Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

Do You Understand?

“Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

“Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.