Why We Are Here

My 4th Photo Series: Goodbye to the Elephant Door (Panoramas from 10 weeks in PST)

 

In the past month I have felt the weight of confusion in learning a new language, I have stressed from the frustration of working professionally with people from a different culture, I have crumbled under the uncertainty of where I will be going or what I will be doing these next two years, and most importantly, I have embraced the love that one can only get from creating a place that begins to feel a lot like home. However, nothing quite compares to the feeling of gratification that can only come from finally cooking a perfectly risen, fluffy loaf of bohobe (bread). That is enough to empower me with a sense of accomplishment even on the most bleak of days.

The Peace Corps is full of frustration, disorganization, confusion, elation, excitement, love, gratification and any other stative verb you can think of. At the core of my disarray of emotions I have found solace in remembering why I chose to do the Peace Corps. 

I chose to do the Peace Corps for reasons that I feel extend outward, as well as inward. Like many others, I joined to be of service to a country in need and a world that I believe is interconnected and reliant on one another. I am also hoping to come out of the experience feeling as though I have grown and been impacted by the people I am working with and what I will learn. The fundamental development approach of the Peace Corps aligns with what I truly find to be the most important component of our ever changing globalized world - to promote world peace and friendship. Through the lifestyle I will live in the Peace Corps I hope to better understand poverty so that I can truly help the community I am living with and continue to wherever my future may take me. Maybe through this experience, I will become more patient. Maybe I will have a complete change in perspective. I am open to any of the possibilities. But I know that who I am now, my character, will be put to the test every day for the next two years. 

So, I asked everyone else why they chose to do the Peace Corps. With an incredibly broad range of skill-sets, experiences, backgrounds, and goals, the answers I received from my fellow Peace Corps group were different, but also extremely similar. We are all here, aren’t we? While I recognize that each of these answers will evolve, if they have not already, with each day we spend in Lesotho I believe giving them recognition may offer some clarity in the most difficult of times, like mine has for me already.

These are the reasons why the volunteers of Lesotho Healthy Youth 84 chose to do the Peace Corps:

“I’ve been wanting to do this since I graduated from college. My degree is in anthropology so I have always been interested in cultures and people and wanting to help people if I could. But the timing was perfect now. I have been divorced for five years and my job was eliminated. I had been working with HIV positive people in the U.S. so I rethought Peace Corps and was like, Oh, there is a program focused on HIV. I loved the people I was working with back in the States and like I said, the timing was perfect. When you are my age you want to give back. I have done the money thing, and now it’s time for me to give back.” 

“I used to live in a car. Well actually, I used to live in the same car three different times. And then I got a rental car and I lived in that for six weeks. I never told you this story. After my car got totaled the insurance had to pay for my rental car from Colorado to Virginia. When I was driving through Austin to South by South West I was talking to my friend and I said ‘technically I’m unemployed, homeless, and I live in my car.’ My friend responded, ‘You don’t have a car.’ It was the meanest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life, but I was already planning to come to the Peace Corps at that point. Ok, my legitimate reason…I really was just looking around for opportunities to work overseas because I had never been overseas before. So, I was basically trying to force that to happen and the Peace Corps was the only one where I didn’t have to pay to go volunteer overseas. It really sounded perfect, and it was exactly what I was going for. Especially when I was going to Eastern Europe doing economic development like I had wanted to do. But I ended up in Africa doing Healthy Youth and now I am doing economic development projects anyway.” 

