I had been thinking about a Peace Corps documentary since my since my service in South Africa. When I came back to the states, I tried to convince myself to get a job, and forget about the project, but the idea wouldn’t go away.
I remembered a conversation I had with a man in my village. He told me that his dream was to start a small shop in the village. He wanted to build a shack by the side of the road and start selling vegetables and air-time. I encouraged him to do it. It seemed like a week’s work at most, and very little initial investment. But, in his mind, there was self-imposed doubt. He didn’t believe that he could achieve it.
Sometimes our most difficult challenge, is overcoming our own doubt. I thought about my own dream. I wanted to make a documentary about Peace Corps Volunteers. In my head, I heard myself asking the question. “Why don’t you just do it?”
So I did.
I learned more in three months than I could have learned in two years of grad school, but the real return on the investment, was making peace with my own conflicted feelings about my Peace Corps service, and the country in which I served. Talking with so many volunteers and witnessing their struggles, brought me back to my own challenges and heartaches at site. I thought about the projects I had pursued, but one project weighed more heavily on my mind. It was the most successful project that took place at my school during my two years there, and I had nothing to do with it.
I had been planning a world map project. It would be in the staff room, on a wall two meters high by eight meters across. It would include a map of the world, and a map of South Africa. It was going to be a huge ordeal, and I had about 50 dollars at my disposal to try and make it happen.
One morning, as I was drawing the grid, the principal came in and asked me for my help. He said that he was turning this very room in which we were standing into a library for the students. He said that he had arranged an agreement with an NGO. The organization would provide books and furniture, and my primary school would clear out the staff room, and transform it into a library. My principal asked me if I could help organize all the preparations.
The timing was terrible. The world map would demand all of my time for the next two months. It would be huge, and I would have to do it on my own. The students at my school were too young to be trusted with paint. I had to tell him no. I wouldn’t help.
The organization, was not simply going to provide books and furniture. The teachers would need to attend trainings, catalog all the books, organize library rules and procedures. It was going to be a ton of work. At any other time, it would have been work that I would end up doing. But, this time, the teachers would have to do it themselves.
I stood on a rickety old ladder for two months, slowly painting a world map. My feet ached, my right arm was cramped from holding a brush eight hours a day. I felt like I knew exactly how the old masters must have felt. Every day at lunch, I would come down from the ladder and take a break. My principal would make me drink milk, as it was a well known fact, that people who paint, must drink milk to excess, in order to keep up their strength.
Every day, when I took my break, I would sit on a plastic chair drinking a liter of milk, and watching as a library came to life before my eyes. Bookshelves, tables, and comfy chairs were arranged. Thousands of books were entered into a ledger, and marked with dewey decimal codes. The teachers were pulling together to achieve the goal. Every week, a representative from the NGO would arrive and review the progress, and shame the teachers into working faster. The teachers would be angry with me. They would ask me why I didn’t help them. I would point to the map.
My last afternoon painting, was also the day that the teachers opened the library to the students after school. I stayed in the library, to keep the students away from the still-wet paint. The students were packed into the room. Each one checked out a book, and the teacher on duty, marked the student and the book into the ledger. The teacher asked if I wanted to take over for her. I shook my head. I was guarding the mural.
The school had just completed a major school development project, and they had done it without my help. I remembered an old parable:
“If you want to help people, leave them alone.”
I actually felt bad. I had come, ostensibly because these South Africans needed my help… but apparently they didn’t. During Peace Corps training, there was a lot of focus placed on sustainability. This village had been functioning much the same way for decades. It was in many respects, very sustainable. During the remainder of my service, I did many large projects, but none of them were as sustainable as the library. The library meant something to my co-workers. They had put their own hard work into its creation. They had put in the hours after school checking out books for the children.
As I filmed volunteers, they told me about their insecurities at site. They wondered if they were successful volunteers. They wondered if they were making a difference. I did the same soul-searching myself when I was a volunteer. But as an outside observer, I realized that the development aspect of Peace Corps, was the least important. It was something we do in order to justify the expense of being in these communities. The real value of Peace Corps is in the relationships we build.
When I first arrived at site as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I thought of myself as a very different from my South African counterparts, because I had more advanced skills. When I left South Africa, it had become clear to me, that far from having more advanced skills, I had useless skills for any environment that was not endowed with abundant technology. I was no different than many of the South African youths I met. I had a lot of ambition, and a strong desire to help, but I had no useful skills for the community.
It sounds a bit melancholy, but I don’t see it that way. I could speak with South Africans with ease. I was totally comfortable in a rural south African village. I did not see any difference between myself, and the people with whom I lived. I liked them, and they liked me. My heart was in South Africa despite all the difficulties and frustrations.
That is the true benefit of Peace Corps, mutual understanding. Extreme wealth and privilege, does not make Americans a better people. This is something that both the volunteer and the village come to understand during two years.
It is something any South African who has had a few too many will be happy to explain.
“We are brothers, we are all Africans”