9/6

I track my time in country pretty closely, not because I’m counting the days, but because I’m asked so frequently how long I’ve been here and how long I’ll be staying. I always have two answers because I the three months of training was time spent in Nicaragua, but not time spent as a volunteer. It’s hard to know what each number means, but it’s impossible to choose one over the other. 9 months is how long I’ve been adjusting to the heat, language, food, insects, and missing my friends and family. 6 months is how long I’ve been building relationships, finding meaningful work, trying to fit in to a new community, and teaching classes. 9/6 is another opportunity to reflect a bit on where I am and what it means, especially as I come across some interesting and challenging articles and blog posts. Here are some bits and pieces of reflection interspersed with snapshots of recent life:

I’m going to focus more on quality rather than quantity in the next couple months. My first priority in my site was making connections, planning classes, spending time with my counterparts, teaching lots of people English. That was an okay place to start, but now I need to slow down and figure out how to make the work more beneficial. How can I make sure I’m working with my counterparts towards the goals that we have? How much English are the students retaining and am I structuring the classes so that they will get the most out of them? What can I do to support the education system more broadly than just the work with English teachers that I’m doing now? I’m slowly developing answers to these questions. I’m trying to organize my time with counterparts better so that we reflect on our practices more and incorporate suggestions into our plans. I’m re-initiating my English classes for the community to make them more ability-appropriate and to give more opportunities to practice. I’ve been giving general teaching strategy trainings for elementary and high school teachers, and have had solid attendance. The most recent talk I gave was about how to use the internet in education. I hope this new stage will help me keep my work more concrete and manageable as well as productive.

Community class students at our last class before I re-start the class with a new structure.

I’ve always known that the buses are slow on my island, but it wasn’t until this Wednesday when I realized that I could bike and walk faster than the buses travel. I left my house just as the 8 AM bus was passing by and over the stony, dusty three miles, even though I walked the bike up the five significant hills along the way, I beat the bus to the house of my counterpart. True, I was much more sweaty and tired than the passengers, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Okay, good news/bad news time. The good news is that I’m not allergic to scorpion stings. The bad news is that I found out unexpectedly last week as I was slipping on my socks for work. It really seems unfair that it was hiding in my sock. I check my shoes every single day for bugs, and scorpions specifically. What the heck was it doing in my sock? I can thankfully report that it was very small. Like, significantly smaller than a chapstick container. It felt exactly like a wasp sting, and it didn’t even really swell up that much. I do feel a little bit bad-ass for having survived a scorpion attack, though said scorpion did not survive its Andrew-attack.

The rainy season has brought the beginnings of relief from the heat to my town. I could almost describe the air as crisp one morning after a night shower, but I would be betraying my home states to compare what was still in the 70s to real crisp, which is around the low 50s. We’re still suffering upper-eighties or low-nineties and really humid during the days, but it’s better on average.

There was a thought-provoking article in the Boston Globe last week that someone passed my way. It raises several challenging questions about what the Peace Corps really does and how it does it. Is the Peace Corps a development agency? Does it do any lasting, measurable good? Is it worth the money we’re spending on it? It seems like the Peace Corps is getting hammered lately in terms of public relations and perceptions about what it does and how it works. News of sexual assault and rape are prominent and as the budget debate rages, foreign aid money is always the first to get cut. So what’s really going on? What is the Peace Corps, anyways, and why is it good? I can’t claim to have all the answers, but here are my thoughts:

1) The Peace Corps as an organization has a great deal of room for improvement. It can improve everything from the support it gives to volunteers to the accountability to host countries for real results. Room for improvement does not mean failure, however, and this distinction is frequently getting lost in the discussion.

2) I think one of the largest perception problems the Peace Corps has right now is that what volunteers do is so diverse and decentralized that it defies any clear narrative to counter the negative story being written about the lack of volunteer support and bureaucratic stagnation. It’s impossible to assemble the thousands of small triumphs, friendships, learned lessons, and improved conditions against the powerful narratives of waste and abuse that capture headlines and fit neatly into the current political dialogue. The debate is framed by many factors, from a push toward measurable results in the development community to a realist strain of American foreign policy to a minimalist role for government in the world. All of these roadblocks to communication are obscuring the importance of connecting American citizens with the world we live in, sharing our skills and energy with those who have access to much less, and showing the world that the United States is about much more than just an army and an economy; it’s about people and opportunity and assistance.

3) The Peace Corps is making many important changes and from my vantage point in Nicaragua, it is extremely well-run and productive. We have specific targets to guide us and measure our impact in terms of students with increased fluency, teachers using more communicative teaching methods, amount of materials developed for use in the classroom, and community goals achieved. We received incredibly high-quality training in exactly the environment that we are now operating in and continue to receive trainings and support as well as cross-sectoral opportunities to learn from successes in other areas. We receive excellent medical support and are constantly being reminded and informed of the services available to us, the channels to communicate any failures on the part of the Peace Corps, and the best ways to be safe and successful in our service. I suspect that Nicaragua’s Peace Corps program is one of the best in the world, so I don’t mean to create the impression that Peace Corps worldwide does everything this way, but I can say with confidence that it does happen and it can happen more.

4) The Peace Corps budget was cut by about 22 million dollars (it is now at about 378 million) while the defense budget continues to rise. These priorities concern me. It’s almost too easy to point out cuts in peace and rises in war and question how this is achieving the world we want to live in. It’s not just Washington politicians that need to change, though. I think the Peace Corps needs to take the first steps. This year it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary, but I’m afraid that the energy and time being put into looking back at history is coming at a time that it needs to be focusing on how it can improve its mission, its work, and its worth and then effectively communicate that to the American public and the world. It’s a bit job for a government agency to accomplish, but I think the Peace Corps attracts just the right kind of people for it. I’m not sure how I fit into all this as an individual volunteer, but I’ll keep working to help define what I do and communicate that as best I can. (thanks for listening!)

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Great post, Andrew. I’d like to urge you and your fellow Volunteers to connect with the National Peace Corps Association. One of our principles for celebrating the 50th has been that it should not just be about looking back–as gratifying as that can be–but about celebrating the current great work that Volunteers are doing, and looking ahead to the next 50 years. A central purpose of NPCA is to advocate on Capitol Hill for a better, bolder Peace Corps. Legislators need to hear from Volunteers in the field (and their families!) about the positive impact that Peace Corps is having on local communities, and how cuts can impact training and support for Volunteers. One startling factoid that we’ve come up with: 50 years of Peace Corps’ budgets equals 5 days of our current Defense Department spending. Surely, Peace Corps, and the goodwill that it generates for our country, is worth more.

    Reply

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with those who will listen. =) You were 100% right the other day when you said that we, the volunteers, need to make our stories heard. We’re the only ones who can communicate the realities of the Peace Corps Experience, and it’s therefore up to us to defend the credibility of PC as a whole. I for one can say that the relationships I’ve made here – even before mentioning the technical, educational, and environmental support I’ve provided – have made me 100% sure that PC’s goals of cultural exchange and improved international understanding are being met everyday in every corner of the countries we all work, teach, and live in.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Janet Boddy on May 29, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Oh my! Never thought to warn you about looking inside your socks! Great thoughts and comments about PC service and value. Love ya! Mom

    Reply

  4. Posted by Rebekkah Goodman-Williams on June 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Andrew– your insights make me as happy to hear from across the room as they did living next door! it is so clear from your writing that you’re not only bringing great things to where you are, but learning great things, too– and that is so much of what service really should be. I’m so glad you’re having such a full experience, and am thinking of you and missing you very much! Love– Bekkah

    Reply

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