As I write this, I am sitting in a house that is in some ways nicer than the one I rented in an upscale part of Nashville, Tenn. I have tile floors, electricity and am only a five-minute walk to a beautiful beach on the Atlantic Ocean – a place where I can sit seaside and order a beer (and even occasionally see French and Portuguese tourists). Believe it or not, I am a development worker with the Peace Corps currently living in Cape Verde, a West African island nation several hundred miles off the coast of Senegal.
Yet before you frown from your cubicle with jealousy, please know this: this is the most difficult thing I have ever done. While that probably sounds absurd after the description I just provided, let me add some context. Despite a fledging tourism industry – and I mean fledgling, as on my particular island, in my particular town, it is strange to see European tourists during the week (and when there are tourists, there are rarely more than a dozen or so) – this is a poor country with an underdeveloped economy, few natural resources, soaring teen pregnancy rates, unemployment near 50 percent and little fresh water. It’s a young nation where kids often grow up without fathers, or without any positive role models at all.
When you do development work, you must become comfortable with such strange paradoxes, and in my day-to-day life, there are plenty: tourists lounging on a beach only several miles from where animals roam trash-ridden streets; a brand new school (where I teach English) located in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country; an excellent curriculum (developed by the education ministry) with no books for the students; a beautiful house (where I live) with no running water in the middle of an area that looks like a bombed-out part of Baghdad; a corner market where I can buy various wines from Portugal but where fresh fruits and vegetables are nowhere to be found.
Despite these hardships – and Cape Verde has significantly fewer than some Peace Corps posts (go to www.peacecorps.gov to see all the countries where the Peace Corps serves) – people go to great lengths to join this humanitarian arm of the United States government that was started by President Kennedy in 1961 to help developing countries meet their need for “trained men and women.” The application process usually takes a full year (sometimes longer) and includes lots of paperwork, screenings, interviews and essays. Only one in three applicants are accepted, which I think is mostly due to the arduous application process – a process that is to some degree self-selecting. In other words, you have to really want to join the Peace Corps, and that’s probably the way it should be. You should not do this because you had a bad day at work.
Nevertheless, once you get to your Peace Corps post, you will most likely second-guess yourself, as I did. It wasn’t even four months ago that I landed in the capital city of Praia to begin my training. As we left the airport in white vans, headed for a hostel where we would stay for a few days before traveling to another city to live with Cape Verdean “host families” for two months, I felt a lump form in my throat and a pain in my chest. The town seemed chaotic, dusty and about the last place on earth you’d want to be dropped off. Not to mention the fact that the romance of living in on an African island was instantly gone: we were suddenly off the map so to speak, living in one of the more remote countries in the world for – gulp – 24 months. That number still seems a bit overwhelming to me, and there are days when I want to go home despite the beautiful beaches and the occasional European tourist. There are days when I am tired of the perplexing bureaucracy (common to any developing country) and the odd cultural differences, tired of speaking Cape Verdean Creole or trying to learn its sister language, Portuguese. And I’m not even mentioning the confidence-shaking loneliness, isolation and stress I often feel while living here – all things that Peace Corps volunteers around the world must, to varying degrees, deal with in one way or another.
Nevertheless, when an impoverished eighth grade boy comes up to you after class and asks for homework because he wants to learn English so badly, wants to learn in order to lift himself up out of his present circumstances, you’d have to be sub-human not to feel a little tear well up in the corner of your eye, which is what happened to me last week. Those are the moments when you know this experience is worth it. Those are the moments when you think that maybe, just maybe, you can make it another 20 months.
Cameron’s 5 Must-Haves
1. Books. Even if you are not an avid reader, you will become one if you decide to do humanitarian work for any length of time in a developing country and have some free time on your hands.
2. Medications. Aspirin, creams, prescription medications – there is nothing worse than being sick in a remote place.
3. Durable clothes and shoes. Many cultures still use washing boards and other traditional methods, which are very hard on clothes. Also, you will encounter plenty of unpaved roads and paths that can be very hard on your shoes.
4. Things to look forward to. For example, I am going back to the States for Christmas in a month and a half. Can’t wait. Short term, I am looking forward to meeting up with a Portuguese friend and her husband this weekend at the beach.
5. Friends. This might sound like a bad greeting card, friends and family are remarkably important. Anything you can do to cultivate these relationships – while also making new friends at your site – will do wonders for you emotionally.
The personal views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Peace Corps.