There have been plenty of times during the past two and a half years when I have gotten more credit than I deserve.
- From my supervisor: “You are very busy, I know.”
(when scheduling an appointment)
Meanwhile, this conversation is the only actual work I’ve had all week.
- From a youth cooperator: “We would never have had this success without your guidance and support.”
(after telling me that his co-op planted a hectare of potatoes)
Meanwhile, the last meeting I had with this cooperative was months ago, when they told me they were putting their project on hold due to the drought. We never discussed potatoes.
- From a teacher at my primary school: “You are very generous to sacrifice two years during which you could have been earning money.”
(after I explained what Peace Corps is)
Meanwhile, my college degree qualifies me for zero practical things, I was lucky to get the job I had between graduation and Peace Corps, and in all likelihood would otherwise have spent these years at an unpaid internship.
- From you, probably, at one point or another: “Emily is a good person because she is helping needy people in Africa.”
(NB: Africa is not a country. I was in Lesotho.)
Meanwhile, I didn’t have any work today so I napped and re-read Harry Potter. You’re welcome for my valuable contribution, people of Lesotho.
Basotho culture tends to favor telling someone what they want to hear over blunt honesty, hence all the (what comes across as) sucking up.
I’ve also noticed that my being a foreigner, especially an American, inspires an undue deference. America has provided a substantial amount of aid to Lesotho, which is no secret to Basotho. Every clinic, school, or government building that we paid for has a big sign in front that says “Provided by: THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” or sometimes just “Provided by: AMERICAN PEOPLE” (which American people? Am I one of them? Would I know if I were one of them? Who would tell me if I were one of them?) The U.S. Ambassador and his role in this country are generally well-known. One time a Mosotho referred to him as “Our father.” So it seems that there’s some inferiority complex stuff going on in Lesotho’s national psyche. It’s not a difficult thought trail to trace:
The signs everywhere say we have necessary infrastructure because of Americans
This girl is American
She helped build this clinic or whatever
I forget what it is exactly she says she does here, but it’s something to do with fighting HIV, which is good
I want her to feel appreciated for building all those clinics and curing AIDS. Thanks, Ausi Mpho!
I feel weird and cringe-y during these conversations. No, this is not false modesty. I did not build any clinics or cure AIDS.
My Peace Corps experience has also hit me with the other end of this spectrum: lack of recognition. Due to the above stated reasons I tend to dismiss recognition from Basotho. The only sources I would pay any heed to would be my supervisor or counterpart, and any back-patting goes both ways with them, as they work with me in everything I accomplish. So that leaves my other bosses- Peace Corps. The nature of the system of Peace Corps is that, if all goes well, you don’t interact with staff very much. Under normal circumstances, a Volunteer who is resilient, resourceful, and integrated won’t need to rely on PC staff to fix problems that arise at site. Support from post staff comes in the form of resolving issues, so when you don’t have any, or you take care of them yourself, you don’t hear from them. I think this is a good system. I feel much more accountable to my host organization than Peace Corps, which is appropriate as my work affects my host community, not the office in Maseru.
PC Lesotho does have ways of congratulating PCVs who are doing successful projects. These usually come in the form of “shout-outs” in emails or our monthly newsletter. Shout-outs are fun and let you know what other PCVs are up to. I am not anti-shout-out. The problem with them is that they favor PCVs who are doing projects like putting on a testing event, or a gender camp, or a sports tournament. It’s easy to congratulate someone for something that can be summed up in one sentence. It’s like a verbal photo-op. Additionally, these kinds of projects usually offer the best literal photo-ops. However, they’re also the least sustainable kind of projects PCVs can do. Even if you strive for sustainability within the event (train counterparts to organize future events, seek local funding instead of a grant), it is inherently not sustainable because it’s a one-off thing. I have organized events like these (GLOW Camp, BRO Camp, Youth Forum), and I still consider them worthwhile, but I do not think they will have the longest-lasting impact out of my projects here.
It’s the not-flashy, not photo-op-y work that was the most important. Shout-out for figuring out the grant-writing software! Shout-out for looking over the account books of that mushroom-growing cooperative! Shout-out for facilitating a really great class discussion about whether sex is a right or a privilege! And oftentimes the little stuff was the stuff I was most excited about. Shout-out for helping one of your herd boy computer students to finally get the difference between right and left-click! Shout-out for memorizing all your students’ names! Shout-out for using a new word in Sesotho!
Grassroots work tends to be more about the small-scale, slow-moving projects. And the work I did during my service was very grassroots-driven. I did not receive any shout-outs from PC staff. At first this was discouraging. I knew I was doing good work – why couldn’t they see it? I’ve always gotten positive feedback from bosses and supervisors in my past work experiences. It was hard not to feel resentful towards the Volunteers who got shout-out after shout-out. It was hard not to feel resentful towards staff that seemed to be ignoring me. I had moments when I questioned whether I actually was doing a good job, and more moments when I considered dropping what I was doing so I could focus on planning a testing event, or something of that ilk. But then I had some important realizations:
- Focusing on a shout-out-bait project was not what was right for my community.
- Chasing results over accolades makes me a good Volunteer.
- Radio silence from staff means that I’m well-integrated, resourceful, and resilient
- Which is further evidence that I’m a good Volunteer.
- I am not a child who needs their teacher to validate their efforts in class. Do I really need a shout-out to feel rewarded by my work?
The answer was no, I didn’t. Bonus cool thing: When you value your own opinion of yourself over others’, you gain confidence in your judgment and abilities. Letting go of the need for recognition isn’t about being defiant or shitting on the accomplishments of others. For me, it was about straightening out my priorities, and understanding things as they really were.
Some students and I painted a world map mural on a wall at school: