“I had a goat under my house and couldn’t sleep at all last night.”
This is the type of statement I endearingly call, "Peace Corps people problems,” which is a humorous observation from an outsider of what the biggest complaints Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV's) face in their activities of daily living. Certainly there are much bigger struggles for a PCV such as lack of access to modern-day amenities, language barriers, and struggles with acculturation. However, as a professional counselor in the US, it is an interesting contrast to hear what is truly problematic for people attempting to assimilate into other cultures. As my brother, Alan Toth, a returned PCV from South Africa once said upon his return to America, “Once you’ve lived 2 1/2 years of not knowing if you’re going to have enough water every day, you learn not to sweat the small stuff."
After accompanying my brother for the early part of his filming of Posh Corps in South Africa in 2013, and then again to Jamaica 2 years later, I got a small taste of this. In the tiny village of Bundu, I got extremely sick and dehydrated, sliced my finger open while cutting aloe for a very bad sunburn, and became very homesick as I made many trips to the community toilet outside. In Whitehouse, Jamaica, after getting swindled in Negril, and having something slipped in my drink at an all-inclusive resort, I feared life abroad might not be for me. Even Alan commented that he got so used to the daily struggles and small disasters that he seemed not to notice them anymore, until having to witness me go through them and learn from my mistakes the hard way.
I asked Alan if he ever wanted to quit during his service he said, “All the time.” On our trip to Jamaica, though, we met PCV Jordan Waldschmidt, who had roughly completed about a year of her service. When I asked her about her own feelings of being homesick or dreams of leaving early, she surprisingly said she never once considered it. I wondered if this had to do with the fact that she had gotten so many visitors throughout her term of service, family and friends who found convenience in her placement in Jamaica to get a much needed holiday. Even in her closeness to the all-inclusive resorts, I was impressed by her spacious apartment which included modern-day kitchen appliances and a flush toilet in a cool-basement setting, which would be just as nice to stay as any little guest house in Westmoreland. Still, Jordan was genuinely ecstatic when Alan offered her a bag of cereal and laundry detergent that he wasn’t going to find use for in the remainder of his stay. Proving to me that even with spacious accommodation, Jordan was still struggling.
We interviewed Jordan at both her living quarters and her assigned workplace called The Source, a modern-day internet cafe with WiFi, printing/scanning services, and computer classes. Jordan’s pride and joy seemed to be her community garden project, which she had already accomplished a great deal by receiving fencing and had a significant amount of planting done. She said her big goals were to have a community farmer’s market and construct a greenhouse out of plastic bottles. Still, she admitted she often felt frustrated with her American sense of swift progress in a culture having less urgency to accomplish tasks.
Jordan discussed her Catholic upbringing and having a strong sense of guilt and duty to give back. Driven by her doubts of whether she was “doing enough,” Jordan admitted she often pondered if she was really just pushing her own agenda versus really helping to meet the community’s needs. This doesn’t seem uncommon to PCV’s. My brother admitted that after a year of struggling with his original assignment, he kind of gave up and did his own thing due to the poor community involvement and lack of support from the Peace Corps administration.
In general, it is my impression that the bureaucracy of Peace Corps is a major contributor to PCV's terminating their service or becoming administratively separated (getting kicked out). Only about 50% of the PCV's who actually make it through the lengthy application process actually complete their full term of 27 months. There seems to be a cloud of blame over a PCV’s overall experience that rains down upon them if any hiccup whatsoever occurs. I heard from one volunteer in South Africa who was sexually harassed and threatened by one of the villagers she was teaching at the local school. She said that when it came to Peace Corps administration, she felt very uncomfortable at their insinuations that she was somehow responsible for causing the ordeal.
I had my own proxy dealings with Peace Corps administration as Alan and I tried to arrange interviews with PCV's in Jamaica. I was astonished by the number of people who initially said yes, then changed their minds and quit answering his calls. We assumed this was after they requested permission to do a media interview, which is mandatory in Peace Corps. In fact, Jordan mentioned a stern reminder she was given by Peace Corps administration, “keep in mind you are representing Jamaica.” This seemed to deter her from speaking much about what she originally wanted to discuss, which was her daily experience of harassment as a young, foreign woman.
Still, I think Peace Corps is a great organization that almost always changes a person for the better if they can stick out the daily hassles and navigate the system. Maybe it just takes the right kind of person at the right time in their life. As difficult as I can imagine it is to immerse oneself into a different culture, I think it is almost more difficult to reintegrate back into the US. I have seen similar depressive moods from several RPCVs in the first few months following their service as I have in many friends and clients who are US military veterans. Also, similar to those veterans who continue to reenlist, there are many RPCVs who end up moving back to their country of service indefinitely.
Peace Corps is difficult, no matter how “posh” a country might be. In the end, I think it all comes down to how persistent a person is to make it happen and how passionate they are to have an experience of a lifetime. As for me, I chose to stay in my comfort-zone a little longer; but I respect and admire those who are serving for a greater good.
-Jesse Toth is a therapist and photographer. When she's not meeting Peace Corps volunteers in various countries around the world, she resides in New Haven Connecticut.