As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I aspire to serve with the Peace Corps after I graduate from OU. While this post takes a critical look at one of the short pieces published on the Peace Corps’ website, please rest assured that I still wholeheartedly support the mission of the Peace Corps and fully intend on applying to serve.
Since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has sent over 75,000 Americans to Africa in pursuit of world peace and friendship. This worldwide cultural exchange provides partner nations with trained individuals who are charged with “promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” The Peace Corps has become a popular post-graduation alternative to entering the workforce, and the 7,376 volunteers currently serving abroad are by and large making positive impacts in their host communities. However, the reflections of one former volunteer who spent time in Senegal, Mali, and Sierra Leone suggest that not every Peace Corps participant fully capitalizes on or even understands the nuances of their cultural exchange. By one individual’s accounts of his time in Africa, the cultural exchange he experienced was a very one-sided affair, in which he imposed American values and beliefs on the members of his community and made little attempt at understanding the merits of his hosts’ cultures and the fact that Africa does not need saving.
Serving in the Peace Corps is a substantial commitment to representing America well in word and deed, because every action and conversation is a display of American culture for people who may never visit the United States, but perhaps even more important is the way in which volunteers bring the culture of their host community back stateside. The cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps comprises two-thirds of the program’s mission statement but seldom receives proportionate emphasis, although the project work is also significant. In “What I think about when I think about West Africa,” the author reminisces on cherished years of volunteering in Africa, which he spent planting trees in Senegal, righting a failing business in Mali, and teaching middle school language arts in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, he also fixates on his ability to instill Western behaviors and beliefs in his host community and barely acknowledges the reverse, as if the African point of view had little to offer. The author concludes by stating how proud he was to be the light that “humanity everywhere so desperately needs,” and in doing so evokes the age-old portrayal of Western saviors bringing light into Africa’s heart of darkness. I believe that this is a fundamentally flawed approach to serving in the Peace Corps, not to mention international volunteering in general. It saddens me to see this point of view highlighted on the Peace Corps’ website, but I will admit that a year ago I wouldn’t have noticed anything problematic about the blog post in question.