Thats right everyone, it has been a full year since my cohort and I stepped off that plane and into an adventure where most everything was unfamiliar, new, and exciting. During my visit back to America some asked, “You really like it there?” Yes, if I didn’t, would I still be here? Actually I probably would be here either way. I was taught a Jewess never quits (thanks Dad, you really taught us to grit our teeth through the unenjoyable). But, I can definitively say I love what I am doing and already know it is going to be a sad day when I say goodbye.
This past year flew by with seemingly endless ups and downs. But, if everything was bliss how could I claim that I’ve reached what the Peace Corps labels as “integrated?” Personally, I prefer the term welcomed. For if you are welcome somewhere, people invite you in for dinner, to sit and exchange stories, to tell you about their family followed by asking about yours. Which has happened in my community more times than I can count.
Some volunteers nearing the end of their service can be outspokenly jaded (side note: if you’re looking for some laughable PC experiences would recommend searching Instagram for #jadedcorps). Maybe they feel jaded about what they see as a lack of accomplishments during Peace Corps or because they see the challenges that people in their community or that their students face and they feel somehow hopeless. Being jaded is self centered. It expends energy to focus on what you think is wrong and drags other people down with you. And believe me I get where they’re coming from, but I really did not want to stress negative aspects of my experience or place a dark tone over what I observe happening around me. This mostly comes from the idea that I believe in hope and positivity and have a desire to learn as much as possible. Learning from and listening to another persons story is difficult if you’re focused on the negative. Americans already have a deficiency, white saviorism lens when talking about African countries. If you are a PC volunteer, you should not be using your story to sustain those perceptions. One of my PC goals was to use this time to take the spotlight off of myself and try to truly see others. To try and see life through their lens and to connect with others that have a background greatly different from my own.
Anyways, I don’t want to focus too much on how one should or shouldn’t be during their time in PC. Every volunteer has his or her own unique experience. So since it has been a year maybe we should reflect on personal growth, even though I said I didn’t want myself to be the center of my service. I know, I am full of contradictions. But, if we are being honest, an experience of constantly pushing the limits of your comfort requires some sort personal growth. So here are two of my big growing pains right now.
BODY AND SELF CONFIDENCE
I’m going to be real. The issues of self esteem and body image I thought I had worked through long ago have resurfaced. If you knew me in middle school, I was chunky, short, with braces, glasses, and was easy to cry. Moving to a new school in the 7th grade where girls cared about which Ugg boots you had (obviously a necessity in the frigid California climate) and I didn’t even know what a ‘skinny jean’ was, wrecked me. It was long ago and I have been rebuilding since. Coming off of graduating from a top engineering school with above a 3.5 GPA and finding passion for engineering through my minor of Humanitarian Engineering, May 2018, I celebrated the accomplishments of 4 years surrounded by family members and lifelong friends. I felt beautiful, strong and like no one could stop me wherever I was going.
I was asking to be humbled. And it turns out choosing to be somewhere where people give you the attention of someone who forgot to put on pants before leaving the house can bring you right back to that feeling of your first day of 7th grade. I wear clothes, I swear. I’m just very obviously not Tanzanian, living in a rural Tanzanian village. Unwanted attention has been one the most wearing parts of my service. I also, suffer from this strange pressure when I meet a new Tanzanian. I think it stems from my knowing I might be the only American or white person they will have ever had a social interaction with. Prrhaps how I treat them or whatever I say could deeply impact what they think about Americans. I know what you must be thinking, there is no need to put that pressure on myself. I’m not meaning to, it is just there. For me, being myself has always been easier said than done. At least this realization of having to once again rebuild confidence is not all bad. It makes me think about how long I’ve held my self worth in how other people perceive me and my outward appearances. I know it is not a unique problem, we often don’t want to admit it, but I am here and I’m working on it.
FEMINISM AND ADVOCATING FOR GIRLS
In college I knew that women in STEM are a minority and those in the field are in my opinion very undervalued. I was cultured into thinking I should always take on the soft skills work in group projects instead of being taken seriously as having technical knowledge. I am good at soft skills work such as report formatting, editing technical writing, and creating intentional clear graphics with data. But, I tired of this from project to project by the end of my four years. Luckily, I had many strong women as my supporters when I navigated what I wanted to do with my future and how engineering plays a part in that. One day, I hoped to be like those women, blazing trails for girls and other women to be included in STEM. Especially, to be a woman who shamelessly speaks her truth and shares her knowledge freely; which I found challenging for myself.
What I felt was the default setting of a woman’s role pushed upon me. Most of the time I accepted it as is. My experience is much less than the gender roles I see pushed on my girl students and mama neighbors everyday. I expect to delve into more detail on these gender roles in a separate post. Just know that although in America we still have many gender issues and we should continue pushing towards equality, we have it somehow good.
This role of being an advocate for women, girls, and gender equality has been something I’ve had a heart for, but didn’t have a place to channel it. I wasn’t seeking it in PC. Teaching physics, I thought I would be more focused on spreading the love of science but it seems that the subtle disruption of gender roles is more what my school needs and is ready to take part in. I thank God every day I am placed at the school I’m at. Not only do I get to think about how to improve gender equality, I also found a woman who happens to be my project counterpart, best friend, and a Tanzanian feminist queen. Not only has she taught me all about what cultural expectations and norms she feels as a woman, but I get to support her in activities such as talking to our girls about what healthy relationships look like or what sort of income generating activities they can do to gain some sort of economic independence after finishing school. I’m stoked to have been able to lean into this part of myself that I previously only had glimmers of. And I’m excited to see what the next 15 months holds for me, my counterpart, and our girl students. Be on look out for more details to come on our gender empowerment project!