Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To The Unlikely Wanderer: Why You Should Volunteer

Today I want to talk about volunteering.
To all of those reading who are open to travel, knowledgeable of realities with different cultures, and fairly open to new are archetypal people Peace Corps Recruiters talk about in potential applicants; however, this post is dedicated to the other half of the world, those who are afraid, not knowledgeable, but nonetheless still idealistic in their desires.

To those people, I want to talk about reasons why you should if you were thinking about it. And more importantly, I want you to hear it from someone who had the fortune of coming in jaded, and one year in, learning to open up bit by bit. I want to add the caveat, that my experience is only as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Sagalla, Kenya, and that my views are my views alone. More specifically, they are not the views of Peace Corps and should not be taken as such.

You should volunteer if

1. You want to help the world.
This is the ideal of ideals. And it's one that anyone older than you will tell to abandon immediately. They will say, "you cannot save the world, one person alone can't do anything". On the other spectrum, you will hear "just by being a good person, you're helping the world". Well, both views are right, and both are completely wrong. The "world", as far as I'm concerned, exists outside of my head, but even now, after living in Kenya for a year, the ideals of what I have internally are different than what are outside. Do volunteer, do learn about what the world is like. Only by learning will you be able to get to the "help" aspect.
2. People tell you that you are naive.
I get told this a lot, much of this is with merit. And until I came to Kenya, I felt often times that perhaps I was. I felt that in response I was becoming hardened and uncaring for the world as a way to protect myself. However, it's not always about what we perceive ourselves to be, it's about who we are both in reaction and without external stimuli. I've certainly learned that people who tell me I'm naive are people who have not taken the time to know me. And in this year, I've taken time to know me, and I can tell you the things that make me special are judged as naive. And I think if you take the time to volunteer, you'll notice the difference in how you define your own attributes.
3. You're aware you're prejudiced
Let's not even put in the caveat, that you're willing to fix it, because I'm not going to hope for the best to possible strangers. If you are aware that you harbor certain prejudices; be it race, gender, class, volunteer. Give some of your time and see if your prejudices still hold up. You will find that people are in fact prejudiced towards you based on your race, gender, and class as well. So I stress you, as you notice things within yourself you may not necessarily view as appropriate, look outwards.
4. You hate travelling
I'll tell you the truth; I'm afraid of traveling. I get so scared when it comes to transitioning from Point A to Point B, but honestly learning to gather my strength and getting on the back of an overly full van going up a mountain in the rain...and doing it again, I've learned my limits. I still dislike travelling, but at least now I know how to push myself and know when to say no.
5. You feel like you are not good enough.
My biggest fear before coming to Kenya was that I was useless. That I couldn't do anything right. One year, I've never felt stronger as a person. Rather than fishing for compliments, I know when to have pride, and when not to flush it in front of people. We never really know who we are until we test ourselves. I was an international relations major, which made me feel like I wasn't skilled enough to do anything. The truth is, if you are willing to do anything, you will learn to be skilled in at least something. Only by stretching your line into the water will you learn if you have any talent in fishing. If you don't, move on. But if you stay at home, you'll never know, you'll never know how wonderful you really are.

Destroying the great myth about the Peace Corps Volunteer

You don't do anything of importance
Wrong. My best friend here is a science teacher. When he first came to his school, he was one of the few teachers there, and he took up the challenge and taught every day, even when he was only one of two teachers. Didn't do anything important? I doubt it. And to this day, I never hear him boast of that significant contribution to society in those months of his time here.
Another one of my friends headed the initiative to plant Moringa trees, about 400 of them, in an area so desolate that people must walk miles to carry water. The trees, when harvested, will provide nutrition to the area. Even as he leaves this August, his contribution is, and will continue to be felt.
As for myself; I can be proud of at least two things. 
You see this storage room?

Not very pleasant? Well when the call came to create a youth center for youth to learn about health and test for HIV, I provided the data and motivation to help turn that room into this

Since it's inception, over 159 youth have been tested for HIV, with more youth learning about health and being trained to be leaders in their own community.
Then there is Latta Dam

Long unused in Sagalla, my counter part had the bold idea to desilt it. So I decided to come everyday for 2 months to help the health workers to manually de silt it.
After creating a video and providing photo evidence, we had other organizations come donate resources and money to help desilt the dam. But it wouldn't have happened if we didn't motivate the health workers to believe they could do it on their own.

My Counter part is gold
After 6 months

And now a year later
 The dam now can hold 160,000 liters of water, and that picture was taken during dry season.

What I want to say out of this is that before coming here, I didn't think I had it in me to be able to help people effectively. And I want to tell you this now; as someone without any background of development, if I can do this, then so can you. Never believe that you're incapable without trying first.

Being Frank
I will discourage you to volunteer; however, if you have certain notions.
1. You want to volunteer so you can sleep with the local populace
Please don't come if that is your intention. In my site, I saw the physical result of volunteers coming here and sleeping with the local population. In one case, it ended with a boy not having a father who will take to knowing him. On a larger sense, foreigners coming in and sleeping with the local population has created a perception that we're only here to just for the women/men.
On a more personal sense, you break people's hearts, people who don't understand your culture and assume you've come to marry them and take them away from their own troubles. I've made the mistake of dating someone who didn't have the same perceptions as I did, and it ended in me hurting her feelings and wondering what my purpose was in the relationship. Unless you are serious, do not come to a different land with the intentions of having sexual relations with people from a different land.
2. You want to volunteer to party
In that case, just take a vacation, I heard Zanzibar is nice.
Volunteer to learn, volunteer to work, volunteer to love the world, but locals can tell which volunteers have come to work, and which are coming just to take pictures of giraffes. This is not a knock on partying per se, but if you're coming here for a short time, for one or two months, please don't spend a big portion of that just sunbathing in the coast or looking for different drugs, locals can tell and it does affect their mind set. You're entitled to a break, and your money is your money, but also know that volunteering is about giving up your time, often times for no reward in return. Learning to take breaks without resolving to extremes will make your experience more rewarding.

In summary, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a little different from a typical volunteer. I get paid a monthly stipend and have great medical benefits. If you do decide to volunteer on your own dime; make sure you have access to health facilities if something bad does happen. Unfortunately, plan for bad things to happen, make sure you have access to money that just isn't on your person, but even if you are hesitant, understand that cross cultural relations can be one of the most growth orientated experiences you have available to you. Notice how I said experience and growth, not necessarily rewarding. Many people will not enjoy their experience; when the glamour of the first month runs off, you'll notice the smell of the pit latrine, and the constant cadging for money will take a toll. But I guarantee that you will get something out of it, but in the work you do, and in knowing what type of person you truly are.

So volunteer if you can, and save to do so if you can't yet.

A Volunteer Who Thought He Couldn't, Wasn't, But Did It Anyway