To help or not to help?

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20 juin 2012

To help, or not to help?

Sometimes, one of the biggest challenges presented to PCVs is simply the decision whether or not to help. This can be on a small level, such as whether or not to give 100 CFA to a begging child, or on a larger level, such as whether or not to pursue a proposed project. Each time, it’s a tough decision, because everyone in Burkina Faso needs help; sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that there’s either nothing you can do, or that the help being asked for is outside of your purview as a PCV.

It can be heartwrenching. Here’s an example.

The other day, an idea was pitched to me to help the street kids of my site. There are a lot of them, and they mostly live at the gare and get by begging, selling bread, and generally living the sort of existence depicted in movies like Slumdog Millionaire. Specifically, the proposer wants to help raise funds to pay their school fees (school isn’t free here, and after elementary level it is quite expensive), and to provide them with some sort of free food as well.

At first glance, this was a great idea: there are undoubtedly a bunch of street kids here, they obviously can’t afford school, and they surely could use some assistance getting food. The problem is…I’m not really sure this is a Peace Corps project. Peace Corps is about capacity building and helping people to help themselves. This project is more of a traditional charity: it’s doing good works, but without constant funding and supervision, there’s no way for it to be self-supporting. Therefore, even though I agree with the goals of the project and acknowledge that it’s a needed thing, I had to turn it down in its present form.

So what do you do with that? How do you say no to someone who wants nothing more than to help those most in need, and who thinks that, without your help, the project cannot succeed?

The answer is, you don’t. Or, more correctly, you say no and yes at the same time. I don’t think I can support the project as it is currently envisioned, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be reworked into something that I can support. In fact, I have a meeting this afternoon to discuss doing just that. And I hope it works, because as I said, it’s a badly-needed project.

And so I hope to help…by first denying help.

We’ll see how it goes.



It’s not all about the Benjamins, it’s all about the planning

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14 juin 2012

It’s not all about the Benjamins, it’s all about the planning

Although we don’t often think of it as such, in many ways life is really just an overlapping circle of plans. We plan for the short-term, the mid-term, the long-term, and even just for the poorly defined but universally admired “future”.

Think about it: as you sit here reading this, you’re probably stewing in a miniature seas of plans. Finish reading this crap blog post, answer some work emails, get some actual work done, eat lunch, go to a meeting, work some more, go home, say hi to your kitty, eat dinner, watch America’s Getting Fatter and More Unemployable, go to bed, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat. You’re probably sitting on a slew of mid-range plans too: go to the pool this weekend, renew the registration on the car next month, lose fifteen pounds, buy a new washing machine, etc. And then there are the long term plans: get pregnant, buy a better house, quit smoking, get that promotion, start a garden, learn Chinese, finally shave your armpits, stop drinking mouthwash, what have you. Your plans are surely different from almost everyone else’s in that they’re customized to you and yours, but they’re surely the same as everyone else’s in that you have them.

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, an aspiring PCV’s plans become very simple. Short-term: finish application, get med clearances, write the aspiration statement. Mid-term: get on the plane and go to staging, move to another country, learn a new language (or two, or three). Long-term: be a Peace Corps volunteer.  The PCT’s plans are simple because the steps to service are very linear, and the service itself is such an unknowable quantity that it is in effect an event horizon: the PCT knows that life will go on long-term, but since they literally have no idea where they’re going, it’s impossible to plan that life.

And so they don’t.

This blessed simplicity continues for quite some time after service begins, too. In PST, you have no idea where you will be living, so your sole goal is quite simply to get through PST. After PST, you’re learning to live on your own in a new house, a new town, a new country, and a new culture, so you really can’t do more than plan day-to-day. It’s not until 4 – 6 months in that you finally look up one day and realize hey…I’m getting through the days now on autopilot, and things haven’t gotten harder now for awhile…I need to start planning ahead if I want to stay sane.

And when that day finally comes, it’s a lot more crushing than you might otherwise think: it means the initial magic of your service is gone forever, and that Peace Corps has finally become, for you, just another job. A very special and amazing job, true, but still just a job. Your problems are no longer the problems of living in an alien culture, they’re the problems of work. Your complaints no longer center on pooing in holes, the heat, or the terrible food, but on meeting times, project plans, and scheduling issues. And your hopes for the future are less about seeing new places and meeting new people, and more about completing grant applications successfully and being approved for that training you really want. In short, it ceases to be primarily an adventure and instead becomes primarily a job.

This is the point when, for the first time in the 1 – 2 years since you first made the decision to join Peace Corps, you start looking past your service. You start thinking about applying to grad school. Or maybe you start researching jobs. Or maybe you plan on getting married and pooping out 9 or 10 kids. Or all of the above. But whatever you do, you’re looking beyond for the first time. You have 18 months of service left, and you still have so much to do, but in a way, it’s already done, and you can already see the end.

It’s a sobering thought.

