Why the Peace Corps? WHY? WHY WHY WHY???

What’s the deal with your blog title?

What’s the application process like?

Did you get to choose where you went?

So … what’s it feel like to be a faceless cog in the imperialist machine?

I want to read up on Africa. Any suggestions?

I want to join! What should I do?

What comes after the Peace Corps?

Hey!!! Have you seen/read ______?

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Why the Peace Corps?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. I wanted to travel before grad school, and this is a good way to do it on the government’s dime. I wanted to learn a language, and there’s no method better than sink-or-swim immersion. I wanted to save the world, and while that’s impossible, I’m doing the best I can. I wanted to have cool stories to tell new people over beers. I wanted to get totally lost and find myself again. I wanted to see what I could see and do what I could do.

However, the most salient reason is pretty much summed up in a Voltaire quote, of which I have a cross-stitch hanging on my wall: “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” It’s entirely unfair that, through crazy random happenstance, I was born into a context where I don’t have to worry about clean water or access to education or preventable/treatable disease. I’m not special, just lucky. As a (lapsed, meat-eating) Buddhist and a decent human being, I have a responsibility for exercising compassion towards others in every possible opportunity. Doing Peace Corps isn’t a complete fulfillment of that, but it is an element of it – I live and work with the goal of helping others who need it in my day-to-day American life, too. Anyone who knows me could testify to this (probably while justifiably rolling their eyes at my conspicuous zeal.) It is an inescapable calling.

No, I did not do it because Barack Obama told me to. But thanks for the shout-out, Barry. Keep on motivating our young people.

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What’s the deal with your blog title?

I’m spoofing on the title of the best radio show ever, This American Life by Chicago Public Radio (hosted by Ira Glass *swoon*). This American Life is about “amazing stories of everyday people” or something along those lines, I don’t recall the exact tagline. You can check out the official website and listen to the real show here. Here’s to hoping I can tell at least a handful of amazing stories of my own by the time all this is over.

To understand how hopelessly devoted I am to This American Life, ask my friends sometime how often I start a story with “So this one time I was listening to NPR and …”

Really.

As for my WordPress ID/handle/nick/whatever (“takinthelongway”), it’s a reference to a Dixie Chicks song about making unique choices. Here’s the song. Most of my friends would probably agree that I’m a rara avis, and some of them might even mean it in a nice way. I don’t want kids. I have no immediate plans (or pressing desire) for marriage. I’ll be in grad school until I’m 30, if not longer. I want to see all 190-something countries before I die. I don’t keep to the normal tourist paths, even when I try to, and certainly have no intention of staying put on one continent forever. So … it’s just a good fit.
“Well I never seem to do it like anybody else/Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down/if you ever wanna find me I can still be found/takin’ the long way/oh, takin’ the long way around …”

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What’s the application process like?

In a word? Long. I can tell you the exact day, exact event, exact *moment* when I went “Hey … maybe I’ll join the Peace Corps.” (For the record, it was at Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert in Madison Square Garden, and I was 2 rows away from Bruce Springsteen singing Ghost of Tom Joad. “Wherever there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand/ For a decent job or a helping hand/Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free/ Look in their eyes, Ma, you’ll see me” Still gets me every time.) But it was a blimmin’ long time before this notion became reality.

Of course, I’d looked into the Peace Corps and about a dozen different organizations before then, and continued to explore options up until the point I got my invitation (by that point it was in a very “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” practice.) Peace Corps seemed like a good fit, I filled out the initial questionairre, and away we went. It was Memorial Day by that point.

Next came what was very much like a college application: listing all your volunteer experiences, a ton of demographic stuff, two personal statements (each of which I wrote and then entirely rewrote, so I’ll count that as FOUR personal statements,) an official transcript, a copy of my CV. The usual. Tack on a long-but-straightforward click-yes-or-no medical history and that’s taken care of as well. It was mid-June then. I had to scramble around and gather three references, but no biggie.

