Friday, December 14, 2012

Peace Corps Guilt: Not Simple

This article was just recently published on the Huffington Post:

Esther Katcoff: Peace Corps Guilt

Following her article was a small flurry of responses including a call to "include your thoughts" from RPCV groups. Indeed, Esther's article resonates with me in many ways:

Reputation can be a bitch of a precedence
People ask all kinds of questions about the Peace Corps volunteer experience, and it almost always seems that the Peace Corps experience precedes itself in reputation much the same as the military does. In other words: I feel as though the questions and opinions I get from others are primed with preconceived perceptions of what the Peace Corps experience is, and guilt is rarely a part of this. I often work against these perceptions because my experience doesn't closely fit what people think the Peace Corps is - and I suspect this would be the same with most who have served in a long-term volunteer program.

When I talk with RPCVs about this, I often see a pattern much like the comments made after Esther's article: Peace Corps quickly becomes this program that serves a mission, justifies a means to an end, or encapsulates a moment of profound realization or learning. Of course, arguments can be made for all these purposes and they successfully have many times over as this is how the Peace Corps (much like the military) chooses to market itself. But, I don't think volunteer service is the sum of all of its parts.

"What Can I Do?" vs. "What Should I Do?"
It seems to me that guilt, or a sense of moral obligation, or a need to learn about poverty are only the thicker threads in an individual’s complex decision to become a volunteer. Think about it, 
Americans choose to serve their country for all kinds of reasons aside from an act of humanity (and we all are attuned to this). Yet, regardless of all the reasons, we often simplify our answers to others by saying, “Well, I guess I just wanted to do something good” - a bottom line that can be as easily judged as it is praised by those who have never served domestically or overseas. Why do that? Why simplify?

Because trying to explain all of it is exhausting.

I love that people are interested, but sometimes I get tired of spelling out my service to someone who may see it as romantic - even though romanticism is one of the many reasons I joined.  They won't understand or they'll think I'm a cynic, or that I'm jaded, or worse: that I'm self-righteous. It gets confusing so fast and the person asking loses interest so quickly, leaving them with an incomplete representation of nearly everything from the community I served to my feelings for how the world works.

Sometimes I simplify because I feel stuck in that impossible position that Esther describes: 
Either I ignore the hunger of a child, or I create jealousy amongst her peers. And either way she will be hungry again next year after I go back to America. How do I cope with all of this burden? How do any of us cope?
In my two+ years at my site, I felt I only scratched the surface of understanding what it was like to be Guyanese and live in Guyana. So how can I feel anything other than the lose-lose vacuum that Esther describes, or to arrogantly assume I know how to develop these people's lives? So in the words of Rory Stewart, I try to "focus on what we can do, and not what we should do."

The Need for Validation
When I come away from a conversation about “why did I join?”, I regard strong emotions like guilt, frustration, or judgement as an indicator that volunteer service is not as trite as we make it seem when we describe our challenges next to those we are serving. Nor are our emotions trifle simply because we can return to the advanced amenities of the First World. Whether good or bad, validation is one tool we use to process what takes place during our service, and aren't emotions like guilt an unavoidable part of this?  Why disregard them when, as Esther suggests at the end, we can use them to a larger benefit? 

Beyond Benevolence
And so, I often wonder if the Peace Corps experience is as simple as something Americans do to experience the unknown.

What if being a Peace Corps Volunteer is simply an exploration of curiosity because “I've never known what it is like to live there”, and “speak that language”, and “have my world view tested?” Maybe serving overseas is meant to feed a vital curiosity and any act of benevolence is just a likely addition because we feel good when we help others.

It is easy to get caught in some weird finger pointing about who worked the hardest, who lived in the poorest conditions, or who carries the heaviest guilt. I know I've participated in that. But, maybe this isn't what Esther was trying to evoke when she wrote about her experience with guilt. Do we frequently compare ourselves with others who may be doing more? Maybe comparing is innately in our behavior as Humans. Nevertheless, the intense emotions we feel as volunteers are real and valid and worth something more than comparison. 

