Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I did a very mean thing today. I'm not happy about doing it, but I would do it again.

I broke the Peace Corps Volunteer Honor Code. I learned of another volunteer who has not been following Peace Corps instructions concerning leave time, and I called headquarters and ratted him out. I did.

It was mean. Very few people actually follow Peace Corps instructions regarding leave time to the letter. Many of us fudge a day or two when submitting forms requesting time off. We live in a beautiful part of the world and want to spend as much time enjoying it as we can. I understand that. Non-volunteers who read this blog may be surprised that we are technically allowed only 24 days off per year. Granted, volunteers who work in the schools are also allowed a certain number of school holidays off. It adds up to a substantial amount of vacation, but in South Africa with its beaches, parks, history and culture it's impossible to get enough time off. Or at least Peace Corps tries valiantly to prevent volunteers from going on permanent vacation.

As they should.

We are volunteers. We live in uncomfortable poverty. We engage in often grueling labor for a pittance. We do not enjoy the perks of the more gainfully employed, so why should we be constrained to their work/vacation schedules?

Because we signed up for this. We knew this was coming.

In America, people are fond of the phrase "You get what you pay for". In my experience, too many volunteers carry this mantra with them. They barely earn enough to survive, so there's no need to actually work. There's no need to go to school or participate in community activites. But again, we agreed to this. We took an oath. We gave our word.

Peace Corps volunteers are often the only Americans that the villagers we live with will ever meet. Everything we say or do is representative of Americans everywhere. It's tough living inside a fish bowl. It's annoying, but it's also an important aspect of our job. We exercise tremendous influence over what people think of Americans as a people. We have a choice. We can show that Americans hold themselves to high personal standards, or we can show them that Americans are purely selfish flakes with no standards at all. We can demonstrate that Americans are men and women of their word, or that Americans put themselves over all else. I like to believe that Peace Corps represents the best of America, and that is the standard to which I hold myself.

Is it fun? Is it easy? No, of course not. There are plenty of days when I don't feel like getting out of bed. Plenty of moments when I want to make a sarcastic or rude comment. Nevertheless, I get out of bed everyday. I hold my tongue. When a colleague asks me to do something I consider useless or ridiculous, I buckle down and do it. I do all of these things because, as a Peace Corps volunteer, as an American, I believe that they are important. High personal standards may not be important in university where everyone's your best friend and you spend days on end in your pajamas, but when you're a lekgowa in a village they matter. The personal legacy Peace Corps volunteers leave in the memory of host country nationals lasts a lifetime.

Not only are most of the men and women employed at the Peace Corps office in Pretoria host country nationals (South African), but they also represent our immediate superiors.

Volunteers cannot be fired, we cannot earn promotions or bonuses, there is no such beast as an annual review, in fact, there is no such thing as direct supervision. No one at the Peace Corps office knows exactly what I'm doing at my site. They don't know what classes I teach or don't teach, the garden I work in, the map I'm painting or the book donation I'm working on. For all they know I sit in my room all day and watch "Friends". To be honest, many a Saturday has passed that way, but no matter. Just because we don't have "real" jobs is no excuse to slack off. Just because no one is breathing down our collective necks is no reason to lose sight of our objectives. We are all adults. We should be able to handle ourselves accordingly, sans supervision.

We are lucky to have the positions that we do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the United States was at 9.6% in August. It is not inconceivable to think that many volunteers would be part of that statistic were it not for Peace Corps. Instead, we are living abroad with a steady income guaranteed for two years, plus health insurance at no cost to us at all. We are enjoying a care-free existence thanks to the common American taxpayer. If we are answerable to no one else, we are answerable to him. There's a nearly 1 in 10 chance that whoever paid for our groceries last week could now use some help himself. At the very least we can show our appreciation by doing the very best work we can.

Unfortunately, some volunteers are forced into more difficult work environments. I have no sympathy. I moved, so can you. If something's not working, change it. Make it work. Adapting to new and challenging environments is, again, what we signed up for.

