Leaving this Place Better than Before

At our COS conference, our CD showed us this video that PC Africa put together for it’s regional conference earlier this year.  I’ll talk more on it later, but I encourage you to watch this video.  It’s truly inspiring and shows the PC life all across Africa.  If you’re at all interested in Peace Corps, this video will make you want to fill out the application today!

 

-Jen

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When You Know It’s Worth It

What a beautiful garden!

What a beautiful garden!

Sometimes (aka often) as a PCV, I wonder if what I’m doing makes any difference. I wonder if my village will show any sign of progress in 1, 5, or 10 years. Change can be so slow to happen that I often think I’ve done practically nothing with the last year and a half of my life.

And then days like today happen, and I know I’ve done something. I know my hard work hasn’t been for nothing.

Today we went to visit the home gardeners. We visited them in September, before the rains came, and most of them do not have taps at home. Therefore, without rain, they are unable to plant. Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained much this year, so the gardens have suffered. But what I saw put a HUGE smile on my face!!

In every garden we visited (5 total), there were new permaculture techniques being used. I saw intercropping, the 3 sisters, drip irrigation, mulch, compost, manure, trench beds, companion planting….in short, the main things we’ve been doing in our garden at school and at our trainings. It was amazing to see how the people have implemented these new techniques, and embraced the things I was so desperate to teach. Some of the beds were empty, and the people would tell us they had just eaten the carrots, beans, spinach, beetroot, etc.

Food in hungry bellies, what I’ve wanted all along.

Sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing has any impact, and I’m one of the lucky PCVs who actually can see that impact-tangibly, visibly. In the education sector, most PCVs have to hope their impact will come about years down the road, and they may never see real change in their school, even though it happens beneath the surface. I’ve been able to see a metamorphosis at my school, among the learners, and in the village, and I’m so thankful to see some of the changes.

Last week, I glanced at my host family’s garden (which I don’t use) and saw drip irrigation, which I had taught my host sister about during Garden Club. On my way to school, I’ve seen a garden or two that planted the 3 sisters. Learners are respectful of the garden areas at school and rush to help me out.

Change is slow, and fragile. It could be that in 5 years, nobody remembers the name of the young lekgoa girl who played in the dirt for two years. But I hope they remember what I’ve tried to teach. I hope my school still takes pride in the garden, and has blossomed into a leader in the community. And I hope fewer kids show evidence of kwashiorkor, a protein-energy deficiency, because they are eating veggies from their gardens.

I realize that when I leave, everything I’ve done with the permaculture project could completely fall apart. But I don’t think that will happen, not entirely. And to prevent that, I’m looking for an organization that is willing to fund supplies, seeds/seedlings, and a few stipends for the next 2-3 years (so if you’re interested, or know someone who is….let me know!). By having funding through the next few years, my school can focus on growing and improving the school garden, regardless of whether I’m there or not. A few ladies from the community could have temporary employment through stipends, and would be motivated to care for the garden.

The amazing thing about these home gardeners is that, despite serious poverty, they were willing to give. One lady gave us the biggest squash in her garden, and another the ripest watermelon. A lady with a beautiful forest-like garden broke off reeds of sugar cane and passed it around, and we chewed on it as she chattered about her garden, then promised to give us some later to grow at the school. The generousity of people who have far less than I do never ceases to amaze me! Ubuntu at its best.
-Jen

Stunning garden! Compost, almost forest gardening, diversity, intercropping, trench beds!

Stunning garden! Compost, almost forest gardening, diversity, intercropping, trench beds!

Christian in the Peace Corps, Really?

I am a Christian in the Peace Corps. Some people have questioned, almost accusingly, how I can serve in the Peace Corps. PC has a policy against PCVs actively proselytizing during their service, and some people believe I would do better as a missionary. I’ve been blogging over at “Growing in Faith” for a few months now, which is about my journey of faith, through Peace Corps and eventually beyond. But I’ve noticed a steady number of referrals to my blog from searches of “Christian in Peace Corps”, and a handful of people have reached out to me through email about this topic.

The main question seems to be “How do you serve in Peace Corps as a Christian?”

To me, the real question is “How do you serve in Peace Corps WITHOUT God?” I honestly don’t know how atheist/agnostic/etc PCVs make it through, and the vast majority of PCVs don’t identify with any faith. I have no clue how they make it through two years.

Without God, I would not have survived my service. I’ve needed His strength, understanding, compassion, love, grace, and mercy more times than I could count. There have been days when I’ve collapsed on my bed, sobbing, and have been wrapped in His love. There have been times when I’ve been afraid, and He’s held me and protected me. There have been times when the aching loneliness has become overwhelming, and He reminded me of His ever-lasting love.

I’ve ran out of strength. I’ve questioned. I’ve despaired. I’ve given up. But through it all, He’s been right there with me, providing me with the strength and love I needed.

There have been times when I’ve been filled with joy and gratitude, tears of happiness clouding my eyes. And I’ve praised Him for His awesome blessings. There have been times where I’ve clearly seen His plan for my life, and I’ve been humbled by His plans.

How do I serve in the Peace Corps as a Christian? Happily, joyfully, relying on Him, learning to trust His plan, and forging a deeper relationship with the God of the universe. I can’t imagine serving in such a tough job without the help of God. I don’t know how my fellow PCVs make it through the loneliness, desperation, exhaustion, frustrations, and endless battles that is Peace Corps. And I don’t know how they recognize the little blessings God gives us each day, which helps me through the hardest days. What fulfills them, I don’t know. But knowing I am obeying God in staying here is immensely fulfilling for me.

