Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Journal 01: Pre-Peace Corps Guinea Bissau

It’s been a long time since I left the Peace Corps but the experience still resonates with me eight years later. I am constantly remembering and reflecting on the experience. Most Peace Corps stories begin at the site where the volunteer was stationed, but this one begins before the orientation. I had wanted to go into the Peace Corps for some time. Having lived abroad for much of my life as the son of diplomats, I knew I wanted to go overseas again. I also wanted to give back to the world. I had been brought up in a wonderful, loving, caring environment and wanted to somehow pass that on. I’d done volunteer work since I’d been in college, but they were mostly one-offs, such as a day working on a Habitat For Humanity house, or the DC Soup Kitchen, a non-profit that trains homeless people how to become chefs or food preparers.
In preparation for the Peace Corps, I began volunteering at an English as a Second Language (ESL) evening School, teaching once a week. The personal histories of the students were really interesting. I worked with a small group of students, a group of three for most of the time. Two were from Nicaragua and one was form Eritrea. They all grew up in lands at war; whether they were Sandinistas and the government or a civil war. They were still learning to read and write; each of them left school after the second grade or so to support their families. They were united in their desire to speak English. They wanted to learn the language to try and improve their lot at work and to be prepared to help their children in school. It was an inspiration to see these people who had it pretty rough struggling to better their lot in life. I imagine that this is what it must have been like for many immigrants to this country. I note in passing that when people get upset about jobs going to immigrants, they probably don’t struggle as hard, or are willing to work for less. Much of our country’s success is built on the hard work of immigrants. For there to be prejudice against the latest immigrants is hypocritical; we all were immigrants from somewhere at one point or another unless they were Native Americans.
Other students of foreign descent attended the school. Several au pairs went to the school and this is where I met my wife. She wasn’t in my class, however, so I only got to know her at breaks and then we started dating after school was out.
There were many other reasons for going into the Peace Corps that weren’t as altruistic. I wanted to have another adventure before I really started to grow roots and feel the pull of my comfortable life in the U.S. I also wanted to go to a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country in Central or South America. I figured that I would be a good candidate for those places as I already spoke Spanish pretty well and could have recuperated the Portuguese I learned many years ago in Brazil.
When I first heard from the Peace Corps, they offered me a post in Guinea Bissau, a small ex-Portuguese colony in Africa. This would have been a real Peace Corps experience. I imagined living in some isolated village far away from any major towns and other Peace Corps volunteers. I read in the Peace Corps manual that I could bring 80 pounds worth of stuff with me. I packed a backpack with the books I thought I’d get the most mileage out of: the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bible, (I figured I would finally have the time to read it) and a variety of other books. I was at 55 pounds after a difficult struggle to remove books. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be happy in Guinea Bissau, becoming Kurtz in the rain-soaked jungle.
Meanwhile, I began studying Guinea Bissau and learned that the nearest metropolis was Dakar. The rainy season made roads impassable in much of Guinea Bissau for several months every year. I read the country report that the Department of State published; the economic data was depressing. The country had a GDP of approximately $6 million and external debt of $36 million. While Portuguese is one of the official languages in the country, I figured out that my chances of learning much Portuguese were pretty slim. I would probably be learning a tribal dialect. I began to wonder what a Westerner would have to offer the country. Would English be an important addition to what the people learned at school? I decided to risk it and decline the post and ask to put on the list for consideration for another post. I was also having so much fun living in Washington D.C. with my friends that it was almost a relief to know I wouldn’t be going off to Africa.

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