Friday, February 22, 2013

The Twilight of Service

So this is it.  My 30th and final month in country.  Time flies.

For those of you who’ve read the earlier posts, you know that I’ve extended my standard two-year contract to finish up with my Form VI curriculum, and this still holds true: I’ll technically be officially closing my service in mid-March, and, as I write this, my Form VI kids have already begun leaving school (my Form V students, however, will be finishing their term in May due to a last-minute change by the Ministry… oops).  Regardless, most of my March time will be spent traveling with family and going through all the standard check-out procedures, and so I wouldn’t really count it as service.  This month, February, will be my last month at site, and I will be leaving Songea forever (or at least for the foreseeable future) in less than a week.  It’s kind of crazy to think about.

So, as with the end of all two-years-of-my-life-down-the-drain experiences, I am now faced with the obligatory existential quandaries that often haunt the COS-ing Peace Corps volunteer: Where am I in my life now?  Have two years in service changed me as a person?  Have I been faithfully upholding the three goals of Peace Corps?  Have I been particularly helpful or useful to my coworkers or students?  Did I empower my students to succeed in life and become productive members of society?  Have I actually made a difference here?

My succinct, holistic, and entirely unsatisfying answer to these questions: Eh… maybe.

I dunno… It’s tough to really put a finger on what you do here in Peace Corps Tanzania.  You show up to work, you teach people, you make connections, you forge friendships, you set up projects, you try to be helpful wherever you can, you try to embrace the local culture while subtly injecting some of your own, you try to make everything you’ve created in the past two years somewhat sustainable after you’re finished… but, in the end, the effects and rewards of your work are all kind of a toss-up.  I know one volunteer who was all about starting new projects in her village (and I have the crumbly bars of soap to prove it), and while I’m sure her villagers appreciated her efforts at the time, they still largely remember her as the mzungu who once carried her dog in her arms like a baby.  I know another guy who was a good volunteer in his village, but he’s now much more remembered as the “guy who could drink a lot” than the “guy who introduced reforestry and irrigation as viable means of income generation.”  What you do here and what you’re remembered for (and, by extension, how long your legacy lasts after you leave) are often different things, and it’s something that you just have to deal with at the end of service.

Of course, this begs the question: How will I be remembered?  Songea Boys’ is not your run-of-the-mill Tanzanian village---it’s the magnet A-level all-boys school in the Ruvuma region, and I’m part of a long lineage of Peace Corps volunteers dating all the way back to the 1960s (i.e., when Peace Corps was first founded).  What have I achieved in my time here?  How have I distinguished myself from the men and women who’ve served at this school in the past, many of whom were dealing with much greater hardships than I was?  Sure, I teach my physics students about LEDs, but there was an American guy from my organization teaching here before LEDs even existed---and he’s not even remembered here.  Those are some big shoes to fill, and I really can’t say if my service transcends the ordinary, or if it even achieves the distinction of “average Peace Corps service.”  All I can really say was that my service was my service: I can’t impartially and totally assess if it was truly remarkable or decidedly unremarkable; if was life-changing or mundane; or if it was worthwhile or a waste of time.  It just kind of happened, and here I am, at the end of it.

So yeah, exactly how will I be remembered?  I can only speculate.  I can tell you, though, how I want to be remembered:

As that curmudgeonly, standoffish, and somewhat dirty American who nonetheless got up every morning, went to class, and proceeded to systematically jam physics and biology down the throats of 500+ of the nation’s aspiring youth for two years.  And who, though times got rough, found in his work a sense a purpose, and who ultimately wanted nothing but to have his students succeed.

How’s that for a Peace Corps success story blurb?

It’s funny… when I think back to two years ago---when I was deep in the highly-regimented, quasi-suffocating womb of Pre-Service Training in Morogoro---I don’t really recall much of what I theoretically learned there, Kiswahili notwithstanding.  Sure, I remember staying with my awesome homestay family, having fun with hands-on science demonstrations, and scrimping every measly 100/= piece I could find to save for my weekly beer with the other trainees, but I don’t really remember any of the official, PC Washington-mandated lessons that were ostensibly taught to us during that period.  In truth, most of that stuff was just a blur of small-group work and flipchart paper interspersed with the occasional half-hearted skit about cultural differences---none of which appealed to my typical ADD sensibilities---so I usually just tuned out most of it, intentionally or otherwise.  As anyone can tell you, I am not always the best listener.

