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This Peace Corps Life – Jamaica

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Jamaica.

Dominique Gebru – Age 25

Dominique with her host parents at her host dad's graduation ceremony.

Dominique with her host parents at her host dad’s graduation ceremony.

Where are you from?
I’m originally from Napa, California. I am Ethiopian-American. 

What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Jamaica as an Education Volunteer. My official title is Youth Literacy Advisor, and I work at a small primary school in rural Jamaica. Our project’s goals are to improve student achievement in literacy, to help teachers to improve their literacy instructional practices and to strengthen community and parent involvement in the school. I do small group pull outs and work with students one-on-one to try to get them up to grade level, which is a challenge because many of them are more than 2 grade reading levels behind where they should be. 

I’ve done a lot of work to improve our school’s library. I helped to establish a student library monitor program, which empowers selected students in grades 5 and 6 as leaders on campus. The monitors run the weekly check-outs, help answer questions, assist in school-wide library presentations, and are almost solely responsible for the library. In choosing our monitors, we targeted students who were not often considered leaders by their peers or their teachers; we chose the ones who needed a boost. 

The program has been incredibly successful so far and the students take the job far more seriously than I ever imagined! Last week I was on my way to remind a teacher that it was his class’ library day, only to realize that one of the monitors on duty had beat me to it, totally unprompted! 

Do you feel supported by your country staff?
I feel very well supported by my country staff, but because they’re humans, it’s impossible for them to get it 100% right all the time. In Jamaica, we serve in this paradoxical Peace Corps post where many of us have access to internet regularly, have electricity and running water. The flip side of that is that the internet often doesn’t work or is inoperably slow, power outages can be frequent and the cost of electricity is prohibitively high, and water lock-offs are all but inevitable. 

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I live with a host family in a very nice, 2-story cement house. All PCVs in Jamaica live with host families for the duration of their service, but my situation is a little unique. I live with my host mom, her two granddaughters (age 12 and 15), and 7 girls who attend the local all-girls high school. We have visitors all the time, ranging from my host mom’s husband (who holds down the fort at our old house – yes, I moved houses with my host mom!), to her granddaughter (21 years old) and great-granddaughter (3 years old), to neighbor boys, to the elderly widow for whom my host mom makes breakfast every morning to make sure he eats. It’s a busy house. 

It was really hard to adjust to living with a family, especially one that’s so prominent in the community. I have to constantly watch my behavior, my language, the way I dress so as to help uphold the image. Our first house was pretty small. Sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with a busy household took a lot of adjusting. But through all of the challenges, I’ve grown stronger and learned a lot about myself. 

I have access to internet at my house. I have electricity. I have running water for 3 days out of the week, and a water tank that supplies our house with water for the rest of the week. 

I eat Jamaican food at school every day – rice and peas with chicken and raw vegetables. At home, I mostly eat the way I do in America – lots of vegetarian curry dishes, cereal for breakfast, sometimes I splurge on mediocre-quality bacon. 

How often do you interact with other PCVs?
I see other volunteers relatively frequently; Jamaica is smaller than New Hampshire and there are about 60 PCVs serving here. Usually when we gather, it’s just a few of us for a day trip to the beach, but sometimes we do have larger gatherings, like to celebrate the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with other PCVs quite a bit, be it to get some ideas from their school’s garden or to get assistance with my summer eco camp. Our staff encourages collaboration where it helps to build capacity, which gives us a lot of opportunities to learn from each other. 

What are Jamaicans like?
Jamaicans speak English and on the surface don’t seem too different from Americans, but the cultural differences run deep and the subtleties that irk and plague us here have the tendency to get under your skin, perhaps without you even realizing it. There are a lot of misconceptions and inaccurate stereotypes about Jamaica, and PCVs suffer more when they come into this experience with preconceived notions about what service will be like. Two Volunteers living within 10 miles of one another here might have experiences as different as night and day, and no two services are the same. 

In my community, it’s been really hard to make friends with females near my age. Most women spend their time inside of their homes, whereas most men spend time hanging out on the road, at a bar, or at “di cawna shop.” I am one of the few women in her 20’s without at least one child. Jamaicans can be very warm, but are not generally too quick to open up to strangers. Many people have echoed the sentiment that it is unwise to trust others. Most people in Jamaica are Christian, and so the major activities outside of the home revolve around the churches. 

English is the official language in Jamaica, but everyone speaks Patois, the local creole language. It was pretty challenging to master at first; it felt silly that something so close to English was so hard to grasp! But it was necessary for me to learn, especially because it makes it easier for some of my students to understand our literacy lessons. 

Dominique presenting her favorite things about Jamaican culture to a 5th grade class in Washington D.C. during the Blog it Home tour.

Dominique presenting her favorite things about Jamaican culture to a 5th grade class in Washington D.C. during the Blog it Home tour.

What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I have been serving for 20 months. The most rewarding parts of my service are the relationships I have built with my host family, my community members, my students, my principal, the teachers at school, and with other PCVs. That person-to-person connection makes this whole experience feel valuable because at the end of the day, regardless of how my projects turn out, I am expanding my understanding of the world and the Jamaicans I work with are growing their understanding of the US. 

My greatest challenge is overcoming self-judgement. I place a lot of pressure on myself to get things done, when in reality my impact is inherently limited. My successes are different from what I’d thought they would be, but they are by no means less successful. 

As a woman serving in Jamaica, we are confined to more conservative gender norms than I am used to. The genders operate in very separate spheres in my community and there are certain things that, as a woman, people do not expect of me (i.e. drinking alcohol at a shop/bar, lifting heavy things, being on the road late, etc.). Male PCVs live less socially restricted lives here. 

Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined Peace Corps because I was interested in international development and seeking a way to enter the field while also giving back. I was also inspired to join because my father, who grew up in Ethiopia, was taught by Peace Corps Volunteers while he was in school and had a very positive experience with them. These reasons absolutely still apply today, but I think the reasons that keep me here are different. I recognize now how a greater sense of understanding reduces the sentiment of “otherness” between nations, something I consider essential for building a more peaceful world. I recognize the importance of connection and the bond that we all share by sharing the human experience. 

Has Peace Corps changed you?
I have always considered myself a patient person, but Peace Corps has improved my patience by leaps and bounds. It’s also made me incredibly grateful for the life I live.  

Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government? 
Absolutely. Americans are so misunderstood, as is the reality of what it’s like to live in the US. From a technical standpoint, if we’re able to help inspire positive change and development, then why not continue? Peace Corps has a really collaborative approach and the worldwide Peace Corps budget is cheap – it costs less to operate annually than does the military band. 

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
As many times as you may have heard this already, trying to go in without preconceived notions or expectations for what ANY aspect of your service – your house, the people, the language, your work, who you will serve – will be like. I know this is easier said than done, but in my experience, it’s when those expectations do not align with reality that we struggle most. 

Dominique reading

Dominique reading “The Lorax” to a group of kids during a summer eco camp.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Following the Peace Corps, I plan to continue to work in the international development sector, hopefully in project management. I am particularly interested in girls’ education and women’s empowerment. 

What would you want someone thinking about joining the Peace Corps to know, based on your own experience? 
Peace Corps Volunteers are here to enable people in the country where they serve. Any project that I work on here has to be meaningful to someone in the country in order for it to outlast me. Two years is a short time, and if you’re looking to save the world or to win glory, Peace Corps probably isn’t for you. 

I was recently selected as one of the winners of Peace Corps’ 3rd annual Blog it Home competition! I use my blog to help teach Americans about Jamaican culture and what my Peace Corps experience has been like. Blogging has helped me to use my love for writing, storytelling and photography in a meaningful, productive way. Peace Corps’ Third Goal is to help increase understanding of your host country on the part of Americans, and one of the things I love sharing most with folks back home is Jamaican music culture. Music is so prolific here, and I love sending island vibes back to the US. I blog often! My blog address is: twoyearsponderock.wordpress.com.

Thanks Dominique!  Be sure to check out her award-winning blog!


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This Peace Corps Life – Nicaragua

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Nicaragua.

Janae Werdlow

Janae and her graduating class (front, purple dress).

Janae and her graduating class (front, purple dress).

Where do you serve?
I am currently serving in Nicaragua, under the small business sector/program.  My group is SBD (Small Business Development) 65.  My program goals are simple: co-plan with teachers in the OTV or entrepreneurship class, explaining the materials while emphasizing creativity and thinking outside of the box.  As a country standard, education is very verbatim and dictated.  Nicaraguans are not encouraged to think for themselves in school.

The second part is to co-teach, which includes actually going into the classroom and teaching subjects like budgeting, how to run your own business, as well as classroom management, and what we call dinamicas, or icebreakers. These are fun quick games to keep the students engaged and encourage creativity.  Lastly, I consult with community businesses to see what exactly they need and help them reach their goals for their business.

How do you interact with your country staff?
In regards to country staff, I pretty much love my program bosses. Admittedly, I am no fan of the medical staff. Somewhere between going to the hospital for a week with parasites, amoebas and a bacterial infection strand and thinking I was treated only to get sick again in two weeks, all the way to them breaching confidentiality and not making an environment where volunteers want to talk to them or ask for medical advice, they lost my trust. That is an overall feeling amongst my entire group.  There have been a few incidents of mishandling health.  Aside from health, my fellow volunteers struggle with normal things, integration, project completion, heat, and many other things.  It is normal.

[Editor’s note: as a reminder, nothing published on this blog represents in any way the opinion or views of the U.S. Government, Peace Corps, or the government of Nicaragua.  That being said, I think it’s important that volunteers feel free to write about their own experience as they experience it, and so have not edited any of Janae’s comments regarding her experience with country staff.]

What is your living situation like?
My housing is lovely.  I live in a large room with a bed and my hammock in the corner.  I love it.  I have running water, but it is a shared bathroom between the five people living in my house.  My host family is great.  My host mom is very considerate of all my food pickiness and my host dad often sits and talks to me about any topic under the sun. Because of them, I have integrated very fast and get a little more respect in the community.

Me and another PCV in Grenada.

Me and another PCV in Grenada.

My only problem is how loud Nicaragua is.  My family rises between 5 – 6 am, and I can hear everything from the thin walls. Also, my room is on the corner of the street and often drunk people stand right outside my window, talking loudly about nothing.  I also had an elementary school right across the street, and often awakened early with children screaming or the band practicing.

I love eating Nica food though and trying all the different homemade drinks made from fruits that do not exist in the states.

What are your interactions like with other volunteers?
There is camaraderie between everyone in my group and my fellow volunteers who swore in on different dates.  We have a support network and we try often to meet up with each to celebrate and relax. Depending on the occasion, we meet in certain places or just at the office.  The staff strongly encourages beneficial meetings; whether those are to socialize and stay mentally healthy or collaborate across project sectors on projects.  It is never discouraged unless it interferes with our personal work.

What are Nicaraguans like?
My host country neighbors as colorful people and very open. They always greet me when they see me. The neighbors homes are interconnected with mine. On one side is the mother of my host mom. Another house is the brother of my host mom. The other neighbor is the principal at the school where I teach. A little ways down is the delegate, the supervisor of all the schools in the region. He lives with his son who owns a cyber (a computer lab).

The people of Nicaragua are good people. They are very nice and so willing to talk to you. As a people, they have a naiveté about them. They rarely travel to places within their own country, let alone the world. It’s common for Nicaraguans to live, have children and die in the same city they were born in. it’s also common for them to believe everything they see on TV about Americans. This mainly shows up in their assumptions about our food and thinking there are no black Americans because black Americans aren’t shown on TV.

Dancers from Janae's Welcome to Nicaragua ceremony.

Dancers from Janae’s Welcome to Nicaragua ceremony.

You can see the toll war has had on the people and the land but despite all of it, they’re appear very content. The majority of the people speak Spanish, though there are a few other languages spoken in specific cities. I found it hard to learn the language, despite having taken six years of Spanish in the past. People speak the language very informally, but in class, you learn the rules and speak it formally. Also, each region has its own way of using the language, its own dialect. They use different verbs, different slang, and they pronounce words differently.

The people here dress in extremes, either very formal and really nice or like a homeless person. No matter where they’re going or doing the women are in heels and the men are in button-ups, despite the heat. Conversely, you’ll meet people dressed in shirts that look like they’ve never been washed or not wearing shoes. I find it interesting that the people approach gender roles very traditionally and yet, most of the business owners are women and head of their households. Still, boys are highly encouraged to be promiscuous and cat-calling is a common tradition accepted as something that just happens, has always happened and won’t change. Women are expected to be proper, pure, and there is no room for dating for fear of being called a loose woman. Appearance is so important. Gossip is very common. Small towns and relationships are the heartbeat of Nicaragua.

What has been the most rewarding part of your service? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my service is just that, serving. When my hands are busy and I can see the change I am making, I feel most content.

The greatest challenges in being here have been dealing with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Being discouraged by the false comraderies of other volunteers and not feeling their support. It’s also hard not being able to speak to my parents as often as I would like. My site just got Wi-Fi in the park and it’s not all that reliable.

Janae with the students from her pre-service training class.

Janae with the students from her pre-service training class.

Has your Peace Corps experience met/surpassed/or trampled on your expectations?
I honestly did not have any expectations of my service. I knew I was more likely to be disappointed with expectations, so I went into with an open heart. Serving as a black woman has been quite unique. There have been things I’ve experienced that my white counterparts don’t experience. There is one other black volunteer and she, of course, shares my experiences and is a great soundboard for relief. However, using my blog as a medium to educate others has helped many volunteers to feel enlightened on my struggle.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?  Do those reasons still stand today?
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to help people. I wanted to be in a place to learn complete selflessness. To date, being seven months in my service, yes. The reasons still stand and I have been getting the things I asked for: moments of selflessness and opportunities to bless others.

How has Peace Corps service changed you?
Peace corps has made me a more mature woman. All the things my mom tried to help me to do and become finally clicked here. Nicaraguan culture places such importance on appearance and as a result I iron almost all my clothes. I immediately hang up my clothes, because there’s not always electricity to iron and handwashing clothes takes time. When in the states, I used to leave my clothes on the floor, or on the bed. My lack of convenience has made me grow up. I hate washing dishes, but I wash dishes here almost every day, willingly because my host mom cooks for me every day.

Do you think Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I do believe that Peace Corps is a worthwhile program but it is in desperate need of a reformation. I think in the next few years, some transition for benefits, processing of volunteers terminating their service, and health issues need to occur!

Janae with her fellow PCVs and their student group. They won the business competition, despite being the lowest Spanish speaking group, with a coffee drink they named 4YOLO. Their win came as a complete surprise.

