I Can't Move Mountains
This is a posting my friend Blair wrote to her friends. Blair is an Education volunteer (recall, I am an Environmental volunteer). I thought it was worth posting on my website... she has written about the classic frustrations of being a PCV in a much more positive light than I am able to do! ...Kate
July 6, 2002
As Americans, we're raised to be over-achievers, or at least strive to be. We're taught to believe that success means having visible results, results you can see, touch, use, and put a dollar value on. Our cultural values center around time = money, job security, and financial independence. Living in a country whose cultural values center around family and health, it's sometimes difficult to translate my work ethic to villagers.
During our three months' training last year, our trainers covered every problem and potential dilemma we may encounter as PCVs in the village. They explained the troubled education system, poor water and sanitation conditions, the health problems; they threw out literacy rates (less than half), AIDS statistics (FYI 12-15%), and likely scenarios. Then they armed us with a trunk, water filter, and a few dollars to buy cups and plates. If you really economized, you could get some utensils. What they didn't equip us with were the solutions to these problems, the resources we could access, the where-with-all to help the villagers overcome their own obstacles. After much research and running around to think up, propose, and implement a project, we would question the efficiency of our "support staff" at the PC office in Abidjan. Wouldn't it make sense to have a book with all PCV's projects so we could refer to it if we need help on a similar project? Wouldn't it make sense to have a list or book of funding and material resources, rather than have each PCV spend $5 on taxis to go to each Embassy, when the questions and answers could already be asked and answered at the same time? Wouldn't it make sense to have working computers accessible to PCVs, since they are required to type project proposals, quarterly reports, etc? Sure, all of this would make sense, but we're also dealing with an extension of the US government. Logic plays the most minor role in our daily existence here.
From December to April, I spent all my waking hours working on a project proposal to build a second primary school in our village. The village leaders proposed the idea to me, so I immediately started researching. I didn't have the faintest clue about how to write a grant/fund proposal (one of many missing details from our training). I had to ask 50 different PCVs if they knew of a Volunteer who had done a project like this. Many weeks later, I discovered a couple of experienced PCVs who both lived up country. The only way to reach them was through letters. So the writing began. The questions overwhelmed me - one question and answer always led to another question until I was inundated with material I didn't know what to do with. Having to get blue prints, material and labor estimates from nails to cement, write up work contracts with no less than 10 people and organizations (most of whom can't read or write), the village chief, letters of approval from the school inspector, Ministry of Education, the list goes on. Once I had finally finished, I sent it to Washington DC for approval and went on vacation. Upon return, what I had anticipated would be a joyous occasion of seeing a project on its way turned out to be a huge blow to the stomach. I read over the 13 points and questions Washington still needed answered and sat down at the 20-year old Mac computer screen in the PC office, typing responses. Back and forth, I answered DC's requests for more info and they kept me waiting and working.
Weeks later, I received two letters in my mailbox - one from the Ministry of Education with the needed information to hopefully complete the project proposal. The other from the water company in Abidjan. Three years ago, the Ivorian government said it would build a water tower in Gaoussoukro if it could contribute 10%, a little over $7,000. The village came together and pooled money each month from their crops until it was miraculously raised. They waited, and waited, and waited; the government said there was no money in their coffers to match our 10% with their 90%. Discouraged with the tower project, the village allocated 25% of the school construction costs, around $3,000, as their contribution to my project. Only, this new letter from the water company said they would start building the tower in September of this year. I had been writing letters every month hounding them over the tower, but never imagined anything would come of it. They put us on their list of 10 villages to receive towers. This should be cause for celebration, fabulous news. So the question comes back to the school. I am relieved in a way - there would be little time for me to raise $9,000 to complete the amount needed, and less time to actually build it. But part of me felt very discouraged. I had spent so much time, money, and energy on it already, how could I just let it turn into dust like that? The American in me wanted to see visible results, to have something to show for my time spent here. I hated myself for thinking like that, trying to convince myself that the philosophy of the Peace Corps is not to go around building things but, rather, helping people, educating them, inspiring them.
So now I tuck my tail between my legs and take advantage of solitude in rural West Africa. I am not discouraged; only, my direction has changed. Instead of riding the river rapids, I'm going to explore the creeks and streams. It took me a year to read the cynicism in older PCVs' comments about projects and realize that sometimes you really do just sit in the village and read. Back to the core of Peace Corps philosophy, I'm just a small part of the sea of Third World development problems. I can't move mountains, but it's more fun to play darts anyway, isn't it?