I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I would start this letter and as you can probably see by this cliché introspective first sentence I still don’t really know what to say, which is telling of my current state of mind. How does one some up 2 years of service in a few simple pages? There are plenty of things I want to say, some things better left unsaid and some things words simply cannot express. Seeing as my primary audience is the new Ag stage though I’ll focus on practical advice and inspirational anecdotes. But first a little about me!
My name is Garrison Harward and I am a SusAg. There we go, now we’re off the ground. I joined Peace Corps immediately after graduating from a small State University with a degree in Musical Theatre. Yes that’s right I turned down countless job options, and pushed aside my dreams of fame and fortune to join the Peace Corps. It was a truly selfless act. In all seriousness though I thought Peace Corps would be a good transitional option after college to get some much needed professional experience, do a little good, and kill time while my girlfriend finished school. It turned out to be great for all of those things and so many more.
When I got here I was the very essence of forward thinking academic liberal. I mean that with the utmost spite and distain. Its not that my views have really changed, they’ve just sort of matured. I recently dug up my old aspiration statement and found this:
“I know that the Peace Corps will change the way that I view the world. I hope that it teaches me in a practical way some things that I already know: that I can live with less, and that communities and families are valuable and important. I hope that it will also surprise me and make me realize what I cannot even think to include now.”
I agree with all of those things but its hard not to laugh at the naive idealism of the person who wrote that. I think often times in life we go searching for the profound experience all the while forgetting that profundity is a byproduct to be earned not something that can be sought outright. That’s if we want real experiences that is. There are plenty of ways to feel like we’re saving poor starving Africa while learning brilliant truths forgotten by evil modern capitalists, and that’s certainly what most people back home think, but that’s not why we’re here. It may have been the reason we joined but in the face of the realities here that pursuit is sort of like Disneyland development, fun but utterly artificial and in the end not practical. So what to do in the face of reality? Get dirty!
We’re Ag volunteers so when all else fails, when the complexities of the work, and the people, and the situation overwhelms just do what we do best, put your hands in the dirt and dig. This may sound flippant but it’s actually some of the best advice I can give. Sort of like Dorry in Finding Nemo, just keep digging. You won’t get to China but people will respect your work ethic, become curious about your techniques and eventually understand what you’re trying to do. Notice I said eventually. In the idealistic vision of development you the wise PCV teach the eager local amazing new techniques and they triple their yields and feed their family sustainably for the first time… You hero, them grateful, mom proud. That CAN happen but most of the time it’s not so simple. Most of the time you do the same thing over and over for 2 years until you finally find the right way to explain it, or the result from your demo is finally visible enough that people start to adopt whatever it is you’re trying to teach and then you leave.
Behavior change is complicated and even though you’re coming out of PST with all these amazing techniques and knowledge it is unfortunately not enough to be right. Plenty of people throughout the years with a lot more money and resources then Peace Corps have been right and failed the developing world miserably. Far from discouraging you though this fact should be a source of inspiration. Why you may ask? Because you can succeed where others have failed. The development world has tried throwing money at the problem with mixed results at best. Peace Corps throws people. Results may vary but the potential is there for real sustainable growth and knowledge exchange.
The temptation is going to be there to fight the Peace Corps model, don’t. It feels great to finish some big project that gives your village this that or the other, but most of those projects feel better then they really are. Our greatest asset as volunteers is not money or resources but rather time. We have the time, unlike almost every other organization in the world, to really sit and watch, to see a problem from every direction before we presume to know how to solve it. Yes this is excruciating, and yes it is also brilliantly contradictory to my “just keep digging” advice earlier. It is and it isn’t. Time plus effort equals more opportunity for failure and learning. Where the big organizations fail and move on, we fail and stay. Sounds fun doesn’t it. Being here I’ve come to appreciate though not just the usefulness of failure, but its utter necessity as a precursor to real progress. Don’t avoid failure, run at it with reckless abandon because only by failing to achieve better yields with double dug beds, or neem solution, or compost or whatever can you learn the necessary modifications that need to be made to these techniques to combine them with, rather than simply ignoring, the wisdom of local knowledge. People here are incredibly smart and they have good reasons behind almost everything they do. Embrace that rather than fighting it and you will find the magic key that allows people to adopt your “improved” techniques. Fight it and you will be miserable for two years and end up resenting the very people you came here to help. Just FYI I paused during that last sentence to kill a mouse. The profound and the mundane in one instant. That is the essence of the Peace Corps.
In the end it’s about process over product. The volunteer who extends seed to 100 farmers is not necessarily better then the one who extends to 10. There have been many great volunteers who never wrote a single grant in their entire service. There is no cookie cutter way to be a good volunteer or make a difference. It’s about really getting to know your village and being willing to put aside your personal desire to feel helpful in order to really have an impact. It sounds counterintuitive and it is, which is why so many charity organizations stifle developing countries rather than really helping them. Don’t even get me started about Tom’s shoes… This harkens back to my current feelings of distain toward forward thinking liberals. The road to hell as they say is paved with good intentions. In other words before you dig a well or build latrines or buy seed for a women’s group find out why they couldn’t do it on their own and how they’ll do it when you’re gone. If you can’t find the answers to these questions consider working on something else. Peace Corps isn’t about making you feel good.
Now if it sounds like you have to be a saint to be a good volunteer you don’t. This advice is coming from the many times I have failed to live up to these standards. Two years is short and many times I have forgone sustainability in order to simply get things done that I knew would be beneficial for my village. It’s not about being perfect but rather striving to be better. Perfection is an illusion but by always trying to improve we achieve much more then the cynics would have us believe is possible.
One of the greatest things that I’ve learned during my two short years here is that there’s nothing new under the sun. All of this questioning we inevitably indulge in stuck alone in our huts is the same questioning humans have engaged in since the dawn of time. Happiness, meaning, wisdom, its all been figured out. No unfortunately I cannot give you the answers here and even if I could I wouldn’t. The process of life is just that. Each and every one of us has to go through challenges, failures, successes, happiness, depression, frustration, inspiration, love, hate, all of it in order to truly learn about and understand this funny thing we call life. Or Peace Corps for that matter. The good and the bad, its all useful because it is within the conflicts and questioning that we find truth.
You may be thinking great that’s all well and good but where is that useful practical advice and anecdotes you promised? Yes I did say that didn’t I. Sorry I tend to lean towards the theoretical. In practical terms take it one day at a time. That isn’t a cliché here. Peace Corps service can be a lot of waiting and hoping and wishing for anything other then what is directly in front of you. If you can learn to live in the current moment, even if that’s a 6 hour Alhum ride in the blazing sun or finding a way to say goodbye to your beloved family after two years, and be content to deal with things as they come and not wish for them to be different, then you will not only find happiness here but will also become more successful and influential then the big guys could ever hope to be. Don’t worry though you don’t have to get it right the first time, and its better if you don’t. Just keep digging.