Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Peace Corps Reality

One of the aspects that struck me most and was my main motivation for applying to the Peace Corps was that, unlike many aid agencies, the Peace Corps expects its volunteers to conform and adapt to local culture, to understand and develop a worldview that reflects that of the members of the community in which they work, and ultimately to offer guidance that caters to the culture, worldview, and community of the people they serve. The goal is to avoid cases where the ethnocentric white man enters the "backward" communities of the world and conducts work by offering seemingly infallible knowledge to its inhabitants. With the Peace Corps, the focus is on the people- what they want, what they see, what changes can be made within their community structure, how they can succeed- and we volunteers are only a helping hand, offering our support and guidance. Therefore, my mission is not really "my" mission, but rather "their" mission, of which I am an active participant.
But, leaving one's culture behind to embrace a new one and changing one's worldview is a difficult task, one that will inevitably take time, lots of time, and effort. Our culture and our worldview are so intertwined with our being that many components are imperceptible to the human mind. One can be powered by the cranking machine of one's culture and worldview, without being aware of it source. In fact, there is not one single person who wonders this earth who is under no influence from these two forces, for they shape our perception and reality. To live without culture and worldview is to live without thought, and humans are, by definition, a species of thinkers.
The first step is understanding. Then changing and adopting. To understand, one must discover and learn.
In an attempt to understand the African worldview, I have picked this excerpt to share.
"The world of the average African is different indeed. It is a lean world, of the very simplest, most elementary sort, reduced to several objects: a single shirt, a single bowl, a handful of grain, a sip of water. Its richness and diversity are expressed not in a material, concrete, palpable, and visible form, but in the symbolic values and meaning that the African imparts to the most mundane things, imperceptible to the uninitiated on account of their utter ordinariness. Thus a rooster's feather can become a lantern lighting the way in darkness, and a drop of oil a shield that will protect you from bullets. The slightest object takes on symbolic, metaphysical weight, because man decided that it would be thus and through his choice elevated it, transported it into another dimension, into a higher realm of being- into transcendence." (320 Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun)
All I can reflect upon at this point is how odd it will feel to be transported to a culture in which one's worth is not measured by what one possesses and owns, but rather by those intangible qualities of one's self, and perhaps, by one's spiritual connection.
I am trying to understand. Although I am not yet in Africa, I am exercising the practice of understanding in my everyday life. Everyday, one comes into contact with people who are different than oneself- different lifestyle, values, interests- and I am trying to be open-minded and accepting in each of these encounters. Only by learning, can we begin to bridge the gap between two unknowns and understand, rather than fear, the other.
I am learning, everyday. I am beginning to understand, to disturb the layer that lies hidden beneath the surface. Soon, I will be able to test my skill and hopefully to find a way to adapt.

1 comment:


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