For the first time in its history, Peace Corps has evacuated all volunteers from their posts and is temporarily suspending operations. On one hand, this is terrible, as it interrupts projects, severs relationships, and makes the greed, irrationality, and xenophobia of the Trump administration the face of America instead of open-minded and well-meaning volunteers. On the other hand, though, the COVID-19 pandemic gives us all the opportunity to become Peace Corps volunteers, without leaving home.
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in three different countries over five years (one was a shorter-term Peace Corps Response position). I am feeling a similarity now to Peace Corps service in a number of ways. First, adjusting to a different culture—one that is mostly homebound. This is actually not that different from the situation of women in places like Azerbaijan. When I was a volunteer there, following local custom (and because there were not many places to go), I, too, stayed home when I was not officially working at school. The COVID-19 culture in America involves customs like hand washing, maintaining a 6-foot distance from friends and strangers, and communicating and shopping mostly via screens. Without the ability to hop to restaurants and shops to grab a bite to eat or other supplies, the resources are also different. We must rely more on cooking our own meals. We must find different ways to exercise and socialize.
One of the things Peace Corps has you do during your initial time at site when you are still in culture shock is to conduct an assessment of the needs and resources in your community. This is something we all are doing, or can be doing, right now to assist with the health of our households, neighborhoods and cities. A few days ago I placed a bulk order from our local food co-op for the first time of flour, oats, and brown rice. I figure that even if we don’t end up needing those items, some of our neighbors might. I keep reminding myself that in other parts of the world, people are not used to having the wealth of food choices that many Americans are used to. In Togo, the main food that families needed to keep on hand was a bushel of corn meal to make their staple food pâte. In Azerbaijan, the staples would have been flour and sugar. Other things, like eggs and herbs, would be provided from one’s own yard.
I am enjoying, so far, the return to a slower, simpler pace of life, with fewer schedule demands and fewer stimuli. This was one of the main things that I enjoyed about my Peace Corps experiences as well. I am grateful to have soil to plant in, electricity too cook with and see by, and running water with which to wash. That we have not only all that, but WiFi, too, which enables us to connect instantly with people around the globe, is truly marvelous.
The specter of illness and death affecting those we know and upsetting the way of life we’re used to is dreadful and scary. But challenging times can also be rewarding times of growth. The old Peace Corps saying is that a Peace Corps volunteer does not see a glass of water as half full or half empty—they look at it and say, “Hey, I could take a shower in that!” (And no, we do not need a lot of toilet paper, either). Yesterday I needed a piece of wood to help me fix a window shade and instead of running to the hardware store, went out and chopped a piece of scrap I found on a log out back. It worked! And I felt empowered. Let’s all take a good look at what is around us and make the best use of it that we possibly can. If possible, let’s extend our needs assessment to include others outside of our households as well, donating resources and other assistance as we are able. Be well everyone!