Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Peace Corps or Posh Corps?

When you think of the Peace Corps what pops into your mind? For many it might be a young volunteer living in “darkest Africa” in a mud hut. Or it could be some steaming jungle in Asia or sleeping in a hammock in a tropical rain forest in South America. You might then also think about the difficulties of adapting to living in a developing country like using pit latrines and the lack of electricity.

I think it is fair to say that most people have a romantic stereotype of Peace Corps volunteers, thinking that we live in a hut somewhere in a tiny village with no electricity and no running water, teaching children to read while sitting under a mango tree.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), it is quite different in reality. According to the 2010 Volunteer Survey, only 13% of volunteers worldwide never had access to electricity at their homes and only 23% of them never had access to running water. Over 95% of volunteers had regular access to cell phones, and 80% had at least weekly access to internet. Not quite what you pictured, right?

I can’t speak for all Peace Corps posts, but Botswana is definitely a place that you could consider posh. It is considered a “middle income country” by the World Bank and I live a pretty comfortable life here. For the first year I was here, I lived in a small apartment that had a shower and air conditioning. There are almost a dozen grocery stores and one is only about 1km away if I run out of anything. I live in my own house that has electricity and running water as well as a bathtub and an indoor toilet. There are a few large malls and shops where I can find anything ranging from microwave ovens to electronics to clothing. I could even get cable TV and an iPhone, if I so desired.

I may live in a comfortable house and have access to all sorts of goods and services, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am living high on the hog. One key thing that keeps me from living a posh lifestyle is my salary, or lack thereof. Peace Corps volunteers are given a small stipend each month that is intended to be used for food and other basic necessities. We are expected to live at the level of and similarly to people in our respective sites. So while I may have a grocery store in easy walking distance and access to all kinds of products, I am one of the poorest people in my neighborhood. The stipend is quite adequate for food and some occasional trips or entertainment but that’s about it. There are children on my block that have nicer phones than I do.

The fact is that many places in the developing world have advanced and are quickly catching up with the modern world. The days when volunteers built bridges and lived out of touch with the world may be coming to an end but that doesn't mean that Peace Corps now is a 27 month vacation for recent college graduates. My time here has still been challenging despite the fact that I don’t have to collect water from a well or forgo personal hygiene for weeks on end. The things I have struggled with since leaving (being away from family and friends, adapting to a new culture, trying to communicate in a foreign language, and trying to find meaningful work) would be a challenge whether I had all the creature comforts or not.

I am comfortable and happy (most of the time), but I am certainly not living a life that is conspicuously different from the people around me and that is what I find to be one of Peace Corp’s best characteristics.