A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my hospitality students that needs to be retold. It seemed to be a perfect example of how poverty shows itself, and influences the lives of generat…
A post from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia.
A couple months ago I posted my thoughts on how the Peace Corps experience changes and challenges every volunteer, and it received a fair amount of responses, including not-so-flattering reviews and criticisms.
One commentator (whose reblog no longer appears on tumblr) took umbrage with this particular passage of mine:
You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.
(The full post can be found at http://thesharpiemarkerapproach.tumblr.com/post/42420977797/an-open-letter.)
Since I can no longer access the original comment, my memory’s paraphrase shall have to suffice:
This post demonstrates exactly what is wrong with the Peace Corps, and the author even admits it! It’s all about the person’s own benefits, and not about helping others at all.
Peace Corps has three main goals, and I suppose the latter two could be viewed as self-serving as they focus on cultural exchange. That viewpoint, though, I believe is vastly cynical due to its shortsighted nature.
I recently participated with other K5s (the 5th generation of volunteers in Cambodia) in our Close of Service Conference, where I was touched by the final remarks of our Country Director, Penny Fields. Penny was serving as a volunteer in Gabon when the Gulf War broke out. As she told us, her thoughts upon hearing of the war were of the people in her village: What if it had been here? Her political leanings and voting record have been perpetually guided by that moment of viewing the world from another country’s citizens’ perspective.
So maybe it’s true; maybe Peace Corps is a cultural exchange program and not a development one. But to claim that it’s selfish and won’t help those in other countries is ignorant of the development work done directly or indirectly by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers because of those ‘self-serving’ results.
Here are some ways that my time in Cambodia has affected me and will continue to do so in how I vote and for what I advocate and how I work:
* I have a very hands on experience with my food here. Most vegetables in my village are grown locally, and the fruit I get from the trees in the yard. Meat is bought fresh and eaten that day. I know our eggs are fresh, because we’ll take them straight from our ducks’ roost. We don’t have a fridge and our ice supply isn’t reliable. Meals are prepared and eaten in quick succession. Apart from the occasional stomach mishap, I’m healthier here in large part to the composition of my diet. I won’t be looking at supermarkets and preservatives and importation the same way upon returning to the States.
* My province houses several different factories belonging to international companies. Many of my students will drop out of school if they have the opportunity to get a job at one of these factories. Last year, workers were fired upon during a strike for better wages. This week, two factories around Phnom Penh collapsed, killing and injuring workers. There’s been a long-term protest outside a Phnom Penh factory because large, well-known multinational companies are refusing to pay wages due. The average factory worker earns a decent salary by Cambodian standards. Ask me in a few years how I’m voting in regards to outsourcing.
* Lately, I’ve been a frequent recipient of the Cambodian health care system. Health care here is unbelievably cheap by American standards, but the quality is usually in doubt. Health insurance is either incredibly rare or nonexistent. Families will go into debt for emergency care. My host mother has foregone receiving medical attention for a long ailing stomach condition and even getting a pair of glasses because of the expense. My future earnings will be going in part to international medical outreaches and my effort toward making sure Americans aren’t also having to forgo needed care because of the cost. In conversation with my host aunt about America’s wealth gap, she expressed surprise that a country with citizens still struggling to meet basic needs is advising others on poverty policy. I’ve taken that to heart.
These are just three brief ways among several in which my notions have been challenged by living abroad and viewing life from a small village in rural Cambodia. These changes will affect how I view domestic and foreign policy for the rest of my life. I’m bringing those changes home with me, and they’ll be sent right back out in the form of my votes and activism. I’d wager that in the long run Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have multiplied the affect of their service on the host country nationals’ lives through their actions post-service.
I’d love to hear from others about their own countries of service and how they’ve changed as global citizens because of their time there. How were you a product of Peace Corps service?
I’ve been working very closely with this organization for the past several months, and I strongly believe in its mission and the individuals who are carrying it out. Please consider making a small donation.
