I received an email from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer that began with the line, “thanks for your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.”
I’ve always felt strange about describing my time in Morocco as a “service,” but I could never put my finger on why. In fact, I have used the “service” multiple times on this blog, without truly examining the word’s implications.
Then I read this enlightening post called “The ‘Third World’ Is Not Your Classroom.” The title caught my eye especially because the last sentence in my very own last blog post was: “I want to learn to Sabr, and Sidi Bouzid is still the perfect classroom.” I wondered if I had been assuming, as the author so succinctly puts it, “that marginalized people are always at the ready to enlighten the privileged.”
Being in a ‘Classroom’ Is Not a Service
In a global context, given the “real, tangible benefits to having experiences abroad,” we “too often…celebrate the revelation without considering the labor that makes it possible.” It’s not a question that I am learning more than I’m teaching here; I already knew that coming in. When I use the word “service,” it implies a false, one-way street that fails to recognize the nuanced nature of my time in Sidi Bouzid.
More than that, the word “service” gives me all the credit, and my counterparts (who, by the way, unlike me don’t get paid) none of the credit. In reality, my infinitely generous counterparts, neighbors, and host families have taught me a lot—from how to set up a gas tank and cultural norms to planning a project and dealing with the administration.
They didn’t have to teach me, but they did anyway. And this teaching requires work. Instead of just assuming that my time here is a mutual exchange or a “service,” it’s important to evaluate the costs that my presence here has had on the community. After all (I can’t remember where I heard this quote) but, “whoever said doing no harm was easy was probably doing it wrong.”
Model UN Is Not a Service
That’s the quote I had lingering in my head today after telling my Model UN students that the conference is either cancelled or postponed until summer due to funding approval that got held up in Washington. These are the students that have been coming to the Women’s Center (Nedi Neswi) or our house every Saturday to learn about the UN, international affairs, and their assigned countries (Cote D’Ivoire and the Netherlands). My heart broke when I had to tell them the bad news.
Of course, this is not the end of the world, and last-minute funding issues are all too normal in "development"-related work. Still, the name “service” implies that I have brought only benefits to these students. I’m sure they’ve learned all the things about international relations and the UN (which is, by the way, an inherently unbalanced institution where my own country has more power than theirs). But also, they are all sitting at home right now angry and bummed out because of me.
And what has my counterpart gained from teaching the Model UN Club? One might say she has had the opportunity to learn more about a new program and gain facilitation experience. But at the same time, she has spent one of her two free days implementing a club that has proven to be a challenging and at times disappointing experience.
Changing the Paradigm is Mutually Beneficial
Changing “service” to another word removes unrealistic expectations that I have of myself. If I’m not able to deliver on a promise like the MUN Conference, I’m too tired to help students with English, or I’m on vacation, I try to remind myself that my assignment is not to singlehandedly change anyone’s life, get them an A in a class, or spend 100% of my time in my site. Instead, it is to try my best and do what I can to support. And I don’t have to sacrifice my own wellbeing or peace of mind to do so.
Likewise, changing “service” also removes unrealistic expectations that others might have of me. The administration in Chichaoua thought I would come in and turn our empty Women’s Center into a bustling one full of women. Instead, I spent the better part of my first year getting to know the local community and culture. The Peace Corps office recognized that was fine. But since the administration supposed I was “at their service,” they were confused why I needed so much time to “learn” and “adapt.”
It’s hard to explain the point of Peace Corps to other Americans, much less to people who come from a different country and culture. But at this point, I believe that many people in Sidi Bouzid are much clearer about my role here than they were when I first came. I don’t think that most of my friends here would describe my time as a “service.” They understand that I rarely do projects alone, I am not a miracle worker nor cash machine, I need time to myself, and most of all, they understand that I’m not just here to do work; I also came to make friends and learn about their culture.
It’s safe to say that “learning” and “making friends” are things that PCVs can commit to doing. Moreover, “teaching” and “hosting” are things that Moroccan nationals have been doing for PCVs since Peace Corps’ inception here in 1963.
If that’s true, then using the word “service” is simplistic because it ignores the local work of communities in supporting PCVs. “Service” is inaccurate because it assumes that Peace Corps Volunteers come here altruistically. “Service” is outdated because it de-centers the personal relationships that keep Peace Corps a relevant and worthwhile endeavor in the first place.
Peace Corps Volunteers: it is time to take ourselves off the pedestal on which the historically problematic development community has put us. Once we find ourselves on solid ground, we might be able to look at Peace Corps for what it truly is: a fun, challenging, crazy, perspective-shifting, unforgettable experience.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!