I’ve never really watched Star Trek before, and never really wanted to. However, since I’ve started watching the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper has convinced me to try watching it. I started with the 2009 movie-it was surprisingly good, and I moved from that to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (with Sheldon’s childhood hero-Wesley Crusher). I’ll freely admit it: I’m hooked. It’s not just another “flying around space and fighting with aliens” show. It’s more than that-from an anthropological point, it’s simply fascinating.
Star Trek’s most important rule is the Prime Directive: Whatever Star Fleet does, there must be no interference to the internal development of an alien civilization. No handing out advanced technology, going into schools to teach new theories, or taking control of a government to sort out civil wars or internal conflicts. Star Fleet aids civilizations when necessary and protects them from exterior foes, but they (above all else) will not interfere with a civilization’s laws, beliefs, or development.
I live in South Africa, a country where the modern world and rural Africa collide. Sometimes the transition from First World to Third World is smooth, but more often than not, it causes conflict. I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, and I live in a rural Xitsonga village which has a rich culture and proudly practices its traditions.
Peace Corps is about sharing our culture and learning from another. Star Fleet did much the same. However, by living and working among people from another culture for two years, it’s inevitable that we start to influence each other. I learn the importance of greetings, and my counterpart sees how greetings have a different role in America. I eat odd foods and share my own odd foods with my host family. I am able to teach colloquial English phrases to children and they teach me some in their mother tongue. Cultural exchange is at the heart of Peace Corps’ mission, and has a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers and their host communities.
There are other impacts though, unintended cultural faux-pas that affect my work with the community and their perceptions of me. Perhaps I remain in my room on the weekend, rather than going out and participating in a village function, and my family becomes concerned for me. Or else I bring American technology to a rural village and change how records are kept at the school. It may be more efficient, and wanted, but in the end unsustainable and unhelpful. Often times, people in the village view me as more intellligent and capable than my supervisors based on my race, which is untrue and causes tension in my organization.
My living in a rural African village would likely go against the Prime Directive, but that’s not to say it’s bad. I have learned a lot about the people I have spent the last two years among, and I hope they have learned from me. Yes, I might have instilled potentially unrealistic hopes and dreams among some of my students, but I want them to reach for the stars. Expectations in the villages are so low, it breaks my heart. Through living and working in a rural village for two years, some small things start to change in the development of that village. Star Fleet knew the smallest glimpse at a different life could greatly impact a society’s development, and therefore they would work undercover for years, understanding the culture first. However, in PC, we are sent to village to aid and sometimes change the development happening there.
Writing grants, getting new technology, and improving the lives of the villagers is the basis for PC’s work in our communities. Though Star Fleet wouldn’t approve, I have found it to be ultimately rewarding.
There is a darker side that is perhaps unique to Peace Corps South Africa. I mentioned it before, but here the First and Third World exist alongside each other. Even in the most remote villages, you’ll find smartphones and nice cars. There is so much influence from American and European cultures that it has started changing the cultural traditions of villagers. Music starts to change to reflect American pop influences or styles, and dances begin to incorporate modern moves. Languages evolves to include words for new technology, either blatantly (Computhere for computer in Setswana) or more ambiguous (sefofane, meaning “the thing that flies above” for plane in Setswana). Certain things are lost as Western cultures become more pervasive in South Africa. For the Khoi San, this means there language is nearly obliterated. How long until other cultures face the same disruption?
At the end of the day, I obviously believe in the development model of Peace Corps, even if it does against the Prime Directive, in my opinion. We spend a lot of time learning about the new culture and language(s) we will be living among, and we devote two years to living among our host communities. We don’t fly in without explanation and dump foreign practices on unsuspecting societies-we work alongside the people to determine what they need and what is the most sustainable way to accomplish it. We try our best to help our communities improve themselves.