Observations from an Outsider, A Non-PCV Perspective on Peace Corps

Comment

Observations from an Outsider, A Non-PCV Perspective on Peace Corps

Fishing boat for hire in Westmoreland Parish Jamaica. By Jesse Toth

Fishing boat for hire in Westmoreland Parish Jamaica. By Jesse Toth

“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."

The author on a boat ride.

The author on a boat ride.

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.

PCV Jordan Waldschmidt

PCV Jordan Waldschmidt

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.

Jordan's puppy. Photo by Jesse Toth.

Jordan's puppy. Photo by Jesse Toth.

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.

Comment

10 Star Trek Episodes Every Peace Corps Volunteer Should Watch

1 Comment

10 Star Trek Episodes Every Peace Corps Volunteer Should Watch

Every story on Posh Corps is exhaustively researched, usually by me. I recently spent hours on the phone with Jamaican non-profits and government offices for our most recent podcast. It's always interesting, if a bit tedious, but the upcoming podcast involved some of the most enjoyable research yet. The next episode of the Posh Corps Podcast will be out in July, and it examines the link between Peace Corps and Star Trek.

1 Comment

The Entrepreneurs

3 Comments

The Entrepreneurs

Just outside of Kingston Jamaica, is a shantytown called Riverton City. The small community is built right on the edges of the overloaded Riverton City Landfill, the main dumping ground for Kingston's waste. The landfill has a history of catching fire. Serious fires have occurred twelve times in the last ten years. The most recent fire was in March 2015. It burned for 6 days, and caused more then 3000 people in the area to seek medical treatment for respiratory issues. The National Environment and Planning Agency of Jamaica has just recently released a report confirming that the most recent fire released 29 toxins into the atmosphere, including the cancer-causing chemical benzine.

3 Comments

Riverton City

Comment

Riverton City

I've spent the last week in Riverton City, on the outskirts of Kingston Jamaica. Riverton is right at the edge of the rather overloaded Kingston landfill. I was shooting at a make-shift foundry. A group of men who live in Riverton collect scrap aluminum from the landfill, melt it down in a homemade furnace, and recast it in molds made of river sand. This complex process takes place in a shanty workshop with only the most basic materials.  It's an incredible sight.

Mark Treuenfels served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Riverton, and he made this group his main project. He came along on this shoot to help us capture the process, and the remarkable men who forge aluminum products from the most basic materials. He took these candid photos throughout the week in Riverton, as we captured the community which has built a livelihood around the landfill.

Mark's Blog Post

I'd like to thank Mark for all his help. Fifteen years after his Peace Corps service, Mark is still dedicated to the project. He travels back to Riverton annually, and he still hopes to increase the profitability of the project, for both himself, and for the men in Riverton. He's the perfect example of a social entrepreneur.

Look for this video in the coming months, and a podcast about the project in about a week.

-Alan Toth

-photos by Mark Treuenfels

Comment

KwaZulu Natal

Comment

KwaZulu Natal

The sign read Weenen. It's a small town in KwaZulu Natal. Above the name was a street sign, indicating that the crossroad was Retief Street, though it was difficult to read, as the area surrounding the word Retief was pockmarked with bullet holes.

 

I was in South Africa, shooting Posh Corps, documentary about modern Peace Corps volunteers. I set up the tripod and camera next to the road specifically to capture the sign. The almost illegible name of Retief Street was a very telling reminder of the turbulent history of South Africa. In order to capture Peace Corps volunteers as characters, I knew that I would not be able to delve into these historic details in the documentary. It was a shame, because like everything else in South Africa, the historical details are epic.

 

Weenen is in the Battlefields region of the Drakensberg Mountains. The region is so named for the deadly tribal conflicts which repeatedly engulfed the region. Shaka the Great had unified the disparate Ngundi tribes in the region, giving birth to the Zulu nation. Shortly thereafter, the Voortrekkers, a tribe of Afrikaners, entered the region.

 

Piet Reief, the Afrikaner leader who inspired the name of the street in Weenen, lead his people away from the shores of South Africa into the interior. Their lands had been annexed by the British Empire, and the Afrikaners, descended from earlier Dutch settlers, were seeking freedom from British dominion. They trekked across the vast deserts, mountains and plains of South Africa, eventually arriving in what is now KwaZulu Natal.

