“I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” – Mae West
I’m an optimist most of the time. I see the glass as half full, I believe there is good in most people, and I try to make the best out of bad situations. So to an extent, I feel as if the stories I’ve shared on Facebook and this blog about my Peace Corps experience in Namibia have been one-sided. Personally, I don’t enjoy scrolling through my Facebook feed hearing people complain, so I do my best to stay positive. But the flip-side is I fear much of what I’ve conveyed to people about our time here has been a bit too rose-colored.
Peace Corps Volunteer struggles vary from site-to-site and from country-to-country. Most single volunteers have to deal with intense loneliness at their sites. Being a married couple has helped us in many ways, and I’ve been fortunate to make some close connections with my Namibian colleagues. But we still do miss our family and friends from home. In our flat in the town of Rundu, we have running water and electricity. We also have a good cellular data network which has made it much easier to stay in touch with people from home than we expected. We have been healthy here in Namibia and are able to cook many familiar foods. We haven’t had to deal with being frequently sick from local food or different strains of germs. In Namibia, especially in town, English is widely-spoken, so we didn’t face the task of learning a new language (it’s important to note though, that communication is still a big challenge, even when everyone speaks the same language). However, with these conveniences in mind, we tend to put more pressure on ourselves at the workplace and often work long hours. In fact, PCVs in Namibia average working many more hours on their primary projects per week than any other post in Africa.
There are a lot of very difficult, complicated things about being a Peace Corps volunteer. I imagine our Peace Corps experience will be a bit like childbirth. Years from now just the good parts will remembered. But right now the difficult parts are still fresh.Peace Corps volunteers live with their community at the grassroots level, unlike most development workers who usually live in comfortable housing in the country’s capital. Because we are so close to the people we serve we get to know them and their struggles intimately. It’s difficult to create a comprehensive list of the most challenging aspects of my experience here, but I did my best below.
- Seeing poverty up-close daily. We see extreme poverty here everyday. Hungry learners, people eating out of trash bins, and kids begging for food are common sights. Recently I asked my learners why so many of them got a question wrong on the exam that I had gone over repeatedly in class. The answer, “Miss, when we are taking the exam, we are hungry.” The curriculum for learners is similar in English from year to year, but when I arrived my Grade 11s couldn’t tell me what a noun or adjective was. I’m often asked for food, water, money, and my belongings both at school and when I am seen out in town. I know there are people in bad situations at home, but there are so many more here who are struggling. It is especially hard to see children suffering so much.
- Teaching frustrations. The kind of learning environment I grew up experiencing is much different than the public school system in Namibia. I try to teach the way I was taught, which included group work, raising your hand when you know the answer, being quiet when the teacher is teaching, etc. These simple things just aren’t common here. My learners are often confused by my classroom expectations. Even with very large class sizes, I still try to incorporate “learner-centered education,” but my learners are not used to group work, they are not used having someone read to them, and they are not used to thinking creatively. The most common method of instruction is for a teacher to write notes on the board and have the learners copy them down. Some days it feels like I’m teaching rocket science. I am often baffled at how difficult it is for many of my learners to understand what seems to be a simple concept. In my high school, many students worked hard and were very ambitious. Here I’ve had the opposite problem. It seems like more learners are unmotivated than motivated. Many learners do not do their homework or classwork at all. The solution in most classrooms is to punish learners by making them hold desks above their heads in front of class, beat the learners with a stick or have them clean the classrooms. I haven’t quite mastered this discipline system yet.
- A 24/7 job. Peace Corps volunteers are always ambassadors for their country, whether they are working or not. Even if we are traveling on vacation, we are still representing America. When Namibians meet us they might think all other Americans are just like us. Our housing is at my school. When I was sick for a week I could hear the learners being loud on campus all day long. While it’s very convenient to live at school (it makes marking hundreds of books and exams much easier), it’s tough and exhausting to always feel like you are on duty. Being easily recognized in town by many is a great way to feel like you are really part of your community. It’s difficult, however, when you are enjoying a get-together with Namibian friends to blow off some steam and a few of your learners show up to the party because they’re related to someone there. This has happened many times. Most Americans like separation of their work and personal lives. The line between Mrs. Shusko the teacher and Lisa Shusko the person is very blurry here.
- Feeling guilty and overwhelmed. Peace Corps volunteers make a two year commitment to the communities they serve. I battle often with the feeling of not having taught my learners enough and of not having done enough for my community. You end up second guessing yourself a lot. “I should have taught that lesson a different way so that maybe all of my learners would have understood.” I am the type of person who felt overwhelmed in the U.S. at times, but here it takes on a new meaning. Everywhere I look, there’s a person I could help or there’s a project I could assist. It’s often a battle to remind yourself that there’s only so much you can do, to stay sane and not burn out, and to learn to accept that. Even if we help only a few people, that’s still success.
- Sustainability. Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to make sure all their projects will continue when they leave service. If you open a library, there should be a teacher ready to take over the project when you’re gone. If you get a grant to start a garden, the community should be invested and educated on gardening by the time you depart. This is much easier said than done. Teachers at my school are overworked as most teach 38 or 40 periods a week, and it’s hard for them to imagine taking on more work.
- Cultural frustrations. After living here I see how much the American work ethic and obsession with productivity has become ingrained in the fabric of my being. We are used to being around people who work too much. We are used to everyone having their own stuff, and not being asked to borrow our items. Things that we might consider to be rude are not rude here, and that can be exhausting at times. People usually live with large extended families, so alone time is seen as a bit weird. Things that we would consider private at home aren’t private here. When I ask a learner to have a private conversation with me regarding their work or discipline issues usually their friends follow to listen in. People borrow things and often either don’t return them or return them broken. Americans are used to consistency. Things are not consistent in Namibia. Physical violence is also much more prevalent here. It’s hard to see and adapt to such things all the time without compromising what you feel is right or wrong. Living overseas, life can just feel awkward often.
- Feeling apart. Mostly because of the aforementioned cultural issues, deep down I know I’ll never completely fit in here. After having grown up and started a career in a completely different culture, many of our values are very different. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we serve for two years. We go into this assignment knowing it is only temporary. When we struggle, we remind ourselves that this isn’t permanent. In many ways, we get a glimpse into the struggles of daily life in our communities, but we are mostly shielded from the harsh realities.
- Feeling the toll that death and illness take. I asked one of my learners how their holiday was and they told me “It was sad Miss, I went to three funerals.” Sadly this is not uncommon. Learners at my school and recent graduates have passed away during my time here from illnesses and car accidents. At times it’s hard to stay motivated and push others because you know those around you are dealing with very sad and stressful situations.
- Failures. Some days it feels like nothing you’re doing is working. Your learners didn’t understand the lesson, they failed their exams, your secondary projects are going nowhere fast, etc. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we often fail. It can be a struggle to then get up the next day and throw yourself into work again when you know what the likely outcome will be.
As with anything in life, there are big personal rewards for sticking things out and overcoming difficult challenges. I’ve had many more good memories than bad ones. I’ll always be glad and proud that I fulfilled my two years of Peace Corps service.