How the Peace Corps believes its own PR, looks past its mistakes, and shafts volunteers in the process.
In training, I picked up on a theme that would mark much of my service: it wasn’t that the Peace Corps itself did not have high standards; it was that the people directly responsible for setting me on my feet had learned to skate by under the agency’s radar—or there was little evidence of a radar at all. For example, at the end of our language training, a mandatory audio recording was made of our final verbal language test, presumably for review in the D.C. headquarters. Our examiners cheated by showing us the questions written out in English on the sly while they spoke them in Setswana. It’s not hard to see why they did so; if they had not, I estimate that three-quarters of my group would have failed—which would have brought undesired attention from headquarters.
Of course, there were good moments. During training, I stayed with a poor family consisting of a grandmother, her son, and her two grandchildren, a boy and a girl. During my first couple of days at their house, the grandmother was away at a funeral and the kids were in Pretoria with their mother. I spent the time reading and awkwardly hanging out with the children’s emaciated and AIDS-stricken uncle, who spent most of the time sleeping. I felt lonely and ill at ease, but when the rest of the family returned to meet me for the first time, that changed instantly. The kids were literally jumping with excitement to have me as a guest. That night they put on an old tape of gospel music and the four of us danced in the living room, the little girl riding on my shoulders.
But even fostering such moments of happy cultural exchange requires some vigilance on the part of the Peace Corps, I would soon learn. After training, I moved to my permanent site, a tiny village in the Northern Cape Province, about 370 miles west of Pretoria, hopeful things would take a turn for the better. They didn’t. Peace Corps officials had placed me in what I think I can call, with little fear of exaggeration, a stupendously inappropriate home. The patriarch of the family had hanged himself in the family shop in 1979 after he beat his wife so badly he thought he had killed her, and the remaining members still seemed scarred. They had turned their home into a tavern, which was alternately empty or full of reeling drunks begging for money. Worse, the local government disbursed the government pension from their house, meaning that once a month a truck full of cash and men packing automatic weapons would spend a couple of hours in my front yard. Needless to say, this violated basic Peace Corps safety guidelines.
The local school where I was assigned to work was no less fraught with problems. The school principal—the man who had filled out the paperwork for me to live in his village for two years—was supposed to teach math, science, and English in grades seven to nine. He did not step into the classroom to teach once in an entire quarter. It didn’t matter much, though, because he retired three months after I arrived, at the end of 2009.
Most of the ninth-grade students could not get through a simple English conversation, or figure out, say, six times four without a calculator. The teacher for the second and third grades refused to teach any English, flouting a mandate in South African law. Though corporal punishment is illegal in South Africa, the teachers regularly beat their students. When the kids learned that I would not do the same, they quickly stopped listening to me. It made classroom management a nightmare.
I grimly hung on to my job through 2010, slowly losing my morale and sense of commitment. After the school’s education department promoted one of the teachers to the job of acting principal, she tried to institute some reforms. This ignited a spate of bitter, resentful political wrangling as the teachers fought hammer and tong to avoid accountability. I began to spend more and more time away from my village and the classroom. I spent hundreds of hours wandering the bush, going through audiobooks by the terabyte. I helped other volunteers with their projects; I remain particularly proud of helping a friend refurbish a computer lab in a neighboring village from scratch, then fixing the server by myself after it broke down.
That neighboring village, only three miles away, provided ample evidence that the Peace Corps was capable of selecting and establishing far better volunteer sites than mine. The primary school in this neighboring village was excellent; it employed one of the best teachers of small children I have ever seen. By sixth grade, that school’s students could speak better English than many of the teachers at mine. It was much easier to find meaningful work in such an environment. And perhaps even more importantly, the village’s Peace Corps host family comprised some of the kindest, most generous people I met in South Africa; I was probably closer to them than to my own hosts. But this only goes to show, again, that even the “cultural exchange” component of Peace Corps service requires good choices from the agency.
At the start of 2011, well into my second year, the education department hired a new, permanent principal—a big improvement on the first one, though he could hardly have been worse—but by then I was so disillusioned and disgusted with teaching that I decided to concentrate on something, anything, else. (Even today, the thought of classroom teaching arouses a feeling in me of powerful revulsion.) I decided to revise and typeset the Peace Corps grammar manual for Setswana, and to make one last big effort to give something back to the agency: I signed up to help with the training of the new group of volunteers arriving in early 2011.
If I was so dissatisfied with my own training, I thought, I should at least do something to try to improve things. I participated in a weeklong “training of trainers” beforehand, and helped lead a week’s worth of sessions for the new volunteers. While not a disaster, it still did not go as well as I had hoped. Frustrated, I wrote a post on my personal blog that laid out what I thought was wrong with the process. I didn’t mince words. When Peace Corps officials at the South Africa post got wind of the post, they kicked me out of training.
And so, a few months later, I finished my service and came home.
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