Saturday, February 2, 2013

Is there anything to be concerned about? Nah...

The following is an email response I wrote for someone back in America, who is going through the Peace Corps Application process and had some questions/concerns about serving in West Africa.  I realized that if it was useful for her, then it would be helpful for all others too, whether another future volunteer or friends and family wondering if we feel safe in a foreign country.  Enjoy!

It's great to hear that you're thinking about Peace Corps.  Hopefully I'll answer all your questions and give you some insight. My “story” below might be hard to follow and rather jumbled and disorganized, but I’m not going for grammar here, and unfortunately my time is limited, so I won’t be editing either.  Just whatever comes to mind is what I’ll type!  Enjoy!?!

First of all, safety concerns:  Overall, I feel very safe and comfortable serving in Burkina.  I don’t feel threatened in any way when in my village.  I can wander around any time of day or night, by myself, and feel fine.  I live by myself but I do have neighbors; my house has its own courtyard and I’m on the edge of the village so I only have neighbors on one side of me – not all the way around my yard.   I also have a dog, who’s a wonderful protector/guardian/companion.  Not that I really am concerned about anything, but it is nice to have a dog who barks as soon as someone approaches the house and would probably attack anyone who tried to break into my house without me there or harm me (some people say my dog is mean…but I think she’s just looking out for me and she has yet to do anything worse than growl at strangers until I tell her to stop or show that I’m fine with the strangers coming into my house).   Despite having had a few minor issues in my village, such as getting mugged in my market (I should have had my wallet in hand, not in my little bag slung over my shoulder…) and some random things stolen (pens, a bucket, candy, food from my garden), I still feel fine.  Especially since any issues I’ve had have showed me just how supportive and protective my neighbors and friends in village can be towards me.  Even working with the local police was reassuring and a good learning experience, after my wallet got taken and later when my house was broken into.  Ok, so I guess my house getting broken into is kinda serious haha.   It’s a long story but I believe I wrote about it on my blog.  Basically, some of my students got ahold of one of my spare keys and used the key to enter into my house and take money and food whenever I was not around.   Though I felt very violated at the time, it also made me realize how aware you need to be at all times, whether it’s properly locking your door or just not leaving a bucket laying around outside. Because you’re American, you’re a target, automatically.  Most people in Burkina wouldn’t dare do anything to hurt you and or make you feel unsafe.  But there are those people who see you as “rich” and thus able to sacrifice money/possessions so that they, poor villagers, can live “better” (or at the very least have a new bucket or buy some candy).  It is frustrating to understand this mentality, but it’s how they see things, and they don’t see it as wrong or think that it should even bother you, because you’re here to help them (helping is what volunteers do, right?).  So, coming from a person who’s had her fair share of safety concerns in village, I still feel safe and as if it is my home.  Any problems were solved directly in the village, and the Peace Corps bureau staff were also helpful and supportive.  The main lesson that I have learned, along with most other volunteers (practically everyone gets something stolen from them at least once during their service, usually a wallet or cell phone) is that I need to be aware and always vigilant of my belongings.

Then there’s the issue of safety/security in the sense of people who say weird things.  It happens.  There are people in village who are crazy.  Or then there's those people who are actually “normal” (probably someone working in a position of power) but they are totally unprofessional and inappropriate.  Just trying to see if they can scare you or what your reaction to weird remarks would be.  Anything from, “You need to give me money or I’ll….” to “Americans are terrorists” to “I love you, can I sleep at your house tonight?”  Again, I don’t feel threatened, but things like this do happen (especially if you’re a female) and mostly it’s just annoying, and sometimes even funny. 

Safety in the bigger cities is a bit more of a concern, but honestly, it’s not much different than being in a big, foreign city in America.  I personally haven’t had any problems whenever I’ve been in Ouaga.  You just need to be smart and take standard precautions – don’t go out alone, especially at night; don’t carry bags or things that can be easily snatched; don’t have large amounts of money. 

Safety, in terms of traveling, is also present.  Don’t get in unmarked vehicles (always take the green taxis).  Some bus companies are known for driving too fast or overpacking their vehicles, thus, a safety concern.  But once again, I’ve never had a problem traveling besides buses leaving 4 hours late only to break down an hour later or having to stand because there are no more seats.  It happens.  But it’s not a big deal and I’m not concerned.  Also, be wary of crazy motorcycle drivers – people don’t always abide to traffic lights and road signs like they’re supposed to.  If you’re walking, make sure a donkey cart or herd of kids is not heading right your way, and when you’re biking, be sure to wear your helmet.  Roads are bad and bumpy, and it’s possible you’ll fall of your bike and hit your head (this happened to my friend a few months ago and unfortunately she had a serious head injury and is now recovering in America).