If you like numbers, between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7 people who finish that particular batch of skullduggery go on to serve in the Peace Corps. O rly.

Interview took me on a daytrip to NYC. This wasn’t so bad – I had a very long interview in which I had to talk about experience with diversity, what kind of challenges I was willing to face (no electricity? No friends? No flush toilet?), whether or not I had dietary restrictions or family obligations or a significant other who might object (I hear that last one can actually play an ENORMOUS role in your not getting the job, as a lot people who Early Terminate their service do it to save their relationship/marriage/whatever.) I was told it could take up to 2.5 hours, but I was out of there in 90 minutes. Had martinis in Times Square and haunted Broadway shops with a friend. Made a day of it.

Shortly thereafter, I received my nomination from my recruiter, which basically means “We might give you a job, or might not, depends on how the next year goes and how your health is.” I also had to fill out the dreaded Health Report. It’s just a physical, really. But it’s long. And convoluted. And there are a million parts to MISS. And it requires a lot of blood. All in all, it took me 10 visits to 4 different doctors, plus 13 vials of blood, 21 dental x-rays, a long personal statement about my health history, and 3 trips to Office Max to send faxes before all that was said and done. Luckily, I cleared it on the first try. Worth it.

Then I waited. And waited. And when I finished waiting, I waited a bit more. The Peace Corps HQ folks are busy – I’ve no problem respecting that. But one might say it’s a wee bit anxiety-provoking to hear not one word for months on end. Finally, FINALLY, I got an e-mail saying that my applicant status had changed and that I needed to be on the lookout for something in the mail. Great, right? WRONG. I was 1,000 miles away at the time in Las Vegas, so I got to spend an entire week sitting on pins and needles waiting to find out my fate. Arriving home and ripping open the welcome package was one of the biggest moments of relief *ever*, so much that I literally just started howling with laughter like a loony. I read the entire thing at warp speed and had accepted my invitation by 10 PM that night. And the rest is history – or rather, the rest is ongoing.

It was long and boring and frustrating, but I can’t say there’s anything *wrong* with making it that way, necessarily. If you can’t elegantly navigate the minor red tape and bureaucracy in APPLYING, you probably wouldn’t do very well during your service, where it’s 1000 times more complicated and in a developing nation to boot.

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Do you get to choose where you go?

No. A placement officer compares your experiences/skills to the needs of various communities. You can express a preference, but a) they seem to ignore it and b) they don’t like people who are super picky. I just got lucky.

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So … what’s it feel like to be a faceless cog in the imperialist machine?

I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your question over the sound of how awesome I am. Could you repeat it?

No, seriously though. I’ve been confronted more than once with this question when discussing my works abroad. It’s a fair question, even though nearly every time the charge is leveled by a clove-smoking malt-liquor-swilling hipster whose primary contribution towards world development is supporting the economy of Indonesia with their Djarum addiction. One of the reasons I CHOSE the Peace Corps is their goal of supporting sustainability. Aid dependence and charity-vs-development are issues I’ll talk about until your ears bleed if you make the mistake of asking. When you go to Guatamala and build a house over Spring Break, you’ve done a kind thing, but have you solved a problem? My goal isn’t to save the world single-handedly, but to educate and empower individuals to impact their own communities. I’m not giving them goods, I’m (hopefully) giving them means.

I’m also what a memorable professor once described as a “spineless wiffly cultural relativist,” so I’m not trying to indoctrinate people into a Western worldview. I’m a guest in a foreign culture. I will bend my ways to fit their practices, not the other way around. I’m not here to make sure Kenya ends up with a Starbucks on every corner and Taylor Swift on the radio. I want to educate people about their own health, supplanting new information for the outdated and altering acceptable social practices only when required for the fulfillment of a long, healthy life.

That said, journalist Richard Dowden succinctly summarizes in his book Altered States, Ordinarily Miracles thusly:

“Intervention is interference. Whatever aid workers’ motives, their involvement has military and political effects.”

