I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the “traditional Peace Corps experience” even here in Burkina Faso where it is still actually possible to have one. I live in a regional capital, travel to the capital often both for work and fun, have a computer with internet access, and am pondering a refrigerator purchase. I also work for a fairly high level government organization and spend my days working in and teaching Access/Excel and tracking GPS coordinates. Virtually all of my communication is in French rather than a local language such as Mooré, Jula, or Gourmanchéma. And while I could be (and most volunteers here do) farming in the fields, learning an obscure language, or eating tô for every meal, my specific work and location doesn’t necessitate it. Of course, life certainly isn’t easy, and I deal with a lot of change and differences, but because it’s easier for me than most of what I see, I feel relatively privileged. And I don’t feel like I’m suffering. Shouldn’t I be?
In the wake of Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and some surprised reactions to my packing list post where I detail a lot of the technological products I have here, I’ve realized that the modern volunteer experience differs from the iconic Peace Corps life of the past mostly due to the transformational powers of technology. No longer are the majority of volunteers cut-off from the outside world, or even some amenities. Burkina Faso is amongst the poorest countries Peace Corps serves worldwide, and with the recent closing of the Peace Corps program in Niger, perhaps is now the the poorest (though there are many ways to measure such things). And while I’d argue that a traditional experience is actually had by many volunteers here, all PCVs have cell phones (though not everyone has service directly in their village), and we are expected to check our email every couple of weeks for Peace Corps communications. Most of us have computers. A few of us, like me, even splurge on USB cellular modems and have net access at our leisure. Even though you can still have a traditional experience here in Burkina, PCVs still straddle the past and the modern. Of course, compared to most other Peace Corps countries, our experience is still amenity-poor. Google “Posh Corps” to see that not everyone is roughing it these days, and that even my idealic setup here in Burkina pales in comparison to those in most other countries (TVs/DVD players/Microwaves/Washing Machines oh my!)
But do you need to feel like you’re suffering to be a good volunteer? I know that in my situation I am being more impactful than I would be otherwise. Technology perhaps provides comforts, but it also makes me much more resourceful in my job. Almost everything that I’m doing would not have been possible just a decade ago, and maybe not even two years ago in some cases. Instead of just helping a handful of people make a slightly better living, I can now (hopefully) enable an entire agency to better impact almost two thousand Burkinabé. Of course, the additional amenities make me happy, but being happy helps me be a good PCV too.
In the end, semantics and sentiments aren’t important. I’m doing exactly what I should be here. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t think about and occasionally yearn for a more disconnected experience. Thankfully those types of situations are just a short bike ride away. I’m thinking a few excursions to meet up with other PCVs living en brusee are in order. And don’t worry, I still poop in a hole. That brings me back down to earth.