Once upon a time not so very long ago, a retired American dreamed of doing something memorable for the “return” portion of her “Learn. Earn. Return.” life philosophy.
She explored options. She considered alternatives. She talked and listened.
She applied to the Peace Corps
and was nominated to be a business development volunteer in Eastern Europe. She landed in Ghana, West Africa, and became a Peace Corps Volunteer focusing on health, water, hygiene, and sanitation.
After one year of living in a small rural community close to the Togo border, she reflected on her experiences.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is like taking an extended vacation.
With only a limited amount of time “on the ground”, I decide what to do from my long list of options:
Teach hand-washing at the school. Attend a funeral. Plant a garden with the children. Sit under a mango tree and watch mothers sift cassava. Teach nutrition to mothers whose children are not thriving. Complete crafts, play games, or sing songs with the children. Call a community leader to follow up on a commitment. Explore the local market. Organize teens to pick up trash. Watch a football match at the nearby school. Plan a malaria prevention event. Connect with someone from home. Help a neighbor construct a soak-away pit. Talk about “life in America” with someone who may never leave Ghana. Demonstrate how to use condoms as part of an HIV/AIDS awareness day.
Being on vacation also mean exploring: Tasting new foods. Observing different customs. Touring the area. Taking pictures. Hanging out with the locals. Buying souvenirs. Sending postcards home.
Living in a developing nation is like being on a lengthy camping trip.
I filter water before I drink. I rinse fruits and veggies with chlorine water. The final rinse for dishes includes a splash of chlorine.
I make do with limited resources and supplies.
I use a torch (flashlight) to see at night.
I repeat simple meals frequently.
No running water. Pit latrines. Dirty clothes and hair.
I learn names for new fauna and flora. I watch the blue sky change colors as the sun sets and the moon rises. I gaze at stars, satellites and the Milky Way while bathing. I wonder if the spider that scurried away is poisonous.
I become more closely linked to the natural world.
Being part of a small rural community in West Africa is like living in small-town America in the ’30s.
Children create and play with homemade toys. With a pair of scissors and an old ink pen, a trash-bound thin piece of cardboard morphs into a deck of playing cards. An old bicycle wheel becomes a toy – propelled forward with a stick. An abandoned plastic quart-sized oil container and a small rope becomes a pull toy. Cut and braided water sachets become jumping ropes.
When an airplane passes overhead – perhaps once a month – we all look up in awe.
A trip to “market” or Sunday’s church service is a social event – a time to greet friends and catch up on local happenings. Local news travels fast.
Everyone knows everyone. Everyone watches out for everyone. It’s safe to walk alone at any time of the day or night.
Children wander around.
Chickens, turkeys, goats, and pigs roam about foraging for food.
I wash my clothes by hand. I bake my own bread. I’m glad I’m a vegetarian so there’s no need to slaughter my own meat.
When it’s dark, we go to bed. We start the new day at daybreak.
I often feel like I’m living my grandmother’s life.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is like going to school.
I leave my friends and family and move to a new community. I meet new friends; I adopt a new family. I stay in touch with “old” friends and family.
I learn a new foreign language and a foundation of technical skills; I must demonstrate my proficiency before being able to move to the next level – to become a Volunteer instead of a Trainee.
My brain grows new connections.
I realize there’s much to learn.
I re-learn that most education doesn’t take place in a classroom.
Living in a small village where few people speak English is like being on a writer’s retreat.
I am isolated.
There’s no TV or radio or shopping malls to distract me.
I spend time reading and writing.
I cherish my“think” time.
I connect with friends and family; I feel loved and supported.
Helping other help themselves is like a dream.
I smile when I see excitement and pride on a mother’s face when she adds life-giving moringa to her child’s porridge. I partner with a non-profit to provide materials for latrines for 100 residents. I give children their first taste of cucumbers or cabbage. I work with community leaders to repair broken boreholes. I teach new skills.
I learn more than I teach.
I benefit more than the intended beneficiaries.
The woman recalled the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant as she considered her one year anniversary of arriving in Ghana.
All her reflections were true.
Living in a foreign country for twenty-seven months was like going on an extended vacation, being on a grand camping trip and living her grandmothers’ life. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer provided a writer’s retreat and the the best education she could hope for.
Helping others help themselves was her dream come true.
She liked her current life.
And she lived happily ever after.