Peace Corps Guilt

There’s a Huffington Post piece that’s making its rounds again. It’s titled “Peace Corps Guilt,” and while I do identify with most of the points made, I still feel the need to clarify some things.

First, I didn’t join the Peace Corps because I felt guilty. I joined the Peace Corps because I felt lucky – lucky to have my parents as my parents, to have been born in the United States, to have the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s, to dream. I didn’t see myself working an office job from 9 to 5, nor did I want to do so. To me the Peace Corps was this incredible opportunity to learn, to be trained, and to share in another country. I didn’t expect to change the world but I expected to be changed, for the better. The writer herself may have joined Peace Corps because of guilt, but to me, that’s awful. Instead of feeling guilty, feel honored, take advantage of the privileges you have and then share it. Try to make it less about privilege and more about right.

The aspect of the piece with which I do identify is about privilege while in-country. Even though Peace Corps gives us a small stipend (I would definitely not call it a salary) that is comparable to what Guatemalans earn, we are still privileged. We all receive health care and medications apart from our stipend. We don’t have to pay for doctor’s appointments. Heck, I went to see a neurologist in May and Peace Corps foot the bill. Additionally, most of us are young, single individuals; we don’t have to support a family of eight. So although my secretary and nurse friends were all shocked at how little I earn, they don’t truly comprehend that my responsibilities don’t really extend beyond me, myself and I.

Now here is a long-winded explanation of how I do identify with Peace Corps guilt. A problem in my town is nutrition. A lot of children are stunted (too short for their age, signifying chronic malnutrition) and are stick-thin (possibly from acute malnutrition). This stems from not only a lack of food on the table, but also a lack of quality and variety of food. It’s easy for me, the foreigner, to recommend more fruits and vegetables, but fruits and vegetables are more expensive and less filling than beans, eggs and bread (not to mention the copious amounts of fried chicken sold street side). This has got me thinking – I can’t just recommend more fruits and vegetables, but I have to include recommendations about access and utilization. At one meeting, I introduced the idea of making egg and banana pancakes. Most people will buy boxed pancake mix from the store, add water and call ‘em flapjacks. Another PCV gave me the idea to make pancakes from batter solely consisting of eggs, bananas, flax seed, and oats. All available in my town, and overall pretty cheap.

The other issue is that government subsidized foods (like Vitacereal or Incaparina) that are often given away to families are not actually utilized by said families – they’re sold for profit. So although nutrition is a major issue in my town, I can’t just use words to make it better. My first idea (albeit half-baked) was to say that maybe women could use radish and beet greens because most people dispose of the leaves without a second thought, but they can be consumed and can provide other vitamins and minerals. But here, just saying to use such greens isn’t sufficient. How does one prepare them? Who can eat them? Can a baby eat them? Such questions pose a barrier to any sort of implementation.

So now my newest “idea” is to promote tire gardens. Tires are a dime a dozen (especially once you see the state of the highway coming down the mountain to my town) and families can easily get a hold of soil. So, if I were to facilitate trainings on how to make tire gardens, how to harvest the vegetables and how to cook them, the families would hypothetically be able to better their nutrition. Now here is where I make it complicated. It is my personal goal that everything I do is sustainable and not performed by solely me. Right now, I’m trying to maybe make an example tire garden with my host family. Then maybe I can plant the idea to my work partners and have them run with it. I don’t want tire gardens to be this wacky idea from the foreigner, but rather a health center initiative promoted by locals.

Back to the guilt. I do feel guilty that I can afford chard, purple cabbage, spinach, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, mangoes and more. I can afford extra virgin olive oil, ground flax seed and brown sugar. I can afford to buy enough fruits and vegetables where rice, tortillas and pasta aren’t even necessary to fill me up. Sure, I’d love to buy all the chard at Sunday market and distribute it, but there are so many issues with that. (1) Who knows if they’ll use it/eat it? (2) Who knows if they’ll like it enough to continue eating it? (3) What will they do after December 2016 when I leave? So I don’t necessarily feel guilt, but like I said, I feel lucky. And I’ll use that luck I’ve received to learn more and to conceive of creative and efficient ways to promote nutrition in my town.

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