Devil's Advocate
Is the Peace Corps something sustainable?  What if it isn't?  What if our work is marginally successful, foolhardy in design, and at best laughable to the community we serve? Would that be so bad? Do we really know what our impact will be?  Maybe some RPCVs do, and I envy their resoluteness because I believe people can do small and great things when the circumstances are ripe. However, for the rest of us who have yet to understand the worth of our impact, maybe the Peace Corps at large is not sustainable as an agent of overseas development work.  Maybe that isn't what the Peace Corps is meant to be.  Maybe it is sustainable as something else. 
For example: When Esther writes about the 3rd goal experience, I find it comforting in its simplicity and in its role in a larger-than-us social experience. She brings a powerful and emotional moment forward for me when she says, 
“I have... a real opportunity to help others back home understand the amazing culture of Paraguay, the complicated nature of development work, and the lives of those who fight for their communities.”
To me, Peace Corps has largely, but not entirely, been just that: a social experience that gets me to think, reflect, and continually keep my expectations of the world I live in off to the side, in the peripheral of my immediate view of life. Benevolence is good and healthy, and there’s not much questioning a PCVs interest in that component of service. But good or bad, success or failure, guilt or no guilt, I have to maintain my closest and most reliable connection to my Peace Corps experience: my curiosity. Otherwise my perception of the world and all its ugly parts will atrophy; and who knows, maybe the 3rd goal sustains this. 

Thank you for sharing, Esther!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bartica Grant Wrap Up!


In late February of this year, the Bartica Learning Resources Center (BLRC) began its work on a new computer lab.  Negotiations with a local retailer for the purchase and installation of four computers at cost were completed. By early March, all four computers were successfully installed and put into regular use and community members in Bartica have commented on how helpful it has been to have a place to use Internet and excellent-working computers at no cost.

The two librarians who run the BLRC, Angela Douglas and Naomi Harris-Benn, have been very pleased with the project.  In late June, both Angela and Naomi attended a national workshop to discuss ways in which resource centers can offer more to their communities and to the classrooms they help support.  This was hosted by World Bank’s Education for All/Fast Track Initiative (EFA/FTI) which helps allocate government and international aid funding to resource centers all over Guyana.  Not only did both librarians receive more support than they expected, but they were given certain liberties to act outside of the restraints of the Ministry of Education (MOE).  This is a great thing to hear as good education opportunities are often neglected in Bartica due to partisan politics and tight control from bureaucrats.

Additionally, the work that has been accomplished over the past four years at the BLRC has earned the title of “Best Resource Center in Guyana” by many officials in and outside of the MOE.  Because of its reputation, Angela and Naomi hosted an open house to those educators and officials attending last month’s workshop.  The day was spent showing off the library and its many functions to members of the MOE, National Center for Educational Resource Development’s (NCERD), and local community leaders.  It was viewed as a great success.

The following are some highlights that have marked local progress with the computer lab since my departure in late April:

Attendance from 3pm-6:30pm has risen steadily as more community members learn about the additional computers, access to Internet, and computer training that has gone on since the middle of March.  Individuals arrive after school and sign up to use one of the new computers or bring their own laptop to use.

On any given week day, a host of computer programs are used at the center –Microsoft Office, Skype, Facebook, Google, email services, typing software, computer games, and Wikipedia to name the most popular. More and more questions are asked as the librarians become more knowledgeable about ICT interface procedures (i.e. how to bookmark a website on Mozilla Firefox).

Tutoring by the librarians in ICT has been very helpful to students and adults who are now regularly visiting the library to use these resources for academic and private use. Computer assignments and researching have increased and adults are using the Internet to apply for jobs and sign up for classes at the University of Guyana.
Seeing more and more patrons use this location to experience, practice, and expand their knowledge of the Information Age has made me really happy.  The BLRC computer lab will continue to be a hub for access to the larger world, therefore offering the means to self-education, current events, and opportunities that open doors through access to global communication and networking.
Bartica Learning Resources Center

It is my opinion that donors to projects like this should know just how their contribution was put into use.  For this reason, I have added segments of the final report submitted to Peace Corps that describe changes made to the original grant submission:

  1. Since the managing of a computer lab puts additional responsibility on the two librarians at the BLRC, it was decided by the BLRC Committee that the amount of computers built be reduced from six to four.  This decision has served the BLRC well.  The amount of people using the center during the afternoon and evening hours has steadily increased.  This increase means more attention focused on the computers and less on the younger students, who come in to read books, play board games, or take part in arts and crafts.  Having four computers at the BLRC has been much more manageable than six.
  2. Money allocated to a contingency fund was rejected by Peace Corps due to the fact that this money could not be monitored regularly after I left Bartica.  In lieu of this decision, the $350 US contingency was instead spent on the following:
a.       A new and better equipped wireless router to aid in the managing of Internet security and Internet use
b.       A web camera for video communication.  This has already been used to communicate with classrooms in Brighton, England
c.       10 educational DVDs and 8 educational IT study books for use with students who want to learn more about computer technology
d.       Printer toner and some compressed air in canisters to help aid with computer maintenance   

The community of Bartica was responsible for 42% of the funding of this project.  The sum of financial contributions from you, the online patron, accounted for 58% of the funding of this project; and this project could not have been completed without the help of those who donated.

