Below is a column I wrote for the newsletter published for Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa. A few words of introduction:
Peace Corps brings volunteers in cycles; each group has a 2-to-3-month training. During this Pre-Service Training, volunteers learn about the history and cultures of their country, study local languages, and receive technical training relevant to their project. I am in the twenty-fourth group of volunteers sent to South Africa (SA-24); the twenty-sixth group, of about forty-five volunteers, just arrived (SA-26). The rest should be fairly self-explanatory. And so, without further ado, the column:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Welcome and hoorah, SA-26! Woody Allen wrote the above words in 1980. Sorry to greet you with such dark tidings, but 32 years later, we remain wobbling along the very same precipice. I congratulate you, however, on making a choice. Make no mistake: by signing your name to a wrist-numbingly large number of dotted lines, you’ve made a hefty one. And for my money (what little the Peace Corps provides), you’ve shown both the wisdom and also the requisite brashness to choose correctly.
A sunnier injunction: resist humbling your optimism.
During my Pre-Service Training, my fellow SA-24s and I were repeatedly told to abandon the presumption of changing the world; to recognize that in two years we would not transform a country, not transform an educational system, not even reform a school. Because I realized these comments were true, I dumbly nodded along.
I nodded along because I didn’t want to fall prey to hubris. I also nodded because I didn’t want to be branded with the starry-eyed naiveté that figures large in the popular caricature of the Peace Corps.
And I nodded more vigorously than ever when I started work in earnest. I was thrown into complexly-layered cultures and institutions, which were not only alien, but which also continue to rumble and from the upheavals of rainbow-colored revolution. With the language barrier, I generally didn’t know which way was up, let alone what needed changing, let alone how to change it. Or so I affirmed with all of my nodding.
But it’s no good nodding like a PCV bobble-head doll strapped to a khombi disintegrating even as it rocks down an unpaved road. It’s downright nauseating.
What’s the point of my overwrought simile? Too much under-cutting of ambition, too much misplaced humility and hemming and hawingvitiates the hands-on interventionism that makes the Peace Corps great.
When you come into a group of fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-olds struggling to read and frightened of trying, you don’t have to consult a tract of cultural sensitivity to know things are wrong. And even if you know neither the root nor the compounding causes of the situation, don’t be too humble to wade in and fiddle. You were sent here to meddle, not to watch.
Decades ago, Langston Hughes, American jazzman of words, poetic sage and seer, wrote the following:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? or crust and sugar over -- like a syrupy sweet?
South Africa has made me ponder Hughes’s words often. I don’t have the answers to his questions. I know this, however: Every day you work in this country, you are working to realize a dream deferred. If you do good work, you’ll help prevent that dream from drying up, from festering, stinking, crusting, sagging or exploding.
Too often, having impact is conflated with having control. It’s true, you alone won’t control the destiny of the South African dream — Mandela himself couldn’t do that. But don’t let others delude you, and don’t delude yourself, into thinking that if you can’t have control of a dream, a big, puffy, country- or world-sized dream, then you shouldn’t concern yourself with having an impact.
And have some fun.
(h/t David Simon for the Allen quote)