Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So What was it like?

A frequently asked question when I returned home. I had a mix of answers from time to time as I had the chance to reflect on the two intense years as a volunteer in the Peace Corps secondary education program in Sierra Leone. Certainly - there were those among us who looked upon our service as just an in-country arm of American imperialism and saw us as tools of the U.S. government. Sure we were sent as agents of a program that filled an in-country niche where our host country saw the need. We, as volunteers, were to some degree, neophytes at what we were sent to do. We arrived at our sites with some training and with lots of excitement and hope and energy. Many of us had visions of how we would do our work and how we would show those who we lived with both what we were like and what we could offer. But there was no specific U.S. plan for us except to do a good job and meet, if not surpass Sierra Leonean expectations. That was it. Throughout our two months of intense in-country training we were taught language, we were shown educational approaches and skills that would help us in the classroom, we were taught about Sierra Leone culture, and we were encouraged to go out and be part of the country. We were asked to avoid politics - try to keep open minds about what went on around us - and the only aspect that we were encouraged to try and demonstrate was that we wanted to be volunteers, we were excited about it, and that we would try at all costs to do a good job. There was never a mention that we were to go beyond this. There was never anyone looking over our shoulders seeing to it that we were good agents for the U.S. It was left to our Sierra Leone colleagues to decide if what we were doing was both needed and was being done well. Once stationed at our sites the Peace Corps administration and the Peace Corps itself let us alone. We were totally free and independent to say what we wanted, do what we wanted, and act as we wanted. Our limits were set by our own behavior and by the Sierra Leone culture. The U.S. government played no part - except that we were volunteers (Peace Corps) from the United States. Sure - they paid us the 75 dollars a month for living expenses. This was more then enough. Sure we filled niches in up-country settings where the Sierra Leone Ministry of Education found difficulty if not resistance in placing their own teachers. And sure we stuck out like sore thumbs throughout the country. We taught everywhere, from tiny, very rural villages barely able to support a school to big towns like Kabala, Port Loko, Bo, Kenema, and Freetown. A few taught at the university level. There was also the Community Developers (CD) who aided in agriculture, school building, and health and welfare. Those in CD worked hand in hand with their Sierra Leonean colleagues in agricultural projects, building schools, introducing more healthful water systems in rural villages, and in health care programs such as measles and smallpox eradication, maternal and child health, and other activities. In my year there were as many as 160 volunteers spread throughout the country and doing their own thing. So here we all were, totally independent and free to provide support to a country that had requested our help, and thrown into situations where we could make small increments of difference. We saw our job as to blend in, learn what we could from our new assignments, give of ourselves to see to it that our students learned, and see to it that Sierra Leone's request for good teachers was met. We were not there to displace Sierra Leoneans. Our purpose was to insure that up-country schools were staffed, and that up-country students learned and were educated. When or if Sierra Leonean teachers became available, our work would be done and we would be replaced. Of course, the dent we made in the system was small - but our presence was important to the success educationally of up-country youth.

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