Janae with her fellow PCVs and their student group. They won the business competition, despite being the lowest Spanish speaking group, with a coffee drink they named 4YOLO. Their win came as a complete surprise.

If you were to give advice to someone thinking of joining the Peace Corps, what would you say?
Having joined the peace corps, many have approached me about joining the peace corps. My advice is always this:
Peace corps is like getting married. You have to give more than you have, every day. You will want more and sometimes you get more, but at the end of the day you still have to keep giving. It’s like a box. Other volunteers will take things out, your co-workers will take things out, the requirements of peace corps takes things out the box, but unless you keep giving, the box will eventually become empty. Your service is what you make it. There are ups, and good Lord, there are downs. But it’s what you make it. Just like marriage, you can quit. The contract has a way out, but I would be willing to bet you’ll be missing out on true fulfillment.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I still have a year and 3 months left. So, things could change BUT I plan on doing the fellows program to go to grad school for free or a discount. I feel like after two years of my life, Peace Corps owes it to me.

Thanks Janae!


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This Peace Corps Life – Uganda

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Uganda.

Elyse Painter – Age 27

Elyse at the equator, just 30 miles from her house!

Elyse at the equator, just 30 miles from her house!

Where are you from?
I am from Columbus, Ohio.

What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in the education sector in Uganda, as a primary literacy specialist. Our specific goals are to improve literacy outcomes and education in Uganda. Our sector is divided into two groups, primary literacy specialists like myself who work at primary (elementary) schools across the country and primary teacher trainers who work at primary teachers colleges across the country. Primary literacy specialists focus on improving literacy outcomes with young learners, especially focusing on the P4 grade because that is when students transition from local language education to English only education. We work towards this goal in a variety of ways, including assessing reading levels, conducting small group reading lessons, in class read-alouds, library construction and operation, and holding teacher workshops and sessions. We also hold special events like the Peace Corps started national DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) Day and the Peace Corps started My Language Spelling Bee which gives P3 students a chance to compete in a local language spelling bee at the school, district and national level. Primary teacher trainers, on the other hand, focus on improving literacy education techniques and methods in future teachers. They do this by teaching the 5 Big Ideas of Literacy and the Daily 5 to future teachers, teaching and modeling incorporation of literacy into all subject matter, teaching subject lessons (math, science, English, and ICT), supervision and mentoring of future teachers during student teaching, library construction and operation, clubs and workshops. They also hold DEAR Day at PTCs (Primary Teacher College). Both groups also work to promote gender equitable classroom practices, improve resource development and utilization, and to end corporal punishment in the classroom. Of course we’re not limited to these things – the sky is the limit, and volunteers come up with some amazing things! HIV/AIDS, malaria, sanitation and hygiene, even agriculture – they’re all things education volunteers have gotten involved with both at school and otherwise.

I’ve been lucky enough to work not only as a primary literacy specialist, but also as a teacher trainer as well. Since I live on the campus of a PTC, it was pretty easy to get involved and I really enjoy it! A typical day at the primary school might involve working with primary students one-on-one to assess their reading levels. I’ve assessed every P4 student in basic components like letter-sound recognition, segmenting, blending and words read per minute. Sometimes it’s disheartening – very few children can segment a word (tell me that the sounds in ‘cat’ are /c/ /a/ /t/), but sometimes it’s really exciting because a kid will whiz through the reading passage and be able to answer every comprehension question. You know those kids will be able to do well on their future leaving exam in a few years, and I make sure to tell them to keep up the hard work. Then sometimes I pop into a class with a book to do a read-aloud – my P6 class really likes Curious George and all the crazy situations he gets himself in. When their teacher read a book to them for DEAR day about Curious George in an ice cream shop they were hanging on to each word. The teacher did a fantastic read-aloud and I was so proud! I videotaped her for like ten minutes straight – she was acting out the scenes, writing new words on the board – she even jumped up on a bench and pretended to eat ice cream!

I usually work at the PTC one day a week, and I spend my time teaching how to teach reading. No one has ever spent time on how reading happens, and you can tell a lot of them are fascinated by the idea that you can take words, break them into sounds and even replace sounds for a new word. They like when I bring in materials I’ve made from easily obtained objects – like a roll a word on a toilet paper roll. Using learner centered methods and hands on activities is something they hound here, but they’re often at a loss because they never experienced it as students themselves. My sitemate and I taught them how to play Jeopardy with vocabulary words and one of the students asked us how we learned it – when we explained that we played it at school as children he was shocked and asked how he could learn more games to play with his students. I think we’ve taught them that learning, and especially reading, can be fun. We opened last term by spending the first day demonstrating a read-aloud with BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures which had them all laughing so much. I love being silly in read-alouds and that book demands it! Because PTC students are constantly late to class I usually wait 5 minutes past the start time to begin so the stragglers (like 80% of the class) make it in – those who arrive on time get to ask me questions about America, which I love answering. Those 5 minutes are usually my favorite of the day – unless someone asks about the Illuminati!

Do you feel supported by your country staff?
For the most part, I do feel supported by the Peace Corps staff. Almost everyone I’ve met on staff has been caring and supportive, and working hard to help us in the field. I adore the education team – the ladies who keep our program running are so funny and I have a great (and very sarcastic relationship) with them! I know that if I needed a hug from them I’d get it (although I’m far more likely to get one of them joking about sending me home or how they like my sitemate better than me).

However, it can be tough at times because the education program is ginormous and there are definitely way too many of us compared to education staff. They’re trying to “right size” the program now, which means bringing in smaller cohorts, but it can be tough because each champion (staff member) is in charge of like 20 volunteers. They can’t be in 20 different places at once or handle 20 different issues and crises at once, and sometimes that can leave a volunteer feeling like they aren’t being heard or they’ve been forgotten. I’m not very needy when it comes to intervention from staff, so it doesn’t bother me too much but I know some volunteers are really frustrated by the lack of attention they feel. There’s also a lot of people coming and going, and because filling posts can be difficult some people end up filling in for roles on top of their primary job. That can be frustrating as a volunteer because sometimes you don’t know who is in charge of what, or they have so many responsibilities that getting a response or help can be slow. I assume this is a similar issue in a lot of development agencies and other Peace Corps posts, and it’s just one aspect you have to accept and figure out a way to deal with.

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I have a kind of weird set-up in terms of housing, as my primary site could not provide housing that met Peace Corps safety standards. Usually that would disqualify a site, but in my case my sitemate’s college provides a house that is big enough for two volunteers. When we did our bidding for sites, and after we were chosen for our site, we were asked several times if we were okay living together. In Uganda, it’s quite scandalous for a woman and man to live together who are not married, and my sitemate and I aren’t married or dating or anything, just friends. We said if the school was okay with us living together, then we were fine with it. So we’re not only sitemates but roommates! It worked out really well for me because primary school housing is usually bare bones, but my sitemate is at a primary teachers college – and not only that, but one of the best core PTCs in the country so our housing situation is really nice. I’m not going to say “Posh Corps”, but I will say that a lot of volunteers enjoy spending the night.