This combined effort is what makes the Peace Corps Partnership Program unique in its effort to link people from all over the world who share the desire for charitable and sustainable overseas development.  While it is not the answer to solving our world’s most challenging problems, it is a useful way to begin and to examine where we stand as a global family.

Thank you for your contribution, your time, and your concern.

Sincerest Regards,

Christopher Olin

The Bartica Learning Resource Center
            Tr. Angela Douglas
            Tr. Naomi Harris-Benn

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Computer Learning Resources Center

Dear Friends and Family,

I am nearing the close of my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and looking forward to returning to the States after being away for over two years.  For the past twenty-one months, I have been working as a literacy and Information & Communications Technology (ICT) adviser to teachers, students, and community members who visit the Learning Resource Center (LRC).  It has been fulfilling to say the least as we have installed wireless Internet, two printers, a scanner, and many other tools and utilities to help Barticians connect with the digital and information age.  In the last year, the LRC has seen a ten percent overall increase in attendance from teachers, students, and community members who come to use the center for a variety of different reasons, including computers. Evenings are sometimes met with queues of people waiting to use the computer for Internet access, word processing, photo editing, or simply to learn how to use Internet technology.

The increase in users at the LRC has been positively reflected upon the community, as can be seen through better computer skills and more computer-generated work in classrooms throughout the region. Unfortunately, the greater number of people who are using the center has put a strain on the two already old desktop computers that we have in our library. 

To solve these problems, the members of the LRC created a Peace Corps Partnership Grant to help pay for six new computers to add to our library so that those who consistantly use the center for computer work will have more access to better computers. The community I live in – including the local government – has already contributed to 40% of this grant (i.e. providing a building and paying for electricity and Internet) and the rest has been posted online via the Peace Corps website as a donation open to anyone.

I feel that the LRC Computer Project will be a very helpful final contribution to the community I have served in for two years.  My remaining three months will be spent working on the other part of this project - training a new employee at the LRC to take my place.  The duties will include: literacy development and promotion at the LRC, offering computer classes to the public, and providing general trouble shooting to Guyanese who are new to ICT.  Our goal with this project is to provide a service that is sustainable both in the capacity that a new computer lab will make available and in the knowledge that the employees at the LRC can share with their patrons.

If you are interested in learning more about the LRC Computer Project or would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to this project, please visit the donor page for this project:

Furthermore, if you have any questions, please contact me at:

 believe education is the key to self empowerment, and in a world where information is moving at a speed much faster than time, it is prudent to provide even the least fortunate an opportunity to change their lives.

Thank you for your time and your kind consideration.

Christopher Olin,
Peace Corps, Guyana 2009-2011
Literacy & ICT Education Adviser
Region 7

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Sounds

If I had to choose three sounds of the Jungle that I enjoy hearing the most, it would be these:

  • The coos of the spider monkey: clip temporarily unavailable
  • The song of the Screaming Piha: hear it here
  • The foreboding drone of the golden Howler Monkey: hear a similar version here
I'm currently traveling Region 9 on a video-documentary project and hope to post a blog sometime soon.

Hope all is well.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Goodbye Summer heat! Hello Autumn (but not really autumn) Heat!

In light of all this discussion about climate change, I would like to comment:

Yesterday was really friggin' hot.  I mean, plastic must've melted somewhere in Bartica.  I mistakenly left the tub of margarine out on the table long enough for the sun coming through the back door to liquefy the entire thing.  Not to mention the fact that my brain felt liquefied.  You know it's hot when the Guyanese start complaining.

Strangely enough, this year delivered a quite pleasant August.  It was hot, yes, but manageable and the rain was abundant enough to cool things down so that people didn't wander into the river with heat stroke (ok, I exaggerate a little, no one wanders into the river with heat stroke, but they do wander into the river out of sweating and sticky discomfort!).

But let's be honest here.  Not once since I've been in this country have the seasons gone according to their natural rhythm.  I mean, I've asked dozens upon dozens of Guyanese about the seasons and everyone has come back with some observation that the seasons are shifty.  In my case? August ends this past Tuesday, Wednesday magically becomes the hottest day of this year and I inversely become the crankiest I've been this year.

We are so screwed if the world gets hotter, cause I do not enjoy being cranky.

If it seems like there has been a lapse in blog entries, it is because there has been a lapse in blog entries.  Sometimes summer seems endless.

my endless summer in Tobago looks like this: click me