You doesn’t sign up for the Peace Corps to host meetings in a language you can’t follow. You don’t give up two years of your life to put co-facilitator or note taker on your résumé.
You become a volunteer to build a clinic or teach the next village doctor. You travel to a place you probably didn’t know a year earlier to bring clean water or start a business. Those are the success stories at the center of Peace Corps marketing. They are the dreams applicants put themselves into. Even when they tell you that you can’t change the world, you still expect that you can do one of those gold star projects.
The truth is that those successes are not as common in the roles of most volunteers. Yes, we do great work, but not all of it can be framed with a clever catch phrase (“Never start a sentence with I wish I would have”) and hung in an airport. Instead, their impact is less tangible and not as easy to explain to people back home.
Those projects happen every year in Peace Corps countries around the world, but those are in rare cases when the counterpart, community motivation and village and external resources perfectly align. And each piece must fit together or it doesn’t work. One of my biggest personal challenges so far is realigning the expectations I set for myself with what is practical in my village. I won’t help a group of bo-‘me start a microloan project or artesian group. In my village, those projects are not realistic and my job is not to force these shining projects on to them so that I have brag-worthy symbols of my service.
I am slowly learning that my role is to bring my community together and show them what they can do. I call the meeting, but they discuss the problem and what needs to be done. If I can offer technical support or access to a grant, great. But the Peace Corps is not about giving handouts; that’s what NGOs do.
As much as the next volunteer, I want some amazing project that I can look back into years and say, “This is what I did.” But, I am realizing more and more that that is not likely. Still, my impact here can be great. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a building or new water system. It can be just showing the people what they are capable of and watching as they do it. That is where the real change lies because skills and knowledge will always out last bricks and mortar. My personal expectations are goals I set before I was even assigned to Lesotho and they can be discarded. I want to be a good volunteer and the best thing I can do is just listen to my community and keep finding ways to bring it together.