We have a two bedroom house. My sitemate has the bigger bedroom, yet I for some reason have the bigger bed. It doesn’t really make much sense, but that’s the way it was when we moved in and no one wanted to take apart the bigger bed and put it in the big bedroom. So my bed takes up approximately 2/3rds of my room – I’m pretty much only in there to sleep, get dressed and sometimes to read in bed. My room is the exact same color of bubble gum pink as was my childhood bedroom (it was already painted when we arrived) so I feel right at home. We also have a separate WC with flush toilet and sink and a separate shower room. The shower used to have one of those electric shower heads that you can turn on to get hot water, but the electricity went on the fritz in it and we feel better not mixing questionable electricity and water so it’s cold showers for us. You’d think you’d get used to them over time… but I haven’t found that. We have running water like 99.9999% of the time – I can think of only three times it’s been out, and each time it was for less than 24 hours, which is good because we don’t have a pit latrine or borehole for back up.

My sitemate and I rocking local fashions at the district spelling bee he organized.

My sitemate and I rocking local fashions at the district spelling bee he organized.

We have a nice sized living room with couches and armchairs, a bookshelf, and two desk tables with chairs. All of these were in our house when we moved in, left by a previous VSO volunteer who set us up nicely. Our move in allowance was mostly spent on a toaster oven that’s large enough for us to bake things in. I love making fresh bread, brownies, and pizza. In the past we found lasagna noodles and used to impress friends, but they ran out in town. My sitemate makes delicious chicken in it – you can cook a whole chicken in it! Frankly, one of the best investments in my life. I’d honestly be depressed without the ability to bake. Our kitchen has a shelving unit (again, already there from the previous volunteer) that we keep our dry goods on and two cement cooking areas (one featuring a cutting board glued right on it, one with a sink with running water). We cook using a two burner propane range.  About a year into our service my sitemate’s principal asked if he wanted a refrigerator for his office – we put it to use in our house. It’s in between the size of a dorm fridge and a normal one, so it’s very nice. We now can store leftovers for more than a day, which is so convenient. I also hadn’t realized how much I missed cold drinks until I took a sip of my first glass of cold water in like a year – so nice! It also has a little freezer so we can stock up when the supermarket in town has cheese! Our electricity is generally pretty good… sometimes it’s off for most of the daylight hours, and sometimes it’s on all days. For the last two days it’s been off like 95% of the time because of storms. It usually goes off right as we’re about to put something in the oven… I think they know!

In terms of food we eat, we definitely do not adhere to the Ugandan customs. Ugandan meals usually consists of two or three large (like heaping) servings of different starches (rice, boiled potatoes, plain pasta, posho/ugali/maize flour meal, or matooke – steamed local bananas) with some kind of sauce (usually groundnut paste sauce or a tomato and onion based sauce), beans, and if you’re lucky a meat of some kind (goat, beef, fish, or rarely chicken or pork) and potentially a bitter green. Meals at primary schools are almost always exclusively posho and beans – every day. I openly confess to being an extremely picky eater, and frankly I’m not a fan of local food. The central region of Uganda is known for it’s matooke, and like my host mom says if you haven’t had matooke with the meal you haven’t eaten the meal. If I never have to eat matooke again in my life, I won’t shed a tear.

My sitemate and I aren’t big breakfast eaters – if we have anything, it’s usually just a banana (specifically a bogoya banana which is a small, sweet yellow banana – Uganda has like a million different types of bananas each with their own name and specific qualities). My school provides an “escort” for my break tea each day – usually a few chapati (kind of oily tortillas). Break tea is a big deal here, and I have become reliant on a snack at 10:30 sharp. By like 10:45 without break tea I feel like I’m going to starve. For lunch, I usually take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school to eat instead of posho and beans. My staff teases me for eating the same thing every day, which is ironic because they do too… we’re just eating different versions of the sterotypical school lunch. On the weekends I’ll usually just have some ramen with eggs for lunch – I’m never eating ramen again when I get home! For dinner, my sitemate and I eat together at home. If he cooks then I do dishes – we’re a good team. We eat a lot of various pastas – spaghetti, puttanesca (when we can both find and afford anchovies we feel really fancy!), noodles with peanut butter sauce and eggs. Generally our meals on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays are the best because that’s when we’ve just gotten back from the supermarket in town. That’s when we make crazy stuff like honey garlic glazed meatballs or shake and bake style chicken. By Thursday or Friday it usually gets rough because we’ve used up most of our groceries and we have to resort to things like plain noodles with garlic butter sauce or the lowest of the low, an entire loaf of bread as French toast with no syrup or anything because we have no food!

How often do you interact with other volunteers?
I really like how our program is set up, with most of us having a sitemate. Usually one of the pair is at a primary teachers college, and one is at a demonstration school (basically a school where student teachers from the college practice at) associated with the college. Sometimes they’re right next door to each other, and sometimes they’re like an hour away by walking. We’re also generally placed in clusters, so there are a few volunteers within the same district or area. Not everyone has a sitemate (some chose that, and others it just happened that way), but most people aren’t too far from someone else. Of course, since I live with my sitemate I see him every day, and we do collaborate on projects a lot. It’s nice to share your day and the frustrations that come with it with someone, and we can bounce ideas off of each other. There are also a lot of volunteers around our closest town – within like an hour there are 7 other education volunteers and a few from the agriculture and health sectors. We see each other fairly often, and most of those times aren’t planned – we just happen to meet up in town at one of the two restaurants that serve American food.

However, Uganda is a big(ish) country and like a lot of places, transport is the pits. Volunteers who aren’t close to me I don’t see nearly as often – one of my best friends in my cohort lives basically on the border of South Sudan and I’ve only seen her at Peace Corps events because she’s just so far away. Pretty much any time you need to travel anywhere you have to go through Kampala, which is sort of miserable. Because I’m south of Kampala I can get to most other places south of Kampala much easier than anywhere north, west or east of Kampala. For that reason, the people I see tend to be from the south more often than not. Since my sitemate and I have a nice house, we’re usually a good place to stop if you’re making the long journey down to the very south of Uganda, so we host a lot of people as they’re passing through. We’re also not allowed into the capital without a Peace Corps related reason and permission for safety and security reasons, so it’s not like you can easily meet up for a night on the town in Kampala.

What are Ugandans like?
Ugandans are incredibly hard working. Since my time living with my host family I’ve realized that I miss so much of the work Ugandans do because I’m still in bed! They’re usually up with the sun (or before) and have already washed clothes, mopped the house, ate breakfast and headed to the fields well before I’ve even considered getting up. And having seen teachers here, I almost laugh every time I see a teacher complain at home. We have no idea how good we have it! As most teachers are women here, they’re in charge of cooking, cleaning and getting their own children ready for the day at home.

Our school starts at 7am so they have to do all of that before then and get to school. If they have a baby or toddler, that child usually comes to school with them because day care isn’t a thing here. They’re teaching enormous classes with basically no resources. Imagine teaching 50-80 first graders reading without having any books. I had to teach 50 fifth graders a PE lesson without any gym equipment – worst forty five minutes of my life. School lasts until noon for first graders, somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock for second through fifth grade and can last up until 7pm for sixth and seventh graders. These teachers are teaching the entire day, and then go home and have more housework and cooking to do. And they’re usually doing it with no pay, as the salaries are constantly “delayed”. Ugandans are incredibly, incredibly hard working.

