The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Or So They Say

When you are applying to Peace Corps Service, it's natural to poke around your available resources for information on what this grand experience will be like. Friends who served in the past (if you're lucky enough to know some), your Recruiter or Placement Officer, or the Internet. All of these things will tell you the same thing: You will have a lot of down time.

I literally remember watching a YouTube video that was just a Volunteer who got so bored in her straw hut in South America that she made of video of herself dancing. This tells you several things. 1) I'm willing to bet her straw hut did not have electricity, meaning she was using precious battery power to film this video. 2) She was literally so bored that this seemed like the most time-effective thing to be doing at the moment. 3) She spent a considerable time preparing to make the video. Either that or she is a naturally-talented dancer because her moves were good.

I have certainly had my fair share of down time. Mostly in my first year of service. This down time is in fact how I know that I can stare at a wall for 37 minutes before wondering how long I have been staring at said wall. But this down time is also a necessary part of how Peace Corps Volunteers do what they do and stay (relatively) sane. Consider the fact that everything is new here. Every small piece of a Volunteer's daily life requires us to mentally process nearly everything around us.

In my field, we call this Schema Theory. I'll have to be a little careful here because there are three people (that I know of) who read this blog and quite literally are experts in this field. And because, well… Its been quite a while since those UMD days. Under Schema Theory, people create scripts for how certain situations will play out. These cognitive scripts are what help us get through repetitive daily tasks without having to think too much about them. For example, when you go to a grocery store. You have a list of things you know will happen, or have to happen. You know you can put your food items on the small black conveyor belt, the clerk will scan each one, a small screen will show you the total, maybe someone will be at the other end to put them in bags for you. You can put all the bags back into your cart and take it outside to your vehicle as long as you return the cart to one of the designated spots in the parking lot. Just imagine how difficult all of this would be if you had never been inside a grocery store before, meaning you would have never developed these schema for how to act in one. Don't believe me? You should see some of the Rwandans who wander into one of the three grocery stores in Kigali. It's actually really humorous. Or the fact that one of my best students, who's actually from Tanzania, was reading over my shoulder and asked what it meant when I wrote 'the clerk will scan each one.' It's not that he's stupid, he just doesn't have those cognitive scripts.

These scripts allow us to go about our daily lives without processing every minute detail around us. They also are the basis for stereotypes and, therefore, racism, but that's for another day. The 'problem' this creates for Peace Corps Volunteers, as anyone who has spent more than 36 hours in a foreign culture can tell you, is that these schema are based on the culture we live in. When you completely change the culture, those scripts are nearly no good any more. It's like currency: a Rwandan will not take Ugandan Shillings. Why? Because they have no use for Ugandan Shillings; they're in Rwanda. My cognitive scripts for how just about anything should work, from schools to meetings, relationships to stores, do not usually apply here. This means that every time I leave my house, I'm faced with situations I have to mentally process in order to understand them, instead of already having built the schema for them and just being able to interact without thinking. So while you may see these YouTube videos and hear the stories of Volunteers being bored out of our minds, or doing such senseless things as staring at concrete walls convinced they will eventually move or reorganizing their bedroom because, well, there isn't anything else to do and it makes them feel like they are back in the States, we do this in part because simply stepping outside forces our brains into over drive and a person can only take so much.

Wow, that was a long sentence.

To bring this back into the point I'm trying to make, this is all fine and dandy until you get comfortable with the new culture. During my second year (which I'm now between 2 months and 5 months into, depending on if you include my training), I began to get far more involved in secondary projects; the ones that didn't involve me in the classroom with students. Without really recognizing it, these became a huge tax on my time. Here's a simplified list of all the projects I either started or have agree to help with:

- An ICT resource (read: textbook) that another Volunteer and I are building from the ground up
- Rebuilding my computer lab (which is a never-ending struggle
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in English
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in science methodology
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in basic computer skills
- Working with a Volunteer-led project to teach Judges and court staff English to create an online-based resource
- Helping to create a seamless digital way for Books For Africa libraries to manage and organize their books
- Helping our Safety and Security Coordinator to prepare a pocket-sized version of our Emergency Action Plan so Volunteers will always have the information on their person
- Serving on the Peace Corps/Rwanda Volunteer Advisory Committee as a Representative for my region as well as the committee's Secretary
- Working with the Office's IT Specialist to re-work the way Office Staff and Volunteers share information and resources when Volunteers are out in the field
- Coordinating the first-ever flash mob in Rwanda

