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Zombies from my First Year in the Peace Corps

In the "Cult of Escapism": Zombies from my First Year in the Peace Corps

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Zombies from my First Year in the Peace Corps

Today was the Ultimate Cleaning Championship, with Jack Fischl and Jack's Mountain of Unused Documents pitted in a sweaty, ultra-featherweight title fight that would definitely not be interesting to watch. Organizing and aggressively downsizing these old documents was like unearthing the Graveyard of Aborted Projects and facing these zombies was amusing, disappointing and relieving.

In my first six months, I spread myself like a shotgun blast, hoping to hit somebody worth working with and something worth working on. I would straight up impose myself on potential work counterparts and anything that had anything to do with Community Economic Development. Basic accounting lessons, sustainable farming, strategic planning, tourism, organizational improvement – I went after whatever presented itself and often tried creating interest where it didn't otherwise exist (“No, seriously, you know you want me to teach you long term planning”).

Looking back, it amuses me to see how scattered and desperate I was. Uselessness is the most dangerous feeling to experience in the Peace Corps – much more so than loneliness, isolatedness and every other 'ness' – and I was hustling to keep myself active and at least feel like I was doing something useful. I don't regret it – I eventually found my focus and put the shotgun away. But it was funny to see the things I thought I might work on and all the materials I printed and never used.

Funny to see those unused materials, yes, but also sort of sad. It's not like I misjudged the situation or attempted stuff that was paternalistic or inappropriate. And it's not like I didn't try. Which is what makes it sad – I tried a lot of things and failed in most of them.

For instance, there are a lot of small businesses in my town and few of them follow a plan or keep track of what they're selling. Now, I'll argue that on this small of a scale, you can definitely function and even thrive without a plan, but keeping track of your money is pretty important. For example, small store owners buy and sell without tracking, using their personal money in the business and their business money for the family. Again, not inherently disastrous, but many will suddenly run out of money in a time of need. “But I've been selling a lot, how is it that I don't have any money?” If there is a sudden medical expense or some other emergency and your primary (or only) income is your small business and you don't have any money, you're screwed. That's just one reason I figured small business management would be important.

So I visited every small business I could find and offered my services. I had a public lesson with private follow up at each business. Twenty one stores came to the public lesson and signed up for individual follow up and I now work with exactly none of them. Because they stopped doing the work. The easy escape here is to say that they're lazy, but that's difficult to argue since they have the wherewithal to stand in their store for 10 hours every day and take care of a family of 12. Which means they probably stopped doing the work (i.e. tracking their sales each day and doing monthly inventory so that they could accurately calculate their monthly earnings) because they didn't understand how or what purpose it served. Although I covered all of that in the public lesson, I knew it wouldn't stick, which is why I did the individual follow up and I often felt like I was getting through to the owners, that they understood what to do and why it would help. But one by one, they stopped doing the work and I got frustrated and stopped showing up.

These stores are just one example of a community problem that I identified, tried to alleviate and failed to alleviate. Others include: the trash problem, dysfunctional cooperatives, dysfunctional artisan groups, the trash problem, and various other small business related issues. But success is often forged through failure and now I feel like, for the rest of my service, my work will be more focused, relevant and better received.

All that shotgunning and failing eventually landed me where I am today: nine months left in my service and I know I will spend most of my time working on tourism and business planning. We've been building the tourism potential of my town and had some modest successes. Moving forward, we need more and better advertising, including a stronger web presence, better organization and well, more tourists. After all the things I've worked on and thought about working on, I've made tourism my primary focus because of its potential to create jobs and bring outside money in (improving businesses within the community helps, but it doesn't create cash). By now, I know who in the community is competent and motivated enough to do what is necessary to succeed. Additionally, some other volunteers and I are working on a sustainable way for tourism-worthy communities to advertise online (more on that in later posts).

I will also work on business planning, both in my site and countrywide (I am the 'Business Plan Coordinator' among the volunteers – I'll let you know what that means as soon as I figure it out). The focus here is not only to effectively plan and monitor a small business, but to potentially write and submit a plan in order to obtain funding.

Finally, I'll do whatever people ask me to do. I often get approached on the street with requests to teach or consult something. It doesn't always amount to something worthwhile or realistic (I was once asked to design a school in my site. It took me a while to convince them that, perhaps, an architect would be more qualified for such a task) but if someone asks, I'll at least try.

The document zombies lay at the bottom of a trash bag and my clean desk and almost empty folders indicate that I'm the new ultra-featherweight champion. So that's nice. But what's nicer is the security of knowing what I'm doing here and feeling justified and excited about it. Hopefully, by the end of my service, the zombies will remain buried and I will look back on some other seemingly irrevlant meatphor that representes my successes.


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