“…That the battle between good and evil is perennial, that the purpose of the good life is not to win the battle, but to wage it unceasingly.” – Alan Paton, Towards The Mountain
We do the best we can.
The pernicious nature of our lives as Peace Corps Volunteers is that we live in the same environment as the rest of our village, but we are always, acutely, aware of what’s outside it. We know the potential; we live the failure. We think about the things we’ve lost and always are we reminded that they never had them to begin with. If only someone had told us it would be like this.
Part of what’s so difficult is that even the most levelheaded has an idealistic conception of what development work details. And then we step off the plane and into the village and the reality is so drastically different. We don’t expect the people we want to help to resist. We’re surprised at their frustration with us, disheartened by their blithe acceptance of the status quo, and defeated by the morass of culture through which we inevitably wade. The pro forma declarations of cooperation nettle, the deficits of trust sting.
One volunteer related a story. She was on the phone with a close friend back home. He told her, “Since you’ve gotten there, you drink more, smoke more, and are just a little bit meaner.” We’ve gone from yoga and hiking to cursing and sleeping. It’s funny, until it’s not. Volunteers take drugs, take chances, gorge on hope. Some days we don’t go outside, except to empty our waste buckets and refill on water. It is a rake’s progress.
When we finally make it back out of the hut, reset and ready for round whatever, inevitably drawn to the lodestone of service for which we applied, we find our work woefully undone: library books lost or reshelved improperly; teachers doing everything by hand as the computer sits idly by; learners doing their multiplication tables with dashes on paper; the NGO apparently nonfunctional without us. And then there are the rancorous looks, the ones that accuse a supercilious spirit.
And now, well, we have to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from this thing fraught with discontent and still, somehow, joyful and exotic and immense. Look now, far past the apogee of our service, banking into the end, what we have to show for it. At the end of two years, as we prepare to depart, to return somewhere, what long-lasting change have we effected? What of our resiliency has endured?
I’m a big proponent of the philosopher John Rawls’ social theory The Veil of Ignorance, which says that for a democratic society to function successfully, and in doing so allocate resources, rights, and responsibilities equitably, all interested parties must be denied knowledge of their own social standing and natural ability (the tool for doing so is said veil). In such a manner, cooperation is achieved by invalidating all considerations morally irrelevant.
Let’s drop the veil on our Peace Corps personalities for a moment and leave alone that reflexive urge to tally our service. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for South Africans over the age of two hovers around 18% right now. The rate of new infections has stabilized, but approximately 500,000 are still infected annually. Only 29% of male youths can correctly identify ways to prevent sexual transmission as well as reject misconceptions about its transmission. For girls and young women, that’s lower. In schools, learners continue to fail English, Maths, and Science-related courses in vast swaths, even as they’re passed onto higher grades as teachers struggle to lighten their own burden. We’ve all borne witness to the (still) staggeringly high use of corporal punishment. And as unemployment climbs and the education system is overhauled yet again, public schools will continue to attract those least qualified to teach and further dissuade them from giving a damn.
Now lift the veil. Social inequality and HIV/AIDS in South Africa is not an abstraction, and part of our journey is demystifying the mythology: they are people, not numbers; it’s a country, not a continent. And in this country, poverty is not a bilious aspiration, no matter how many grants are given out. Death is not desired, despite the behavior. What is beyond our own ken, what we cannot possibly ever comprehend, is the impact we have when we’re not even trying. The second and third goals of Peace Corps are not frivolous jokes; they are vital cornerstones of the program. Our efforts count, but more so our relationships.
Loving something and letting it go, as its said, takes strength. Fellow 22s, something I never said too much: I’m proud of us. We’ve done good. We earned our Peace Corps moniker, workshop after conference, village after vacation, training after tragedy. You leave a legacy that will last long after you depart this place, no matter what you think, and that’s important. More important is that we tried.
Accepting failure isn’t simply about acknowledging it though. If only. No, that parochial notion doesn’t hold water here. There is something in the process of owning it, a reckoning, which demands the inherent and pivotal step of self-reflection. And it is there that we actually grow from our loss. While intention may be the ugly stepsister to action, bereft of ambition and ideals, we slowly lose ourselves in a bleakness of spirit. And we can do better than that.
I signed up for the Peace Corps because I wanted to believe I’m selfless, but I stayed because I am selfish. I stayed in Peace Corps South Africa because I couldn’t bring myself to leave, despite the overwhelming ineffectiveness. I stayed because a spark cracked, a signal flared, and suddenly I felt a connection. I understood how precious it is, and how little everything else matters. What am I still doing here? I’m learning how to be selfish. It ebbs and flows, so I keep running to it. I need to be strained.
We create our tiny worlds around us, saturated with second-hand information easily available, and travel is the only way to bust them open, to instead live a life drawn taught by personal experience. It is so fleeting, our time here, that to spend it any way but in vigorous pursuit of the unknown, however you define it, seems to me to be a waste. And in the end, as I look back on these two years, in service of all 29 of them, I am reminded of these artless words, written by William Allen White nearly a century ago, but forever anointed upon my soul:
“Or is there somewhere, in the stuff that holds humanity together, some force, some conservation of spiritual energy, that saves the core of every noble hope, and gathers all men’s visions some day, some way, into the reality of progress? I do not know. But I have seen the world move, under some, maybe mystic, influence, far enough to have the right to ask that question.”
Be good to each other.