With the exception of that last one (which, let's face it, is pure amusement), all of these projects have taken and are taking majoring chunks of my time. As it stands now, I wake up around 7am and am at school by 7:30am, either teaching or working in the computer lab. I zip home around 1 to each lunch and am back by 2. My time from there to dinner is either filled with more work in the lab or with helping other teachers. I again zip home for dinner at about 6 and am back in the lab after that until 9 or 10pm, which allows students to access the lab during their self-study time. This does sound like a good amount of work, but not too over the top considering that I'm working on my own most of the time, or remotely with other Volunteers. If I were in America, you'd get absolutely no complaints from me. But I am not in America.

Consider the point I was making above about how whenever I am in any way involved with Rwandan culture, I have to mentally process everything. Even after being here for 16 months this is still true, even though sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Sure, I've developed cognitive scripts for the world I find around me now, but that only helps so much. By far the biggest thing it does is lull me into a false sense of adaptivity so I feel like I can take on more responsibility and work. A Peace Corps Volunteer really is working 24/7. Except when we're sleeping, we're always on the clock (do the math and you'll notice a Peace Corps Volunteer gets paid about $0.36 an hour). My mind set on my work in Rwanda functioned quite nicely until I was told by the Peace Corps Doctors that I have so much stress and anxiety in my life that I literally pinched a nerve in my upper back.

And there it is.

The day to day job I do here in Rwanda has become so stressful because I was never taught (or better yet, never learned) how to say 'no.' We operate under this inherent pretense that we will only be serving for two years. Two years and then it's over. I can barely resign myself to go to bed at night and accept the fact that my work for the DAY has to be finished. How am I supposed to look at my service, see that I'm already 16 months in, and NOT feel pressure to hurry it all up and be productive? Weather I like it or not, I'm well past high-noon in my service, and soon enough the sun will be touching the proverbial horizon. Wait, does that mean everything after Peace Corps will be dark? OK, so it's not a perfect metaphor.

So even though I'm on Doctor's orders to remove as much stress as I can from my life until my back is better (a point to which they were very serious, going as far as convincing some of the Volunteers I've been working with to not allow me to help for a while, requesting I stay in my village for a few weeks, and almost taking away my BlackBerry [an idea they rescinded after I pointed how integral THEIRS' was to their work and life]), I cannot help but remember the other thing I heard before coming to Peace Corps almost as much as 'you will be bored':

Peace Corps: the hardest job you'll ever love.

Truth be told, I work myself to death. And I know I do it. I do it not because I feel like I owe this word something (which is an arguable point), but because I truly LOVE what I do here. I could sit in my house all day and watch TV on my computer. I've got a terabyte drive with 200+ movies, 312 seasons of 40 different TV shows, 4024 hours of podcasts and NPR radio shows, 11,000 ebooks for my Kindle and 27 different computer games. Save for electricity actually in my house (which is an issue that is quickly being resolved, more on that later), I never actually need to leave my house. I could sit inside all day, lay in bed while the teen-aged boy I pay $10 a month to do all the chores I don't want to do takes care of all that unpleasant stuff. While I'm not out to fire my house help, I am also not about to become a hermit. I love going out every day and greeting my neighbors, helping my fellow teachers, playing Need For Speed with my computer-literate students, discoverying a typewriter in a locked closet and teaching my favorite student about codes and how to make them by switching the typewriter's keys around. I love meeting with my counterpart at the bar and eating skewered goat covered in hot pepper extract. I thrive for the thrill of opening the lunch pot to see what concoction of random foods Emmanuel has conceived of today. But most of al I love that rush of knowing that this is where I belong. That this is my home now. And I will work myself to the bone (or the pinched nerve in my back, pick your favorite) to help get these people everything they deserve, nothing they don't, and the knowledge to understand the difference.



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