Will following the rules, being accountable, and holding oneself to high standards make one happy? Probably not. I would much rather be writing this from a beach in Durban, but I'm saving my leave time for December and have classes to teach in the meantime. Is Peace Corps about being happy?

Maybe... Anyone who says they haven't grown as a person, or learned something new about themselves since coming here is either a liar or very dense. The process of self-discovery is inevitable when you udergo such a rapid change in circumstances that is moving from the first-world into the Peace Corps lifestyle. I am living alone, in a desert, on the other side of the world. Am I really the same person who used to buy coordinating outfits with my friends and drink over-priced coffee as a social activity? Well, no, not exactly. Am I more or less happy? About the same. There are greats highs and tremendous lows associated with my service, but on the whole I am happy and satisfied with my life here.

As much as my family and friends may be heartened to hear that, it is really beside the point. My well-being is beside the point. Coming from a culture where people are drowning in social networking and fancy applications begging for the broadcasting of personal information, it is easy to be self-absorbed. For goodness' sakes, I have the audacity to be writing this blog and expect it to be read! From Facebook to Twitter, modern life is all about ego, most often our own. We are practically programmed to think only of ourselves. With high-speed internet and credit cards, instant gratification has never been easier. Combine the two and we have masses of people whose thoughts revolve almost entirely on themselves and whatever makes them happy. Such people have no place in the Peace Corps.

Fundamentally, at its very core, the Peace Corps is about helping others. Yes, this is difficult, more so than most people reading this in the U.S. can imagine. Yes, it may also be selfish as science has shown some people get their kicks from giving, but no matter what the mission of the Peace Corps is service. That means putting ourselves, our hopes, dreams, happiness and ambitions, aside and serving others. Putting a smile of someone else's face. Deriving the quadratic equation when you really don't have the time because a learner asked. Letting young children help with the painting even though they cannot keep the paint in the lines and you have to go back and fix it. Peace Corps is not an individual achievement, not a box to check off on the list of things you can use to impress strangers and admissions officers. Peace Corps is an opportunity to serve, serve the people of a developing nation and America. It may not be a higher cause, but it's certainly a cause bigger than ourselves. One that deserves our respect and best efforts at doing our job, whatever that may be in your community.

So, here's to high standards and hard work, even in a developing country, without proper sanitation and poor compensation. Here's to leverage, no slack and synergy even when there's no one around to admire and appreciate it. Here's to doing our best when it isn't exactly what we want. Here's to Peace Corps and the people who make it such a great organization, the best of America.

... And that's why I'll never write a book. I ramble. In my defense, have you ever tried to revise a rant of such length on a cell phone?

I will post more about life and the universe in the near future. I have several good blog ideas.

To any PCV readers who may have taken offense: As Dr. Seuss said, "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." I love you, let's do lunch.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. Who knew my moral backbone was so easily offended?


  1. You said what I wanted to say but was too polite to. I have not really taken a vacation since being here and will have my first scheduled on in late January. Still I know many volunteers who seem to vacation and awful lot. If there was really NO WORK to be done, then I might understand, but theirs always work to be done.

    I also think it reflects poorly on our community work if we are running away from our communities rather then into them. Africa has lots of do-gooders who "hit and run" without leaving a real impact. Peace Corps, as I believe it to be, is about a contract with your community. An agreement that no matter how unpleasant, tough, smelly, rude, or frustrating your community and site is, you will make every effort to engage rather then retreat.

  2. Did you bother to find out why this volunteer "ran away" and possibly offer to help him/her? Or did you just go straight to the main office and report them?

    It seems to me that this story is quite one-sided. I guess we'll have to wait and see what the outcome of the meeting with the main office is. Once the outcome is known and the full story comes up, I think if your want to maintain your reputation of high standards it would behoove you to post a summary of the offending volunteer's reasoning. After all, you wouldn't want to ruin the good reputation of an otherwise hardworking fellow American who was just going through some tough times, would you?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.