My closest neighbors are all tutors (teachers) at the PTC I live at, so it’s a different experience than if I were in a village, but they still lead lives totally unlike mine. My sitemate and I don’t clean our house every day (although we do sweep constantly because our dog has a terrible case of mange and scratches incessantly) and we don’t bathe multiple times a day like most Ugandans. We don’t have chickens or goats to look after, or water to fetch and we don’t cook over a charcoal fire. We don’t have to go to the fields and we don’t go to church on the weekends. We got a puppy last year – most Ugandans are terrified of dogs, and when a stray comes on campus they usually end up killing it. It also  seems like we have a lot more free time at home than those around us. And we always have something to fill our free time – we have movies and games on our computer when we there’s electricity, and books to read when there’s not. And yet somehow we still feel bored. Our neighbors are lucky to have a radio to listen to for entertainment. We can afford to go to town almost every weekend and eat a nice meal in a restaurant, whereas our neighbors can’t. We might live next door to each other, but at times our lives seem to be lived on two separate tracks that intersect briefly.

Elyse and her language group posing as The Last Supper for a group calendar they made to commemorate their time together.

Elyse and her language group posing as The Last Supper for a group calendar they made to commemorate their time together.

One thing that is really weird is that almost everyone who lives in tutor housing on the campus has a real home somewhere else. For example, our neighbor in the house attached to ours is from Busia which is on the border of Kenya – very far away. When term break comes, all of the tutors go home to their villages and we’re pretty much the only ones left! It is kind of creepy, as our PTC is surrounded by a swamp so it’s pretty much silent other than the birds and you don’t see anyone around for days. Unfortunately for the last few breaks our neighbor hasn’t been able to afford to take his children home as well, so his 3 high school age kids stay at the college by themselves for a month. It’s kind of crazy to think that they’re on their own for so long while their family is so far away – but our dog adores them, and they love him so at least they’re all happy to play with each other.

What is Uganda like?
The national language of Uganda is English (it used to be a British colony), but Uganda has something like 50 different local languages and outside of Kampala that’s what you’re most likely to hear. We are placed into language groups based on where we’re going to be living, and learn our languages at satellite locations in our language region. Some languages are pretty rare and really specific to one district or location or tribe – I learned the most common language in Uganda, Luganda (language of the Buganda kingdom). It has I think like 3 million speakers and covers a huge swath of central and south central Uganda. Every Ugandan will tell you it’s really easy to learn Luganda, but I still don’t believe them. It has 12 different noun classes and I can never remember what goes where, other than people go in the mu-ba class. Since I live only two hours from the capital, very near a large district headquarters town and on the campus of a core primary teachers college I can get by very easily with limited Luganda. I can greet people, bargain with people, tell them they are lying or overcharging me (crucial so you don’t get that muzungu price markup) and answer incredibly basic questions about myself. Everything else, I do in English, which is what my school prefers so the students can learn to speak it. I passed the LPI with an intermediate mid (we need at least an intermediate low) but my sitemate is a million times better than me, so I usually let him speak which means I’ve forgotten most of what I learned.

In terms of culture, like most of Africa it is incredibly patriarchal here – and especially in the Buganda kingdom. Women are expected to do everything – cook, clean, farm, produce children, care for children and keep the house running at all times. Men are expected to work outside of the home to bring in money and… sit. From my experience most of the households in the village still have a strict hierarchy where dad is the ultimate authority, mom is in charge when dad’s not home and the kids should really be neither seen nor heard for a good portion of the day. There’s even hierarchy in child birth order – my host mom told me that I should always expect my younger brother to do things for me like clear my dishes from the table because he was younger. The one thing that really struck me is that women and children in the Buganda kingdom are still expected to kneel to show deference to men. It’s really jarring when you greet someone on the road and they get down on their knees in the middle of the dirt to show you respect because you’re white and it’s something I still don’t feel comfortable with. This is not as common outside of the Buganda kingdom – I’ve heard in the north that women even ride bikes which is something you’d never see happen here!

Men are expected to be well versed with the ladies while women are of course supposed to remain virginal until marriage. Many men have “side dishes” as they’re called here, or other women on the side. This is made easier because in some cases men move away from the village for work leaving the wife and family at home. This happens a lot in teaching as teachers are posted to schools away from home – most of my teachers are not living with their spouses. Polygamy is still practiced to some extent, especially among more wealthy men who can support multiple families – my host mom was the second wife in a polygamous family that lived in two separate houses. Uganda has an incredibly high birth rate and one of the youngest populations on the planet because having children is seen as a sign of power here. One of the male teachers at my school has told me he feels like it’s his job to have as many children as possible even though he is always worried about money. As a 27 year old without children I’m constantly asked when I will reproduce.

Uganda is all about looking “smart”, or nice. In the village women and girls are expected to wear skirts or dresses covering their knees – pants (or trousers as they call them here) are quite rare. My counterpart is super modern and wears them at home, but felt too scared to wear them at in-service training because of what the other teachers might say about her! Both men and women are not allowed to wear shorts, as it’s seen as children’s clothing. Traditional clothing in the Buganda kingdom is a gomezi for women which is an incredibly bulky silk dress with shoulders that put the 80s to shame, and a kanzu for men which is a long white or cream linen shirt that reaches the ankles, which is worn over pants and under a blazer. Both my sitemate and I have traditional outfits, and we cause quite a commotion when we show up wearing them!

What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
I feel the most sense of accomplishment from building the library at my school, getting involved with teaching at the primary teachers college and my women’s empowerment club. I’ve found that I’m most motivated and feel better about things that stray a bit from my primary project of teaching P4 but are things that will have a bigger impact and last longer. I’m currently frantically working on my library so it will be completed by the time I leave – the builders were finishing up the cementing of the ceiling yesterday, which means it’s almost time to paint and then we’ll just be waiting for the furniture to be built and delivered! The library is something the school really wanted, and they’ve impressed me by how much they’ve taken on in terms of getting the builders there and working each day and really managing it well. I was so nervous that it’d all fall on me, but they’ve really taken the project on as their own. I’ve been able to secure almost 2300 donated books and I am so incredibly excited to get them on the shelves and have the big reveal and opening day – it’s going to be amazing.

I’ve also really enjoyed working at the teachers college. I’ve been able to teach the basics of literacy education to about 300 pre-service teachers. Literacy education here is majorly lacking – when I watch teachers “teach” vocabulary they usually just have the kids repeat the word a few times, spell it a few times and call it a day. They don’t even teach the meaning! I know that all of the pre-service teachers won’t change their ways, but if even a few of them do (and we’re seeing it in their student teaching for sure!) it will have a huge impact. Most of them will be teaching classes of 50 or more students each year – that’s so many kids being reached with better strategies. I’ve also really enjoyed starting my women’s empowerment club at the PTC. It’s a chance for the girls to let loose, ask the questions they really want answered and learn new things. We’re focusing on reproductive health right now and after a little bit of shyness they’ve found their voice and it’s really inspiring to watch. I enjoy each meeting I have with them. Yesterday they asked how will they keep meeting after I leave – it was nice to know they’re enjoying it as much as I am.

What have been some of your greatest challenges?
I’d say my greatest challenges have been a lack of motivation to keep trying when things aren’t working and harassment. Our primary project’s goals are to work with P4 students on improving their literacy skills, which is fine except that kids are coming into P4 with no literacy skills. Watching some of them struggle to recognize letters or recognize letter sounds after months is hard. You start to feel like what you’re doing doesn’t really matter – so what if Josephine finally knows that ‘a’ makes the /a/ sound when she’s still headed on to P5 and can’t read an unfamiliar word on her own. You wish you could undo all of the wrong teaching they’ve had and start all over, but you can’t. It can be hard to find motivation in that situation, but I’ve found that secondary projects and goals have helped me a lot – I’ve felt much more motivated to work with pre-service teachers because if I can get them to teach properly from the start then I know I’ll have a much bigger impact than working with 20 kids to get them to know the alphabet.

