Peace Corps Growing

by Nathan Hamm on 1/13/2005 · 5 comments

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Peace Corps is the biggest it’s been in 30 years. I only really bring up the story at all to highlight my personaly philosophy about the Peace Corps and the kinds of people who join. Keep in mind though that a lot of this comes from the perspective of serving in Uzbekistan, a country that (I heard from people who had medical evacuation to DC) has a reputation of being particularly psychologically difficult in which to serve.

Other trends and motivations [for the surge in recruits] may come into play: the economy, a general hankering to avoid settling down or a passion to demonstrate to people of other countries that there is more to America than what many foreigners have seen on TV since the start of the conflict in Iraq.

“We need to tell the world that we’re not all warmongers,” said [Liz] Hogan, who graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 2002. She is discouraged by her long waiting period, but is determined to serve in a developing country — she’ll be placed in Central Asia or Eastern Europe. She wants the opportunity to see the world and “step it up and promote peace in the world.”

Peace Corps Volunteers [PCVs] have a reputation for being sandal-wearing, granola-munching, long-haired do-gooders. Miss Hogan seems to fit the mindset that one would assume to go along with that stereotype. And, I’m sorry to say it, I don’t see her being a particularly successful or happy volunteer, especially if she goes to Central Asia.

The Peace Corps isn’t two years of singing kumbaya around the campfire celebrating the brotherhood of man. In Central Asia at least, it’s endless bureaucracy, intestinal disease, and trying to figure out who is and is not really your friend while developing the host country, not advocating for peace. As admirable as it is to be trusting and to want to change the world, I found both of these qualities to be detrimental to PCVs.

For most volunteers, the most trying times are those reflecting on whether or not their service is doing their host community any good. It’s often extremely difficult to see what good one is doing and this gets extremely discouraging. It helped me to be realistic. I knew I wouldn’t change the world, and frankly, 75% of my motivation for joining the Peace Corps was what I hoped to take out of it. The difference that PCVs make is a long time maturing and may only directly involve a handful of people.

Her “We need to tell the world that we’re not all warmongers” remark irks me–not as a supporter of the war and President Bush, or even because it’s indicative of, to take a cue from 24, “6th grade Michael Moore logic.” No, it bothers me because I see the wisdom of and firmly support the political neutrality of the Peace Corps. It’s not the mission of the PCV to engage in diplomacy or speak out on any policy matters. It does a great disservice not just to the government whose employ the PCV is in but also to the institution period.

That’s not to say that PCVs cannot or should not clear up misconceptions about Americans. In fact, it’s a very important part of one’s service to do so. I do a little happy dance of glee in my head to think how great it is that the recruit mentioned above (and others in the Post-Gazette story, you’ll know who I’m talking about) will learn her government isn’t all that bad. I am especially hopeful that these recruits will become patriots and sing the praises of their country (happened to me…).

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Tim Newman January 14, 2005 at 2:31 am

I think the name Peace Corps will encourage vociferous anti-war types to sign up to its ranks, so I am hardly surprised to hear a volunteer making a big deal of her anti-war position.

jodi January 14, 2005 at 8:28 am

whoa! she scares me! i wonder, would she eat a sheep’s eyeball to demonstrate that all americans aren’t picky eaters as well? good god, central asia, watch out!

Nathan January 14, 2005 at 9:56 am

Tim: You’d be surprised, actually. I’ve had some pretty vocal anti-war types say horribly offensive things to me because I was in the Peace Corps. It ranges from the mildly derisive statements like, “How could you ever work for the government?” “(Because, you know, only bad people do, and you’re a bad person in my eyes.)” Then we move up to the lame “You’re a cultural imperialist” accusations. And finally, we have the poeple who suggest that I was either a witting or unwitting participant in espionage or the exploitation and submission of the country I served in.

The people in this story are, in my book, much more annoying. They are the “suburban revolutionaries” — the ones who are naive do-gooders who tend believe that the Democratic Party is the alpha and omega of all good in the US and that if we all just tried real hard to love and celebrate each other, all our problems would be solved.

That’s why it’s so entertaining to hear these people bitch and moan about Host Country Nationals (which all Peace Corps Volunteers do with each other from time to time). It’s cute when they realize that cultural differences aren’t always things to be loved and cherished and tolerated.

Jodi: Did you ever get presented with the eyeball thing? That seemed never to happen in Uzbekistan though we were assured it would in our welcome packet. I always made up lies about my health and/or religion* when I didn’t want to eat something–that something usually being jellied animal fat.

*Whatever religion it was I claimed to practice was extremely prohibitive. I, for example, told my counterpart, who loved to dance (and was widely considered by the other men in UZ-10 to be “the hot counterpart”), that I am not allowed to dance because I’m a Protestant. She bought it until another volunteer told her I was making it up.

Nathan January 14, 2005 at 9:57 am

Oh yeah, I also told people who wanted me to shave my beard that it was an insult to my ancestors and that it is traditional for real men from my part of the United States to have a beard.

jodi January 15, 2005 at 6:44 am

yes i did get presented with The Eyeball and i ate it too! can you believe it? it was my best Kyrgyz friend’s birthday and her relatives and her husband’s were over for a “family party” which i was invited to. there was the typical eating, drinking and small talk and then the highlight of the evening came.

a woman made an elaborate entrance, carrying with her a huge silver-looking platter. and on this big, silver platter was this shiney, steaming sheep’s head (eyes closed of course) and suddenly everyone but me starts licking their chops as if it were a turkey dinner or something.

the head is then placed in front of the elder of the table who immediately digs right in by gouging out the eyeballs. everyone is looking at him in anticipation as to who the lucky person is who would get the eyes. we all thought it would be my friend because it was her birthday.

and then to my horror, i see him reaching out his closed hand to me from across the table and then i knew–he had The Eyeball–in his hand and he was giving it to me.

i could see the panic in my friend’s face as she was horrified that i would embarrass her and insult the elder by refusing to eat the most prized part of the sheep but i was a good spot.

i took The Eyeball and with everyone watching me, swallowed the thing like an aspirin (i refused to chew it), immediately chasing it with about 3 shots of vodka. it was the first and last time i was presented with The Eyeball.

now i have bragging rights but then again, who would *want* to brag about eating a sheep’s eyeball?

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