Saturday, June 15, 2013

June 15 - Why Peace Corps is Hard

A lot of you have probably heard the “Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” slogan about Peace Corps.  I’ve been here about a year now – one year on June 27 – and have done my best to share the experience through this blog.  I think most of my posts have confirmed the “love” part of that slogan – I do love this job.  It’s a truly amazing experience.  Whenever I leave or return to my village, I ride a motorcycle along beautiful red dirt roads, through fields that are now turning green again, past herds of white cattle and groups of brightly-dressed girls and women carrying big basins of water on their heads.  Dozens of people – the girls carrying water, men working in the fields or relaxing in the shade of trees – wave and call out my name.  “Gorado!  Gorado!”  The name I’ve been given means “One who has been sent from far away to achieve a mission, and returns with a good result.”  What a vote of confidence!  I have spent much of my life daydreaming over the photos and stories on the Peace Corps website, and now I’m taking the photos and living the stories.  I dance at fetiche ceremonies, walk through the rain with laughing groups of women to attend baptisms, get my hands dirty working in my garden. 

Yes, I love Peace Corps.  But the whole slogan is true, not just the “love” part – Peace Corps is tough.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And if I really want to share this experience accurately, I should share what makes my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peonga, Benin in 2013 hard. 

I wrote at the beginning of this post about the dozens of people who joyfully call my name as they see me walking through village.  Children especially – I can never walk anywhere without a group of children running to join me, carry my bag, and fight over who gets to hold my hand.  When I’m in a good mood, which I often am, this is wonderful.  I love all the kids, I love greeting everyone.  But if I’m not in a good mood, I’m still supposed to smile, greet people, hold hands with the kids.  As I’m sitting in my house, people often poke their heads in the front door to look at me and say hi.  Often it’s great to have visitors, and I greet them cheerfully.  But sometimes I don’t feel up to it, sometimes I’d just like to read in peace.  It can be hard to always be on display, watched, talked about. 
It was especially hard recently, when my concession (the group of houses I live in, arranged around a courtyard) was full of visitors for a big fetiche ceremony.  Being in my little hut felt like living in a zoo exhibit.  When I got up each day and took my morning walk to the latrine, there were always lots of people watching me.  The best example of how little privacy there was – I was cooking in my living room one day (I don’t have a kitchen) when  a woman I didn’t know stepped in to say hi.  We greeted each other, then she pulled my chair over into a corner and said “I’m going to take a nap.”  And she did – she fell asleep right there in my chair!  In Peace Corps, you get all the chances you want to smile at people, practice your greetings, just generally get attention.  You also get all these things when you don’t want them.    

Another challenge, the one that’s really on my mind right now - it’s hard to know how to balance village life and the volunteer community.  When my father was in the Peace Corps in Nepal, he lived in the jungle in a tent.  Letters took months to reach him.  To reach the capital, and spend time with other volunteers, he had to take a multi-day trip (that went through India!)  Letters may still take months to reach me, but a lot about Peace Corps has changed since the 60s.  Communication, and therefore relationships within the volunteer community, are one big change.  I, and every volunteer in Benin, have a cell phone.  We can be in touch with each other instantly.  Many have e-mail at their posts.  I don’t, but can access it whenever I’m at my regional “work station” in the city of Parakou.  This increased communication make it easy to collaborate, which is terrific.  Before I built my first mud stove, I called a more experienced volunteer and had him talk me through it.  When I learned about a week of training about drip irrigation to be held at my garden, I sent a text message to my fellow environment volunteers and one made the trip down to attend the training with a member of his community.  He’s now working to implement a similar system at his post.

 In talking with Dad, I’ve learned that volunteers definitely collaborate more than they used to.  There are lots of committees – to work on gender issues or food security issues, to provide peer support to new volunteers, to help Peace Corps administrative staff determine policies.  There are lots of optional trainings, on topics like nutrition, live fencing, beekeeping, gardening – very relevant topics.  As volunteers, we have lots of chances to help one another.  This all sounds good, and it is good in a lot of ways.  But then take a look at my June.  This month, I have three separate trips to Cotonou, the capital.  The first trip, last week, was to attend training for the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment committee (GenEQ).  I’ll be a member next year, as co-coordinator of the Take Our Daughters to Work program in Parakou.  Right now, I’m in Parakou on my way down to Cotonou again for Training of Trainers – I’ve been selected as one of the trainers for the new group of volunteers arriving in June.  The following week, I go to Cotonou again for Peer Support Network training, and to welcome the new group of volunteers when they arrive.   Because it takes so long (usually 2 days) to make the trip to Cotonou or back, I only have one or two days in village between each trip.  I’ve barely arrived when I leave again. 

This month is certainly an extreme case, and I really have no right to complain – I’ve done it to myself, I applied for each of these opportunities, and I really believe in the value of each of them.  I’ve always been one to volunteer for lots of extra-curricular things, such as clubs and student government in college.  But it’s one of the challenges of Peace Corps, at least today, at least in Benin.  How do you balance it?  Maybe in the past volunteers were dropped into their villages and essentially left there for two years, completely immersed in their communities whether they liked it or not.  But today, if you want that experience, you need to make it happen for yourself.  Some people do.  My closest volunteer, who I really admire, does her very best to spend at least a month in village between trips out.  I hope that by participating in all these committees and volunteer collaboration opportunities I don’t end up having missed out on the Peace Corps experience that she’s having, which is the one I think we all imagine.  I feel like I’m being useful, but am I being a Peace Corps volunteer?  For my entire life there will be plenty of committees to join and meetings to attend – but there is only about one year left to spend in Peonga.   

My Dad told me, before I came, that Peace Corps is what you make it.  This is true of a lot of jobs and experiences, but especially of Peace Corps.  Really, the fact that you determine your own experience so much is what makes Peace Corps hard.  Volunteers talk about dealing with guilt regularly – from the little guilt of “Should I be reading this book or learning more Fulani by speaking with my neighbor?  Why did I lose it and yell at those people who were staring at me?” to the bigger guilt of “Am I doing Peace Corps right?”  But of course I know that guilt really does no good.  So I guess I’ll just do the best I can to make the most of my days, in post, in Cotonou, at meetings, with other volunteers, with Beninese – and hope I'm happy with what I've made of my experience when I'm done. 


  1. Bethany! I can relate to all of this sooo have hit the nail on the head with what is tough about Peace Corps. Thanks for sharing! And the fact that you have it all in good perspective definitely comes through. I can't believe you have almost finished a year - awesome! I wish you a fantastic second year!

  2. Bethany, you are one of my heroes. I am so grateful for the opportunities you have and experiences you can choose for yourself in Peonga. As you concluded at the end of this post, perhaps making the most of and doing the best with what you can is the key. It's true. We never know how much time we will have, technically, in any given place or on this planet. Living each day to its own max without overdoing it for the sake of responsibility and forgetting your needs is, I imagine, the absolute best you can do. Namaste!

  3. I have just started reading your write beautifully. I was reading them to Bill and got all choked up...very heartfelt're doing a great job at doing the best you can!!!! Keep on keeping on and I will keep reading!!!!

  4. Bethany, no matter what you do, in your village, in committees, etc. you are making a HUGE difference in people's lives. You are such a strong woman, and you've always had your act together. I'm really proud to know you, and I look forward to seeing where you take all of this.