9 beliefs about Peace Corps service that ended up being (almost) wrong

By Linda Smittle
Sept. 2, 2014

A few months ago, a video went viral among Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). It featured two points of view: an idealistic voice imagining a dream life of service and a somber voice identifying the realities of living in a developing country.

The idealist said, “I’ll eat organic fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.” The counterpart responded, “You’ll see a woman selling hard-boiled eggs that have been sitting in the hot sun for eight hours. You’ll tell her, ‘I will buy two. With some peppe.’ You’ll devour the eggs and spicy sauce.”

I thought I’d eat healthy living in a farming community. I didn’t know that local farmers grew mainly yams and cassava. I’ve eaten many starches and more than my share of questionable protein. But I figure hard-boiled eggs – no matter how long they’ve basked in the sun – are safer than (who knows what kind of) meat.

Here, I contrast nine of my pre-service thoughts with the reality of living in West Africa.

1. I’ll live in a small round mud hut with a thatched roof that I’ll share with mice and spiders. 

I live in a three-room mud-brick house funded by the Carter Foundation for Guinea Worm Eradication. The floor is uneven; one side of the house is a few inches downhill from the other. The furniture has a leg propped up with wood to keep it somewhat level. The screens on the windows keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes but not dust. I live with mice, bats, small lizards and several varieties of spiders.

2. I’ll walk miles to fetch a bucket of water from a stream. I’ll boil it for 10 minutes to kill vermin and destroy microorganisms. I’ll be frugal with it; a single bucket will meet all my needs for a day.

Children vie for an opportunity to fetch water from the borehole (machine-dug well with a hand pump). When a child dumps water into my barrel, she washes her hands, comes into my kitchen and pours oil and maize into a pan. When the corn is popped, she adds salt and transfers it into a clear bag to bring home. Although the water has been tested, I filter it through a desktop filter. I try to conserve but use half a bucket for my twice-a-day baths and share “fridge water” with guests.

3. I’ll live without electricity or running water.

Like everyone in my community, I have electricity but no running water. I could survive without electricity, but I enjoy it. I love being able to sit in front of my fan, keep food and water in my fridge, and bake.

4. I’ll ride my bike down a dirt path to villages where I will teach captivating health lessons to mothers in their local language.

I ride my used six-speed bike a couple miles down the road to market and to the school where I tutor. Whenever I teach, someone translates. My lessons may not be captivating, but only babies sleep through them.

5. My toilet will be a hole in the ground.

My toilet is a hole in the ground – surrounded by a mud-brick outhouse with a tin roof, wooden door and a tall metal sprinkling can filled with plastic sunflowers that decorate the space.

6. Being thousands of miles from family and friends, I may be lonely.

Today’s technology makes my Peace Corps experience completely different from the experience of the first PCVs in Ghana. Although I miss seeing my family and friends, I’m not isolated. I stay connected via email and phone. Although I only see news when someone posts on Facebook, I feel incredibly connected.

7. I’ll learn to cook native dishes and surprise my friends and family with unique delicious recipes when I return home.

I’ve perfected beans and rice and make an awesome groundnut soup (with peanut butter, garden eggs, onions and tomatoes). I use local ingredients to make groundnut toffee and banana bread – using recipes from the internet.

8. I’ll be on call 24×7 and have no time to myself.

My day starts before daybreak with roosters crowing, children calling and mothers chattering as they fetch water. But I have time to myself to read, write, think about how my life in Ghana is different than I anticipated and contemplate what is next.

9. I’ll love my Peace Corps adventure and will learn as much as I teach. It will be difficult to say goodbye.

I love my adventure! I’ve learned much more than I’ve taught. I’ve started to say goodbye. The goodbyes are challenging. The hellos will be exciting!

Linda Smittle

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