Part 2: How older and younger volunteers are similar but different

The mission of every volunteer is all about being your country’s ambassador; exchanging culture as well as knowledge.  All PCVs embrace this with an abundance of passion and heart. But when it comes to age, differences do show up from time to time.

The social bonds that bind. After three months of living together in country, the cohort’s orientation is complete. Graduation day is full of cultural celebration, ceremony and certificates. New PCVs have formed their first-ever bonds living abroad with their cohort and local host families. Herein lies the beginning of a few differences. Younger recruits I met went back several times during service to revisit their first family bonds. Older PCVs were less emotional about this series of ‘firsts’.  Some will now lean toward being more protective of their younger cohorts, gravitate toward the ‘loner’ route, or know that a longer term bonding assignment still lies ahead.

The importance of formalities.   During orientation, PC staff quietly observed the social dynamic as well as recruit backgrounds and use some well-tested methods in deciding who gets placed where.  Each provincial town and work place assignment is announced with great pomp and circumstance as the cohort members get cast-out among four provinces. Volunteers and locals love every minute of the drama when the cohort meets to receive their two-year posts. The collective enthusiasm combined with a hint of underlying terror is electric. It’s a lot like seeing what part you got in the play, when you don’t even know what the play is about. Regardless of that detail, each declaration is met with loud cheers, like everybody just got a starring role. Older recruits tend to find this ceremony stuff a little over the top. Inevitably, some volunteers will not be happy and will ask to move elsewhere. Most older PCV aren’t as motivated to protest; the unspoken certainty could be that the complaint department is a short-cut to an early ticket home. Most figured, in advance, their assignment was gonna be in some inconvenient, isolated spot and that’s what they signed up for!

The culture shock waves. In America, seniors can easily go unnoticed. Aside from the pharmaceutical industry, consumer-driven America has rendered us invisible; we’re no longer valued as consumers or trend-setters. But in Africa, no matter your age, every volunteer will experience life as a Rock Star, whether you like it or not.  Even a trip to the backyard outhouse is observed by at least half a dozen curious folks regardless of time of day. Prepare to smile and wave your role of toilet paper in the air politely. Younger volunteers are in for the greatest spotlight. Black female volunteers can ‘blend’ on the street, but oddly find more is expected of them in an African household. White females can be targets of the worst kind of sexual harassment; it can be downright dangerous. Even though PC addresses this in training, these things can be shocking and stressful and throws many off their game. Older volunteers have it much easier for one reason: most African cultures revere their elders.

Regardless of age,  American’s are branded as walking ATM machines, so it’s unwise when walking alone to flash an iPhone or carry more than minimal cash. Those who don’t heed the PC security briefings can find themselves easy pickings for opportunist criminals.

The vanishing comfort zone. Armed with a suit case full of training manuals and cultural lessons, the cohort is split up. They won’t be allowed to travel or visit each other for the first three months; lock down. There is a human nature reason for that. Volunteers living too close together, tend to continue bonding with what’s familiar instead of embracing the new. Volunteers are forced to step way outside their comfort zone; without a support system. The pep rally is over. Even for the older ‘loner’ type, this can be a challenge because you can’t remain a loner. It’s time to bond with the new community. A great deal of your PC experience is now in your hands. Shit or get off the pot. Sink or swim. Rise or fall flat. Or, as happens in some cases, cut and run.

Up next: Stranger in a stranger land

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