A few months ago an internet video went viral among Peace Corps Volunteers. The short animation featured two points of view: an idealistic future volunteer imagining a dream life of service in another culture and a somber voice identifying the realities of living in a developing country.
One vignette stuck in my memory. The idealist ic PCV said something like, “I will eat freshly harvested organic fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.”
The you’ve-got-to-be-kidding counterpart responded, “You will see a woman selling hard-boiled eggs that have been sitting in the hot sun for eight hours. You will tell her, ‘I will buy two. With some peppe.’ You will devour the eggs and spicy sauce.”
I also thought I’d eat healthy foods living in a farming community. I didn’t know that local farmers grew mainly yams and cassava – two root veggies similar to potatoes. I’ve eaten plenty of starches and more than my share of questionable protein. But I figure hard-boiled eggs – no matter how long they’ve basked in the sun – are a safer snack than (who knows what kind of) meat on a stick.
As I prepare to end my Peace Corps service, I consider the contrast between my pre-service mental images and the reality of living in West Africa.
I will live in a small round mud hut with a thatched roof. I will share my space with mice and spiders.
I live in a three-room mud-brick house funded by the Carter Foundation for Guinea Worm eradication. I collect rain water gushing from the corrugated tin roof during rainy season. The floor of the house is uneven; the western side of the house is a few inches down hill from the eastern side. The bed, desk, tables, bookshelves and sofa each have a leg or two propped up with chunks of wood to keep the sleeping/sitting/writing/storage/cooking surface somewhat level. The screens on the five windows keep out the malaria-carrying mosquitoes but not the dust. The mice and bats stay in the space above the ceiling. I share my living space with small lizards and several varieties of spiders.
I will walk miles to fetch a bucket of water from a shallow stream. I’ll boil the water for ten minutes to kill visible vermin and destroy micro-organisms. I will be frugal with the scarce resource; a single bucket will meet all my needs for a day.
Children vie for an opportunity to fetch water from the borehole (machine-dug well with a hand pump) that’s less than 50 yards from my front door. When a child carries and dumps five water buckets to my blue 250 liter barrel, she washes her hands with soap, comes into my kitchen and pours oil and popping maize into a pan. When the corn is popped, she adds salt and transfers the white snack into a clear take-away bag. She carries the treat home to share with her family. Although the borehole water has been tested and is safe to drink, I filter water through a two-reservoir desktop filter before drinking. I try to conserve water, but I use half a bucket for each of my two-a-day baths and I share “fridge water” with guests.
I will live without electricity or running water.
Like everyone in my community of 1,600 people, I have electricity (“lights”) but no running water. I could survive without lights – even though days and nights are equally long eight degrees north of the equator. But I enjoy electricity. I love being able to sit in front of my fan, keep fresh fruits, veggies, leftovers and water in my fridge, and bake bread in my toaster oven. (Today’s yeast bread features powdered cheese and Italian seasoning.)
I will ride my bike down a dirt path to remote villages where I will teach captivating health and nutrition lessons to mothers in their local language.
I ride my used six-speed bike a couple miles down the main road to market and another mile to the vocational school where I tutor. Whenever I teach, someone who speaks English and the local language translates for me. My health and nutrition lessons may not be captivating, but only the babies sleep through the sessions.
My toilet will be a hole in the ground.
My toilet is a hole in the ground – surrounded by a mud-brick outhouse with a tin roof and a wooden door. I squat over the key-hole shaped hole and use t-roll (toilet paper) purchased at the local market. A tall metal sprinkling can filled with plastic sunflowers decorates the inside of the latrine.
Being thousands of miles from family and friends, I may be lonely.
Today’s electronic communication options makes my Peace Corps experience completely different from the experience of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana over 50 years ago. Although I miss seeing and interacting with family and friends, I am not isolated. I stay connected to individuals via email and phone. At last count, 170 individuals read my blog and 75 people receive my daily four-word emails. Although I’m generally out of touch with news unless someone posts something on Facebook, I feel incredibly connected. I look forward to connecting face to face in a few weeks.
I will learn to cook native dishes and surprise my friends and family with unique delicious recipes when I return to America.
I have perfected multiple variations of beans and rice and make an awesome groundnut soup (with peanut butter, garden eggs, onions and tomatoes). I use local ingredients to make two delicious snacks – groundnut toffee (candies peanuts) and banana bread – using recipes I adapted from internet.
I will be on call 24×7 and have no time to myself.
My day sometimes starts before daybreak with roosters crowing, children calling, and mothers chattering as they fetch water. But I have lots of time to myself. Time to read, write, and think. Time to do craft projects and cook. Time to think about how my life in Ghana is different than I anticipated. Time to contemplate what to do with the next phase of my life.
I will love my Peace Corps adventure. I will learn as much as I teach. It will be difficult to say goodbye.
I love my Peace Corps adventure! I’ve learned much more than I have taught. I have started to say goodbye. The goodbyes are challenging. The hellos will be exciting!