Friday, September 3, 2010


One of the interesting things I've noticed as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa compared to other countries is the lack of visibility of Peace Corps here. Most people in my village have never heard of Peace Corps, do not know anything about it's mission, and though I have one friend who takes it upon herself to educate everyone about the history of Peace Corps, most people could care less. In fact some people do not even know we work at the schools, and those who do know we work at the schools often have no idea what we do there or only a slight idea (i.e. teach computers). Our neighbor and tuck shop owner has been extremely friendly to us since we arrived here and always wants to give us free vegetables and fruit. Maybe a month ago, he was at one of the schools and saw me and said, oh so you are working at the school now! We've known him for a year and he had no idea what we were doing here. And you may say this is our fault for not going around educating people, but in a village of 13,000 are you really going to go door to door and explain to everyone the name of your organization and what your role is.

The reason I find this so interesting is that it stands in stark contrast to the visibility of Peace Corps in other countries. In Chad, I was constantly approached by people asking me if I knew so-and-so who was their Peace Corps teacher in 1975. I would often get on a taxi going to visit my closest volunteers and be updated on the whereabouts of James or another volunteer from someone who had seen them the previous week. In America, I've met people from all over Africa (for the most part, I don't feel like I've talked with people from other regions about Peace Corps so I can't really speak to the visibility of PC in those regions) who remember fondly their Peace Corps teacher. My mom's colleague from Sierra Leone heard that Peace Corps was returning there before I did and shared the happy news with us. Even the old Somali Bantu ladies who would come into the office remembered Peace Corps when the younger. The Liberians who took care of my grandmother when she was sick remembered their Peace Corps teachers. In Botswana, my host mom tried to explain what we were doing our cousin's fiancee, and she replied, 'you mean they are in Peace Corps'. At the border between South Africa and Namibia, the Namibian border agents were excited by our Peace Corps passports while the South Africans took no notice of them.

So why this disconnect? I think there are multiple factors at play...the first being that Peace Corps has not been here that long, countries like Ghana and Niger have long histories of Peace Corps volunteers, while ours is relatively recent, the first volunteers arrived in 1997. But that doesn't account for the difference between here and Namibia where PC arrived not much earlier, in 1990 or even with Chad where Peace Corps' presence has been spotty.

The next is population. In a country of 50 million people, 100 something volunteers easily get lost in the crowd while in smaller countries in terms of population, they are much more visible. In contrast to Chad where people always seemed to know who I was before I met them, here I still see people I've never seen before almost everyday in the village. In towns and cities, it's even easier to get lost in the crowd.

The next is diversity. South Africa's white, South Asian, East Asian, and Coloured populations make this country much more diverse than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa (Namibia is probably the closest after us at 87% black, but we come in at 79% black, if you consider Mauritania as subsaharan there is a pretty equal mix of Moor and black there, but it's definitely a different dynamic from what you find here) This means that I am far from the first white person that most people (except maybe babies) have seen. Though we are the only white people who live in our village right now, we have a neighbor whose white son-in-law is often coming by, and white people are often in the village for professional reasons. Living in our village, there are people of Indian, Pakistani, Somali, and Japanese descent. So the idea of an outsider coming and living in a village isn't such a crazy thing here like it is in other places. Though there are missionaries in other countries, people seem to draw a line between them and Peace Corps because PCVs don't stay in places separate from the people, but in the community. Though that does distinguish us from others here, it still doesn't seem to be so strange.

Finally, there is the issue of development and resources. In rural parts of other countries, it is quite a special event when a development agency comes in and does a project. They usually come in, do it, and then leave it to fail or succeed depending on the community's drive. Usually they fail. Peace Corps presents an alternative to that as the volunteer is there for a long time and becomes a part of the community. Here we have other people working in community development within our village. Our chief does a lot in this area. There's the youth centre, the department of education, etc. We are not the only resource that the community has, and the others were there before us and will continue after we are gone.

All this being said (and kudos to you if you read it all), I think these issues present a unique (maybe not unique, I feel it maybe be similar in a place like China that meets some of these same criteria) challenge and opportunity to Peace Corps Volunteers. We are not automatically seen as resources to our community in the same way that volunteers are in other countries. We must carve our own niche. While this can be frustrating, it can also be liberating as we do not have the same expectations put on us, and it may allow for more creativity. And with that, I'm done with my rant.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. My daughter is in Ghana, and I am enjoying hearing Peace Corps experiences from around the world. It is a truly profound organization, flexible enough because you PCV's are. Not just imposing ideas on a community, but gently lifting it from within, developing individuals, and the communities' own resources, with a little encouragement. Bless you for your service!