This post is mainly geared towards anyone interested in the Peace Corps or considering living in rural Kenya. Hope you find my ramblings helpful.
I think that the key to having a successful service as a PCV in Kenya (and probably any country, really) is to recognize that you are doing this for yourself, not to save the world. While PCV’s really are helpful and philanthropic, the truth is that you are going to gain much more from this experience than anyone else involved, including the HCN’s in your village, community or school. I think that the sooner you realize this, the better off you will be in the long run. It is very easy to become discouraged or frustrated when you feel like you are here for no reason at all, or that your job isn’t really making the difference you had imagined while laying in your comfy bed surfing the web and reading as much as you can about the country you are about to be thrown into. It is impossible to fathom the obstacles youa re about to face, and while they are clearly stated on the Peace Corps website and on various PCV’s blogs, the way that you handle these foreign obstacles is a mystery until you are faced with it directly.
I feel like I was completely prepared when I arrived in Kenya. I did substantial research and could count to 10 and greet others in KiSwahili. I had read several blogs, both praising and defaming Kenya from PCV’s and other tourists alike. I devoured the Peace Corps website and Peace Corps Wiki, reading the packing lists and “living conditions” chapters several times a day. The challenges were obvious and clearly stated, and I was expecting them. I thought I knew how I would handle them (I was actually right, guessing how I would handle those situations upon the first encounter) and I thought I knew how to make a change.
I basically followed the protocol for culture shock by the book. I went through all of the stages right on time, just like a newborn baby sitting up, standing, walking and talking. I experienced the things that the blogs and the websites told me about, and I reacted the way I predicted. Then I realized that my reactions weren’t necessarily effective here in Kenya – they didn’t solve the problem or relieve my stress. So that was the first major adaptation that I needed to make – pronto.
It’s something that I have talked about with Claire at length – knowing the challenges that you WILL face, and then deciding how to handle them. It’s kind of like one of those things where you would just have to be there to know how to act, but then when you are here, you still don’t know how to act (or react, as is most often the case). Like when a friend tells you a story, say, someone makes a rude comment about your new hairstyle, and you tell your friend “if that was me, I would have….” But you really wouldn’t have, you know? It’s kind of like that here, all the time. I never actually know how I am going to act, and there have been so many occasions where I later think “I can’t believe I did that…” I guess the bottom line is be open and flexible. You aren’t going to do everything perfect, and you can’t possibly know all of the “right” answers.
There are two significant lessons I have learned thus far:
1. Be flexible. Nothing is ever really THAT big of a deal. I mean nothing. There is ALWAYS a plan B. True, it may not be as convenient or appealing as plan A, but there is a plan B at all times.
2. Life carries on. It will keep going, regardless of whether you just had a major episode of word vomit in public or you peed your pants while waiting for the matatu. Devastating, yes, but believe it or not, tomorrow is on its way.
That is the secret to life in the Peace Corps. I’m actually not the one in control while I’m here, and I have to learn how to be ok with it. Learn to control what I can and let go of what I can’t. Practice makes perfect, and there is no better time to practice than now.
As far as making your service productive and successful, I do believe it is important to acknowledge that you are here 1. Because you are choosing to be here, and 2. Because you are willing to learn and adjust. If you have reasons other than those two, then maybe the Peace Corps isn’t for you. If you think you want to come to make a huge difference in the world, end poverty, save dying children and demolish child labour, you should probably shoot for a Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie lifestyle. While you really will make a difference in the lives of your new friends, companions and colleagues in your new country, you will feel like you aren’t doing jack squat when you show up to teach class every day, or offer a suggestion to solve a blantantly obvious, simple problem that everyone else finds to be a hilarious joke. I remember reading stories like this from my house in America, and thinking “well, they didn’t approach the issue tactfully. I will learn from their mistake.” Oh, hey, here I am in Kenya – 9 months later – and I still get that reaction on almost a daily basis. It has nothing to do with how I approach the issue or the grace and skill used to deliver information. It’s simple. I’m a foreigner, and they are native. Period. And nothing against Kenyans – I know that in America, we would react identically.
The positive side of this situation, though, is that I am learning how to introduce these ideas and direct my colleagues thoughts parallel to my own. This is the kind of thing you need to keep in mind while joining the Peace Corps – it isn’t about making a difference, it’s about making people make their own difference. I can’t come over here and just start changing things, but I can help people develop their own solutions to improve their own lives. And, the perk is that I’m growing and learning more about myself. I’m going to see a lot more change in myself than I will at my site. That may not be true for ALL volunteers, but I know most PCV’s in my group would agree. Try as I might, Kenya is a much more effective agent of change than I personally will ever be.