“So what exactly does a Peace Corps Volunteer do?” I get this question a lot, and describing my work as a PCV isn’t always simple. Some folks seem to think I’m “saving the world” (I’m not) and others think I’m just going on a fun series of adventures in Africa (I’m not).
I get the confusion, though. PCVs do such different work in different parts of the world, and even within the same country or sector, most volunteers find work in unexpected and diverse places.
As I’ve written about before, my primary assignment (my “real job,” I suppose) is to co-teach English and Life Skills in a primary school. But this is not all! PCVs are encouraged to work on “secondary projects,” too. Essentially, we do our day job, but we also try to observe community needs that we are qualified and excited to address. This leads to work with different people, organizations, and issues than we were originally hired to do.
When I first arrived in Lesotho, I focused almost exclusively on teaching. It took me many months to feel comfortable in the classroom, and I didn’t want to be distracted. Slowly, I started to do other projects at my school. These included after school clubs, co-creating a faculty Code of Conduct, and integrating positive discipline (not corporal punishment!) into my school’s culture… with varying levels of success. It’s all a big work in progress!
Now, after a year in-country, I’m settled into my school community, and I have more time and energy to devote to projects that take me off school grounds. Some have gone well, some have been frustrating, and some are very much to-be-determined. I’m going to share two of my out-of-school projects here!
GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is somewhat of a staple in Peace Corps around the world. In September, I helped organize a three day leadership and empowerment camp for 67 girls (and some teachers, too!) from 7 different schools around my district. We held the camp in my district capital. Various NGOs, a hospital, and even the police came to lead sessions and work with the girls.
In some ways, the camp was a success. I remember sitting in a tight circle of girls as they concentrated on correctly putting a condom on a banana and asking for feedback from a nursing student on their technique. I remember being paired with a high school student to practice self-defense techniques to get out of a bad situation. I remember laughing on the second morning, as girls explained through their yawns that they were tired because they had been up dancing all night. I remember singing camp songs and tie-dying lituku (head scarves) while girls showed off the bracelets and cloth menstrual pads they had made. I remember sitting with my school’s participants as they waited to be tested for HIV.
But at the end of the day, I don’t think big events like this are really for me, and I’m not going to go out of my way to work on another one. I’ve really fallen in love with the work that’s based in my community, and the contrast between that and my first big event outside my village was stark. In my village, events are smaller, more focused, and done in much closer partnership with local counterparts. At the camp, it was wonderful to see girls from different communities coming together, but I was also left exhausted by all the logistics and unsure about the sustainability.
Life Skills Training of Teachers
I didn’t write this blog post to brag – I want to share the variety of work I (and all PCVs) do, and I want to think about what has worked and what hasn’t. That said… I’m going to brag a little bit here, because this is my favorite project of my service so far!
I have loved co-teaching Life Skills, and in conversations with my colleagues, it became clear that they wanted to access the activities and resources that I used. In Lesotho in particular, there is a taboo about talking about sex with youth, so teachers find it difficult to start the necessary conversations. I started holding mini workshops, like informal brown bag chats, with the other teachers after school. In these gatherings, we practiced some short activities to make the sexual education part of Life Skills fun and interactive. One of my co-teachers attended a workshop with me where we learned about making school a safe space for learners, so we integrated some of these ideas into our after-school chats, too.
This culminated in a Life Skills workshop for teachers from all 7 schools in our “centre” (local school district). In the workshop, we went over making Life Skills class a safe space, teaching Life Skills in a student-centered way that emphasizes interactive activities, and teaching challenging topics.
The best part was this – because I had already worked so closely with the teachers at my school, they were already experts, so they were the leaders of the workshop. I did next to nothing, just sat back and watched them teach what they had learned! As a first-time teacher, I have so much to learn from the more seasoned educators around me. I’m so glad to have established a back-and-forth relationship where we share in both directions.
I’m writing this from Lusaka, Zambia, where I’m attending an HIV Boot Camp with PCVs and local staff from 12 countries in Africa. I have been learning so much about the virus, gathering new resources, and brainstorming approaches to deal with problems that exist across Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s exciting, energizing, and I will post more about this amazing opportunity and what I’ve taken away from it when I get the chance!