Ten common misconceptions about Peace Corps

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

  1. Reblogged this on My So-Called Malagasy Life and commented:
    While doing my usual rounds through Facebook today, I found this simple and fun post from another Peace Corps Volunteer currently serving in Ethiopia. She brings up some very interesting points about what it’s REALLY like to be a PCV sometimes and I felt compelled to share her thoughts with my audience as well. Although I cannot claim to have written these words, I hope that spreading this message will help expand the sometimes limited views of PCVs around the world. Enjoy and share!

  2. Nice work. Best wishes on your last six months in country. Many feel coming home is the hard part. It was for me. It still is. Make these last six months count. Cry whenever you want to or need to.

  3. I loved this post! I’m a volunteer in Zambia and even though I do live in a mud hut, I can attest to the fact that all of these misconceptions are true here as well.

    1. Over different decades as well…I was a volunteer from ’88-’91 in Togo, and other than the connectivity part (I spoke on a telephone once in three years, e.g., and it *was* all snail mail then), the rest is la meme chose. Since it sounds like you are interested in pursuing a career ‘overseas’, feel free to stop by CARE when you are next in Addis. I’d be happy to offer you a buna and chat about NGO work, if you’re interested. You write well.

      CD CARE Ethiopia

  4. Also made it here through a link on facebook. As a RPCV (Togo 03-07), its so fun to read your experience and remember the joys and challenges of PC life. Du Courage! as they say in Togo, try to enjoy it while you are there, it goes so fast (which can feel sooo slow in village…)

  5. I’m a Group 2 Ethiopia RPCV, and I loved reading this. I too had recurring strep throat, such a bummer. Thank you for this post, it allowed me to reconnect with my experience in Ethiopia (not that it has ever left me). Good luck with your remaining 6 months! Ayzosh anchi 🙂

  6. I just COS’d from Mali/Senegal, and I loved your post! #10 is especially true- most of my neighbors and I had so many days where we were just so frustrated with everyone/everything, but we didn’t seriously consider leaving, largely because we’re pretty stubborn. (although, when I’m writing resumes/job letters or going to job interviews, I substitute “stubbornness” for “determined” 😉 )
    Good luck with the end of service- it’s going to be fun 🙂

  7. Reblogged this on From PC to PC and commented:
    Came across this blog post a few weeks and really feel its worth sharing for those who might be considering joining the Peace Corps, or just those who want a more realistic view of what life as a volunteer is like. It was also interesting to compare my experience in Guatemala to hers in Ethiopia – some parts of the post I completely agreed with, and sometimes I felt myself thinking ¨wait… what?¨I think that´s a testament to how unique each post is and how diverse individual volunteers´experiences can be – all part of the joy, wonder, and occasional frustration that comes with working for a globe-encompassing organization. Anyway, check out the link, and my thoughts are below.

    1) This is so true. I live in a three-story concrete house. All the security restrictions here mean our houses need to comply with some expensive security measures, which means the average Guatemala volunteer lives with a rather well-to-do family. Call us posh corps, but I can´ts say I´m complaining.

    2) Also true. I can´t imagine only being able to communicate once every few weeks with people back home – still, when snail mail does come, it´s special and maybe makes me feel a bit like I´m living how a PCV ¨should¨live.

    3) This one I´d agree with generally – though I, of everyone here, seem to be the one that has to get the weirdest and most exotic illnesses. Your average PCV shmuck gets giardia and seasonal allergies like a normal person….I get some weird virus that paralyzes my stomach muscles for a week. Hooray for being special.

    4)Very true. The projects that peace corps volunteers do worldwide are incredibly diverse and are increasingly education and business oriented.

    5)SO true. Especially in Guatemala, the difference between PCVs and other tourists is striking. My department gets the type of tourist drawn to the mystical vortexes supposedly created by weather patterns on Atitlan… because of my dress code and where I work, I normally look much more like a Mormon missionary than the barefoot dreadlocked tourists that pass through my town on the way to the lake.

    5) I found this interesting – from friends who are serving in Ethiopia, I know the

  8. Interesting to read, but in regard to contact with the USA during my PCV period in Senegal 1 (1962-64), and although Dakar and the Ile de Goree were certainly more modern than most places, I never thought to telephone my family..All contact was via aerogrammes, typed on a lightweight portable typewriter. I lived in an abandoned, 1915, 150 sq. ft. military concrete “pillbox” for my first six months on Goree– no electricity or water. Loved it.

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