I remember the commercials. Shots of beautiful and distant lands flashed on the screen. At the end it read: The toughest job you’ll ever love.
I asked my mom, “What does that mean?” She told me that in the Peace Corps you volunteer your skills to go to another country and help. My response at seven years old was excitement, “Great, I’ll do that when I grow up!”As years past this stuck with me as something that I knew would be part of my life, but at that moment I had no idea how much a part of me it would become.
I contemplated when I would become a volunteer as I started to explore the world. My final decision was made in Fiji the summer before my senior year at Lewis & Clark College. I went through the interview and application process in a breeze, pulling from what at that point felt like extensive time abroad; about two years at that time.
I volunteered in a small village in the Volta region of Ghana, West Africa. Technically I was a Water and Sanitation/Health Education volunteer, but also had projects in beekeeping and tree planting. I learned the languages well, Ewe & Twi, but learned the people even better. In the afternoon I often sat with the gong-gong beater, or town crier, and striped away the fibrous edges of the long thin grasses that we used to weave fish traps. I went to community meetings and waited patiently, sometimes for hours, for the people to gather around and discuss their needs and desires. I sat with elders at tribal councils hearing cases about land disputes and injustices that had been committed. I learned how to live without running water or electricity. I went to market and mastered the art of balancing a basket of goods on my head. I had long conversations about the multitude of cultural taboos and ways of life. I was enstooled a Queen Mother, the female counterpart to a chief. I paddled a canoe up the Volta River to collect the tree seedlings that I imagine in my minds’ eye. I saved a boy’s life and wonder how he is doing now as a teenager.
All this was an incredible experience that gave me space to reflect and grow. While I knew in the moment that I would never be the same, I don’t think I realized how vital the experience would later prove to be in my career.
Now as I sort out complicated program and management issues related to implementing health programs, I often wonder how I could ever really do my work without having had the experience of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sure, I guess I would manage somehow. I might even think that I knew all the answers. Now I know that I don’t have all the answer, but I do have many of the right questions.
I know when to consider the chief’s importance in supporting a community health center, or the various barriers that might stop a woman from seeking health care for her child. It most often leaves more questions than answers, but it informs what I do on a much deeper level.
As I face the deep and complex issues to improve the programs I manage, I am grateful for my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My current role may be even more challenging in terms of long hours, critical choices that affect large numbers of people, etc, but I wouldn’t be as effective without having had the often slow and difficult progress of implementing programs at the community level.
I thank the universe for always making sure that I’m in the right place at the right time.