Wednesday, August 15, 2007

PC training

Peace Corps.

It’s impressive as a whole, but some of the pieces are far from perfect.

As a PCV I am learning firsthand about the frustrations that come from working for a large, bureaucratic, governmental organization.

For one thing, there seems to be a lot of ‘wasted’ idle time. Particularly when it comes to training and PC policy. Many of our training sessions are repetitive and common sense based. It’s as if those planning the trainings don’t trust the initial PC selection process. As if somewhere along the line, someone decided that we needed to have basic trainings in subjects as fundamental as peer counseling techniques. I am hard-pressed to find one American college educated adult who has not had to help a peer through a difficult moment, addiction, or major loss, at some point in their lives. To spend several hours discussing how to be an active listener instead of giving us tangible teaching tools for working at our sites is a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

Talking amongst other volunteers, a lot of us feel like we are treated like children instead of as capable, educated adults. I’m not sure if this is because a lot of us are so young? In our stage, there is no one under 28. Because our training staff are all much older it is an easy trap to fall into. And to be fair, when we first arrived we were new to this culture, the languages, customs, and acceptable behaviours. In some ways we were infants in this environment. But after three months at site, having adjusted and figured things out for ourselves, it is endlessly frustrating to be thrust back into that same power dynamic.

It is also trying, after being largely independent for several months at site, to come back into a large group of other Americans and be back in a community where I do not speak the local language (Wolof). It is almost impossible for me to be thrown back in with 37 other young Americans and not feel homesick for those close friends and loved ones we have all left behind. In fact, one of the only times that I do get homesick is when I am surrounded by other volunteers. I think this is because it reminds me of the history and memories I have with friends at home. Not that we all haven’t bonded intensely over these past 5 months (5 months as of today!) but we are all still so new to each other.

Some of my most frustrating moments have arisen when I’ve been here at the PC training center, immersed in Pre-service and now In-service training. Training certainly has some positive aspects, but I am learning how difficult it is to create a cohesive and productive training curriculum, when the overarching theme of the Peace Corps is that “every volunteer’s experience is different.” Having heard this all through PST we thought we got it. But I don’t think we grasped the truth and wisdom of this statement until those first couple of weeks at site. Even in a country as tiny as Senegal, it is impossible to categorize and generalize the PCV experience. Perhaps this is one of the most appealing things about the Peace Corps?

More disturbingly from the administrative side though, are the accounts I have heard from my volunteer friends about their site placements. This is probably the most important factor in determining the success and endurance of a volunteer’s service. Truly it is. And there have been several instances where it has just gone horribly wrong.

I am so fortunate to have been placed in my town and with my family. I know that I am in the perfect site for my goals, and background. But the horror stories that some of my friends have told me just highlight the lack of communication between staff and administration, and between Senegal and Washington.

One such example was a friend of mine who lives up north nearby. She was put in the second largest site amongst the health volunteers, without speaking a WORD of French. While I admire her perseverance, it is absolutely absurd that PC would place a volunteer in a regional capital without any French, negligible health experience, and only rudimental Pulaar. Upon installation the staff member turned to her and said, “You speak French right?” Ridiculous that he didn’t know that already.

Meanwhile, another volunteer who speaks fairly decent French, and who desperately wanted to be in an urban setting and has more health experience, was placed in a tiny village nearby where she has struggled to find a niche for herself. The happy ending to this story is that both volunteers have settled in for the time being, and have carved out lives for themselves. But one can’t help but wonder if they would be more productive at each other’s sites? Such a needless and easily avoidable blunder. And the lack of awareness from the administrative side does nothing to instill confidence.

These kinds of placement inefficiencies are numerous.

Another female volunteer was placed down south in an extremely difficult site where she is barely holding on. Why? The volunteer that set up that site emphatically recommended that only a male volunteer be placed down there because of the abundance of leering men who are seasonal workers at the mines in the region. She was told that she was placed there as an exception because of her HIV expertise. When she mentioned this to a staff member intimately involved with the PC Senegal health program she was told that “oh no, don’t work on HIV/AIDS issues. You should be focusing on respiratory illnesses and diarrhea.” So then why was she put there?

I am so proud that she has made it this far after hearing about everything she has had to overcome.

I recognize that one of the fundamental principles of the PC experience is patience. Patience and flexibility. But there is a fine line between expecting volunteers to roll with the punches and sheer negligence. Unfortunately for some volunteers, the latter has overshadowed their placement.

I am learning that development work is full of inefficiencies, false starts, slow progress, and miscommunication. But the most important thing that the Peace Corps has going for it that so few other NGOs and development organizations do is that we are here. We are present in these communities for two years. We intimately get to know the people, the culture, and thus the potential success of particular projects.

I have heard of so many instances of NGOs giving mosquito nets to villages, only to discover that they should have given big ones because families all want to sleep all together and they cannot fit under a single bed net.

Or that a development organization will spend hundreds of dollars to build a well in some remote village because they noticed or were told that women must walk far to pull water. When the well is finished no one uses it because lo and behold, the women enjoyed walking and that was their only social time for the day.

These are the kind of wastes that can only be avoided when you have an agent in the community. A PCV who is constantly watching with his or her observation goggles and creative thinking cap on. Paying attention to every minute detail so as to bring the most sustainable projects to our communities that we can possibly muster.

For now I’m rolling with the punches, though my patience is being tested every day, especially back here in training.


Kaelen said...

Dear Caitlin,
I stumbled upon your blog in my email and felt compelled to reach out and find some picture of the amazing experiences your are having. Please know that your patience and struggles and triumphs and expansions go farther than you can ever conceive. When a person sets out as you have done, to offer herself, her hands, her mind, her heart and being in a compassionate act that she knows will put her through the ringer (to put it mildly), it is like casting a cosmic vote. Not a vote in any political race or polarized battle, but an invisible vote that is your actions in themselves that state clearly who you are and how you choose to create and perceive the world. This vote spreads out from you like ripples on water and resonates with those around you (and far away!) in an exponentially growing web of positivity. And in this metaphorical cosmic election, it is these votes which have the real and tangible potential to accomplish the ever elusive cliche...change the world.
I hope that these words offer you strength and comfort, affirmation and connection, should you feel the need for them. You see, even friends from long ago feel pride at what you are doing.

Meghan said...

My Darling Cait-
My sincerest apologies for not having written earlier. Just chatting briefly with you and looking through your amazing blog entries was a wakeup call to me that I can't just think about you, I've got to write too, duh :-)
The cultural, first-hand knowledge that you're collecting about village life is unbelievably important. Misplaced funding (not to mention poorly-assigned PCVs) makes me livid just thinking about it. I honestly don't know how it happens so consistently and why it has gone on for so long! Hearing about friends and family who work with the foreign service and have experienced the same level of frustration with the bueracracy makes me wonder where the breakdown in communication occurs. I'll have to investigate more about this just to understand the problems inherent in the system.
On a personal note, I miss you very much and, I'm sure you get this all the time, but I'm incredibly proud of your perseverance, you're strength, your selflessness (sp?), and the work that you do. You inspire me and this blog gives me some idea of the sacrifices you've made to help others.
Kaelen's comment says it best but please know that you really are changing the world for the better, even wen you can't see the immediate successes of your work.
All my love to you,