I had dengue, a mosquito-born virus that at best feels like the flu and at worst kills, earlier this month. I had a mild case and feel better now. While I was at the Peace Corps office, seeing the doctors, several volunteers commented that they wanted dengue because it is a badge of courage. This struck a nerve in me, mostly because it is a good illustration of what I believe is a counterproductive and mistaken belief some Peace Corps volunteers have about their service. Mainly, the idea that Peace Corps is about physical hardship and surviving.
Peace Corps is about a lot of things–among them are helping people, growing as an individual, and sharing culture–but it is not about hardship and people should not join the Peace Corps if that is all they seek. They should take up rock climbing, backing-packing, or some other grueling (though rewarding) activity that will take them to the desolate places where most people can’t or won’t go.
Some volunteers are quick to share stories of illness, days without running water and electricity, and weeks of isolation. Perhaps these aspects of their service stand out to them because of their shock factor. Perhaps those volunteers think these challenges are uncommon in the lives of humans. We, Paraguay volunteers, have a word that means “fancy,” which we use to describe volunteers who live in cities and have easy access to grocery stores or have AC in their homes. Sometimes volunteers joke that Paraguay is the “posh corps” because compared to some other countries where Peace Corps works we can get around with ease and could get to a hospital if we were to fall ill.
I reject this frame that Peace Corps makes those who serve stronger because of the physical obstacles they overcome. Illness and less-than-easy living conditions are not an oddity in the human experience, they are the norm. I’m from the States and I lived a time without running water and lived in places with limited, or no, cell service. It only takes a quick trip to the major cities of the US to find food deserts. For example, people who live in the two wards on the “wrong” side of the river in Washington, DC, have almost no access to grocery stores. Around the world, people make do with little.
Peace Corps is outstanding because of the cultural exchange between volunteers and host country nationals. The hardest part of Peace Corps is not fighting big spider that come into your house, it is diving into a world that does’t speak your language and that follows different societal rules than the ones you know. Peace Corps challenges you because it asks you to make friends and contribute all you can to improving your place of service while navigating a culture that you do not, and never will, completely understand like you do your own.
My point is this: In the Peace Corps, energy focused on finding and surviving hardship is energy wasted. Peace Corps, no matter where you are, is difficult. You will struggle at times. You will wonder if you will make it to the end. Some people don’t complete the whole 27 months, and usually their decision to leave has nothing to do with which amenities they had in their homes or which illnesses they caught. Most volunteers do finish. And those that do have more stories to tell than their dear family, friends, and acquaintances at home have patience to hear.
Volunteers I implore that you don’t make the 15 to 30 seconds most people will give you to talk about your service about dengue. To focus on something so trivial to your service is to do yourself and your host country a disservice. Tell your friends something fantastic you learned about your strange home. Tell them about something you did to help make life better. Tell them about the men, women, and children you met. Tell them something that matters. Tell them something that would make your host country proud, not something that perpetuates the misconception that those who live in the “third world” are downtrodden.