25 January 2010

I need some inspiration here...

I wrote the following several months ago with the intention of submitting it to one of PC TZ's newsletters. Haven't done that yet, but am posting it here anyway.

Giving credit where credit is due: The ideas and quotes in this essay are all taken The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb. Which in turn was given to me by an awesome college professor, Sherryl Kleinman. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it, by the way.

Is anything I am doing here making a difference?

This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately. I have been at site for almost a year and a half, and what do I have to show for my efforts? Sure, I've been teaching and starting groups and doing workshops and trainings and conferences, but to what avail? Does all this work have any tangible effect? Or do people just come to listen to the crazy mzungu speak bad Kiswahili, then continue on with their lives as before? The problems we're working on as Peace Corps volunteers, HIV/AIDS, poverty, malnutrition, even helping kids pass secondary school, are so big and complex and beyond our ability to solve, and we're working on them alone in our villages with a handful of motivated villagers. Is it possible for us to make a difference at all?

I don't think I am alone in wondering these things. At mid-service conference in August, it seemed like a lot of my fellow volunteers were feeling frustrated and burnt-out. (And I doubt Peace Corps staff were encouraged by a half-hour long question session about the advantages of finishing one's service versus ET-ing). I remember one volunteer asking, "Is there any hope in combating HIV/AIDS in Tanzania? Because I'm tired, and I need to know that there is hope."

I didn't respond to this volunteer's question during the conference, because it was a question I didn't want to think about too deeply, but I've thought about it now and I'm answering: I do think there is hope. Maybe not hope in the conventional sense. Not hope that we will see resulrs now or by the end of our Peace Corps service. The kind of hope I'm talking about isn't dependent on results. Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic), defines hope as this:

"I understand hope above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul; it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit; an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons."

"Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as job that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

I think we PCVs all have a little of this kind of hope within us, or we wouldn't be here in Tanzania right now. Something in us made us choose Peace Corps instead of something else, because we saw something meaningful in this kind of work. This work is hard and frustrating and even impossible at times, but as journalist I.F. Stone says, "The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins."

Resigning ourselves to the possibility that we are going to lose may seem scary and counter-intuitive, like we are resigning ourselves to despair. This seems especially dangerous if one is working on literally life or death matters, like HIV/AIDS or hunger. Letting go of the desire for success, though, can be liberating. Social activist writes about Havel's definition of hope, saying:
"Havel seems to be describing not hope, but hopelessness. Being liberated from results, giving up outcomes, doing what feels right rather than effective. He helps me recall the Buddhist teaching that hopelessness is not the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear. Fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating...Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, clarified further the journey into hopelessness. "Do not depend on the hope of results...you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results
opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to
concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."

Let us do our work as volunteers not because we expect to save the world or our villages or even one villager, but because we find this work meaningful and important. Let me work on HIV/AIDS education because I think the HIV/AIDS crisis is a problem and something needs to be done about it, and I need to do what I can, in my own limited way, to try to solve the problem. Let us enjoy our work not for any successful outcomes we have achieved, but because we know that there is value in our purpose. Let us focus on gaining insight and enjoyment from our everyday experiences, instead of binding our happiness to whether we meet all the goals we set for ourselves. Let's cherish small successes and victories when we achieve them, and let's not get down on ourselves for not achieving bigger and better things.

In college I was part of a small, semi-radical feminist student group. One of our goals my senior year was to put plaques by certain buildings on campus, drawing attention to the fact that the people the buildings were named after owned slaves or participated in racist activities. This campaign never took off, however, because our group got bogged down by lack of experience and a small membership and inter-organizational politics, and we never succeeded in putting up any kind of plaques. Does this mean that I view our efforts as a failure? No, because I learned a lot about myself and group organizing that I didn't know before, and so did the other members of the group, and I think that there is value in this knowledge, regardless of whether we achieved our goal.

Peace Corps expects us to account for our efforts with tangible "outcomes" and "indicators" and "results" and numbers of people and concrete goals reached. I understand the need for this, and that we need to constantly examine what we are doing in order to find ways to work more effectively, but I don't think these "results" and "outcomes" should be the sole focus of my work, especially if it means that I get overwhelmed and depressed when I think about the huge scope of the problem and what little difference I am making.

Moreover, I think the effect of a lot of what we are doing, especially in HIV/AIDS prevention, is something that can only be measured over a long period of time. One of my friends is the third volunteer at her site. HIV is openly talked about in her village, and a fairly large number of people get tested every month. In a village a few kilometers away from her, however, HIV/AIDS is highly stigmatized and rarely talked about. Could this difference between the two villages be attributed to the presence of Peace Corps volunteers? I think so. I also think that we are making differences in our villages that we simply aren't aware of. I have done several week-long camps for secondary students. After the camps were over, none of the students came up to me to thank me and tell me how much they learned at the camp, like I was fantasizing that they would. But does that mean that they didn't learn anything? I don't think so.

I think the best we can do is to just keep trying. Keep trying and be there for each other, lame or trite as that sounds. In the words of that popular bonga flava song, "Bado nipo nipo sana." I need to stay here and keep trying, because the other option is to give up and not try, and that is not really an option at all. Mary Wynne Ashford says, "Since you cannot see into the future, you simply put one stone on top of another, and another on top of that. If the stones get knocked down, you begin again, because if you don't nothing will get built...Whether or not we succeed in pushing the rock up the hill, there is meaning in the journey, not in the hope that one time we'll be able to shed the rock forever and live in a perfect world."

Let's enjoy and learn from this journey.

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