6 Months Left, Looking Back, Looking Ahead

No matter how the dice roll, in about 6 months’ time I should be back in Massachusetts, my home, after my 2 year stint with the Peace Corps.  There are still some questions as to when the exact day will be, and I may not know for sure until September, but I looked at the calendar (one of my three that occupy my “Calendar Corner”) and today being the 12th, I realized that no matter whatshenanigansmay be pulled, there is no doubt that by this time, 6 months passed, I should be home. Of course, this thinking prompted me to be introspective about my service here.

Some may say, “6 months is a long time, how are you already being introspective about what you’ve finished? You still have plenty of time to go!”  My response to that is what anyone in development can tell you: 6 months in a 2 year contract is practically no time in development work. The length of my contract has always been something that I do appreciate about Peace Corps, however grueling other organizations perceive it.  Most volunteer development workers end up on the Kenyan Coast for 4 or 5 month stints because many of them are university-age and their schedules reflect those of their respective universities.  Because many organizations do not require you to have an exact plan of action upon entering Kenya, you spend the first 3 months planning a project, only to realize it will take 2 years to implement, then leave Kenya without having accomplished much of anything that will last beyond your time here.  Heck, even those of us who are here for those 2 years don’t often leave anything that will last past our time here, of which I am a perfect example.

Many people have asked me, “What do you do as a Peace Corps volunteer?” and I have never been able to answer clearly before because everything was always shifting around, no plans ever concrete.  However, as is said, hindsight is in fact 20-20, and with only six months to go and no intention of really changing the course of my work, I feel that now is as good a time as any to recap what I have attempted as a Peace Corps volunteer.  These are all  personal examples, so sorry if it comes off as seeming self-serving, but I truly want to paint as clear a picture of what I have attempted so that prospective volunteers and others back home may have a better understanding of the type of work I have faced as a volunteer.

What Have I Attempted

A lot of people have talked about what they have done, or what they have accomplished.  I take issue with using either of those words in my efforts.  When one says he has “done” something he has to be very careful and specific about his actions because generalizations can often creep into his “done” actions and before he knows it, he’s aggrandizing well beyond truth.  Saying one has accomplished something also requires that level of specificity, because too often are there automatic assumptions made about accomplishment such as the effects of your accomplished actions lasting indefinitely.  In the development world, qualification andspecificityshould be default, but sadly this is not always the case, and oftentimes people are lauded for their “accomplishments” and what they have “done” when in fact nothing has improved or even simply changed.

Instead, I will talk about what I have attempted for the past 18 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

As a volunteer serving in an education institute, I have attempted to teach myassignedstudents my respective subject: computers.  I have attempted to teach them in a way different from others I have observed because I feel that learning is not simply memorizing facts. In attempting this, I still wonder if I have actually hindered my students more in their education, for even though I feel computer education requires a more abstract approach than is custom here, the ultimate testing and certification will not be asking questions in the style that I would ask.  With my students’ minds having already been pre-conditioned to a specific learning style, I wonder if my new approach has actually left them factually crippled for their upcoming national examinations despite their improving performance in the classroom and on my own internally administered examinations.

Within my role as an instructor at National Youth Service (NYS), I also attempted to improve the computer teaching facilities within the guidelines that all instructors must follow when requisitioning for supplies.  I did not try to step out of my bounds and use the “mzungu effect,” to get what I want but instead tried to work within the NYS system.  NYS already has plans for ICT education built into their long-term goals, and me being the local mzungu is not going to change those plans.  Learning to work within the system and see its limitations helps early on with the reality check and determining the most effect course of action.

Aside from teaching in the classroom, I have attempted to teach anyone and everyone willing to listen about the benefits of using free and open-source software.  These opportunities often presentthemselveswhen teachers or friends or organizations bring me broken computers, broken because Windows has failed to survive an otherwise pathetic Flash Disk virus attack, and being development oriented types, the individuals tend to be more willing to try new things.  A perfect ground for my open source evangelism.  I must also admit a selfish perspective on this: bringing more people into the Ubuntu community, I get much better first-hand experience in how to best troubleshoot and assist problems with Ubuntu, both over the phone and in person.  These are skills I may put to use later in my life.

I have also attempted to provide consultation on a range of technical problems facing individuals in this country: from web design to phone support to technology purchasing decision support, I have attempted to help others whenever they faced a technology support need. This  has included consultation for the Rural Internet Kiosk project, as well as web site consultation for organizations such as Women and Children Alternative Lives (WACAL), the Liki River Water Users Association and others.  Through the World Computer Exchange, I was also able to work with an international team to help secondary schools in the Tetu constituency assess their computer networking infrastructure needs and begin building local networks there.

