In packing for my Cape Town vacation I only brought one book with me. . .it turned out that was all I needed. I received a Christmas care package from back home…a box stuffed with goodies and sweets and a memoir- Tuesdays With Morrie. I held off on cracking it open, knowing I would love some new reading material as I ventured cross country for my holiday. Burying my face in a book is a rather easy way to deter some creepy men from talking to me on public transportation. Through countless hours on trains, buses and taxis, I powered through the text pretty quickly. It’s an easy read but it’s also very emotional and full of rhetoric. One passage stuck in my mind and was incredibly pronounced throughout my entire vacation…
“Not working for money…”
That one phrase I read in a book ended up delineating most interactions I had in the Western Cape. I don’t think it was a coincidence. It quickly became the topic of discussion and cause for praise from strangers. As I sit at my laptop I’m challenged to articulate the thoughts and emotions that collectively moved me through a series of endless commendation from all these different people I crossed paths with.
Being in rural South Africa for nearly a year has been a whirlwind of excitement, emotional hardship and momentous bits. Then, spending time in urbanized South Africa led me to some realizations that strike me as flattering but also troubling, depending on my mood. I’m always being told that the work I do is noble. When I meet new people I tend to hear repetitive phrasing of “I could never do that” and “I admire you”. I know my desire to contribute to humanity and my sense of adventure has led me to this place I’m in now, but I also can’t help but feel concerned that not more people are taking those leaps.
When JFK first got Peace Corps off the ground in 1961, his intention was for 100,000+ of America’s brightest graduates to volunteer overseas promoting peace every year. Since then, the most Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas in a year was 15,000, while the average is less than 9,000 per year. This fact is saddening to me because since 1961, higher education is being made increasingly more available at little to no cost, therefore more and more Americans are earning college degrees- yet Peace Corps still struggles to recruit these graduates. Hmmm, I’m noticing a disconnect here…
Peace Corps is not an easy job, and by no means do I expect every young American to drop their lives and run into Africa wielding a machete and a medical kit, I guess the point I’m trying to convey is that I wish more people would explore their desires to serve the world. Everybody wants to help in some way. They want to find a way to give back but they have a number of reasons why they haven’t committed to any philanthropic priority in their lives. I don’t mean to nitpick at the peccadilloes of the first-world, my intention is rather to shed light on the void that exists between peoples’ desire to help and the actual contribution that occurs. I’d like to explore that gap and find ways to build a bridge.
In the culture of Peace Corps and volunteerism at large, we normalize ‘not working for money’ and prepensely living at poverty level is typical. Once I got to Cape Town and met non-Peace Corps people, they always ask what I do and once I share with them that I volunteer to live in a village and test South Africans for HIV, they seem astonished that people really do that intentionally. Such interactions help me further cultivate my desire to continue working in a way that is not focused on the amount of money I’m making (or should I say not making, haha) but rather on the people I’m serving and how I can best serve them. Peace Corps does come with many perks but its allure and appeal springs from the opportunity to capacitate and nurture the people in developing communities. To me, one of the greatest things we can learn from Peace Corps is that quality of life is not found in material things. Fulfillment lies in the simplest of tasks and the realization that so much virtue exists in the world, even in places we don’t think it would.
~Recently I was in a car that broke down and stopped running in the middle of the road. Myself and another American hopped out and attempted to push the car off to the side. It was raining. Not more than 30 seconds passed before two strangers appeared along side us, pushing as hard as they could. The four of us pushed the car over to the shoulder, we said thanks and they disappeared. Not a single word spoken.~
Life is full of beautiful moments like these that remind me how much people want to help people. They genuinely want to assist when and where they can, they just need to find ways to do so. Giving back isn’t about giving money- and I think that is a common misunderstanding we Americans have when we think about contribution. Sustainable development has to come from a place of capacitation and skills transfer, and also from selflessness – that’s why volunteerism is so big. Giving time and knowledge holds more value and a more long-term impact than giving money, in my opinion. I hope that we can somehow ignite peoples’ desire to serve the world and take responsibility for their role in our global society. I may just be being my idealistic self but I hope that in some way I can contribute towards firing up that spark in people.
“Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to something that gives you purpose and meaning.”