There was, however, one thing that truly stuck to me during those formative PST days, and it has since played a considerable role in giving my service meaning---the so-called “Three Pillars of Education” concept of Peace Corps-based instruction.  Basically, PC HQ states that a Peace Corps ED volunteer’s service should be a three-pronged attack to improve all facets of public school education in a given community: empowering students to take the initiative and succeed on their national examinations, inspiring teachers to go back to the classroom and employ exciting new teaching techniques, and encouraging parents to play an active role in their children’s future by getting involved in school life.  Only by improving all three pillars of education can one effect lasting, sustainable development in both the school and the community at large, and only through this sort of grassroots, volunteer-driven aid work can one bring about progress and positive change in the country as a whole.

Well, that’s all well and good.  But now it’s two years later, I’ve had time to think about who I am now and what my service has been like, and I’m adding a slightly more fine-tuned corollary to the “Three Pillars of Education” mantra:

Pick one focus, stick with it, and let that be the guiding light of your service---the reason you get up in the morning, the reason you go to bed at night, the sole motivating factor that keeps you working in country and not back home in America.

I chose students.

Again, it’s not as if I hate the teachers here---despite our numerous ideological clashes and fundamental cultural disparities, they’re still nice people who’ve been extremely accepting and accommodating to me during my tenure in Tanzania.  It’s just that, over my two years here, I’ve noticed that I have made virtually zero investment of energy in improving my school in any way, shape, or form.  I haven’t made any attempt to talk to my teachers about their teaching methods (save for occasionally butting heads with our new A-level biology teacher, as I’ve already detailed in this blog), I haven’t tried to modify or introduce new extracurricular activities, and I haven’t once considered getting grant money to, say, improve the school’s facilities, like building a new library or getting some of the classroom/laboratory windows fixed.

Much of this is due to the fact that---as much as I bitch about my school---it’s actually still pretty well-off as Tanzanian schools go (it consistently ranks right in the middle of the country’s A-level institutions), and therefore it doesn’t really need a lot of my help, comparatively speaking: much of what makes an A-level school good in this country is the self-selecting process of having naturally good students in the roster so that, when the time comes, the students will self-motivate even without teachers and score passing grades (~20%) on the NECTA final.  Moreover, since I’m working at an A-level school and most of the teachers here are career teachers (and thus make me look some young upstart by comparison), I’ve never really had enough (or any) clout here to effect significant change in the way the school is run.  In other words, there’s a sort of entrenched intransigence at Songea Boys’ that has made it difficult for me to conduct a more project-oriented service (like the health/environment volunteers) over the past two years.  As much as I hate to admit it, in reality, my role here has been more akin to that of a guest professor.  Or a magical physics unicorn.

Thus, it’s always been easier to turn my attention to the students, rather than the institution or the teachers.  Granted, my students don’t always show up on time and they don’t always listen, but when I finally jam all 180 of them in the big lecture hall and they’re all sitting down quietly, they are MINE.  I OWN them.  I can say and do whatever the hell I want and no one can stop me.  I can blather on about physics and biology all day, and I know that, despite their best efforts, my kids can’t block it all out; some of what I say or do inexorably sinks in.  And when it sinks in, it sticks: I imagine it’s hard for a young African man to forget a white guy yelling science at him for two years.  And even if, at the end of all this, he still has no idea what the hell physics is or how the scientific method works, he’ll at least remember that he was taught physics by some over-enthusiastic mzungu with the best intentions, and that, in and of itself, has some merit. 

Again, I don’t know if I’ve truly had any lasting impact in Tanzania, but if I’ve ever effected any positive change in the past two years, THAT is how I’ve done it---not by hanging out in Songea town, not by schmoozing the village, not by starting projects in my school, and not by having quasi-philosophical discussions with my sophist teachers---but rather by giving authentic, informative, and impassioned lectures in the classroom.  And that is something I can take home with me.

Interestingly, this attitude has already yielded some tangible results: on this year’s mock NECTA examinations in October, my Form VI students scored substantially higher in biology than they had in previous years, with a high-D average (~35-40%).  Not only is this pretty good for Songea Boys’, but it’s pretty good for anywhere, especially for Tanzanian public schools.  Granted, I’ve tried about five times as hard to get my kids to learn physics (and, as far as that goes, my students are still languishing in the doldrums of mediocrity), but, goddammit, getting high marks in biology is something.  If I must rationalize (and I must), the lack of improvement in physics could be attributable to a much more deep-seated issue in the TZ educational system---either with respect to the institution itself or Tanzanian attitudes towards education in general---and not just my shitty teaching (although I can’t say I’m entirely blameless).  But, in the end, I guess it just goes to show that the project you’re most passionate about isn’t necessarily the one that makes a difference in country, and you gotta take the small victories when you can get them.