More Peace Corps-centric, I have attempted to revive the volunteer-only newsletter.  Starting the country program afresh after the Kenyan post-election violence in January 2008, the Peace Corps volunteer community was scattered and small.  We have grown over time very quickly though, so I thought it might be nice to attempt a unifying, volunteer-run and volunteer-contributednewsletter, a shared experience as it were.

Will It Last?

I have attempted many things.  Some of my attempts have been simple, one-off actions where the effect is immediate.  I think that is part of the reason why I like technical support, as much as I complain in the moment: fixing a computer has an immediate impact, and even its lasting effects can be safely predicted.  Little islands of immediacy, concrete action, are anchor points for an otherwise topsy-turvy volunteer life.  The same can be said for web site development, where I have one site to finish and fully intend to do so.

Outside of those technical projects, the lasting impact is certainly arguable.  Some will say that teaching always has a lasting impact, but that is also arguable.  Teaching does not always have a lasting impact, and some of my own past teachers certainly burn brighter in my memory than others.  Far too many organizations seem to operate on the mantra that sticking a white person in front of a bunch of Kenyans will of course have a lasting impact.  Time has told me this is not the case, and that a teacher with a lasting impact is one whose students remember the lessons taught to them, no matter the color of the skin or the nationality.  Have I been that teacher? I hope so, but I don’t count on it.  Sometimes, people will not realize the lessons taught to them until years after the teacher has spoken the words as well.  I don’t hold much hope for my teaching impact.

I do see an impact and gears moving when I talk to my fellow NYS teachers and project colleagues about why I support free and open source software (FOSS).  Discussions such as the impact of software piracy, where viruses come from, things that have an immediate impact on their lives, that is where I see myself getting through.  Even if I have not produced change, I have provided exposure to new ideas, which is the first step to educated, impacting change.  I have even made a few converts to FOSS in the NYS office because the secretaries quickly realized how much damage viruses caused and time they wasted and once they saw that transitioning to Ubuntu would be easy, they were quickly on board and have not looked back since.

I have not taught anyone at NYS how to maintain Ubuntu however.  The fault here is mine and though I have my excuses, I feel there is no need to expostulate on them, as they are all easily refuted as worthy by others.  Thus, unless I am able to sufficiently instruct a more permanent member of the NYS community about Ubuntumaintenance, my attempt will be all for naught, as NYS will lose Ubuntu with the next round of new computers, or whenever one computer breaks and needs to be reformatted.  I have six months, so I guess I had better get cracking.

The Worth

Some may wonder who has benefited the most in all of this and the answer is clearly me.  I have been given two years to study both myself and a new culture, as well as how well I can work within that culture.  Failure is regularoccurrence, and though I may learn from my failure more easily, as I am in a situation where I have nothing to lose, the same cannot be said for those I am trying to help for whom failure can have quite a big impact.

People ask in general if Peace Corps can prove its worth, to which I whole heartedly say it is worthwhile.  Peace Corps is a great opportunity for exposure: for exposing the international community to everyday Americans as well as for exposing everyday Americans to the international community.  At least in Kenya, not only are there working relationships between US and Kenyan organizations, but there are also working relationships with organizations from dozens of countries around the world.  Kenya is breeding ground for international cultural exposure and cooperation, and as I said before, I truly feel exposure is the first step to educated impacting change.  If you have never seen something or even heard of it, how can you know it exists?  Abroad you get to see so much that otherwise you would not have, as well as hear about ideas that would have otherwise not impacted your own thought process.

The fact that Peace Corps provides this opportunity is something that many people should consider if they are looking for something to do in life.  You will be exposed to so much more than if you just stayed at home, even if you do spend your days surfing the web, and  this exposure could help you shape your own thoughts better so that you might improve your own life.  Again, my joining Peace Corps has had a much greater impact on me as an individual than I have had on anyone else here, that much is for sure.  Now if only we could come up with some metric by which to show the value of this so that we could whip up some nice charts and graphs and Congress would give us more funding!

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One response to “6 Months Left, Looking Back, Looking Ahead

  1. How is it, my name is Ian, I was a PCV in Namiba in 2007 and still living in Namibia now with a private job. I am planning to travel east africa these months before the year end. I was hoping to to get some information on (where to: eat, drink, sight see, sleep). Let me know whats up and if it would be possible to link up sometime when I reach. I’ll be in Zim and Burundi in August and in Kenya hopefully in Sept. Cheers. Email me at iantcook@gmail.com