introduce herself. We sat around chatting one afternoon and it was very pleasant. Then she came back and I settled in for another chat but she didn’t just want to sit. So while we were talking she did my dishes, over my protests. At some point, she and her two children just moved in with me.

For her, this was a very logical move. She just knew that no one could be happy living alone, it was anethma in Beninois society. And she needed a better place to stay after having left her cheating husband and his uncaring family. She wouldn’t take the single mattress I had in my living room in case her 18 month old daughter had an accident in the night- so she and her kids laid out a mat each night and slept on the floor. So I provided for her family in terms of food and shelter and she became my housekeeper of sorts. Her presence and her children gave me even more additional insights into Benin. It ended up being such a blessing to have her and the kids in my life.

Author with Friends

Author with Friends

In addition to Romaine, I became very good friends with four additional people in my village. One, the principal of the local technical school which provided agricultural training, was the only one who had traveled more than 50 or so miles from his home. He had lived in the USSR [Benin was communist until 1990] and taken courses at a University in Moscow. So he alone understand my homesickness although his was overlaid with the pain of the overt racism he endured in Moscow. So my five good friends and I. Life settled into a routine and really was quite simple for the rest of my time in Benin.

Time and Opportunity Enough to Connect

I would also travel often to the capital, since it was just an hour away, to get money or for my work as the President of the Women’s club. While at the PC offices in Cotonou, I would socialize with the other PCVs that were there. We caught up. We shared our experiences, our regrets, our failures, and our successes. With our shared experiences of life alone in our villages, the other PCVs and I all had a sense of connectedness that ran very deep. Our personality differences melted away and we were able to share a deep bond over what we were experiencing.

I remember marveling at the connection we all were establishing and it dawned on my that our three months of training for our Peace Corps service was probably one of the most stressful and difficult periods of our life, perhaps not the most auspicious way to begin a last friendship with 80 other people. I mean layer over the culture shock with language training with dysentery with immunization shots that could make you ill for days and even the most even-tempered of a person could become an irritable person, right?

But with our two-year commitment, we were afforded the time and the opportunity enough to connect, to share our deepest selves with each other.

Connectedness

The deep bonds I created with nearly 80 other people, through our shared experiences is one of the most profound of my entire Peace Corps experience. Without other distractions – no movies- no internet- no TV- no phone- no easy transport to take us away- all we had was each other.  We upleveled our interactions with each other.  We played cards, talked, and learned to be even friends.

It is this level of connectedness that I still seek today. I’ve moved to a small, exurban community and there are so many competing demands on our time. But on of the most profound ways we can spend our time is through our interactions with others in similar circumstances. It nourishes the soul.

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