The Peace Corps Difference -- Volunteers Live With Locals

In 1961 John F. Kennedy said,

"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed -- doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language."

Obviously JFK couldn't have possibly anticipated future volunteers updating their Facebook statuses, tweeting, posting videos, calling/texting people in the US with cell phones or blogging for The Huffington Post. There have definitely been some major changes over the past 50 years, but for the most part the tenet put forth by JFK that day has remained the same.

In my last piece I compared the changes in the lifestyle of volunteers in Botswana since the Peace Corps arrived in 1968. In this piece I will take a look at JFK's idea of living at the same level of the nationals volunteers work with. It seems when some people hear I have a cell phone it discredits the vision of "the Peace Corps experience," but I hope to show that most volunteers today are still near equal footing with the people of their community. I am only focusing on Botswana, which is different from every other African country and other countries volunteers serve in.

Homes: Volunteers live in homes that are average for their village. I live in a home on a family compound. Both homes have running water, inside toilets, electricity and a gas stove/oven. I hand wash my clothes on the weekends, just like the family I live with. They have a television with a satellite dish and I don't. Some houses surrounding ours have air conditioning and other luxuries. Others have no electricity, outhouses and an outdoor tap.

Food: I shop at the same grocery stores as everyone else in the village and cook from scratch. I eat some local foods and also take local ingredients to make American dishes. I live in a tourist town, so many American foods are available, but with my living allowance I could never afford to eat those foods. One of the best parts of the experience is exchanging recipes like my chocolate chip cookies for my friend's recipe for cow head and then learning new ways to cook.

Clothes: Appearance is really important in Botswana. Important enough that it's common to see women walking a mile in 5 inch high heels through deep sand on their way to work. Needless to say I am the worst dressed person at my job. I brought dress clothes from America, but I have my dress shirts on a 5 day rotation and most people shop often to update their looks.

Transportation: Peace Corps volunteers aren't allowed to have cars. This is a huge advantage in getting to know people in the village. Walking everywhere helped me meet my neighbors, open opportunities for people to meet me and really learn how to use the language. I am often told I am the only white person without a car in my village. For that reason I know a lot of taxi drivers and other people. Volunteers in villages without taxis get to know everyone who can give them a ride.

Cash: I get a living allowance each month, which covers food and essential items and it really does only cover those things. The allowance is set to provide what the average person in the country makes. At my job I would be the lowest paid person, but due to unemployment and other factors I am well above a lot of people in the village.

My parents were surprised when I told them I have an ATM card and get my money from a bank account that has money deposited in it from headquarters in Washington DC. My family was even more surprised to hear that I am often standing in long lines with all of the locals, waiting to use the ATM, while watching lots of people file in and out of the bank checking on their loans, accounts and credit cards.

Health: I go to a clinic in town and sit in a waiting room with everyone else from my village. We watch a flat screen television that usually has the best soap operas South Africa can export. The facility can handle most of my needs and even rushed some X-rays for my wife after an unfortunate failed attempt at hanging our hammock on our porch over a concrete step. Luckily, nothing was broken, but her wrist was immobile for 2 months. I handled the domestic duties during that time, but kind of deserved it as I promised her the hammock was definitely going to hold.

Communication: My cell phone is the quintessential Jason Bourne style throwaway spy version. The students where I work often make fun of me for it. Everyone where I work has cell phones, some have blackberries and even iPhones, which cost over three times what I am paid each month. As I sit in chapel each morning before work it's common to hear the Black Eyed Peas ringtone or endless text message alerts.

The Internet and cell phones have really changed Botswana. In my office just about every computer I pass has a co-worker sitting in front of the familiar blue and white glow of Facebook. Computers were thrust upon the working community in a way where a lot of people know how to use them for fun and are still adapting to functional uses like typing, creating databases and other options. I didn't expect to teach so many people about computers during my Peace Corps service. The center where I work is currently building a computer lab and I will be helping them with the curriculum.

Conclusion: Living near the level of the community makes a huge difference in a volunteer's ability to integrate and better understand daily routines. Peace Corps has focused on this concept since its inception. Oftentimes as soon as I get in a taxi or walk to my house people I have never met will tell me I must be a Peace Corps volunteer, because I am speaking their language and living in a house close to theirs. The idea JFK set forth so long ago is still alive in Peace Corps volunteers around the world!