Of course, all this discussion neglects one of the most important COS questions: namely, how Tanzania has affected ME.  Folks always say that the volunteer is the biggest product of his or her service, and given that I’m a young man in his twenties who just spent 30 months of his still-formative years in a foreign country, I’d be surprised if I haven’t changed a bit over my time here.  Unfortunately, given that I haven’t seen any family or home friends (save for one brief surprise/exception) for the duration of my stay in TZ, I don’t have any real basis for comparison aside from how I think I’ve changed.  I mean, I know I’ve changed---you can’t really go through two years of Africa without seeing or doing things you never imagined yourself seeing or doing, and that undoubtedly affects you for better or worse---but exactly how I’ve changed… well, I guess that’s something that the home people will have to find out for themselves.

That being said, there are a few things I’ve been able to pick up on that are a little different about me.  For one, I can finally take care of myself.  I can cook, clean, and garden like never before.  I have been repeatedly educated about the harsh truths of single living: if I don’t plan ahead and bring enough food home before nightfall, then I will starve, QED.  I’ve learned how to do a bunch of grown-up stuff, like be responsible, or not be late to things, or ensure that I consume a modicum of basic nutrition each day.  Shockingly (and definitely a surefire sign that I’m at least maturing a little bit), I have yet to miss a bus in country, and I’ve even done stuff like organize out-of-schedule meetings/classes/labs with groups of both faculty and students (routinely, no less)---something I never really did back home (in my past few jobs, I was always much more of an underling and thus didn’t take much organizational initiative).  As a result, I can consider all these things as signs of positive change in my life: I feel I’ve become a much more secure, well-rounded person overall.

On the flipside, however, I’ve found that 30 months in Tanzania has had a noticeable effect on my personality, which, admittedly, has become a bit more… volatile.  Indeed, over the past two years, much I what I’ve thought, said, or done in country has had a sort of increased acuteness about it, and much of the comparative indifference and mellowness of my post-baccalaureate ennui has evaporated in favor of egotism and severity.  Put in plain English, acting on impulses has become much easier for me in country, and former obstacles such as “consequences” and “other people’s feelings” have become much less burdensome to my psyche.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that, in Tanzania, you really do need to take care of yourself---it’s not as if anyone is going to come save your ass if you get into trouble or get screwed---and that combined with consistent, relentless ostracism from the locals pushes you into a sort of survival, lone-wolf, me-versus-everyone mindset that keeps you on edge (and a little pissed off) at all times.

I'll admit, in some ways, this sort of hot-bloodedness can be advantageous: I can take charge of a situation more quickly and react more readily to potential problems than I used to back home.  On the other hand, though, there are drawbacks as well: I’ve become vastly more opinionated, and most of my preexisting views have since polarized themselves into deep, caustic cynicisms… many of which, incidentally, I have no problem sharing with those around me (some might even classify me as an “asshole” at times).  In no way have I turned into a nihilistic defeatist, nor have I become a rage-addled sociopath, but I do have much more of a temper than I ever did back in the States, and my tolerance for all the trifling little inadequacies that make up life in Tanzania has worn down to almost nothing.  I’m confident this effect will ebb somewhat when I return to America---I’m pretty sure a lot of this smoldering disgruntlement is just pent-up frustration over having not been home in two-and-a-half years---but I don’t know if it will ever quite leave me.  It’s kind of like the first time you get in a fight: you can watch all the boxing and cage fighting in the world, but until you get punched in the face, you never really know how you’ll react.  And when it’s done---win or lose, for better or for worse---you’ll never forget the split second of intense bitterness you felt in that moment, and that stays with you for a lifetime.

Again, though, please remember that I’m not saying any of this to be particularly morbid or fatalistic… I just think I’ve run my course in Tanzania.  People do things for a while, get tired, and then move on to something else; I’m no different.  And I can say with utter conviction that when I am finally home, and I’ve hung out with all my friends and family, and all the parties and celebrations are over, and I’ve finally moved on with my life… I will miss Tanzania.  A lot.  And that’s just kind of how life goes.

So, how can I summarize?  Peace Corps was something else.  Tanzania was something else.  Teaching my students was something else.  Pontificating with my teachers was something else.  Hanging out with my fellow PCVs was something else.  Living by myself was something else.  Everything I’ve experienced for the past 30 months was something else, and all I can do is mash it all together into one enormous, ineffable morass of stories, memories, and life events that I will henceforth pithily refer to as my “Peace Corps experience.”  I figure that’s the best coping mechanism I’ve got.  It’ll do for now, at least.

In any case, it was a fun ride while it lasted.  Now, it’s time to go home.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're coming home Paul. I know exactly how you're feeling right now. I can't imagine not having come back to the States for 2 and half years. Its gonna be different. Let me know if you're heading back to DC and wanna meet up. Enjoy your last month! :-)