A lot of people I talk to seem to think that the Peace Corps is an option for those who want to defer student loans or, more generally, impending adulthood. Others suppose it’s a primarily humanitarian effort with no guiding structural backbone besides an attempt to achieve “good”.
I joined the Peace Corps because I love the world and I believe that education changes people and systems. I joined the Peace Corps out of fear–fear that any alternative would mean a lifetime of slipping into the comfortable.
I like to correct people when they use the term “third world” and encourage the term “developing country.” The crunch of styrofoam makes me cringe, and I hate creating unnecessary waste. I think there is beauty in simplicity. And I’m not convinced that the consumer-driven, capital-driven way we’re doing things in “the modern world” is any way to live at all, really.
Which is why the following confession may come as a surprise: after seven months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, I have significantly less respect for this country than I did a year ago–before I’d tasted injera, before I knew that Amharic was a language, before I’d seen that flag of red, yellow, and green wave in the sky.
Joining Peace Corps has made me less “politically correct.” I think that in the last 7 months I’ve also become less gracious and less kind. Sometimes I fear I’ve lost my wonder.
Talk to other Peace Corps volunteers, at least the ones in Ethiopia, and you’ll find out the same thing: this country compels us to aggression, anger, and judgement. Aid dependency weakens the Ethiopian economy and kills the spirit of entire social strata, forcing snaggle-tooth babies, beautiful new brides, and old schmagele men to stop what they’re doing when they see a foreigner and twist their face into want.
Yet, at the same time, I have immense more respect now for individuals in Ethiopia than I did when I first met them. Being friends with my professional counterpart, a seasoned English educator approaching retirement who still insists on teaching at the government school, managing a private school in his free time (because, he says, it’s his “character”), and shepherding me around Adaba, is like watching the humanness in him jump from the bowels of his soul and dance around this dusty, dirty, donkey-trod town where we live.
To maintain the same sense of belief in the world after this experience is, itself, a feat. But to believe in people, it isn’t so hard…