November 19, 2011

Kludge: In Defense of Peace Corps

Not long ago, a friend of mine said something she clearly thought would be shocking.  “Katie,” she began tentatively, as if bracing me for devastating news, “You know most people don’t really consider Peace Corps a world changer.”  There was a heavy pause.
                I was not shocked—my list of world-changers would be fairly short—but I was caught off guard.  I am much more accustomed to dispelling assorted myths born of distance, exoticism, and Peace Corps recruiting posters.  No, I do not dig wells with my bare hands and bloody knuckles, nor have I contributed to the search for the cure for AIDS.  I am sorry to say that I haven’t rescued a single stranded dolphin.
                For those who criticize the world-changing effectiveness or impact of Peace Corps, this may be the crux of the issue, an incompatibility of expectations and reality.  Peace Corps is exceptionally good at what it does; I just don’t think that most Americans know what it is we do.
                In defense of Peace Corps, I offer you one word and then ask for five paragraphs to explain it.  The word is kludge, and it is defined as “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.”  Setting aside entirely the personal growth of each Peace Corps volunteer, the private, complex and completely individual journey each of us undertakes, this is my strongest (or at least, most unique) argument for the value and very existence of Peace Corps.
                But first, I have to give due to the awkward and the inelegant.  Peace Corps is a lumbering, bureaucratic machine.  Often there are snafus and mishaps, as one might expect from an organization that places 10,000 volunteers in 10,000 far-flung locations.  One feels occasionally isolated and unsupported, as if after your hurried months of training you are slapped on the butt, told “make us proud,” and promptly creamed on the line of scrimmage.  You hear horror stories of volunteers abandoned; you hear stories, too, of volunteers who partied away their 700+ days.  But those are the exception, not the rule, and most volunteers leave Peace Corps feeling that they were respected and served with integrity.
                Despite these shortcomings, Peace Corps somehow works.  For two years, volunteers do a unique and challenging thing, integrating in the truest sense of the word.  We live among our communities, adopting their ways and sharing the rituals of life, learning the language, adjusting to the pace of a different place.  This is a means to an end, helping the community, but also an end in itself: struggling across a vast portion of the cultural divide as a good faith gesture.  As a result of this struggle we see our world and particularly our country of service through a new lens.  And, in turn, the citizens of our host country—neighbor, co-worker, mailman, coffee lady—see us as much more than the foreigner we initially appear and thus the United States as more than just a vague distant nation.  In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors and embodiments of an ideal of cultural tolerance and exchange.
                This change of perception works slowly and yet powerfully on two sides of the world.  Here in Madagascar, the second a word of Malagasy comes out of my mouth, people know that I am American and a surprising number know that I am Peace Corps.  It is this demonstration of effort and nod to longevity, this crossing of the divide, that sets us apart.  Peace Corps volunteers are a presence in a country: not tourists, not disconnected development workers, but something altogether different.  Through pure hearsay, I have heard the American ChargĂ© d’affaires say that Peace Corps is the reason the United States has a good reputation in Madagascar.  Think of that magnified on a seventy-country scale, or even the 139 countries in which Peace Corps has served since its inception 50 years ago.  Yes, much of what Peace Corps does is symbolic, but that symbolism matters.
                Now cross an ocean or two.  Each year thousands who have experienced a change of lenses, an alteration of values, return to America.  Their collective voice broadens our national worldview, enriches our perspective, enlivens and informs debate.  These are returned volunteers who will always remember their time in a dusty or drenched, distant corner of the earth, who will not forget the people who were kind to them there, or the subtle ways that the conduct of a world power can affect them.  Peace Corps volunteers know how small this world is, and in these increasingly interconnected times can be a unique voice for people who may be left out or left behind.
                Forget not that volunteers do good and effective things during their service too.  This argument is not to devalue these works or their impact, but rather to point out that the framework of tangible success is not the only way to measure Peace Corps’ value.  For Peace Corps, like any agency striving for improvement in the developing world, has encountered mountains of missteps, false starts, and dead ends.  This is another awkward and inelegant side of the kludge.  But the side that matters, the side that somehow works, despite the difficulties, is that of the thousands of volunteers whose countless actions and exchanges operate in a small, daily way to increase understanding and improve their small corner of the earth.
                Thus, after a heavy pause, I reply: Peace Corps may not be a world changer, but in a world that is changing, it is more relevant and necessary than ever.

On Fences and Neighbors

I, as an American, am inherently fond of boundaries.  I am helpless to this particular penchant: it both runs in my blood and has been enforced since youth – from colonial homesteading to Frost’s fences (“Good fences make good neighbors”), from my kindergarten cubby to my college cubicle.  Ingrained with deep set notions of personal space and private property, I proceeded through life never recognizing these as just another cultural construct.
                That is, until I moved into a small town in Madagascar.  For the two years thereafter, my concept of space has been under attack, barraged relentlessly, eroded in the most subtle, creeping ways.  I am simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by this process, as I (stubbornly American) keep erecting boundaries and my community (persistently Malagasy) keeps gobbling them right up.
                Under construction for six months, my fence has also, unfortunately, been under the counter process of demolition for eighteen; it has been a steady, painful, stick-by-stick decline.  And as the fence has fallen, my neighbors have crept in with quiet assurance of my inability to resist.  First the yard was conquered, by the infiltration of soccer games and the enjoyment of afternoon shade.  What remained of the fence was soon a jungle-gym; my laundry line rarely held my own clothes; kids hung from the branches of my trees, grabbing at the fruit, as their mothers chattered, harvesting my moringa.  Even my latrine was involuntarily committed to the neighborhood and I was forced to ask myself why I felt such a strong sense of ownership over a hole in the ground.
                At last my porch was consumed: now a marbles arena, a nap location of choice, a terrace we can all enjoy.  My neighbors lounge at ease within the remains of my shattered boundaries.  Once I left for a single night to return and find that someone had quite literally moved in under the overhang, mat and cooking pot complete.
                It might have been this final incident—this most blatant and unapologetic invasion—that forced my recognition of a simple fact: these boundaries exist only in my mind.  Malagasy people conceive of space in a fundamentally different way; they do no perceive the world as I do, neatly partitioned and clearly delineated.  This is a product of my culture, a culture that values boundaries and allows them to dictate behavior.  Instead, Malagasy culture hesitates to circumscribe space, to award its possession, to declare what is public and private.  What boundaries do exist are fairly porous and born of necessity; within a village almost all is shared and communal.
                As proud as I am of my integration, the collapse of my private space can still drive me to wit’s end.  When this happens, I think back to my first months when I entered as the ultimate outsider into a closed, comfortable world where everyone knew everyone and everyone knew their place.  I hardly realized it, but I was just a little pocket within the larger confines of my village, ensconced and inaccessible behind my sturdy fence.
                Now the fence has fallen and as a result I have been invited into the communal world by the very actions of invasion I once despised.  I do not feel myself that I am entirely integrated (it is clear I need a husband and a baby for that) but I am no longer an outsider either.  I am another sort of anomaly, accepted, even embraced, within the physical bounds of my community, but not its fundamental social structure.  It is ambiguous but it is progress, and I will give up my sole right to a hole in the ground for such any day.