Peace Corps is not Relative

Dear PC Community (and other open minded individuals),

Hey wait my community does fit the mud hut stereotype...who are you callin' Posh Corps?!

Hey wait my community does fit the mud hut stereotype…who are you callin’ Posh Corps?!

I do not like the term “Posh Corps”. I know there is a documentary based on my country’s program by that name and rhetoric is an annoying concept to take on but hear me out. I actually have had issues with the term for a while now but after spending 6 months in a country associated with the term. Also a quick disclaimer, I am in no ways trying to invalidate anyone’s PC service. All I am trying to open the conversation and hopefully broader perceptions about PC in general.

“Posh Corps” for those unfamiliar with the term is what is used to define PC host countries with more American-like amenities (I cringe to type that but that is the concept) like electricity, internet, and running water and easily understood English. I cannot lie, there are countries that PC serves where those utilities are precious commodities. South Africa has readily available utilities…to an extent (more later). The other half of “Posh Corps” is it describes PCV experiences that deviate from the established perception of mud huts and extreme heat.

In case anyone wants to establish South Africa as easier country, come here out to rural KZN before you make assumptions. I do not want to add to the illogical “what country is hardest to serve in” argument. I hope no one walks into Peace Corps expecting an easy ride…because they would be disappointed. Every country has its challenges including South Africa and depending on the area you are placed in, the experience could be very different. I have tried to illustrate this with my site visit recaps to the Social Worker’s Township and Msinga. I worry about lighting triggered wildfires in this drought, and in Msinga they avoid unfiltered tap water due to cholera scares. Some SA PCVs who live above the Tropic of Capricorn or the Pocket between Swaziland and Mozambique do complete their two years in a mud hut braving extreme heat. That will not be me.

The challenge in South Africa is the extreme dichotomy between American like services and low resource areas (where I call home in SA). Take Saturday for example, I was out of food and met the Social Worker in Shopping Town. We met up at our usual spot and had a conversation about this very topic. She also has several RCPV friends through graduate school and was contemplating telling her friend who served in Burkina Faso why Posh Corps is a misnomer. The example she used was our present situation. She and I were sitting in a restaurant with hot drinks and burgers. We had a flushing toilet and were listening to American music. Yet both of us had to return to our respective communities to no indoor plumbing and our neighbors could not afford a taxi ride to shopping town, let alone a burger. That is the frustrating part about South Africa, it has all the natural and human resources to take care for a population but then historical circumstances derailed progress for most of the 20th century. You have to meet South Africans where they are at, and most days is personal prejudice 101.

There is more to South Africa then apartheid’s legacy but it is an everyday part of my life as a health extension volunteer. I am constantly thinking about how my words and actions could perpetuate internalized oppression because I am white. Even though I try to be sensitive (and use my past lessons learned as an anti-bias conversation facilitator at my alma mater) my race still impacts the people around me, I cannot win. To mention one of many example, I try to get the front seat of a taxi because it has a seat belt when possible (and because I actually use the seat belt). Doing so I risk inducing white privilege.

Yet my seat belt debacle is minor when you hear my friends that serve near Pretty City  who are very articulate about what it is like to serve as African American women or in South African race terms black women in a post-apartheid society. I do not want to violate their privacy and will just say that it is no cakewalk. While in Pretoria I met a couple who were closing their service. Pretoria is a regional medical hub and you have the chance to meet a lot of medically evacuated PCVs. This couple noticed that other countries in the Africa region did not understand how permeated race is in South African culture.

Also as I keep trying to illustrate to people, having electricity is not the same as having reliable access. Right now the country cannot keep up with the electricity demand. There is this phenomena called lowshedding, where without warning (sans maybe a radio message if we are lucky) the power is cut…for a few hours entire communities go without power. No area in South Africa is immune to this, but some areas experience it more than others. My friend who completes team Pretty City PCV(and also religious) prays that lowshedding happens at 8-10 PM, because by that time we are in bed. I have to plan my dinner, interactions with my host family, and boiling water for the hot water bottle before the power is cut. I cross my fingers to see that the hot water bottle will last 12 hours as getting up at 3 AM because the water bottle is lukewarm…not fun whatsoever. There is a different pain you feel living with an electricity situation that is near impossible to fully adapt to, and realizing your community will not have electricity for two years.

South Africa is only one country that is classified under posh corps. I am sure the other PCVs from those countries could type similar rants. The reason why I am raising the issue is because posh corps, once a harmless joke, is now being used to make assumptions about the PCVs that serve in these countries. The jury is out if I could have survived in an area with electricity for two years (it would have made blogging difficult), and someday if the curiosity is still present, maybe I will try to have that experience. However DC makes the placement decisions based on how the agency feels comfortable and I am grateful that I can call myself a PCV in any country but South Africa provided the opportunity. With that said, staying in tribal authority at the foothills of the Drakensburg requires a certain type of fortitude. Scrap that, anyone who commits to 2 years abroad in one of the most vulnerable experiences an American can be in demonstrates fortitude, regardless of how the situation turns out.

It is possible to quit the Peace Corps or in agency lingo “early termination of ETing”. It is a temping prospect; if I become where I am miserable to the point that I cannot learn anymore, Peace Corps can fly me home in a couple days. I am comforted to know there are options if there was an unforeseeable emergency and I need to go back home. Every PCV has their own values and motivation, but in my case ETing would be a last ditch resort. However on rough days where I wonder “I cannot live 2 years like this”, I have contemplated the option…but I could not pick up the phone and call Pretoria. I have worked too hard for this and currently this is a better learning environment for me than the states. However that is me, and other people walk into Peace Corps realizing that it not a good fit. Being able to care enough about your well-being to advocate for yourself in a very difficult manner is courageous.

When I return to the states, I want to take pride in my experience and hopefully connect with other returned RPCVs. I do not need to prove my experience to anyone, but I hope that other PCVs can appreciate my service as well. After all all PCVs are fortunate enough to learn from an international community for 2 years, few programs offer that opportunity. But please stop with the country Olympics…we all struggle. Let’s move towards a world where all people who get on the plane for PST are respected, regardless of how long they are in the country. If you know a RPCV or someone who tried Peace Corps, take some time to thank them and ask about their experience. We do not do this for a recognition, but it is nice when we receive a sincere acknowledgement of our experience. I do not need a thank you but please give me chances to keep talking about South Africa after 2017 (life willing).I anticipate missing this country.

I will close with one of my favorite TED talks that I kept thinking of while typing this.

Hard is not relative, hard is hard.- Ash Beckham

Peace Corps is not relative, Peace Corps is Peace Corps.

Thanks for hearing me vent.

All the best,
Katey-Red

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s