|The view above Cape Town|
The first big one is I thought it would be hard. The most common catchphrase I remember hearing about this experience was "It's the toughest job you'll ever love." Well, it's not tough and I don't love it. Don't get me wrong, I'm having a pretty good time, and I'm not depressed. But let's take the case of this community survey that everyone must do during their first few months at site. Here it's a big bunch of obnoxious paperwork, saddled with enough meaningless buzzwords to sink the Queen Mary II, about which Peace Corps has said not one word since we turned it in. Some probably never even did it. In Nicaragua, this is an extensive presentation you must give to you entire village and a Peace Corps representative, in Spanish, and if it is not accepted they send you home. Now, the experience here can be tough in a lot of ways, but from the point of view of doing things for Peace Corps there are very few expectations.
The second was that I would learn a language. At our staging in Washington, DC, Peace Corps officials told us that if we applied ourselves, we would learn a new language. This has not been remotely the case. There is not a single person in my training group who after fifteen months could really be called fluent in Setswana, and only two or three who are very good (not me, I sound pretty good but it's mostly an act). Part of this is understandable, as English is the most common language and one can easily get by with only English. But one of the main reasons I joined Peace Corps was to learn another language. Not that I've given up, I still speak Setswana every day in my math class (as it's a choice between learning maths or English), and I'm always trying to practice with my teachers and my host family. But I've been finding out that for the average person to really learn a language, you realistically have to be thrown into a sink-or-swim situation, where you either learn the language or go home. Perhaps that not necessary here, but in any case it is patently obvious that the administration of PC South Africa could not care less about language learning—the examiners who gave the language examination cheated: they wrote out the questions beforehand in English and showed them to us while they recorded the conversation on tape, which is I presume for some assessment program. It seems likely they were just checking boxes for Washington, since if they gave us a fair assessment they would undoubtedly fail more than 90% of us.
|Mount Concepción in Nicaragua|
In Nicaragua, it goes pretty much how one would logically structure an intense language immersion course. There is a test when you arrive, most of the presentations and training materials are in Spanish, and the host family has been instructed to speak strictly Spanish to you. If you do not pass your language test at the end, you are sent home. My friend would speak practically no English during the day—that's what it takes to become fluent. Here we had two hours of language during the morning that often turned into an hour and half, and two hours of "self-directed learning" in the afternoon. Of course, one couldn't do a complete immersion course here as everyone was coming in totally green, but the lack of urgency was palpable. Language learning simply was not important.
In fact, that apathy could probably be generalized throughout most of the administration here. Where in Nicaragua Peace Corps seems hell-bent on pushing volunteers to do their utmost, to the point of stressing them out tremendously about it, here what you do is basically your own business. No accountability whatsoever, which is good for some, but not as much for others. (This critique shouldn't be extended to the security department which does a very good job, and to a lesser extent the medical department.)
In the next post, I'll talk about culture.