Peace Corps hasn’t been detrimental to my faith, nor do I feel stifled by Peace Corps’ policies. It has been a journey of saying yes to God’s will and learning to trust in Him. Peace Corps has allowed me to have more faith and empathy. It has opened my eyes to the suffering in our world, and how desperately help is needed. And it is preparing me to someday, somewhere, serve as a missionary, sharing His Good News.
-Jen

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Or check out my other blog, Growing in Faith!

Why Do I Care About a Garden?

I’m an education PCV, yet you don’t often hear me talking about teaching and working with learners in the classroom. There’s a pretty simply explanation: I’m only teaching about 1 hour a week. What? Confused? While I may be in the education section, I’m technically a “resource specialist”. I define that as using the resources I have to benefit my school.

I’m not a teacher. I didn’t study teaching in college. I don’t have a teaching degree. I’ve never student taught or spend any significant time teaching in a classroom setting. That is not my area of expertise. While I can offer good tips to the educators at my school, and I frequently step into the classroom when needed, I am not a teacher. And you know what? I don’t really like teaching.

I’m using my other skills to help my school, and by doing so, I’m being a part of truly sustainable change. I am good at teaching in an informal environment, so that’s what I do. I am able to offer knowledge about better gardening practices, so I offer them. I enjoy working with both adults and children, so I work with all ages.

I really wanted to work in the environmental education sector of PC, but I was just barely underqualified. So, I did what any good PCV does: I took my assignment and turned it into MY Peace Corps experience. I tailored my work to the skills I can effectively offer and the skills my school is looking for. By doing so, I am able to be an effective PCV, and see how my efforts are causing change at school, and outside my school. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but this shows why I do what I do, even if I am an education PCV, and not an environmental education or agriculture PCV.

Permaculture is my secondary project by PC’s definition. But in reality it has become my primary project. Of course I still assist teachers by offering to help design lessons and develop classroom management techniques, but I spend far more time working with the garden. And I even have a tertiary project of teaching computer lessons to the education. In a few more weeks, I’ll be setting up a school library, and next year I may do the World Map Project. But the vast majority of my time is spent improving our garden, one way or another, and training community members and learners on Permaculture practices. It is a passion of mine, and is making my PC experience truly enjoyable.
-Jen

Whooah, We’re Halfway There

Yes, like the Bon Jovi song.

Congrats, SA24, we’re halfway there. Thirteen months, sometimes long, sometimes short. We came, we saw, we adjusted. We no longer flinch when handed some unidentifiable goat innards for lunch, can flawlessly shrug off advances from 60 year old men, and are masters at self-diagnosing the various causes of diarrhea. We no longer feel like the newbies, and all of us have unbelievable war stories.

On a serious note, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that my service is halfway over. Peace Corps is the hardest, most frustrating, and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I’m independent and self-reliant in a way I never thought was possible. I’ve gained a new understanding into my life and the lives of my villagers. Sometimes that is heartwarming, and other times it’s heartbreaking.

Peace Corps is a series of extremes. Extremely joyous, extremely sad, extremely angry, extremely lonely, extremely satisfied….I can only assume life in the US will be boring after being in the Peace Corps and its emotional roller coaster.

Some days, I am happy to be halfway through. There are days when I simply want to go into my room and cry, or escape to town and rant to other volunteers. Perhaps it was one whistle, one beg for money, one request for me to be a typist, or one advance too many. Maybe I am frustrated because my attempts at improving things are school are being ignored, pushed aside, or fought against. Maybe it was something entirely unrelated-my phone froze again, my water bottle leaked inside my bag, my stomach was hurting, or the shop was out of bread. These things happen often, and they can make things miserable.

But more often, it scares me to be halfway through. I am not ready. I’ve not accomplished half of the things I wanted to do, and there’s no way I’ll be ready to leave my village in 13 months. I’m the last PCV my school will have, and I feel pressured to make an impact that makes up for the PCV that won’t be coming after me. I work hard to try and make my work sustainable and lasting, so that when I leave, my school is better off than when I came. But two years isn’t enough time. It feels like a big clock is tick, tick, ticking away, counting down to my absence. At 13 months, 11 of them in my village, I feel like I’m just now grounded, just now knowing enough to get things done. It takes a long time to start being effective, and now I don’t have that much time left. What happened?

Other PCVs, worldwide, say the second year goes the fastest. I know I’ll be sitting here in 6 months, 8 months, or 12 months, scratching my head and frantically trying to wrap things up. I can’t push that away, or ignore it. That’s the harsh part about a two year commitment-it’s limited. Though I could apply to extend/spend more time here, there are several reasons why that’s not practical.

So, it’s two years. Oops, I mean 13 months. When did that happen?
-Jen

I Walk Through the Bush to Get to Work

Today was my first day at the school as a PCV! I went to only one of my schools today, the one which is closest to me. I actually walked with my younger host siblings, who are in Grade 4 and 5. It’s only a ten minute walk, more or less, and I can almost see my school from my home. Nice and easy, nee?

My other school is another story. It is on the opposite end of my village, about 5 km away from my home. A fairly long walk, which is why I shall be getting a bike. My supervisor drove me to it today, and I literally have a good 10-15 minute walk through the bush (veld) to get to my school. No houses in sight, just a twisting dirt road through thorny bushes and short trees. It’s almost like that school is in another village because there is literally nothing to see for a while, then suddenly there are houses and my school.

How cool is that though-I get to walk through the bush to get to work. I really am in Africa!

-Jen