“Different factors made me actually push to do the Peace Corps. While in college I did do a study abroad where I went to southern India. I was there for three and a half months and it was really a life changing experience. It was the first time I was ever out of the country, the first time I ever flew in an airplane and did the whole explore, adventure thing. Since then, I felt like I could really do this. I had always wanted to travel, experience different cultures and learn about different people. I come from more of a lower income background so that ideal of going out of the country and exploring was not really in my reach because I thought you had to have money and certain things to really get there. But studying abroad in college and going through that process I realized it is possible with little funds and you can get a big experience from it. After graduating from college I worked with Americorps for a year where I worked with youth. So I basically did something similar to Peace Corps with youth development. I was in the schools, we did after school programs, life skills and things of that sort. I guess I kind of combined the two, Americorps and my study abroad, to Peace Corps. Then I did the application for Peace Corps and it was the longest process of my life, but it definitely was one of those processes that was like, I want to do this. I doubt anyone who went through that process, to get all of the essays, recommendations, and medical done doesn’t want to do it. I enjoy working with youth and I feel that there are countries that really need our help so it definitely was a call of service that I wanted to do, to help the greater good and work with youth like I had been doing in the past.”

“I should have prepared for this..I don’t know why I came here. No, I know why I came here. I wanted to learn and live in a new culture. I think traveling in Cambodia I was really touched by how happy the Cambodian people are after dealing with all of shit from the genocide and pul pot. I had thought that the Cambodian culture was going to have such a hard time coming back. All of their educated population over the age of 40 either left the country or were killed. So how can you have a country come back from that, when no one believes in education? And yet, they are coming back from it and they are trying to better themselves. So I think, I wanted to join the Peace Corps to come and live in one of those cultures and to see what resiliency is actually like and truly meet beautiful people like that because I think as humans we are incredibly resilient and we can come back from anything. I think as Americans we have gotten so far away from that. For instance, our phone breaks and we don’t know what to do with our live. But the way people live here and the shit they deal with is so much more intense. Yes, someone’s phone in the States breaking is a big deal for them, but I just wanted to come and be pushed out of my own comfort zone.”

“I have wanted to do the Peace Corps since I was little, like early high school and then all of the sudden I felt like I couldn’t do it because it was too long. I thought, that’s two years of my life. I guess once I graduated I had always had a plan; college, social work, and then my masters. Then after last year I figured out I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to help people, and I want to do social work eventually, but I didn’t want to jump into work right now. So I decided to apply, because I want to travel, I want to help people, and get all of that in one. I’m hoping I figure out what I really want to do when I am done, like develop another interest. While I studied social work there is so much to do with that, so coming here and working in different areas, with different people I hope I will gain that diversity and cultural competence I’m looking for.”

“So it started off with a very altruistic approach and then it kind of became more for me, of growth. I need to do something to believe in myself a little bit more. It does sound a little selfish but I wanted to do it to see how much of a person I could become.”

“I had always wanted to do it and I started filling out the application a bunch of times, but it deletes itself after 30 days…I think I filled it out four times without actually sending it in. It’s so typical haha, you’re not surprised. After I went to Eugene for college and moved into my co-op I realized that I didn’t really want the life that everybody else has after college, you know, settling down in one place, getting married and moving in with their partner. I wasn’t ready for that yet.

"I took this Psychology class in high school. It was my senior year, and I remember my teacher asked everyone to write down 5 things they wanted to accomplish in life, and then share then with the class and everyone basically wrote the same thing: go to college, get good grades, graduate, get married, have kids and that’s so stupid because that’s not how it has to be. I want more out of my life and out of my 20’s. I want to really challenge myself and push myself and see what I’m made of. I remember hearing about Peace Corps when I was in high school and it was always there in the back of my mind, but I wanted to go to school first and graduate. Then after I finished at the University there was nothing stopping me but my own ability to finally finish that application. The other reason was just having volunteered at a women’s shelter I realized that that was the kind of work that I wanted to do because I think it is super important and it’s needed anywhere.”

“I wanted to do the Peace Corps when I was in college, but for whatever reason I didn’t do it right away. I have always been into helping people and I like to travel - to see different parts of the world. When I was in college I did a small service trip to Mexico, well rural Mexico, and I really liked it. So that was when I decided that I wanted to do the Peace Corps. When I signed up it was just the right time.”

