The Peace Corps' mission has three simple goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
That’s it! Pretty simple stuff. Although I’ve not yet told my full story, I think I’ll briefly assess how I’ve done in meeting the goals 1 and 3 of the Peace Corps, and spend a little more time on goal #2 since it was fraught with far more peril.
Goal #1: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
It was set up very well for me. I was assigned to teach math and science at a rural high school in Ghana. Indeed, I was the only math or science teacher at the entire school. So it was pretty clear to me that at the time, Ghana did not have enough math and science teachers to cover their own schools. And clearly that paucity of educational leadership was going to make it very difficult to train young Ghanaians to become math and science teachers themselves. Great. Perfect. I step in, teach the youngsters math and science, and eventually, maybe, some of them become math and science teachers of their own. Genius!
Trouble was, I don’t feel like I was around long enough to give them a good solid math and science education. Because I left early, I left the school without a math and science teacher for at minimum the better part of a whole semester, and that’s assuming they were able to fill the position the next year with a new volunteer, or perhaps a Ghanaian teacher. And something tells me my students, left to their own devices, did not study their math lessons on their own without me. So, we had the right idea there, but the execution left something to be desired.
Goal #3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Like I’m going to do this in order. This whole blog is totally out of order.
Well, promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans is one of the main reasons for this blog, actually. The other main reason? Writing practice. Thanks for being my unwitting subjects. I’m just trying to keep you all entertained. Anyway, you’re only getting one American’s perspective on the matter, but hopefully somewhere between the sarcastic remarks and tales of bumbling misadventures you’re getting an understanding of what it’s like to live in Ghana, maybe what it’s like to be a Ghanaian even. And you’re probably learning a lot about me as well. Maybe too much.
Goal #2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Oh boy. To the extent that the Ghanaians got to see an actual living breathing American who did not look like Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis and shoot people all the time, I think I was of some benefit here. It is difficult for Ghanaians to understand what Americans are really like when all they see of us are American movies. Just by being myself I think they got a better idea of what a “regular” American was like.
But I frequently placed myself in awkward situations, particularly with my students, having somehow become the spokesperson for all things American. Sports I could handle. No, we don’t like soccer all that much.
Current events, that got tricky. In one particularly uncomfortable example, I somehow found myself trying to explain the L.A. Rodney King riots to an entire classroom of black African high school kids. Remember, this was 1993, the riots took place in 1992, so it was still a big news item, something that even my students had heard of. I never felt quite so white as I did the day I attempted to explain the Rodney King riots to my high school kids, I can assure you. Here’s my side of the conversation as I remember it.
“Why did they riot? Uh, well, the black people in America, you know, they were angry with the way the white police were treating them, I think.”
Uh, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? I have no idea what I’m talking about.
“When these white policemen beat up a black man and didn’t get in trouble for it, the black people got angry and rioted, and ended up burning down their entire neighborhood.”
I sound racist somehow. Was it because the policemen were white? I feel very white right now.
“No, not all the policemen are white; there are black policemen too.”
Somehow that sounds racist too. Patronizing at best.
“Why did they burn down their own neighborhood and not the white man’s neighborhood? I don’t think it was a planned thing, just a spontaneous outpouring of pent-up anger and rage. They were really angry and I think they felt like they didn’t live in a nice neighborhood, so they may as well burn it down.”
Actually not so bad there? Am I pulling out of this swan dive?
“Yes some neighborhoods in America are not nice. Some people in America are poor, and don’t have a lot to eat or a nice home to live in.”
Goal #2. Goal #2. Goal #2.
“It’s complicated. Some black people are rich, and some white people are poor. But there are a higher percentage of poor black people to poor white people in America”
Could be the only intelligent thing I’ve said all day. And thank goodness, we’re back to Math. Let’s talk fractions!
And somehow the subjects of segregation, slavery, and racism kept coming up. These are all complex nuanced subjects with many facets, and I was totally and utterly incapable of leading an intelligent discourse on any of those subjects, in any situation, particularly in front of a room full of children whose great-great-great-great grandparents might have been the ones who were taken from their homes by a rival tribe, sold to the English slave traders at Elmina or Cape Coast Castle, and shipped across the Atlantic to Jamaica and perhaps thence to America.
The kids were fairly incredulous that Americans, black or otherwise, would riot and burn down entire neighborhoods, since to them everyone in America was rich and happy and beautiful. And had guns.
Another note here; most Ghanaians don’t really distinguish between black and white Americans. We’re first and foremost Americans to them, not African-Americans or uh, Anglo-Americans or whatever. They’re rather color-blind in that regard. Put another way, to a Ghanaian, the difference between an African-American and an Anglo-American is very small compared to the difference between any American and any Ghanaian. Of course we probably feel the same way about them; it’s not easy for us to tell the difference between a Fante-Ghanaian and a Ewe-Ghanaian, but I bet a Fante and an Ewe view themselves as very different than one another.
But quite frankly I really had no business talking race issues with anyone, much less these kids. Please recall that I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Not exactly a cross-cultural upbringing there. And I studied Engineering at a university in Utah. I think there were about 8 non-athletic-scholarship black students at the entire school. I just hope I didn’t sound like too much of an idiot. But on the other hand I suppose that was all part of the package. America is a big country, with many different sorts of people with different ideas, idiotic or otherwise. The only problem was that these kids only got to hear my perspective on things, so that became the de facto standard American viewpoint to them. The math teaching part was comparatively easy. Representing your entire country? Somewhat more difficult.