Friday, July 24, 2009

Peace Corps vs. NGOs

I went on an all-out offensive in my village work after writing that last post. I've been busy writing grants and keeping in touch with community leaders for other prospective projects. For the 4th of July, I made my way up to a fellow PCV's homestead and celebrated our nation's birthday with some God-awful wine and a sweet view of the Tanzanian/Kenyan border. We talked about service and how 'Mentals have to make their own schedules while Ed's are pretty well told what's expected of them on a daily basis. I told her of my village's water problem and how Ingenires sin Frontiras (ISF; Engineers Without Borders from Spain) have been building a new pressure tank while I'm on the sidelines thinking there's no effective role for me in the project. She laughed and said that most NGOs she's talked to have said that their biggest problem is community involvement and having someone on the ground 24/7 would help massively. What could I say? That makes sense.

So I sat in on an ISF-led village meeting two days ago with all the intention in the world to find a spot for me in their scheme and it was a lot easier than I expected. They had some new volunteers that arrived from Spain the past week and were expected to take some GPS coordinates of the multiple water sources in the Kisiwani area. Now, for many long-term volunteers or development workers, there's a certain stigma that goes with being a short-term volunteer. Many friends of mine prefer to elevate themselves from the others who don't know the language, who don't understand the culture, and who generally see their time here as a resume builder or a fun 5-week adventure. I can see why this is so, but I always try to give the benefit of the doubt to newbies. And in fact, these two Spaniards were newbies and I was to be their translator. So all of yesterday, we hiked through the sticky, buggy, steep landscape of the Kilimanjaro Pare Mountains to find these water sources and document them, all the while translating everything from Kipare to Kiswahili, Kiswahili to English, and finally English to Spanish. It was exhaustive work and I needed a cool bucket bath afterwards, but I'm happy to have met these guys.

Alberto's from western Spain and is finishing his degree in engineering while Raguel used to work for Eickson and... well... I'm really not too clear on what she's up to. They're newbies in the fact they don't know the language but their cultural appropriateness was good for first-weekers. We talked about NGO work and how Peace Corps functions. They found it surprising that I have a house in my small village, am formidable with Kiswahili, and am toying with the idea of staying here after service. It didn't take long to establish that, yes, ISF seems to be making a much larger impact on the community than Peace Corps is and I thought long and hard about it over a large pot of rice and tomatoes made for one that evening.

Like my former post has said, my efficiency hasn't been up to my personal standards for this past year and that frustrates me. If I could be as productive as Alberto and Raguel during their 5 week volunteer period and actually have assignments to complete during a 5 day work week that contributes to a bigger project... then wow! I could accomplish so much! I mean, their boss literally walked over to our primary school, said, "Looks like you guys need new toilet facilities. I'll have some cement sent over." Something like that could take months in the bureaucracy of the Peace Corps office.

I was frustrated for most of the afternoon after realizing this, but then it hit me: is developing infrastructure and household capacity the ONLY reason I'm here for? True, the 3 Peace Corps goals start with providing trained professionals to meet the needs of the host country nationals, but the other two focus on the vague and broad subject of cultural exchange. I might not be able to function as efficiently as other NGOs do and rely on my bike instead of an SUV, but it was ridiculous how much more comfortable I was while functioning in that environment than the other volunteers were. They understood what the project was doing. I understood on a personal level why it needed to be done.

I'm not in any way knocking on that NGO or those volunteers. They're doing a fantastic thing for the district and those newbies are personally my new amigos and weekend drinking buddies in Same. But yesterday was a much needed experience to remind myself that a very large part of the Peace Corps goes beyond the quantitative development work. What might be a villager to one volunteer is a neighbor to me. A shoolchild, my sister. An elderly woman, my bibi. I don't want to do projects for the purpose of pointing to it later to convince myself these two years weren't wasted. I want to do projects because it helps my friends and family here. That's what Peace Corps is and that's why I'm still here volunteering my time to anyone or any organization that wants to help.

Karibu sana.


Jane said...

Good Day. Komusta?(How are you?) Hope you are doing fine. I am Jane, a postcard enthusiast and currently blogging at:

I've been reading your blog lately.

I am currently working on a project called "Postcard Project 100"The goal is to received stamped and written postcards sent from the country itself. I am planning on presenting it to my history class, and I need your cooperation to make this project possible.
Only one beautiful postcard to have this project grow. Hope you will be able to participate.

Great Hugs and Thank you,

Margaret said...

Weird, I read your blog : ) You're right, but I think that trying to debate the whole PC vs NGO issue is sometimes too much when we have all of this time to overthink everything while we are waist deep in it.
Look forward to seeing you at MSC?

SignatureSterling~Untie the Ribbons! said...

Just another reminder that I am and continue to be so very proud of you, my dear son. Love you bunches! Peace, Mom

AhernPages said...

I'm amazed at the kind of work and impact you are making. Very proud to a have a friend doing this kind of work. When you get home you need to plan a trip up to Wisconsin to visit Kel and I. You would love it here. Water on all sides of us, tons of camping biking, hiking, boating etc. And talk about beer, this is the place. Can't wait to hear your home.

Nancy said...

It's wonderful to "hear" your voice, Andrew. And it makes sense to me that the best way to work in the best interests of a group of people is to live and work alongside with them. This seems to be especially the case for African states, first pawns in colonialism, then in Cold War rivalries, and now in resource rivalries/War on Terror that sometimes even the most well-meaning NGOs and volunteers can get caught up in. Have you read anything by Paul Farmer? Though he primarily deals with global health politics and much of his work is rooted in Haiti, I think he and you might have a great deal in common in your thinking and concerns. I'll see what I can get in the mail to you if you're interested. Love, Aunt Nancy

Andrew Zacharias said...

Margaret: Yeah, a lot of my stuff is written off the cusp after going through stuff that makes me (over?)think about why things are the way they are. NGOs and PC are two different breeds and I dunno if it's even fair to compare the two even if they're both in development. Volumes could be said about the two and how they function. Ah well. Yeah, I'll totally be at MSC and getting into Dar this Thursday. I'm wicked excited to see all of you! It's been a whole year!

Aunt Nancy: It's super interesting hearing the ideas and feelings about colonialism in Tanzania from people who have seen it firsthand, the development work that the Cold War actors did here, and now the great interest in the mineral export business and Chinese infrastructure projects across the nation. I haven't read any of Paul Farmer, but it sounds like an interesting topic. If you think I'd enjoy it, I would be really happy to find it in my PO Box one day with some news from Vermont. Thanks for reading my thoughts and commenting. I think we'll have a lot to talk about when I get back!