On a day-to-day basis, I’d also say that harassment is something that I’ve struggled with and has really brought me down at times. This is the first time I’ve ever been a stark minority, and I really miss the anonymity of just being another person in the crowd. Muzungu is the term used for foreigners here, but it essentially means white person. Little kids scream it every time they see you, and sometimes adults do too. When kids scream it (with a little song “byyyyyye muzungu, byyyyyye muzungu!”) I understand that they don’t know any better, but when adults do it I’m really annoyed. If I’m in a good mood I will explain that my name isn’t muzungu and that they can call me ‘madam’ or ‘nnyabo’ just like any other woman – they usually laugh at me, but at least I feel better. My sitemate is Taiwanese American, so they shout “muchina” at him or make “ching ching chong” noises at him which really makes me angry. Being a woman in such a patriarchal society can be pretty miserable too, as men in general really do not respect women. Men frequently shout at me or do the kissy noise when they’re driving by. I’ve been grabbed, scratched, and even punched twice in the arm while I’ve been walking with American men while nothing happens to them. That’s crazy! Multiple men have offered to make a baby with me, and I’ve had marriage proposals yelled at me by motorcycle drivers in basically every town I’ve been to. I’ve even had a teenager offer me his penis, and a motorcycle driver offer to “erection me”. I declined both opportunities.

Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I absolutely feel like my expectations of service have been met, surpassed, and trampled on all at once. A lot of people in my group said that they tried to come in with no expectations. I am the exact opposite of that. I’m a researcher by nature, I can’t even buy a camera without reading about every model available and finding reviews and trying them all out. Obviously with a decision this big, I did a lot of research. I read books on the history of the Peace Corps and about different people’s experiences. I read newspaper articles and investigations. I went in to my interview with cited questions! Once I got my invitation I tried to read every Peace Corps Uganda blog I could find, and read books on Uganda. I knew before stepping off the plane that we’d be going to an organic farm first, and I even (somehow) found a document requesting language trainers for all the languages we’d be trained in. I came in with a lot of expectations, and I’m okay with that because that’s how I operate. I can’t go into anything without doing my homework. Some things I’ve expected have been met – my school has no electricity or resources of any type. Some things I’ve expected have been surpassed – my house is way nicer than I ever expected and I don’t have to use a pit latrine all that often (and hey, I’m actually pretty good at it!). Some things I’ve expected have been trampled on – I don’t really live in a community and am missing that aspect of service, and I don’t really need a local language to get by and that’s a bummer. But that’s what life is about. Sometimes things are what you expect, sometimes they’re better and sometimes they’re worse. Peace Corps is no different.

The Yearbook Committee of our cohort and our final product!

The Yearbook Committee of our cohort and our final product!

Why did you join Peace Corps?
I’ve been what I like to call a “professional volunteer” since I graduated college in 2010 – I spent a semester volunteering in the former Soviet republic of Georgia as an English teacher, then followed that with two years working as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Service is just an integral part of my life, and Peace Corps was the obvious next step. I’d thought about it a few times in college and even when I was in Georgia, but I never felt like I could “make it”. Peace Corps volunteers seemed special to me, and obviously I didn’t really fit that. I still remember the precise moment when I was talking to a friend in Georgia when he told me I was being silly and that of course I could do it. It took a couple of years to work up the nerve to actually apply, but when I did I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I too was “special” enough to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Has your Peace Corps service changed you? 
I can’t imagine my life not having served in Peace Corps, it just doesn’t seem possible to have any other trajectory. My service has definitely helped me see that I don’t want to be a teacher (which is what I came in thinking I would do), but that I still want to work with kids and that my biggest motivation is really connecting with them on an emotional level. It’s also helped me realize that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. I went into my interview and told the person that I really wanted to serve in Eastern Europe and that I know a lot of people want to go to Africa, but I just wasn’t one of them. I was nominated for a program in Eastern Europe, but because of the weirdness of the pre-change system and the fact that medical was super backed up I missed my nomination. When my invitation came and said ‘Uganda’ I was pretty crushed. It was a weird feeling, on one hand I was so excited that I finally got into Peace Corps after nine months of waiting, but on the other hand I felt there was just no way I could survive in Uganda. Everything about it scared me. But here I am, a few months away from closing my service. I did it. The things I was scared of (like using a pit latrine) turned out to be nothing. I had food poisioning and giardia (at the same time) seven times this year – even ended up having to get IV rehydration at a clinic once – and every time I felt like I was dying and that I was definitely going to go home once I felt better… and yet here I am. I don’t want to say I’ve impressed myself, but I’ve definitely surprised myself.

Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I absolutely believe that Peace Corps is still worthwhile. Like all the other interviewees before me have stated it’s an incredibly small part of the government’s budget but we can get a lot of return on it. The majority of people in our countries of service have a preconception of America and Americans that is off base – in the case of Uganda, most people have seen Rambo, think that there’s a gay epidemic in the US and have a list a mile long of Americans in the Illuminati. Peace Corps volunteers are frequently the first American our host country nationals have met, and we dispel the myths. Americans are no longer gun-toting, Ferrari-driving, war-mongering people but someone who has struggles and worries as well. We have people who don’t mind spending two years of their lives going to the edge of the world to focus on needs that aren’t their own. The on-the-ground diplomacy we do is something the embassy can never touch and is incredibly powerful.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
If you’re considering applying, now that you can choose where you want to go and what you want to do really focus on the project descriptions. After all, if you choose a project you’re not interested in just because you might be able to check out the beaches of Fiji I can pretty much guarantee you will not actually enjoy your service and won’t be an asset to your community. Find something you’re passionate about.

As for those getting ready for staging I would suggest taking like half of the clothes you have packed out of your back. You’re going to a country where people already live – they have to clothe themselves somehow, so you don’t have to worry about having two years worth of stuff! Instead, fill that space with all the mac ‘n’ cheese and deliciousness you won’t want to miss. And maybe some duct tape – you’d be surprised how many things can be fixed by it!

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Immediately after Peace Corps I’m taking a little COS trip to Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, and Hallstat) with a couple day trips to Slovakia, Germany and Liechtenstein thrown in. I’m still planning it out right now, but it looks like it will end in Torino, Italy and then I’ll fly to San Francisco to see my friends from AmeriCorps for a week or so before flying home to Columbus. Then, hopefully on to grad school (please oh please let someone accept me!) for social work or child life. In either case, I’d like to eventually work with hospitalized children focusing on their psychosocial and developmental needs. I’m considering doing another Peace Corps service after grad school – I still really want to serve in Eastern Europe as that’s where my political, historical and linguistic interests lie.

Here’s an awesome “Cribs” style video of Elyse and her site mate’s house that their friend made as a secondary project.  You can watch it here!

Thanks Elyse!


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This Peace Corps Life – Armenia

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Armenia.

Susan Spano – Age 61

Thanksgiving, 2014, at Proshyan School.

Thanksgiving, 2014, at Proshyan School.

Where are you from?
I was born in St. Louis, Mo., and have lived all over, including New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Beijing and Rome.  I’m a former travel writer. [You can see Susan’s writing here!]

Where country do you serve in?
Armenia. I’ve been serving in Armenia for a little over a year.  Per Peace Corps policy, I should mention that the things I say are my thoughts and observations only, and that they do not reflect those of the Peace Corps.

