“To be in Peace Corps is to be displaced.”
On Tuesday I headed to Kampala for a TAC (Training Advisory Committee) Meeting at the Peace Corp Headquarters. The goal of this meeting was to plan the schedule and sessions for the incoming Education Group’s training in November. My role is Community Integration Leader/Champion along with two other PCV’s Paul and Ellen. Our goal is to facilitate sessions that will present the new Peace Corps Trainees with ideas on integrating into the Ugandan culture and finding a balance. From past reports the Entry into Community Integration and Cultural Integration presentations have been the lowest ranked sessions of past trainings so a special emphasis was placed on these topics.
I was very glad to be working with Paul and Ellen on this project. Paul has a very bright energy about him and is one of those PCVs who runs around and is consistently “on” both in and out of his community. Ellen is one of those PCVs who can be described as being very “village”; she eats with her hands, hunts large, local rats with a bow and arrow, is building a mud hut, and dedicates a significant amount of her energies towards integrating into her local community in Kitgum. It was interesting holding discussions amongst ourselves and with some Ugandan staff members about the content we would be presenting.
We wanted to stress the importance of the local language and how even though everyone around you may speak English, the use of local language really helps improve the relationship between you and your community members. It demonstrates a level of respect for the culture as well as the people in your surroundings. Another point was shared that the first step towards successful community integration is for the PCV to have the desire to integrate into the community of his or her own volition.
We wanted to stress that no matter how “village” we became, how much we dressed like them, or how much local language we spoke we would still be foreigners. However, community integration doesn’t mean forsaking your own culture and mannerisms, but instead adjusting them to fit the cultural and traditional boundaries of the local community.
If there’s one Peace Corps Handbook (out of the dozens given to us during training) that has helped me the most, it’s been The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook. Compiled from the experiences of PCVs throughout the years, the Workbook describes how deep down inside we are all so different. We’re not the same, even though we’re all human beings with similar needs. A culture has certain beliefs, traditions, and actions that stem from sociological, religious, environmental, economical, and practical reasons.
As a generalization, in the United States:
- It’s very common for someone to want to take risks and know that we control our own fate and destiny. If something doesn’t work out, we’re usually more likely to get back up and try again.
- Change is good and we are consistently bent towards progress
- Everyone should have access to equal opportunities, especially in job employment
- Problems and statements should be said directly in order to allow for no miscommunication
- It is seen as a good thing for bosses to socialize and get to know subordinates
- People follow time
- Status is achieved
- Life is interesting and what is uncertain in the future is what also holds excitement and opportunity
As a generalization, in Uganda:
- It is not common for people to take risks and destiny is dependent on whether or not “if God is willing”
- Change is not necessarily good and traditions are important to uphold
- It is important to favor others such as friends and family members to have better opportunities rather than everyone (like strangers)
- Problems and issues should be approached in an indirect way in order to save face and avoid confrontations
- Time follows people
- Status is given to you
- Life is scary, uncertain, and largely out of your control
I remember reading the workbook during training and not really taking to heart what the different concepts represented. Now after more than 10 months in country I am finally starting to understand just how different I am from Ugandans and vice versa. At first I was oblivious to how different I was from everyone here and thought that my firm beliefs and mentality gained from living in the United States and Germany were the correct ways of thinking. Once I arrived in my village, I realized just how different things were approached here. I started to become conscious of the mistakes I made and didn’t know how to stop making them. I remember planting coffee in front of my yard during the dry season on top of dirt mounds that couldn’t even hold water. After some time I started to consciously realize what I needed to do; I needed to scrap the dying coffee plants and focus on other things such as planting grass in front of my compound as the rainy season started.
I believe that I have gotten to the point where I can appropriately function and work in my community without even realizing how different I act now compared with 10 months ago. It’s funny because some other PCVs make fun of me of I break out in one of my Uganglish phrases or Ugandan mannerisms while hanging out. The habit literally becomes so ingrained in me that I sometimes have to make a conscious effort to act like a “muzungu” again.
This brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this blog post: “To be in Peace Corps is to be displaced.” We’re stuck between two worlds. There are times when I don’t even know what I stand for anymore or who I am. I couldn’t even tell you what my preconceptions about Africa and Uganda were during staging at the Hampton Inn right before the plane flight to Uganda. In the past, stories about Africa were just that; stories. The tales of revolutions, dictators, starving children, genocides, epidemics, poverty, the 3rd World, missionaries, savannahs, and aid were all that I had ever heard or seen through various media platforms. It was literally worlds away.
Now my life is filled with stories of pumping water from a borehole, taking pictures and video of Peace Corps activities, teaching at a PTC, writing grant, working alongside my fellow Ugandan teachers, living with my Ugandan neighbors, and playing with their kids. Now tales of new pop songs, new jobs, dvancements in technology, high profile scandals, new foods, viral videos, and general trends are stories that are worlds away. It’s almost as if the interest that many Americans had when the Kony 2012 video came out is akin to the interest that most PCVs have about the events that happened in Ferguson. Both went viral on the internet but to the audience, each event happened in a different world that had no immediate impact on life.
Of course, I still consider myself to be a newbie who has only spent just over 10 months here. I look forward to seeing how much more I integrate into this community and how much more I will feel displaced in the 16+ months to come.