Peace Corps turns 53 this week, and in honor of that accomplishment, I’ve decided to let you in on the truths behind some of the more prevalent myths surrounding this organization…
1. We all live in huts.
Ok, I thought this too. I joined Peace Corps figuring I’d live in a hut and walk to the stream to fill my buckets each day, not true. Yes, many volunteers live in homes made of mud and sticks, but they’re still homes. Mine’s made of concrete and gets really hot during dry season!
2. We can only connect with those back home via snail mail.
This one’s pretty dated, but I think all volunteers head to their country of service curious about how frequently they’ll be able to get in touch with friends and family back home. Well here in Ethiopia, which has one of the worst telecommunication systems in the world, I can get internet most days, same with cell reception (although that can actually be harder). And clearly, as you’ve all seen, I can stay in touch just fine.
3. We only get exotic illnesses.
This one may sound ridiculous, but no one thinks about the everyday illnesses. I was afraid of catching malaria, typhus, typhoid, etc…but it never occurred to me that in addition to my frequent bacterial infections, I’d develop reoccurring strep throat. Nothing exotic about that.
4. We only provide manual support.
Some do, but these days, Peace Corps is so much more than just agricultural work. In addition, volunteers work in education, health, community economic development, environment, and youth development. And on top of that, our expertise and technical support are only a third of the work we do here. Our other two tasks are to help give Ethiopians a better understanding of what Americans are like and also, to tell those of you back home what life is like for Ethiopians. And honestly, the second two things are often the most rewarding.
5. We’re all hippie liberals.
Some people are indeed hippies and many are liberal, but we’re all university educated. And many have aspirations to continue in the field of developmental work or the Foreign Service. Though I’m sure some of us will return home and never go abroad again – I’m definitely not one of them! But everyone’s different.
6. We become part of our communities.
Not necessarily, although I’m sure some do. My site has upwards of 300,000 residents and it’s not exactly possible to “fit in” here. Yes, I’ve developed some great friends here and yes, I’ll miss my Ethiopian family when I leave, but I’ll leave here knowing I was always the foreigner, since kids and adults remind me on a daily basis I’m a “ferenj.”
7. We’re really resourceful.
Also, sometimes true, but just as often as not, we’re just packrats. Cheap packrats. I recently threw away dozens of toilet paper rolls and plastic bottles I had been saving for the last year and a half because I thought – “Never know when you might need this.” Seriously? Worst collection ever. But at least now I know I can travel inexpensively for the rest of my life!
8. We become fluent in another language.
I can’t think of a single volunteer who would claim fluency in Amharic, Ofanoromo, or Tigrinian. Some have indeed gotten quite good with these new languages, but I am not one of them. I go to my school every day (ok, most days) and teach English. Which means I can haggle at the market in Amharic and insult you if necessary.
9. Once you’re in, you can’t leave.
First, let’s start out with how long volunteers are expected to be in country: 27 months. The first 3 months are spent training and then the next 24 put that training to practice. That said, we’re free to leave whenever, for better or worse. Some volunteers leave early and regret it, while for some who leave early, it was the best decision they’ve ever made. Others stick it out who clearly shouldn’t, and some of us stay the whole time and love it (most of it) – I still have 6 months to go, so I can’t guarantee I’m going to end up in this last group just yet, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.
10. Those who complete Peace Corps are saints.
I’ll only say this once, if you’ve survived 27 months in Peace Corps, it isn’t because you’re a saint. It’s because you’re stubborn. You’re stubborn and refuse to quit on the days when you probably should. Then you have a great day that reminds you why you’ve stayed and it all feels worthwhile again, but no sane person endures what some volunteers have to. A smarter person might just go home, but for anyone who knows me, I’ve always had a stubborn streak.