 

Their negotiations with the Zulus, to purchase lands in the Zulu Nation, turned sour. Aproximately 200 Afrikaners, including Piet Retief, were killed by the Zulus. The surviving Voortrekkers managed to escape, and establish a new settlement. They called it Weenen, an Afrikaans word, which means, to weep. The name was fitting, as Weenen was right at the center of the wars that followed between English, Afrikaners, and Zulus. Eventually, the English relinquished their claim in South Africa, and Weenen became the place in which the methods and philosophies of Apartheid were first conceived.

 

Ryan, the Peace Corps volunteer who I had come to interview, lived in Ezitendeni, which stood as a virtual tribute to this legacy. Ezitendeni, is a township outside of Weenen. The word is Zulu. It means, under a tent. The white inhabitants of Weenen repossessed the Zulu lands in the area and redistributed the land to Afrikaner owners. The Zulus were moved to a temporary tent camp until they could be permanently relocated. This permanent relocation never happened. Ezitendeni became a blacks-only zone under the Apartheid regime. It evolved from a tent camp to a full township.

 

Though South Africa is now a democratic nation, the scars of Apartheid still linger. The epic history still looms over everything that happens in the country. Every Peace Corps volunteer must learn to cope with constant reminders of exploitation. At first glance, the relatively modern infrastructure may seem like it would make service easier, but even newer infrastructure within South Africa is built on foundations first imposed by the Apartheid regime.

 

Ryan's site is a perfect example. Ezitendeni has a few paved roads, plumbing, storm sewers, and street lights. It is extremely modern by African standards, but, the Zulu residents of Ezitendeni are descended from farmers and herders who were forced to give up their livelihoods and move to a camp. The Apartheid government refused to provide the residents with more than the most basic education. The people who stay in Ezitendeni, do so because they have no ability to leave. One could argue that the Zulus who managed to avoid the forced redistribution so many years ago, who still live in deep rural areas with forty head of cattle and no electricity, have more wealth and opportunity than those who live in the township, despite the modern infrastructure.

 

How comforting is this infrastructure to a volunteer when it serves as a reminder of the socioeconomic trap from which the population cannot escape? Ezitendeni perfectly demonstrates one of the hidden truths about volunteering in South Africa. Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa must be mentally tough, almost callous, if they are to make it through their service.

 

Ryan was certainly tough. She had been described to me anecdotally as "a bulldozer." Nothing was going to get in the way of her goals. She had extended her service for a third year in order to create a youth development organization in Ezitendeni, the Simunye Youth Development Project. Ryan dragged her organization into legitimacy through sheer stubbornness. It seemed to me that her methods were often a bit inflexible, but the results were hard to ignore. Ryan's organization had undoubtedly made a real difference in many people's lives.

 

In Ryan's view, a Peace Corps volunteer should be totally selfless. The Peace Corps volunteer should drop into a community, integrate deeply, take no credit, and then disappear only when the objective of sustainability has been achieved. This was a problem for me. My documentary was focused on the Peace Corps volunteer lifestyle. Ryan would have to be a real character, and she preferred to think of her organization as the star of the show.

 

Whenever I asked her questions about her Peace Corps experience, she diverted to talking points about Simunye. After two days of shooting, we were both frustrated. I was frustrated that I couldn't seem to reach the real person behind the Peace Corps volunteer. Ryan was frustrated that I was more interested in her than in the organization. We actually got into an argument about the issue after a day of shooting in the rural areas. I seriously considered giving up on Ryan's story. I started thinking that it might be smarter to pack up the car, drive away, and find another volunteer.

 

I was convinced to stay by my associate producer. We worked out a plan that we thought might help us reach Ryan on a personal level. Rather than doing a 90 minute interview every day, as I had done at other volunteer sites, I scheduled a single four hour interview for my final day at Ryan's site. Hopefully, she would be too tired by the end to stick to the talking points. We started in the morning. I asked Ryan all about her organization, about the struggles of development, about the nitty-gritty details. After several hours, I broached the subject of her personal struggles. It worked, she dropped the talking points and started talking about her own feelings.

 

Ryan and I were both Peace Corps South Africa volunteers, and had endured the mental endurance test that accompanies life in the country. Our service had made us both tenacious and stubborn. Thanks to these attributes, Ryan managed to create a new organization, which truly transformed the lives of youths in Ezitendeni, and I managed to finish the first documentary to capture the experiences of Peace Corps volunteers during their service.

-Alan Toth

 

Comment