Peace Corps Today: Huts, wells and smartphones

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Photo above: Lauren Seibert helping with a measles vaccination campaign in primary schools.

On a brief hiatus from my Peace Corps service this past Christmas, I found myself sitting at a bar trying to summarize what I do to an Australian girl I’d just met. Explaining Peace Corps in casual conversation is pretty difficult. Most people quickly zero in on the living conditions.

A typical mode of transportation in Senegal: donkey carts.
A typical mode of transportation in Senegal: donkey carts.

“Wow, that’s full on!” she exclaimed after I’d given my quick synopsis. “So, is someone minding your hut?”

I do in fact live in a thatched hut in Senegal, West Africa – though my hut has electricity. I dodge goats, sheep, and wild dogs daily while biking precariously through sand. I pull water from the well and wake up to the cries of mosques and roosters.

But all of that is the adventurous side of Peace Corps life. How do you get across the bizarreness of a job that is a lifestyle, dictated by dichotomies and defined by your own initiative? Often you end up sensationalizing it for a few laughs, glossing over how difficult it really is, or accidentally painting yourself as a save-the-world hippie.

The truth is, Peace Corps service is what you make of it. And that is just as open-ended as it sounds.

Modern-Day Peace Corps

Since the program’s founding in 1961, over 215,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Currently, around 7,000 of us are out here working in 65 countries – the majority in Africa. There are around 200 of us in Senegal, though this number fluctuates as volunteers come and go.

The basic concept hasn’t changed: Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) serve for two years in a developing nation, working at the grassroots level toward sustainable change. Most of us are placed in rural villages, but some of us end up in towns or even cities, depending on where the need lies and where our skills best fit.

A group of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kolda, Senegal, organized a Youth Empowerment Camp for middle schoolers.
A group of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kolda, Senegal, organized a Youth Empowerment Camp for middle schoolers.

Though the mission and goals remain the same, many other aspects of Peace Corps service have evolved quite a bit over the years. In Africa, technology has flooded in like a monsoon, changing the landscape completely. For aid workers, the spread of mobile phones has opened up a world of project possibilities. With Peace-Corps-issued cell phones, PCV’s no longer have to worry about getting chucked into a remote village and never hearing from the outside world.

Network coverage may vary, but all it takes is a trip to the nearest town, where Wi-Fi is also often available. Some volunteers bring a smartphone or buy an Internet USB key for their laptops, which they can now power up with solar chargers on site if they don’t have electricity.

This interconnectedness encouraged by new technology means most PCV’s can keep in touch more easily with family members – and with each other. We can keep blogs, document our service. Collaborative projects between volunteers have skyrocketed. We share resources and best practices and we can apply for small grants funded by USAID and other organizations. Each country has periodic trainings and events bringing volunteers together.

The Modern Volunteer

Peace Corps Volunteer Lauren Seibert with her host family in Kolda, Senegal
Peace Corps Volunteer Lauren Seibert with her host family in Kolda, Senegal

So who are we, these people who ship off to live in huts for two years? Peace Corps Volunteers commit to this life overseas for many different reasons and we don’t all fit under one label. There are volunteers fresh out of college and volunteers who have grandchildren. Some are travel lovers seeking adventure, others are resume builders gaining experience in community development and some are experts putting their technical skills to use. We have college grads gaining experience for their degree or taking some time to figure out what they want to do with their life. Some are students working on their Master’s degree.

Still, after talking with many other PCV’s, I’d say most of can agree on a few things: we all wanted a change and a challenge. We wanted to experience a new culture. We wanted to make a difference and give back.

Peace Corps was an idea floating in my mind all through college as I completed my B.A. in Global Media, but it was only after working in communications for several NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) that I decided to apply. It was time to fully immerse myself in the cultures I’d been writing about and experience the issues firsthand. I was tired of looking at data someone else gathered, promoting projects I’d had no part in designing. Through Peace Corps, I wanted to learn what it meant to be a development worker in the field.

The majority of PCV’s are college grads and I’ve met other volunteers with degrees ranging from Linguistics to Biology, Economics, Public Health, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Political Science and more. Many volunteers are well traveled, but some had never left the U.S. before joining. Many had never worked in development and wanted to dip a toe into that river.

A child receives a Vitamin A supplement and an oral polio vaccination.
A child receives a Vitamin A supplement and an oral polio vaccination.

“I joined Peace Corps to gain perspective by seeing what it is truly like to live in a way completely different than what I am familiar with,” says Tina Bryant, originally from Rockville, MD and now a Health PCV in Senegal. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and learn how others can make it work in conditions deemed difficult by my culture’s standards.”

Other PCV’s have cited everything from admiring the Peace Corps approach to development to wanting to “toughen themselves up,” serve their country, or simply satisfy their curiosity. But nobody who sticks out the Peace Corps for two years thinks we’re here to change the world. That kind of naiveté doesn’t last long here; I can’t tell you how often I heard that joke from friends before I left: “She’s off to the save the world and stuff.” We’re here to play our small role, helping development move forward in whatever ways we can.

Tough Cookies

To become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you above all must have more than a healthy dose of patience. The application process alone is lengthy, requiring interviews, recommendation letters and medical screenings. The process can take up to a year – the first step in weeding out those who aren’t really committed.

The second refining process takes place during Pre-Service Training, a period of 2-3 months in country before volunteers disperse to their permanent sites. The training is rigorous: we study the culture, learn about the political system, learn a local language or two, and acquire some technical skills based on our sector. We spend weeks with a host family who speaks the language we’ve been assigned. At the end, quaking in our sandals, we’re evaluated and tested on everything we’ve learned.

A few more typically drop off during training. The rest of us swear in, settle into our permanent sites and secretly wonder if we’re crazy for doing this – but quitting is not an option.

Following training, some PCV’s are assigned to work with existing projects or NGO’s, but for most of us, we are given a framework with target indicators and let loose. Our service is an open book to make of it what we choose.

For me, that opportunity has proved exhilarating. As a Health volunteer based in Kolda, a small city in southern Senegal, my work targets child and maternal health, sanitation and hygiene, endemic diseases such as malaria and HIV, women’s empowerment, and youth at risk. For the past year, I’ve been able to pursue the areas that interest me most, replicate successful projects and design my own, partner up with local organizations, and dictate my own schedule.

Peace Corps Volunteer Adrian Martinez gives a presentation to a local women's group on how to cultivate the plant Moringa Oleifera
Peace Corps Volunteer Adrian Martinez gives a presentation to a local women’s group on how to cultivate the plant Moringa Oleifera

“We have so much freedom here,” said former PCV Jordan Levinson when I first arrived, just before she completed her service in Senegal. “If we think of an idea, it can happen. All we have to do is research it and figure out what resources we have. That’s what they say about Americans here — even if we don’t know how to do something, we just go teach ourselves how to do it, and do it.”

This method is intimidating, but thrilling when you succeed. In my first year, I tried my hand at radio, event planning for a regional fair, teaching English, running youth camps, working with religious leaders for purposes of child protection and more. I loved the variety of new experiences.

Despite this freedom, it’s a challenging life adjusting to the culture, giving up conveniences, swapping between languages and being pointed out daily as someone foreign and different. Whenever children see me, they screech “toubab!” (white person / foreigner), and this happens at least 20 times a day. We never quite blend in, even when we’re draped in local fabrics and dancing to mbalax (Senegalese music heavy on the drums).

 All photos provided by Lauren Seibert
Next week we will have the second part of this story.