This past year I undertook two projects through Water Charity’s initiative Appropriate Projects. Appropriate Projects provides funding through current Peace Corps Volunteers for water, sanitation, and public health projects. With grants of $500 each from individual donations through Water Charity, my village constructed a water tank and distribution system at the high school as well as a bathroom at the health center. The experiences were entirely different.
The school director was excited to have a way to funnel money into the school, but the logistics of the grant were left to me to needle out. I was responsible for setting up meetings, finding a translator, pushing to get all of the details, and sitting and waiting patiently while they did work they were supposed to have done before the meeting. And even though I repeatedly stressed that Appropriate Projects demands that the project be completed within two months of receiving the funds, the director has continuously delayed and prioritized other projects. Then, in the most recent meeting, he discovered he was $53 shy of the total cost and asked if I would donate from my personal funds (i.e. volunteer stipend).
The health center, though, sought me out after hearing about the project at the school. They were proactive in arranging a meeting and came prepared. They thoroughly explained the need for the bathroom and outlined responses for each of Appropriate Project’s submission requirements. The construction began immediately after receipt of the funds (the purchase and delivery of the raw materials being pre-arranged), and the project was completed in less than three weeks. And when the project cost exceeded the grant amount, they simply reached into the center’s funds to supplement.
The difference in these experiences, I believe, is that the project manager at the health center is my host aunt. She’s the same woman who arm wrestled me and my best friend, Jessie. The same woman who has insisted on paying to take me to airport when I leave. The one who told me that the only present she wants from America is phone calls from me. The one who whispered urgently to other guests to eat all the American food Jessie and I had prepared, even if they didn’t like it, to make me feel comfortable. Our relationship transformed me from a foreign money source into a human being - her niece - and that transformation made all the difference in our collaboration for the benefit of the community.
The links for the completed health center project:
The link for the high school project:
Last night the K5s (my generation of Peace Corps volunteers in Cambodia) finished off our Close of Service Conference with a celebratory boat ride on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. As part of the party, we had compiled a list of ‘superlatives’ for our fellow volunteers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend due to some poor coordination on a softball field, but, thankfully, Amelia took note of my superlatives:
* Most likely to be shit loads smarter than you.
* Most integrated.
* Best smile.
* Most likely to hook up with a Khmer man.
* Best writer.
* Most eloquent.
* Most Cambodian-American.
* Best cat eyes.
The link is to donate to a project happening in my province in Cambodia. Vaughn has worked tirelessly to design the best project possible to: a) encourage an attitude of service in the community; b) develop attitudes of control over the students’ own lives; and c) make physical improvements to the school and wider community.
Please consider donating. Every bit helps!
The Participation and Leadership Challenge aims to increase volunteerism and direct those volunteers’ service towards improving the local high school. The setting will be a small town in rural Cambodia that has very little going for it in terms of providing opportunities for employment or education. As a result, the students have a general feeling of helplessness and express difficulty in envisioning a bright future.
This project is called a “challenge” because it will look daunting to those who sign on to help. The team leaders (mostly teachers) will need to assemble a large group of volunteers (mostly students), but each leader only needs a handful of volunteers to be successful, as there will be 10 teams, each charged with improving one aspect of the school. The team leaders will be guided through each step of a rational schedule and have the opportunity to adjust labor and production to meet deadlines.
Through their efforts, the leaders and volunteers will be empowered. They will have taken part in a large scale, but manageable, school improvement project and have had the opportunity to be successful in those endeavors. They will have created a better, safer, and cleaner learning environment for themselves and for generations of students to come through: -Refurbishing furniture for the library -Painting classrooms and stenciling the English alphabet -Painting chalkboards and reworking teaching platforms -Cleaning trash from the school’s grounds and creating trash collection areas in each classroom -Creating tools for controlling light and wind in all of the school’s classrooms