At this point, every volunteer has fully assumed their shiny new identity. For older volunteers with a lifetime behind them, gone are the familiar old labels like wife, mother, coworker, friend, family. Everyone in the community knows you as only one thing: a Peace Corps volunteer. I honored the adoption of my new identity with the purchase of a brand-new pair of eye glasses. These black and red horn-rimmed marvels helped me channel my inner Clark Kent.
I owe 90% of my overall PC satisfaction rating to Justice and Women, a small but dynamic group of mostly rural village women. As the third PCV assigned to this organization over the last decade; I was, by far, the oldest. In the beginning, there were some internal whispers about whether I would make it or not. Both former volunteers were wonderful and beloved by the community. They had no experience with an American ‘gogo’, the Zulu word for grandmother.
Plugging in your superpowers.
Every older volunteer carries a bag full of lifetime experience. Somewhere in this suitcase, it’ll become clear how to use your skills for the greater good. There is still a belief abroad in American exceptionalism (at least for now). Plug in your superpowers where you are strongest. This is easy for a retired teacher or nurse. In my case, the potential was different, but also clear on the first day.
JAW staff are incredible rural community members, trained and focused on serving in the field; educating fellow villagers on HIV/AIDs prevention, empowering women and youth, combating poverty through savings and loan programs, and advocating for the most vulnerable. But one thing I noticed was a lack of enthusiasm for the boring office details. At my first staff meeting I asked to see job descriptions to better understand each person’s function. Surprise! My first assignment: help update everyone’s job description. Though it might not sound sexy to the average PCV, it was right up my alley. I could further PC goals by helping this org accomplish their goals more efficiently. That long-term project included working with an HR company developing evaluation tools, too. I tried my hand at introducing some simple work flow and accounting procedures. I was not always successful as some common American practices are foreign here. I tried to remember three volunteer principles.
1. We are products of our unique upbringing and culture. ‘Generally accepted’ standards and practices can be vastly different.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff even when it’s all about small stuff.
3. Don’t question whether or not you’re making a difference. You are. Focus on trying to make it a positive one.
Finding new superpowers.
One of the original goals when Peace Corps was established was to ‘work in underdeveloped (or developing) parts of the world to combat poverty, illiteracy, disease and hunger’. I worked with a young law student who volunteers with JAW, teaching debate to rural high schoolers. The overall goal is for kids to combat illiteracy and improve English skills, a language they’ll need to be fluent in for their best chance in an urban job market. Thanks to many early mornings at ‘Toastmasters’, I shared with them the joys of ‘table topics’ to improve the skill of thinking on your feet! Who knew that skill would come in handy.
On my first visit to the high school campus, I detected a dismal lack of school spirit. A cow lazily wondered the grounds, dining on someone’s dropped homework. The school’s flag pole held a fluttering, tattered piece of unrecognizable cloth at the top. The buildings were literally crumbling around them, wind howled through broken windows, doors missing or barely hanging on their hinges. I conducted a creative writing class; assigning students to write a page beginning with the words “I wish” or “I am.” As each one stood to read, I was struck by similarities in theme: imaginative, restless, hopeful. Hopeful. Every student spoke at least 2 languages, which is one more than most American kids, so I too choose to remain hopeful for them, though their path to success will not be easy.
The really big deal (for me) began when one of the more ambitious students came to me and said he’d written a play and wanted to start a drama club. I was immediately intrigued. Keeping my eye on my PC mission of HIV/AIDs education, I was delighted to read that his play included this theme. Well, that and the dangers of drug abuse and the dangers of marrying your sister. It was the whole youth angst package in one play.
JAW’s fearless, visionary leader approved my request and provided a small budget for a drama club. The “Superheroes” drama club was born. We met every Friday after school in a large empty classroom with desks in ill repair and the smell of what I’m fairly sure was cow pee thick in the air. After auditions were complete, the agreement was the cast show up without fail, speak only English and I’d bring snacks. Food is always a great motivator; in this case, polony (a hot dog hybrid), juice and fruit was on the menu.
Each rehearsal began with a superhero salute. We all assumed the classic Superman stance and quoted Superman’s immortal words about Truth and Justice; substituting ‘the American way’ line with ‘defending others.’ It was my empowerment exercise. Blame this on my Clark Kent glasses. The kids followed along with curious enthusiasm. After months of rehearsal, the Superhero drama club performed their premiere (and only) play entitled, “If only I knew”, complete with costumes and props (mostly from my closet) to the rousing cheers of fellow students and even a few parents.
Note of warning here: The drama club project would not be recommended to be undertaken by a young (especially female) PCV. I understand why most PCVs only work in primary schools. Rural high schools often have students in their mid 20’s, male and large. I was afforded the gogo treatment which is a combination of respect and some fear. And though I never felt threatened, I usually had a male staff member along (RIP Sbonga Mahlobo).
Other highlights of my time at JAW included teaching stretching yoga moves to gogos with sore backs and creating an eye-opening video exchange with some American kids in Orange County, California. Most importantly for me, I was allowed intimate access to the lives of very strong, courageous women and young folks. They will always have my deepest respect and I am a much richer person for knowing them.