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Peace Corps in South Africa vs. Nicaragua, part I

The view above Cape Town
One of my good friends was just admitted to Peace Corps and deployed to Nicaragua.  It has been extremely interesting to compare my experience with hers, to see where they are similar and where they are different.  For this first post, I'll concentrate on the two versions of Peace Corps in each country.  The overall impression I am receiving is that the Nicaraguan program is basically what I was expecting before I came here.  Of course, everyone tries to get rid of their expectations about how it will be living with a host family, what the culture and language are like, and so forth, but I perhaps foolishly kept a few expectations that I assumed were baked into the cake of Peace Corps, so to speak.

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.


  1. Very interesting. I look forward to reading the next installment. And i think i like the lax approach, but maybe i would like the militant one, too. It would certainly make for a different experience. Africa time

  2. Amazing. Your community survey results have to be presented orally to your village? And if they don't like it you are to be sent home? Even before you've had a chance to help the village? That doesn't sound right. Are you sure that's correct? About the language thing. Spanish is a Romance language and knowledge thereof gives you an assist in understanding other Romance languages, such as French and Italian. Just a rudimentary knowledge of Latin helps one to learn Spanish. A huge and significant portion of the world population speaks Spanish. What portion do you suppose speaks Setswana? Outside of South Africa, how many people/nations do you suppose speak any one of the 11 official languages, barring English? What is the motivation for being fluent in a language you will never use outside of South Africa and with which you will be understood by so few people? Just some thoughts on the language thing. B

  3. Yowza! That was a sick burn. Peace Corps South Africa has something something pretty incredible that Peace Corps Nicaragua doesn't. I won't insult your intelligence by telling you what it is though. Just trust me, we're number #1. So buck up.

  4. As far as the language issue, I agree that Setswana is mostly useless even in South Africa for the most part, and utterly useless everywhere else. The reason I'm still plugging away at it is that I just wanted to learn another language and didn't particularly care which one. If nothing else, it could be a good conversation topic at cocktail parties.

    My larger point is that while language learning is nominally part of the mandate of Peace Corps throughout the world, in SA it's obviously not a real priority. Though that may not be a big deal, it's still true.

  5. Hahaha, I like noah's response the best. Definitely fascinating though. I agree with barbara that there is a HUGE difference when you come in with a background of the language already, as opposed to knowing nothing about setswana before arriving. But on that note, i do know of people becoming extremely proficient in other local african languages (even after PST) in which they also had no previous background. Interesting stuff, nonetheless.

  6. Oh, and as far as the community survey, you have to first do the presentation to your training group, then do it at site with the project coordinator watching, then present it to Peace Corps. I think the way it works is that that you are sent home if you don't do it, but my friend said (if I recall correctly, anyway) that no one had ever been kicked out for doing it wrong. It's just that it's a real important event and there's that threat there, though they haven't ever actually made good on it.

  7. OK, Ryan, we'll agree to disagree. I didn't join Peace Corps to do mindless beaurocratic tasks,,i.e. surveys, forms, reports, etc. I had a little different goal in mind. Peace Corps has become the overbearing beaurocracy that is a government agency, that was inevitable, but you don't have to like it, much less glorify it. Why not wait to hear how your friend is helping, assisting, working with, building, whatever, in Nicaragua, before comparing experiences and finding yours wanting. B

  8. I think we're sort of talking past each other. My point is not to glorify the pointless bureaucratic paperwork, but to say that the paperwork and so forth they are doing in Nicaragua is not pointless, and in fact seems to help with the experience. If one is going to be part of such a government organization, some level of oversight is unavoidable, but here it seems to be simultaneously onerous and completely worthless.

    I'll definitely continue to compare the experiences. Knowing me, South Africa's chances seem slim, but I'll do my best to remain objective.

  9. Atta way, Ryan. And thanks for correcting my spelling. I needed that. :-D B

  10. Ryan, I stumbled upon this blog on PCJ. I'm about to start my service in Nicaragua in about 2.5 weeks. I'll be interested to see what you have to say about PC Nicaragua VS PC South Africa in the future. Best, Lauren


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