“I first heard about the Peace Corps when I was 16 and it was my goal to do it immediately out of high school because I had already been involved in volunteer work, community support and things like that, but I ended up finding out that you need either relevant work experience or a college degree these days so I went to college instead. After I graduated college that’s when I immediately sent in my application. I had always wanted to do it because I don’t like feeling like I can’t help people. If I don’t feel useful, I don’t know, I question my purpose. Also, I had always been attracted to traveling so this was just the obvious program that combined both of those things.”

“I’m really interested in global health so I had done a lot of anthropological classes about it. My interests is really in medicine in a broader sense. I think there is a difference in just talking about it than the practice and experience, which is a huge part of why I am here. I need an international component, but I don’t really know what that means yet. I wanted to see health care in a less developed setting and then see how that could apply to working in both the U.S. and abroad.”

“I’m here to fight injustices like this! That’s the true truth. Ok, actually, well um..it’s been a process getting to this point, but I had your average early quarter life crisis trying to figure out what I wanted to do so I changed my major in college and switched to international relations because I had always been interested in the world and politics so it was a choice between political science and international affairs and I chose that. I think it was actually was a good fit with my interests and passions and I had always wanted to help make the world a better place I suppose, as cliche as that sounds. So, I had a human rights class with a really passionate professor that inspired me to decide that this would be the path I would pursue. You never know where life is gonna take you, but this is the path that I chose, but we will see if it leads me somewhere else. Whatever I do end up doing I want to make sure that some aspect of it gives back to the world because I truly believe that we are all in debt to everyone else in the world. Because of the way the whole system works and the way humanity works we are in it together, like it or not. I also wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a lofty bullshitting intellectual who had nice ideas about helping people so coming here was a way to prove that to myself and the world while learning to be of service.”

“I joined because I love volunteering. I have always volunteered, and I’ve always wanted to travel the world. Peace Corps lets me do that for free..soooo, it’s a nice thing and I really like their developmental approach to things.”

“I had been thinking about the Peace Corps for a while. And then, I wanted to go to medical school after and my University recommended joining the Peace Corps before. It took me five years to complete my degrees because I did a double major and a minor in all science. By the end of my fifth year I realized I needed a break, a serious break. So I applied for Peace Corps in March 2014. I went through that whole process and just kind of waited. Actually, my first choice that I had applied for was in Malawi teaching Physics and that was one of the ones they gave me. They also gave me Lesotho, but to be honest I didn’t really do any research on it. It was Malawi or Zimbabwe as my top two, but I said I would go anywhere because it was also a want to travel and get out of America. The more I read about the Peace Corps through blogs or research I realized it was perfect for me. So, they called me in January that I didn’t get the two other positions, but I did get the Lesotho one. They told me they would send me a form that I had to fill out that day because it was due the next day. It turned out it was my invitation. I had a day to decide and I hadn’t done any research on Lesotho and said Ok, I’ll go. Now I am here, and it’s awesome.” 

“I basically had the simple mindset of going around the world and helping people however they needed me to help them. It’s really that simple.” 

“My husband and I discovered that we both wanted to do the Peace Corps when we were younger before we had met one another. We came to a time in our lives that our kids were raised and we sold our businesses and we faced the question of what’s next. Traveling is something that we have always enjoyed doing, but traveling for ourselves doesn’t make so much sense anymore. Traveling combined with doing something for somebody else makes a whole lot of sense and is a lot more meaningful. So, we checked into different organizations and Peace Corps really fit. I think just breaking down the mission to world peace and friendship and that is to me what sold us, that world peace and friendship component.”

“I think I have always wanted to join the Peace Corps, but I’m not sure exactly when that idea came up. It’s part the adventure and the opposite end of the world..you know something totally different. Then the altruistic reason that I can do something good for someone else, but with Peace Corps I can also get the adventure with that. I always have trouble with this question of when I decided and why I decided. Although, it has always kind of been on the back burner in my mind. So a couple years after graduation I was able to make it work and both my wife and I were able to be here.” 