What program do you work with in Armenia?
Peace Corps has two programs in this country: Teaching English and Community Youth Development.

I teach English in a public base school (grades 1-9) in the town of Ashtarak, with a population of about 20,000—unofficially much lower due to people leaving to find work in Russia or the Ukraine. Like towns all over Armenia, it’s dilapidated with unreliable gas and electric and water only two hours a day, boarded up shops and factories, empty houses, overflowing dumpsters, bad roads and uneven sidewalks. All this reflects hard times since the break-up of the Soviet Union and Armenian independence.

My school has about 150 kids and a staff of about 30, almost all women, as teaching is one of the few careers here that welcomes them. But salaries are pathetic, as low as $50 a month, and most teachers must tutor at home after school for extra money.

I work with three Armenian English teachers, only one of whom speaks what I’d call good English; only one is a truly dedicated teacher, and of course I love her.

TEFL volunteers are supposed to guide the teachers with whom they collaborate in the use of new methodologies—group work, communicative language instruction, etc. I’m PCMI, half-way through my Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Armenia is a test case country for the development of a PC TEFL Certificate. So I’m well equipped. But my teaching colleagues must get through the textbooks (which are hideously outdated and full of mistakes), meaning that I can only introduce new things when there are a few spare minutes. Otherwise, I just assist the teacher; sometimes I think of myself as the Vanna White of Armenian TEFL.

Kids start English in the 3rd grade, but it’s not taken very seriously because most young people can’t begin to dream about finding the kind of good work that requires it and even children can sense that the quality of English language instruction is poor. In class they are a big behavior management challenge, talking out of turn, paying no attention, seldom doing homework. Of course, there’s a thin top margin of students who work and care. Though we’re taught in our PC TEFL Certificate Program that teachers need to address all kids, the reality is that only the highest performers will need/use English. Sometimes, though, a child who doesn’t sit in front and answer questions will suddenly reveal him or herself to me as a potential achiever and I get excited.

All that said, the kids are endearing. Even when they’ve behaved terribly in class they win me back by shouting Hello, Miss Susan as they run past in the hall, or they buy me a cake to apologize.

And it’s fun sitting in the nurse’s office with fellow teachers during breaks; we all drink soorch (Turkish coffee) and eat chocolates. My Armenian is pretty rudimentary—despite excellent PST language training—but I can understand enough of the coffee-klatch conversation to contribute and enjoy.

What are the teaching conditions like?
There are no dining or toilet facilities for teachers; there isn’t even water. So I’m pretty pleased to have gotten a PCPP grant, with funding from California-based Water Charities, to put water tanks in the student bathrooms, which means students will be able to wash their hands. Later this fall I’ll be organizing health and hygiene workshops to introduce the importance of hand-washing to the kids.

Waterless bathrooms.

Waterless bathrooms.

With the help of the Armenian School Foundation, also from California, we’re getting new desks, chairs, bookcases, blackboards, etc., later this month.  The big remaining problem is heat. It’s so cold in the classrooms all winter that we wear coats and gloves during lessons.

I go one day a week to the local branch of the National Institute of Education where staff members chat and prepare for classes. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do there, so I offered to teach English to anyone who wanted. Everyone said yes, but gradually people stopped coming. Now I teach to one very funny math instructor and the cleaning lady, who’s a terrific student.  I also teach on Friday nights at a local NGO—mostly high school students, from zero English to fairly proficient, which is another challenge.

Do you work on any secondary projects?
Over the summer I found my secondary project niche, working with an NGO which is trying to develop tourism in Armenia. I consult, speak at travel agent seminars and write for the website. I love to travel, so I was overjoyed when they took me to far eastern and southern Turkey—amazing places now off-the-charts because of spiraling Kurdish rebel violence and proximity to the war in Syria.

I also teamed up with a Response Volunteer to create a walking tour brochure for Ashtarak and am now trying to get it around. Take a look.

Brochure (1/2)

Brochure (1/2). Click image for closer view.

Brochure (2/2)

Brochure (2/2).  Click image for closer view.

Do you feel supported by your country staff?
Peace Corps Armenia has supported me tremendously in all this, giving me latitude to do different sorts of things. As an older volunteer, I have skills I can transfer quite apart from TEFL. I think that helping senior volunteers find ways to use their rich life and work experiences is a continuing challenge for Peace Corps.

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
During PST I lived with a host family, then moved to another host family when posted to Ashtarak. They are the world’s dearest people—generous, tolerant, funny—but quarters were tight and the food greasy and salty; I lived during that period on yogurt and chocolate, and lost 15 pounds (not a bad thing, at all). Moreover, I am by nature a loner; I really need alone time. As soon as we were allowed to move to our own places, I found an apartment in the center of town. It’s a one-bedroom in a very ugly Soviet Era building; the landlady won’t make repairs and often shows up at the doorstep asking for a loan. I put a lot of work into the place and am now very happy here. I can see Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame) from my kitchen window and most of the time I have hot water, electricity and Wi-Fi.

Currently, I’m the only PCV in Ashtarak, but I see colleagues often. Last weekend my friend Lorrie [PCV] came to visit and we discovered a winery in a village near my town. We also taught a class at my NGO on American folk music and dance, as she’s a Contra Dance caller and fiddler. It was a hit.

Armenian students learning to contra dance.

Armenian students learning to contra dance.

What is Armenia like?
Armenia is a confounding place—a tiny country with an unhappy past, wedged into the Caucasus Mountains. It’s currently at war with neighboring Azerbaijan and the border with Turkey is closed, partly due to the Armenian genocide which took the lives of 1.5 Armenians in 1915. There are no jobs; men leave their families to find work abroad or sit at home, depressed, with their heads in their hands. The government is corrupt. Family units are strong, but psychologically tribal, meaning that there’s no sense of broader community or civic responsibility. The lovely countryside is strewn with trash and the ruins of buildings abandoned when the economy tanked.

Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
My service here is nothing like the grass-hut Peace Corps cliché. Armenia is a developing country, not third-world, so I guess you’d say I’m in the Posh Corps. But it’s a deeply depressed and depressing place, entrenched in Armenian genocide victimhood and turned toward the neighborhood bully, Russia, for work, hope and inspiration.

What are your greatest challenges?
My greatest challenge is staying positive, trying to remember that simply by being here I might be making a difference. As an older volunteer, I get considerable respect and can expose my female friends to such outlandish American behaviors as wearing flats when teaching instead of high, stiletto heels. Sheesh, who can teach effectively in high heels?

In the “autumn of my life,” and as a post-career adventurer, I’m very happy with my Peace Corps service. Honestly, I really wanted to go to Southeast Asia. I got placed in Armenia, like other oldsters, because of health considerations. What I’ve found here are subtleties and questions. Do we want developing nations to go their own way instead of following western patterns, even when we can foresee problems? Is it better to teach to a room full of misbehaving kids or to a class with one kid carrying a gun? What makes strong people, happy families or forward-thinking communities? Is it better to hold fast to a tragic past, or let it go?

How has Peace Corps affected you?
As for me, I’m a little more tolerant now, and a little more able to let go.

What about after Peace Corps?
When I COS, I’ll probably go back to Monterey to finish my TESOL Master’s and then look for a teaching job abroad.

 Thanks Susan!


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I’m a Stranger Here Myself

For the third time in my life, I am an immigrant. As third times tend to go, this one has been a charm.

