Peace Corps Week
The Peace Corps’ motto is “Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love,” and it couldn’t be truer. I had done some traveling and studying abroad over the years and learned about Peace Corps when a recruiter came to my undergraduate university. I knew instantly that I would eventually join and volunteer. So, about year after college graduation, I applied. The process took approximately one year; and then three weeks before my departure, I found out that I was assigned to Tanzania in East Africa. I was slotted to be a health volunteer. I was excited about what I was going to experience and the people I was going to meet. I joined Peace Corps with a desire to travel, learn new things, and to volunteer; and the adventure was about to begin.
When I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in June 2009, we had a week of orientation, and then it was off to our training site. We went as a training group of about 40 volunteers. Over the course of those two months, I lived with a host family to learn about the culture and spent 50% of training in language classes with my peers. It was overwhelming and thrilling. There was so much to learn and absorb, especially when it came to learning Kiswahili (my brain is not keen on learning second languages; I’ve tried several times!). It was incredible to be around so many well-traveled and interesting volunteers and staff (both American and Tanzanian).
With two months of training behind me, I was dropped off (alone!) in my village that would become my new home for the next two years. This is when things got challenging but grew into an extraordinary journey.
Work: People often think of volunteers as going to “help,” but that is not what Peace Corps teaches. We are not sent overseas to help or fix. Volunteers are told to listen, learn, and integrate. We are advised to do nothing at our site for the first three months other than build connections, relationships, integrate, learn the language, and listen to those around us. So that is what I did. I was the first volunteer in my village, so it was a learning experience for all of us. I listened to what the villagers and village leaders wanted and why they had applied to get a volunteer. Ultimately, I served as a connector and builder of bridges. There were numerous local organizations and nonprofits led by natives just an hour away in the nearest town that could teach and support the villagers in their endeavors. It’s just that most of my villagers don’t venture into town that far. So, I aided in connecting and bringing people together so that my small little village could benefit and thrive from the resources already in their country. This was key for empowering the villagers and ensured that the projects were sustainable once I left. We worked together on countless projects to educate the community on health, nutrition, wellness, and business. And we had a blast doing it!
Life: I initially struggled with my beginners Kiswahili but my vocabulary quickly grew as it was all I could use to communicate. I also had to learn how to go about my daily activities in a whole new way. I needed to learn how to do everything again. Every experience was a learning experience. There are things you expect, such as knowing you aren’t going to have electricity or that you will have a pit latrine for a bathroom. And there are things you don’t expect, like how buckets will become an integral part in almost everything you do each day. So many buckets, so many uses! I had many new experiences, such as taking bucket baths, carrying buckets of water on my head, cooking over fire every night, eating with my hands, going without toilet paper, and dealing with unwanted roommates (tarantulas, bats, cockroaches). There is a lot that a person can become accustomed to living in a different country. I am no longer fazed by overcrowded buses, uninvited creep crawly roommates, or using as little water as possible to bathe (the less I used, the less I had to carry!).
Balance: This was the hardest part. As many of us are, I am a coffee-drinking, to-do-list-maker, fill-every-hour-with-productivity kind of gal. But not in a tiny Tanzanian village. I had to learn how to slow down, relax, and be present. I learned about Tanzanian culture, patience, and flexibility. I learned that life does not have to be rushed. I learned that meeting times are a suggestion and that showing up an hour or two late is considered on time. The important things will get done and the unimportant things will fade away. I learned to welcome the open-door policy of my neighbors walking into my house without warning for a chat. I embraced the hours spent on the side of the road waiting for a bus to get fixed (there is often a stand nearby to get tea and fried bread!). I honed my language skills listening to gossip at the watering hole with the other women whilst filling my buckets. The sunrise became my alarm clock, the sunset was my reminder to settle down for the night, and meals were a time for connection around the fire. I may have kept busy with all my activities and projects, but there was always plenty of time to simply enjoy the present moment.
Since returning to America in August 2011, I still remember the lessons I learned from my service. I am a huge advocate of work/life balance with a strong emphasis on the life part. It is easy to get stuck in our silos and busy schedules, yet so imperative to slow down, relax, and do things that bring us joy and bring us back to the present moment. I love talking about my travels and am convinced that if every person had the opportunity to experience living in a culture outside of their own, then empathy and compassion could exponentially expand around the world. We all don’t have to join the Peace Corps (though I highly recommend it!) but I encourage everyone to find that experience that will put them out of their comfort zone and see life differently. I’m glad I did!