Ubuntu and the Peace Corps

On the 50th anniversary of the organization, a returned volunteer's reflections

Heather and me with our high school HIV/AIDS awareness group, Tholulwaziubatjele
Heather and me with our high school HIV/AIDS awareness group, Tholulwaziubatjele

We were halfway through the hour-long walk back from a neighboring township to our village of Thembalethu, South Africa, when the dark, cloudy skies opened up and a torrential downpour fell upon us. We quickened our pace, attempting to flee the onslaught. The dirt road was quickly turning to mud; with each step our feet began sinking deeper into the swampy red earth.

We were only a month into our Peace Corps service at this point, in a strange part of the village where we had never been, and had little idea where to seek shelter. I was with Heather, who was not only the nearest American volunteer to me but would also become my closest friend over the next two years. We looked at each other anxiously, despair seeping into our hearts as we resigned ourselves to walk for the next half hour, though we could barely see 3 feet in front of us. Then, a small lone figure appeared under an umbrella. She was a frail African mother, who bade us follow her into a small home. It was a humble place with standard concrete floors and the kind of corrugated steel roof that during rainstorms such as this would amplify the deluge, making it sound like the very sky was shattering and descending violently down around you.

We were grateful to be there, safe inside from the rain. There were four or five little children in the kitchen, ranging in age from an 8-year-old to a baby the mother was holding. Warm cups of tea were placed into our hands, and we sat there, huddled near the stove with this family, waiting for the storm to end. It was a living example of the African practice of Ubuntu that my friends and I would learn so much about over the course of the following 24 months — the welcoming interconnectedness of all people: What is mine is yours and what is yours is ours.

Though I had initially regarded these other volunteers as getting in the way of my self-seeking isolation, over the next two years I would absolutely come to rely and depend on all of them.

Heather and I looked at each other over our tea and smiled; we had been saved. We had come to this country as education and community resource volunteers to help others, and in this instance, as would happen so often over the course of our service, we found the community helping us instead, reaching out their hands to us, opening their hearts and homes for no other reason than it being the African way.

Part of a community

I was 24 when I first applied to the Peace Corps — an angsty college grad who wanted to be doing something more important with his life than just working some job in America. So one cold, Chicago February day, I sat down and applied, spending that whole next year (the Peace Corps application process can take a very long time) hoping and praying for a remote picturesque African village, where I would be the lone American lending a hand in the wild, far from the extravagances of civilization.

I got none of that.

I was placed in a large village, only an hour from the city of Pretoria, with all the benefits of running water, electricity and cell phones, as well as three other volunteers in my same general location — hardly alone and far from the middle of nowhere.

Peace Corps is never what you expect it’s going to be — I didn’t get exactly what I wanted; instead God had given me precisely what I needed. Though I had initially regarded these other volunteers as getting in the way of my self-seeking isolation, over the next two years I would absolutely come to rely and depend on all of them for help in my work, with my life in the village, and maintaining my sanity. I needed them, just as Heather and I had needed that mama saving us from the rain storm when she did.

Peace Corps isn’t about escape or being alone. It’s about being part of a community and doing your part for it: be it the community of your local village and assignment, your fellow volunteers, or the world at large. It really is about Ubuntu, whether your placement is in Africa or elsewhere.

Returning from South Africa after two years of service, embracing family and friends and all those I had missed so much, the first question out of everyone’s mouths was the exact same thing:

“How was it?”

How do you sum up two of the most difficult, amazing, beautiful, hard, tremendous, awesome, fulfilling, spectacular, devastating and incredible years of your life into a single sound bite?

You don’t. You simply pick one of your many experiences and explain it that way.

March 1, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the Executive Order for the Peace Corps Act which declared the program’s purpose: “To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” In the past 50 years, Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries offering their talents in governments, schools, nonprofit organizations, nongovernmental organizations, hunger, business, information technology, agriculture and the environment.

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