This is perhaps more palpable (and problematic) with regards to things such as monetary aid relief, famine intervention, and political consulting, but it is something of which we all must be mindful nonetheless when we interact with cultures beyond the borders of our own. It’s an issue I wrestle and ponder at length. I’m sure I’ll blog about it here at some point, so stay turned. To date, I have no good answer.

For an interesting (if extreme) opinion on foreign interference in Africa and issues of sustainability, go HERE, or pick up a copy of Dambisa Moyo’s book on the subject, “Dead Aid.” Keep in mind Ms. Moyo’s proposal is just as controversial among people from aid-dependent nations as it is among people of nations creating said dependence.

For dueling economic theories on the matter, turn your attention to the Sachs-Easterly debates, located HERE.

To drown yourself in the surfeit of scholarly work by disenfranchised Westerners, SEE ALSO: The Selfish Altruist, by Tony Veux; Dark Sides of Virtue, by David Kennedy; Humanitarianism in Question, by Michael Barnett & Thomas Weiss; Condemned to Repeat, by Fiona Terry; Do No Harm, by Mary B. Anderson; Complex Emergencies, by David Keen; A Bed For The Night, by David Reiff; AIDS & Accusation, by Paul Farmer; or Famine That Kills, by Alex de Waal. (Actually, most anything by Alex de Waal will fit the bill. )

Read, learn, draw your own conclusions.

(NB: This is removed from my “Recommended Reading List” for a reason. I have read several of these, but not all; I cannot attest to the quality, reliability, validity, credibility, or non-suckedness of those I haven’t evaluated yet. Caveat emptor.)

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I want to read up on Africa. Any Suggestions?

As this list has grown, it has gotten a bit unwieldy so I re-organized it by region! Inshallah I will continue to add more as I keep finding great books.

General

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden
|||A lumbering doorstop of a book if there ever was one (at least my hardback copy is, weighing in at 576 pages) but it provides a decent quick-and-dirty overview. A thorough job is impossible – 50-something countries, scores of religions, 2000+ languages, etcetcetc – but it gives you a reasonably insightful, surprisingly readable portrait of select notable countries and their trials. Dowden understands the subtleties of writing about this continent better than most. Plus, if you’re attacked in your home, you can use it as a formidable weapon to fend off roving fiends.|||

Famine Crimes: Politics & The Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, by Alex de Waal
|||The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and nowhere is this more visible than in the handling of recent high-profile famines in Sudan, Ethiopia, and nearby nations. De Waal dismantles the Bono-esque models of humanitarian relief while seeking to raise a rallying cry against the corrupt systems that promote, actively or passively, mass starvation and disaster. Bottom line: famine is less often a failing of crops than a failing of governmental entities to do the right thing and for those affected to hold them accountable.|||

Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics, and the First World Cup in Africa, by Steven Bloomfield
|||It’s hard to overstate the influence soccer has on Africa – its people, its politics, its outlook on the rest of the world. Bloomfield describes in a series of case studies the complex and sometimes sordid relationship between “football” (as it’s more properly called by everyone except Americans) and the governments that watch it. Hilarious, insightful, and very informative. Excellent book.|||

Gods & Soldiers: Contemporary African Writing
|||An excellent collection of short stories by modern African writers.|||

East Africa/Horn/Rift Region

What Is The What, by David Eggers
|||A classic “autobiography” (fictionalized account of true events that exudes a certain verisimilitude not found in other such works of similar genres) of a Sudanese man who flees violence to find asylum.|||

The White Nile, by Alan Moorehead
|||A bit dated, but nonetheless a personal favorite. Moorehead is a very beautiful writer, although the story doesn’t need much to shine. It chronicles first the European exploration of the Nile, evoking intrigue and sensuality as often as the bitter details of 19th century exploration. Then, it traces the mind-bogglingly complex political history of Sudan and the White Nile regions so competently that it’s almost … well … comprehensible (it’s a rather complex history, you see.) Take with a grain of post-modern salt, but don’t dismiss out of hand an elegant and worthwhile period piece.|||

Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta
|||Also somewhat dated, but this one’s at least … well … written by someone who actually lived there. Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya, and Facing Mount Kenya is something of an anthropological classic. It belongs to that rare category of ethnographies written by someone on the inside, rather than the removed “other.” If the 2008 election debacle in Kenya demonstrated anything for us, it’s that the dividing lines between ethnic groups remain salient, and the complex interactions between history and ethnicity must be understood.|||

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, by Nega Mezlekia
|||In the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopia’s government shifted from eons-old indigenous feudal system to a pseudo-Leninist reign of mayhem branded the “Red Terror.” Mezlekia’s autobiography situates religion and culture in this dark period of history, beginning with his birth in rural Jijiga and following his family’s journey through the period where “a nation ate its young.” Lyrical, heart-wrenching, and laced with magic; an *excellent* read. Originally came highly recommended to me from someone who understand the country – and the situation – quite keenly.|||

Central Africa

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
|||This is a semi-fictionalized account of one missionary family’s journey through the Congo (back before it was DemRepCongo, and even before Zaire) and their interaction with its turbulent history. Perhaps my favorite book of all time.|||

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
|||Also about the Congo/Zaire/DRC+Congo-Brazzaville, Hochschild is a gifted, creative, non-fiction writer who traces the history from King Leopold forward into modern corrupt regimes. A thoughtful and exciting read.|||

West Africa

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
|||Kind of a cliched starter novel for Africana studies, but a good overview of themes like imperialism and cultural relativism. Also written by Chinua Achebe, one of the most influential Africana studies thinkers alive today (and a current Bard faculty member.) This book was my first introduction to African culture in early high school.|||

Other

And here’s a great article for your quick, entertaining consumption – by Bard faculty member and Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina:
How Not To Write About Africa

Mr. Wainaina puts a tragic kabosh on my forthcoming Peace Corps memoir, “Big Sky Shadow Drum Africa Safari Timeless Maasai Bygone: Because I Care.”

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I want to join!! Now what?

Search your soul. Think long and hard about where you want to be in one year, three years, five years. Try to talk yourself out of it (if you can’t do it, then you’re getting somewhere). Read blogs and talk to returned volunteers. Read the blogs of people who didn’t make it at all. All the while, volunteer as much as you possibly can.

Links to Peace Corps resources are located on my “Cool Links” page (check the left sidebar); additionally, a link to the official government site can be found in the moving banner at the bottom of this and every page.

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What comes after the Peace Corps?

Jeez, folks, that’s a frikkin’ long time from now, I’m not even exactly sure what I’m going to be doing in six months. Cut me some slack. But I’m looking at grad school, ideally a PhD in psychology. And probably drinking all the pumpkin spice lattes I can to make up for the ones I missed while abroad.

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HEY!! HAVE YOU SEEN/READ __________?!

Blood Diamond? Yes.

Hotel Rwanda? Yes.

The Last King of Scotland? Yes.

The English Patient? Film yes, book no.

Out of Africa? No, but I own the soundtrack.

“Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad? Yes, and if I ever hear anyone again tell me that’s “all they really know about Africa” my eyes are going to roll so far back in my skull they will get STUCK THERE FOREVER. So please, even if it’s true, keep it to yourself. Or better yet, refer to the above reading list that’s like three questions up from this.

The Constant Gardner? Yes – and it’s one of my top three favorite movies of all time. The book is good as well, although slightly less so.

“We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” by Philip Gourevitch? Yes. Twice. And it never fails to break my heart into a million pieces. Same goes for Machete Season.

(Are any of those actually germane to my specific assignment? Well … no. They’re not. Not really. Sorry.)

 


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