Let me preface this entry with this: I wrote this little blurb as an op/ed piece for the Peace Corps Botswana newsletter. To better contextualize this piece, it's good to know that there is a bit of versatility in the living conditions for PCVs in Botswana. I cannot speak for the rest of the PC countries or even for those in Africa, but rumor has it that Botswana lends to a kind of "Posh Corps" experience. Earlier in my service, I remember the nervousness in finding out whether or not I would have electricity or a pit latrine and discussing the implications of those varying conditions with other Volunteers...little did I know that those were the least of my worries.
Before joining Peace Corps many of us believed the brochures, expecting mud huts and dinner by moonlight. Those of us invited to Botswana were told we were lucky to be in the ‘posh corps.’ Even from my homestay experience I recognized that many families opt for a satellite dish for their TV before they install running water in the home. I remember thinking why deny yourself when your neighbor enjoys the modern conveniences of running water and electricity, watching soap operas every single night and blasting the radio on Saturday mornings? The question is: does the availability of these amenities make the experience any less challenging or any less of a “Peace Corps experience?”
Some Volunteers live with the beloved “air-con” in a relatively modern apartment or house, but what about those living the ‘old’ Peace Corps experience in a traditional round house and making the trek to the pit latrine at all hours. There are even some Volunteers living without electricity entirely, often in the context of a village with only a few compounds connected to power. Some opted for these living situations and others simply acquiesced. Are they any more of a Volunteer because of their deviation from modern conveniences and willingness to adapt? Even if they live without them day-to-day, they may occasionally enjoy an episode of 30 Rock on their Mac, powered by the juice borrowed from the local clinic earlier that day, all the while eating their rice and tomato sauce dinner by candlelight. Or they may travel to another Volunteer’s site for the weekend to take a nice bath and charge up all electronic devices. I have both electricity and running water with a flush toilet in my house. I have often wished I had neither simply because the wiring is so terrible and the water supply so unreliable that I’d rather learn to live without than have to live with unannounced outages. When water was out for seven days, believe me, the flush toilet was a curse!
Whether you have these amenities or not, you may have the friend who has the latrine and have spent the holiday in a teeny village bordering the bush without electricity, inevitably learning what it is like to live in these varying conditions, adapting to the circumstances or learning to live without. One Volunteer put it to me like this: “When you go visit your Volunteer friends you immediately learn three things about their place: how to flush the toilet, how to get water, and how to bath yourself.” These few words could not be more true. Who knew that there could be so much versatility to your lifestyle within the course of a month? The key to this revelation is the ability to adapt. There is so much variation in the conveniences and difficulties in each village and at each person’s site so whether first-hand, vicariously or temporarily we all experience these conditions.
The reality is that we adapt whether we have these conveniences or not and that has been the common Peace Corps experience through 50 years of service. While the accessibility to things like running water define our daily life in terms of stocking water and washing dishes, it is surprising how quickly those behaviors become mindlessly routine, even normal. One thing that I’ve learned in my service is that your Peace Corps experience becomes less defined by how well you fulfill some 50-year-old stereotype and more about how you find a contentment both in your home and in your community, with the people you work with and the people you socialize with. When you do, all of those seeming amenities fade into the periphery. The truth it may be easier to live without water than it is to find a capable and willing counterpart for a project. It’s may be easier to live without electricity than to get accustomed to the stares on combi rides and the incessant “lekgoa!” resounding from some indiscriminate location.
While Botswana is an anomaly in its relative wealth to other Peace Corps countries, the notion of being flexible remains, applicable around the globe and across the board. It is this flexibility and learning to make a home in the unfamiliar territory and a friend in the sea of strangers that brings together a common experience for all Volunteers at all levels of development.