Well, I am back in the states after ending my Peace Corps experience and have had some time to reflect. What the hell did I accomplish? Was it worth it? Did I change? And should I write about it?
Originally, my reflecting didn’t really lead to anything…leaving me frustrated… until I started reading again and listening/observing people. I found myself feeling inspired and brought me to this point of wanting to write something – and then I decided to share it, what the heck. Excuse the stream of consciousness, this is just my thought process and is not meant to draw any conclusions about anything besides my personal beliefs and growth.
First of all, I realized how lucky I was that my first experience in community development was a success — and this was while I was still in college. Three basic things that I learned were:
1. You have to care about what you are doing and the people you are doing it for. Like, really care. Like — sacrifice your precious weekends while in college—care.
2. You can’t do anything long-term without support and then somebody to pass the work to when/if you move on.
3. Excuse my sports analogy: If you want a slam dunk, make sure that you aren’t the only one on the break…because sometimes you need someone to alley-oop to. You can’t always jump up high enough and sometimes you are guarded.
My first community development experience was a gold mine put right into my lap. I was just one of the first ones to jump on, see the potential, and put the pieces in place. What came of it was a program that has grown and gotten better year after year…and I am in no way involved anymore. The only people that know my name are the people who were involved 4 years ago when it started. Which is how it should be. For this success, I am forever grateful because it gave me the confidence to take a risk and a reduced ego to be able to take myself out of it and know when to leave.
So…I thought, why not try the Peace Corps? I was successful here in the states, I could probably be successful where there are less resources and limited access to information! I could start a project there that helps people that are even more in need. I knew full well that it was going to be a bigger challenge, but I thought with Peace Corps support and grassroots mentality, I would have no problem starting something even more meaningful than I did stateside.
There were three things I underestimated: how culture (which is deeply rooted) affects development, how big the personal challenges would be, and how differently I would measure success. I didn’t realize that solutions that seemed so clear to me, could be foreign and possibly unrealistic due to local beliefs and circumstances.
To give a good example: trying to convince people to use mosquito nets to prevent/eradicate Malaria. Malaria is a huge problem, and the foreign aid solution right now is to promote bed net use. So, there are bed net distributions, campaigns, and tons of money put into this prevention method. It makes sense, if 60% of the community were to use bed nets regularly, Malaria could be eradicated in that community. If we could just get people to understand that, then we can start to make a dent in this deadly parasite. I was among those believers that it was as simple as spreading information.
But, there is one problem, Malaria to people has become like the common cold “everyone gets it.” It is part of normal life, if you get symptoms, hopefully you go to the hospital and get the treatment, and within a few days you are back to normal. I heard a good analogy brought to me by my fiancée, it is like someone from Finland asking people in the states to wear a mask at all times to prevent the common cold because they did and now they don’t have colds. How many people would actually take that advice seriously? These would be common comments: The masks are so uncomfortable, and everyone gets the cold and it isn’t even that bad!…who are you to tell me what to do, are you that much better than me? We have lived without these masks for generations, why should I use them now?
When the Chidenguele community did a project to help promote bed net use (with minimal support and planning help from me), we started to hear these comments that I was dreading: “I don’t know anyone who has died from Malaria”, “Bed nets are so uncomfortable and they make me hot”, “I am immune to Malaria”, “Everyone gets Malaria, I am just careful to go to the doctor”, “Malaria is a myth”, “My house doesn’t have mosquitos, I cut my grass”. These are the opinions about bed nets that are culturally engrained. Can we really change this culture? The international community is going to try, and it might work, but it is going to be harder than just spreading information and giving people the resources. We have to make them BELIEVE in this solution, and that involves breaking some cultural beliefs.
So, what did I get out of this project? Pretty discouraged…I was leaving soon and this project probably only made a slight dent. But, I noticed one thing that made the project a victory. Maybe, the campaign wasn’t as big of a success as I had hoped as far as getting people to use mosquito nets, but it did do something successfully: bring people together. The success was that this was a local-driven project that brought together the community, government officials, and local businesses/organizations for a common cause. Maybe, my idea of success had to lie in the process. This process could be a base for projects in the future and the relationships created could drive action in the community. And that is exactly what is happening as the community is putting together a health fair for June and more projects in the future.
Aaaaaand, going back to my original reason for posting. I was racking my brain about what I had learned in my Peace Corps experience. And then, I looked more deeply at the type of article, the type of quotes that were inspiring me to action and how they related to my service. They weren’t big project ideas or development stories/solutions. The words that were inspiring me, were stories of ordinary people helping a group of people they worked closely together with. It was more about the process of what was being done, and how it has brought change from within. I realized that my biggest success wasn’t just helping streamline the processes in the school’s secretary’s office, it was the relationships I made. It was more that I got a select few people to second guess how they do things and change for the better. (I also gained a life-long Mozambican friend/brother, and that relationship will forever justify my decision to join Peace Corps…not to mention that I met my future wife :-)
I realized that I can’t focus on the big picture, I only get depressed and feel like I failure if I do. I am going to find more happiness if I focus on the small things that I can control. This means smaller sample sizes, smaller groups, one-on-one interactions. Relationships are important. My happiness is not going to be in changing policies or bringing another million dollars of aid to a country in need, my happiness is going to be in the smiles and changes I can see. My happiness is not going to come from changing the curriculum for a nation, it is going to come from getting a teacher to see why it is important. I don’t want to focus too much on the big scale, I want to work on the ground. I am going to find much more pleasure creating programs like my first success, than trying to do something bigger and less hands-on. And that realization is what I got out of my service. Whether I find a job right away where I can do this, I have no idea. But I can definitely say that this is my goal, and something I am going to work my hardest to achieve. And if I stray away from it, I can know that at some point, I thought this was my correct path and the reasoning behind it.