“I always wanted to do volunteering for an extended period of time. Before coming here I went to West Africa for three months. I learned about the Peace Corps when I was in high school and I had always said that was something I wanted to try, but I thought I couldn’t do it when I was that young because the idea of being poor and away wasn’t too good for me. So 25 years after the work experience is done, I figured I should go now. Now that I have the time and I think I have the experience that I can feel that I am really a part of something. This is a good time in my life to do a little volunteering and experience a culture for an extended period of time. Actually I’m going to spend the next few years just jumping around Africa volunteering, so this may not be the end for me with the Peace Corps.” 

“I’ve thought about this question for a long time. I wanted to give something back. I’ve been so lucky my whole life. Well, one to be born in America, but two, everything has always worked.  So I figured, before I’m too old I should probably go do something and give it back. My wife and I were talking about it because we sold our business and our plan was to sell our business then go do something. She was researching on the computer and I asked her, ‘have you thought about the Peace Corps?’ She googled it and that ’s how we ended up here. I don’t know..paying back. Well, it’s not really paying back, but living and learning about other cultures. That’s the biggest thing here is learning. So, no goal..no goal at all..just the experience.” 

Photos from our recent hike up Thaba Sefiking - A mountain I had been wanting to climb since our arrival. And wow, was the view worth it.

Can't wait to get even higher in the mountain kingdom.

Another empowering moment that reminded me why I joined the Peace Corps happened this week while carrying a bucket of water on top of my head with my ‘M’e. She nearly refused my attempt to come to the pump with her, then reluctantly filled up my water bucket, and still only half way. I stubbornly filled it up a little bit more and we compromised soon later. I thought if she, my 55 year old Basotho mother, could carry a full bucket of water home I sure as hell could. I lifted it on top of my head, my neck strained from the weight, and ‘M’e Maneo nudged me to walk ahead. I did, laughing at my efforts to assimilate in that moment. The neighbors were loving it too, yelling Khele! (Wow!) at me as I passed. A hundred feet later I glanced back- my ‘M’e was using no hands! Although a normal daily Basotho chore for her, her expression showed that she was sure proud of me. I continued to walk forward, debating whether I would continue to kill a few brain cells carrying water on my head every day when I moved away on my own to my new site. We will see. 

Tomorrow, the 23 of us officially swear-in as Volunteers. I anticipate myself getting a little misty eyed saying goodbye to the other volunteers, our language and cultural facilitators, our communities and my family, especially my two brothers. It will be a day of celebration, eating, dancing, singing, and speeches. The ceremony will be held at our “Hub,” a school building we did all of our training in. Tomorrow, the nostalgia will set in and we will begin to laugh and look back fondly upon the last ten weeks remembering the hard and the incredible parts of pre-service training: the rush to the cookie platter after one person heard the tearing of plastic, the pit latrine fiasco when the door broke from high winds, the conversations about sexual advances and signals in Basotho culture (notable mention to the Colgate bend and snap), practicing teaching youth groups on HIV/AIDS prevention and fully, but not completely soaking up all of the Peace Corps buzzwords they love oh so much (which we regularly joke about in skit robot form- sustainability - co-facilitator - change agent - integration). 

Time can often seem infinite and endless, or gone in two shakes of a rabbits tail. From arriving off a 36 hour travel journey to Lesotho to packing up our belongings and making preparations for swearing in as volunteers and individually moving to communities all over the country. In my head, it almost feels like just yesterday we were pulling up in a van with our luggage, only two words of Sesotho, and completely overwhelmed by the women, children and men dancing and singing at our arrival in Ha Mothebesoane. Weeks ago, I was agonizing at the longevity of what seemed like pointless training sessions. Now, I am writing this blog less than 24 hours before I will take an oath to honor the mission and goals of the U.S. Peace Corps and to fulfill the duties set out for us in our country of service while embracing the unknown that makes this experience so genuinely unique and beautiful.