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 the Dominican Republic.
Bronwen “Bea” Raff – Age 24
Where are you from?
I’m from Hailey, Idaho.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in a small community in the northwest of the Dominican Republic, sharing the northern-most border (km 0) with Haiti. I am a Health Volunteer and my project framework includes working with women and youth to train them as health promoters, and building improved cookstoves made from cement and clay. My informal responsibilities include teaching English, drinking coffee on various porches around town with old ladies, implementing a rural emergency response system like “911” where there is none, and learning to dance salsa.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I still live with a host family even though it was only a requirement for the first four months in site. I live above their main house and have my own separate entrance so I get my privacy, but I also have a family looking out for me (ie. when I get really sick and can’t make it downstairs to eat they’ll bring me up soup and juices). I live in a small bedroom with a fan(!), an indoor bathroom(!), a mosquito-infested closet, two windows and a desk-turned-bookshelf-turned-kitchen counter-turned-coffee table depending on the day. I share a kitchen with my host family and that’s perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of service for me. I never feel I can whip up my own recipes or entertain my own visitors and guests. Because of this, I have a pretty boring and basic diet. I tend to eat coffee and bread (with peanut butter if I’m lucky and my supply doesn’t run out before I go to the big city for a refill) for breakfast, for lunch, I eat rice, beans and chicken everyday without fail, and for dinner, I tend to scrounge, maybe eating whatever a neighbor cooks and offers me, perhaps boiling some eggs, occasionally an empanada or some mashed bananas with fried cheese (yummy!)
What are Dominicans like?
Dominicans are spicy! They have lots of flavor and often in excess. Be it kindness, they go above and beyond, offering whatever they have in the kitchen sink to visitors. Be it assertiveness, Dominicans are strong in their wording and very direct, sometimes overly so (like when calling me fat, skinny, ugly, tired, charred from the sun, greasy haired, etc). Be it confidence, Dominicans will try to convince you of everything – herbal tea remedies, that the sun revolves around the each, that dengue comes from Obama, etc – they will convince you of what they believe in and do it with serious flow.
I love how close-knit families are here and how much neighbors look out for each other. Dominicans are extremely social and the heat permits lots of time spent in plastic chairs gabbing with friends, family and neighbors in the street, sometimes blasting music, sometimes just trying to catch a breeze, sometimes praying, sometimes gossiping, sometimes buying things from vendors who walk around with goods in buckets on their heads. It’s a vibrant culture with spirit, energy and amazing hospitality.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
Rewarding? Huh, it’s all pretty rewarding for me at this point. I love my projects and the way I’ve made the health sector’s initiatives work for me and my community. I have loved being adopted into a family and looked out for by so many community members. I feel fulfilled by my capacity to travel easily in a bustling country of organized chaos and speaking Spanish fluently. I love that my days here fill me with happiness and that I am proud of my work. I love that this is my life and that I am so lucky to be experiencing every moment of it. I came into Peace Corps with certain expectations of what it would be like – the community I would be in, the living situation I’d be in, etc. But after a few months, I forgot all of those expectations and just took the culture, country and my service head on, acknowledging challenges as they came, but not focusing too much on how it “should be.” Doing that is toxic. Comparing yourself to others is dangerous. It makes for a long 27 months and a pretty miserable day to day life. Once I started digesting and reflecting on my life as it was happening not as I thought it should be happening was one of the best lessons I learned. I always remind myself, it is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
Applying to the Peace Corps was an obvious route for me, I was a Peace and Justice Studies/Community Health major in college and had always dreamed of living abroad. I knew I’d apply but I didn’t really think I’d ever join Peace Corps. I sort of just wanted to prove that I could get in. I didn’t want to teach English in a foreign country just to live abroad. I needed to know that I was making the correct step professionally. So when I was accepted to a health program in a Spanish-speaking country, I knew the fates had aligned and it was the right path forward. I resisted the idea of accepting for a while, especially after various articles my mom sent talking about medical problems, violence against women, sexual assault cases and other horror stories that have dampened Peace Corps’ image throughout the years. But I accepted a month before graduation and never looked back. Now, over 20 months in, I’m glad I said yes, and very much think it has and will continue to inform my professional career.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Goverment?
Absolutely! Economically speaking, it’s a drop in the bucket. Peace Corps’ budget was $379 million in FY2014, that’s nothing. USAID requested $22.3 billion for FY2016, the 19 Smithsonian museums in DC are operating on $851 million for FY2015. The Corporation for National and Community Service (the branch that supports AmeriCorps) has a budget of $1.18 billion. So yeah, Peace Corps deserves to keep sticking around financially. I’m not saying that any of the above examples shouldn’t be given as much funding, I’m just saying that relatively, funding Peace Corps is cheap.
Also, as a patriotic individual, I believe in the benefit of having “friends on the ground” living with host-country nationals and educating others on American life. Yes, it’s diplomatic, but it works. We are an integral part of cross-cultural understanding and as the world gets smaller, that knowledge becomes increasingly important. If I can help someone understand that the United States is more than Nueva Yol, Beyoncé and the Red Sox, I’ve done a good deed. We are the peacekeepers, and on an idealist level, I believe strongly in the importance of this.
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?
27 months is a long time. Take it day by day at first, work up to taking it week by week, and eventually you’ll stop counting down the days and the months will fly by. Do something in your site that fulfills you, not just a requirement or initiative. Make friends with host-country nationals. Learn the language as quickly as possible. Reflect often. Write things down. Show up, even if you don’t want to. Drink your country’s kool-aid not only by literally drinking local beverages but also by learning to love the culture. The sooner you love where you are, the better your service will be.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Hopefully a big cross-country American road trip to see all the friends and family I’ve neglected for the past 27 months. Then back to Idaho for Thanksgiving and Christmas and moving to a new city (Seattle, San Fran, DC?) with a (hopefully) job in January 2016.
You can read more about Bronwen’s service in the Dominican Republic at her blog!