I want to take some time here to talk about the idea of spreading information, education, training, love or whatever via person-to-person interaction. We call it a grassroots effort, and it is probably the most frustrating and difficult thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer.
My generation is one that was taught things like “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “impossible is a four letter word.” We are a generation of super competitive overachievers because we have big dreams and we crave fame, power, and notoriety. In my case, I had such a desire to change the world and I really believed that I could until adulthood and the real world set in. All of a sudden there were bills and student loan payments and an empty job market to worry about. So, I joined the Peace Corps…not to run away from adulthood but because I believed it was the best possible way for me to make a career out of meeting the needs of others without ending up homeless.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, though, it’s that you can’t come into this job thinking you can change the world, this country, or even the skewed notion that a girl’s education is less valuable than a boy’s. You don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations, but you do need to adjust them.
I think we all came here thinking we would find creative ways of making these kids love science. We’d jump in feet first into teaching a subject we love to these people and our innovative American attitudes would raise test scores, attendance and student participation across the board! That’s the idea, anyway, but it’s not the reality.
Each week we get a pair of volunteers who are one or two years into their service. They help facilitate our lessons and give advice on what to expect from our sites, schools, etc. The reality they have delivered to us is that we will have much larger classes than anticipated (a class of 60-80 kids is normal), cheating is rampant, attendance is scarce, the grading system is often corrupt and biased, students rarely are equipped with textbooks and the textbooks themselves contain errors. So essentially I am now prepared to have a class underwhelmed with resources and overflowing with students, most of which don’t belong in the grade level or maybe don’t even speak Portuguese. I am also prepared to feel completely useless, because I think everyone feels this way when faced with such an overwhelming obstacle.
That brings me to the question: why am I still here? I’m still here because I believe in what I’m doing, even if I’m not always sure I know what I’m doing. I believe in the overall mission of the Peace Corps and that one day the education sector won’t be needed in this country, and I will be able to say I was a part of that. I believe I am here for a reason, even if I don’t yet know what it is and even if it’s something as simple as being a friend to one person here.
If you look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic, you’ll see a massive problem that seems too big and too overwhelming to overcome. When you think about this disease in America, you think of the billions of dollars spent on research and ad campaigns. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn it’s much different here. In lieu of the ad campaigns there are red ribbons painted and drawn on the street corners and bus stops. This weekend my mãe’s cousin cut her own throat because she found out she was HIV positive. She had two children. It’s devastating, and when you try to think of a solution it seems like too big of a problem and at first you come up empty. You can encourage your friends and neighbors to get tested. You can offer counseling or just lend an ear. You can teach sex-ed to a group of teenagers. You can’t solve the problem immediately, but the problem wasn’t created immediately either. It can be helped the same way it was spread: person to person.
The other day in one of our Tech sessions we talked about the traditional gender roles in the culture here, and one of our professors mentioned that people think he’s crazy when he goes grocery shopping for his wife or does housework because he’s a male and that’s not his role in society. He said they are even offended at his allowing his wife to continue her education. He believes in what he is doing for his wife and his family, though, and his view on how to combat this resistance is just to rationalize it with his friends. He said that once he explains that he is doing this for the benefit of his family and for his children a lot of times they will see his side of the equation. He may not change their viewpoint on gender roles in society, but if one person sees the benefit of gender equality and passes that on to another person you have started a chain of ideas. That’s what grassroots is, and I wholeheartedly believe in its effectiveness.