Okay, and lastly with safety, is the concern of a war (or fighting/protests/rebellions).  It’s no secret that West Africa has been undergoing a lot of changes lately, from Libya and Cote d’ivoire to currently Mali.   I completely understand being reserved about serving in West Africa (so I guess Burkina or Ghana, maybe Togo?  Unfortunately there’s not many other  west African countries that still have Peace Corps haha…) and considering Burkina is quite close to some of the action in Mali, we are concerned.  But that hasn’t changed my life or my own security level.  I know that the first hint of a problem actually in my country will prompt my bureau staff to take action and keep us safe.  In fact, if anything, they are over-cautious.  Judging by the volunteer evacuations from Niger 3 years ago and Mali less than a year ago, Peace Corps is prepared and quick to act, if necessary.  There are current Burkina volunteers who originally served in Niger or Mali, but were transferred to Burkina after they were evacuated.  They said they didn’t even think anything was going to happen in their country – tensions and rumors were high, but no actual problems were visible – and were annoyed when told to pack up and go to their safety city, and shortly after flown back to America. And then, much to their surprise, a few months later, problems did erupt.  So, despite West Africa being a bit of a mess (and only living about 30km from the Mali border), I’m not too worried.  And should something go wrong, village is probably the best place to be – it’s very unlikely that extremists would raise hell in village: there’s nothing there for them, besides a bunch of dirty kids, mud huts, and some onion fields.  Any problems are going to break out in bigger cities or around universities first.  Also, as my villagers have told me, should anyone try to cause a ruckus in village, they’ll just get out their shotguns and drive them away.  No one’s gonna mess with their village or harm “their” American.

Secondly, Pre-service Training:  my training (stage) was almost 4 months long, so I had plenty of that!  I was definitely ready to get to site and be on my own after stage.  Your training will depend on (1) your sector, (2) how developed and practiced your specific program is (i.e. whether volunteers in the country have been doing that for three years now, or your group is the very first group to be trained in that program), and (3) the people working your stage (staff and current volunteers).  Training may or may not “prepare” you for your service or what you think you need to know.  One of volunteers’ favorite pastimes in Peace Corps is to complain about trainings and how it could have been better.  But that doesn’t mean training wasn’t good or effective.  It’s just that we like to point out weaknesses in programs (or we think we’re hot stuff and could’ve done the job better).  Also there is SO much to learn that, honestly, you will never feel prepared to be a “real” volunteer.  But you finish with stage, go to your village, and all of a sudden, prepared or not, you ARE a volunteer.  And it’s fine.  Anything you discover you need to learn or get additional training on can be done.  In fact, it’s even better to learn and train on things AFTER you get to village, because you’ll have a better idea of what your village needs, things they already know, things that you need to help them with, etc.  Pre-service training can’t do it all.  But it will give you the opportunity to learn a little bit about a lot of different things, develop language skills (the most important and fundamental aspect of training), and learn about the culture while in a protective and understanding environment.  I came into Burkina as a trained teacher but with NO French skills, so for me, personally, my stage was focused on learning how to speak the language, and I kinda ignored the other stuff, like classroom philosophy (I already had 4 years of that from college) and history of Burkina (you can only mentally grasp so much each day, since EVERYTHING is new and different…and also since you’ll probably be hot, tired, and possibly sick – it takes a bit to get used to the food/water).  Some people thrive during stage, but honestly, it’s a lot like high school and so most people hate it at the time; however, looking back on it, we realize that it wasn’t quite so bad…but it still kinda sucked.  Life in village as a “real” volunteer is a thousand times better and so if enduring 3 semi-horrible months of training is what it takes to get to being placed in a village and finally being able to work on your own projects for 2 years, it’s totally worth it.

In conclusion to everything, don’t be worried or anxious!  **Disclaimer:  my above paragraphs might have given you a corrupt impression of the life of a volunteer and may seem overly negative.  But I was just trying to throw it all out there so you have a thorough understanding of what issues you may face, if any.**  And so to that note, I will say that yes, things do (and will) go wrong and sometimes situations are scary, but for the most part, life is great.  And even when it’s not, there’s always someone there for you (Peace Corps staff, other volunteers, best friends in village, co-workers in village, etc.).  You’re not alone in facing these problems, and someday, those problems will make the best stories to share with friends and family in America.  Plus, there are far more positives than negatives in the life of a volunteer, and sometimes it’s easy to overlook all the good things or focus too much on someone swiping your wallet or men who say inappropriate things to you.  The majority of volunteers are extremely satisfied with their service and many of us talk about the possibility of extending our service (third-year terms), doing Peace Corps in another country, or continuing to work internationally or in development.   It’s no secret that Peace Corps is challenging in so many different ways that it might seem overwhelming, but like the old saying goes, Peace Corps is “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”  

Volunteer-service will change your life and entire perspective of the world, and so I hope you’ll decide to become a volunteer – who knows, perhaps I’ll even see you in Burkina in a few months!?

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