When Rob and I moved to Norway, we official took up immigrant status as we looked for housing, employment, and opened bank accounts. We are not native to this land and we join some other 815,000 other people (or about 15.6% of the population) who are immigrants like us.  But, we are actually not like most of those other people because we are what I will call “welcomed immigrants”. Norway wants us to be here; in fact, they’ve invited us via my contract as a PhD student and are willing to pay us a previously unfathomable sum of money for me to study here.  Rob has easily found work (which is not very common, but was very lucky for us), and we have faced essentially zero harassment, discrimination, or other such challenges related to our non-national status. This is a tricky subject, because as we are here on the good grace’s of Norway’s government I am hesitant to write critically of our host country. But, what I really want to talk about isn’t necessarily a criticism of Norway or her people, but rather an insight into what it’s like to immigrate to a country that is not your own, and just how incredibly difficult that process is.

America has been talking a lot about immigration in our pre-pre-election coverage.  Coming from a nation that is literally, in every sense of the word, based and founded upon immigrants, I am shocked by the anti-immigrant rhetoric I see so often in our national media. In particular, I’m shocked by the expectations people place on immigrants to assimilate and become part of American culture, especially since America is such a melting pot of culture. Indeed, we have prided ourselves on that very aspect of American life for generations.  Did you know that about 13% of our population is made up of recent immigrants? If you add in children born to first generation immigrants, that number jumps to 25%.  One-quarter of Americans have a close relationship to life and culture outside of America.  That’s a big deal, but does it necessarily mean it’s a bad deal? I’m inclined to say it does not. I think the root issue of what people are truly concerned about has much more to do with how we perceive immigrants to be as people, as cultures, and as the dark and mysterious “other” that we’ve taken essentially no time to understand. I think we are afraid of change.

As an American here in Norway, we are considered  “good immigrants”. Rob and I were invited to live here, we have jobs, we pay taxes, we contribute productively to Norwegian society. We are indescribably fortunate to be native English speakers living in a country where nearly everyone speaks fluent English as a second language (further demonstrating that speaking more than one language does not, in fact, cause a mass downfall of societal mores). We are lucky to ‘look’ Norwegian. We are from a country that has good diplomatic relations with Norway. We are not, however, perfect.  Or even really that great.

After a month of living here, we know that we are unlikely to achieve any sort of fluency in Norwegian. We had great intentions to try when we arrived, but we didn’t count on the fact that it’s really tough to find resources to learn a new language, even in a system as generous as Norway’s.  Norwegian classes for us are either A) expensive, B) poorly timed (like in the middle of the workday), or C) very, very difficult to get into (the local university refuses to allow me to enroll in a class until I am a degree seeking student at their institution, which just isn’t feasible seeing as I’m already a PhD student at a different institution). We are fortunate to be pulling in two different sources of income, yet we find it tough to afford the monthly fees for a Norwegian class.  In short, we are not very good immigrants, and are largely riding off of qualities we are lucky to have but have done nothing to earn.

And that’s something I had never really thought about before I moved here: how hard it is to immigrate. I had never considered what it would be like to try to learn English as a non-English speaking immigrant to America. While I’m not from a town that sees a lot of foreign immigrants moving in, I’m not sure I know of any place that offers regular English classes for beginners.  Here in Norway, we are functionally illiterate and only get by because we happen to speak the next best language for Norway. For people from other parts of world moving here (or to America), they are SOL at the grocery store. Is this flour? What kind of flour? Why are there five kinds of something that looks like flour? Is this good for making cookies? I don’t know! Let’s just throw it in the cart and hope for the best!  Don’t speak English or Norwegian? Have a great time figuring out the government websites that tell you where to get your national ID card, where to register your address, and how to pay taxes. Being a foreigner is really tough for the first few months, and it’s even tougher when you have no second language to fall back on, no cultural reference for how this new society functions, and no one to help you through all the legal steps to stay in a country legally. I have no idea how the immigration system works in America, but I can’t imagine it’s simple, easy, or expedient.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, we’ve had a really wonderful experience immigrating to Norway. People have been nothing but helpful, we’ve had ‘sponsors’ to guide us along the way, smart phones to navigate the streets, and English to fall back on when all else failed. We’re also white. We’re married. We’re not of any discernible religion that has negative connotations in the Western world. We have, quite literally, nearly every possible social construct of a “good immigrant” working in our favor, and Norwegians are willing to look past our ‘bad immigrant’ qualities. And still, it has been challenging making our finances stretch until all the proper paperwork was in place to cash a paycheck and pay our electric bill.

I tell you all of this because last week I made a friend of sorts. Her name is Bano, and when she was eight years old she immigrated to Norway from Iraq. Her family were refugees, and she has lived in Norway ever since. We met because she responded to a poster I had hung up at the local college asking for someone to exchange English lessons for Norwegian lessons. She speaks Arabic, Norwegian, and English beautifully, and is an excellent example of someone who has tried their very hardest to (successfully) integrate into Norwegian culture.  Still, she wears Muslim garb and is decidedly not a blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman.  In the minds of some Norwegians, she is a “bad immigrant”. The wrong kind. The wrong color. The wrong country of origin. Yet, she is much more of a “good immigrant” than I ever plan to be.

Then, last night when I was walking home I passed a dark-skinned man playing the accordion in the cold, trying to earn a little change. A woman who I presumed to be his wife was standing a few feet away in the corner of a building, her hair wrapped in a head scarf, watching him but trying to appear out of the way. I dug into my pocket and left him the small change I had.  He was a talented musician and my American values tell me that it’s good to reward true effort, but I also looked at him and his wife and thought there but for the grace of God go I. 

All of the benefits Rob and I enjoy aren’t benefits but privilege, and we are ripe with it – totally unearned. I never realized how little I knew or understood my own privilege until I moved here. I thought I understood it in Zambia, but I was wrong. There were so many differences between me and the people we lived with in our little Zambian village that it seemed hard to draw the line between privilege and good ol’ fashioned hard work and initiative. I felt lucky, but privileged? Maybe.

Living here, I am the same as many of my fellow immigrants, yet there are things about me (and Rob) that we benefit from, daily, that have nothing to do with our own efforts.  Sure, being here as a PhD student is a reflection of my academic qualifications, but the ease at which we live here doesn’t. And now, I recognize that my ability to earn those academic qualifications was probably significantly easier for me because of those same privileges that make immigrating to Norway easier, too. It’s everywhere, this privilege of ours, and I am finding myself constantly shocked at how rife my life is with it, and how unfair it feels.

Living abroad and receiving America through media and interactions with friends, I fear for who we are becoming as our nation experiences another shift in demographic and generation.  I fear that we are guilty of the same assumptions made about Bano and myself, or the accordion man on the street; that some of us are good and some of us are bad, and there isn’t really a good reason to assume either.  We have made these decisions on what I consider to be nearly baseless assumptions about people based on their color, culture, religion, and country of origin. We, immigrants ourselves perhaps a few generations removed, seem to have forgotten the fear and confusion and loneliness that comes with picking up your roots and crossing the border, and though we fiercely demand that immigrants adapt, assimilate, and acquiesce, we have not made that process easy, efficient, or in some cases possible. More than that, I feel Americans have grown so comfortable in our land of opportunity that we forget why our own ancestors emigrated in the first place.

When Americans forget where they come from, they forget who they are.  I fear we are forgetting ourselves, and in doing so we are forgetting how to empathize with those who are us, but for the grace of God, or privilege.

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