Welcome back…bitch

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13 juin 2012

Welcome back…bitch

Well…I’m back in Burkina Faso now. After a lovely 17 days overseas, I’m back, and life in the Peace Corps begins anew.

So what does that mean, exactly?

To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I suppose I should say that it means that I pick up with renewed vigor and determination, and that I begin to execute a long laundry of plans that are already laid by and just waiting to be acted upon, but that wouldn’t really be true. I do have a sense of renewal, and I do have a long list of things that need to be done, but I’m not at all sure that just diving in and tackling them is really the best way to go about things.

While I was away, I had a lot of time to think about myself, my plans, and my service, and to pick apart what went right, what went wrong, and what I might do differently if I had a second shot. My conclusions were:

  1. I’m pretty happy with the direction my service has taken so far, and there isn’t much I would do differently if I had to do it over again
  2. I feel confident I can continue as I have been doing for the next 18 months, and be just fine
  3. I in no way want to continue as I have been going

If #3 sounds like a jarring conclusion to draw from #’s 1 and 2, allow me to assure you: it is no less jarring to you than it is to me. It sounds crazy to say ‘everything has gone pretty well so far, therefore let’s stop doing that entirely’, but that’s exactly how I feel.

Why is that?

It’s difficult to explain. My service has been absolutely fine to date, but it hasn’t in any way lived up to my own expectations. Which is odd. I would have thought that to be impossible, because it’s an unfortunate truth of life in West Africa that, in order to get anything done, you have to continually revise your expectations downward. I had already set my expectations so low that I didn’t think they had anywhere to go.

But I was wrong.

I think I am revising my expectations, not further down, but further up. I want to do more, not less, and I want that more to be more technical, not simpler. I want to study more language. I want to do more secondary projects. I want to have less free time. To date, I would say my service has been as busy, or busier, than that of the average volunteer, but if I can’t do more I may have to do a…reassessment. Yes, I can entirely continue to get by on nothing but simple projects that directly aid the community, but those projects make me feel like a fraud. I get nothing out of telling people to wash their hands, and then reporting that as an individual sanitation sensibilization. Yes, that counts as work to PC, but it doesn’t to me.

And that’s just it, I think: to date, I’ve spent a lot of time learning, observing, and participating, but I haven’t spent much time being me. I either need to find a way to do that, or I need to find someplace else to do it. I’m not saying I want to quit – just to be clear: I am in no way saying I want to quit – but I’m definitely saying I want to do more.

That’s a good thing, right?


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11 juin 2012


For the past two weeks, I’ve been on vacation in the UK, visiting ma petite amie, relaxing, and generally doing as little as possible to think about the Peace Corps, blogging, or any of the other aspects of my day-to-day routine. It has been a nice break, but now the time has come to return to Africa, and to hopefully pick back up in some new and interesting ways.

Before I left, I found myself in a bit of a rut. PC training is difficult, as is adjusting to life at your site, and between the two I was more than a little burnt out. Now, I feel entirely rested and recharged, and I think I’ll have the energy and the inspiration to tackle old problems in new ways. If nothing else, at least I should have a bit more patience and few less food cravings.

In the interim, I have another 18 hours of flights and additional layovers to weather, so I’m going to discontinue this pathetic stub of blog post and get back to the important stuff – sucking down fountain drinks and unlimited wifi at the airport McDonald’s. It’s the last of both that I’m going to get for awhile, so I need to make the most of it.

Note from a small island

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28 mai 2012

Notes from a small island

I’m on vacation this week in the United Kingdom, so blogs have been less frequent. So far, things are absolutely amazing, and it’s going to be very hard to go back to Burkina in a few days. I’m actually trying to spend as much time as I can away from the computer and the internet, but here are some things I’ve noted so far:

  • cheese is a wonderful substance
  • so is bacon
  • I love being able to wake up and go straight to the bathroom
  • I love being able to go to the bathroom without small children watching me
  • I love not sweating
  • Life is much better with certain people than without them 🙂
  • Having a car is lovely
  • Eating the world’s biggest bacon cheeseburger was surprisingly easy. I even had room to stuff away some of my companion’s burger as well.
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothes in climates that call for it is much more enjoyable than wearing them in places where the climate calls for nothing but social mores demand long-sleeved everything. Boo for colonialism
  • I love grass. I love walking barefoot on grass. I miss grass
  • Not having a cellphone (I didn’t buy a SIM card, so I have no signal here) is far more wonderful than I ever dreamed it could be
  • I do miss having constant internet access though; it’s ironic that I have more internet access in Burkina than in the UK (although the UK is faaaar) faster
  • The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was fun
  • So was Edinburgh
  • The thought of getting back on the plane though…not so much

That’s it for now. I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m finding that I really needed this break from Burkina. However, I’m also increasingly of the opinion that I’ll get back more rested, recharged, and ready to go than I would have thought. I can’t say that I’m actively looking forward to sweating 24/7 again, but at the same time I’m quite certain that I’m not quite ready to be done yet.

And so I will, as the British say, keep calm and carry on.