Looking into my own eyes, printed onto a several foot poster and glossed over with laminate, turns out to be a bit unsettling.
Even though I’ve become accustomed to the poster as it hangs in the midservice conference for Cameroon’s Grand South, my first interaction with the advert was a mixture of pride and shame.
Prideful for obvious reasons, ones you could likely guess without my prompting. Though tens of volunteers were on display thanks to these regional posters, and even though these posters were only on display in a tiny conference room in the Western capital of Bafoussam, and even though the only eyes on these posters were fellow volunteers and counterparts, you can’t help but feel pangs of satisfaction when you see yourself, representing the Peace Corps name in full color.
The secondary part, laced with shame and self-doubt, arrives when you realize that to the world, this glamorized image of well-integrated and helpful volunteer is quite literally the poster child of an average Peace Corps man or woman.
I often speak on the daunting task of tearing down the stereotype of Rich Whiteman during my service here. Constantly explaining that, while I am from a wealthy nation, I get paid a stipend that places me alongside the typical middle-class family as far as earnings. I live comfortably, but only due to a well-maintained budget and good head on my shoulders. I cannot take your child to America, just as I can’t afford to fly myself to the motherland on a whim. I am not a dollar sign. I am not the messiah.
Seldom do I realize the label placed on me from the other end of the spectrum, the population on the other side of the pond. People often confide in me that though it’s a nice idea for me, this ‘service’ thing, they simply could not do what I do. Men and women, older and younger, tell me they admire my work and that I must be out changing the world, towin’ along that big ol’ bleeding heart of mine through the muck and grime of development work. I am called brave, courageous, fearless and other code words for “that chick is crazy to be going there”. What I don’t think people realize, however, is that…
Well, I’m not.
I’m not any of those things. I’m fearful. Sane and fearful and cautious and far from a risk-taker. I stay inside. I wish for seat belts. I chastise drivers for going too fast and shake my finger at children playing too close to danger. I’m a plan-maker. I enjoy a good schedule. Better than that is a good schedule filled with nothing.
That’s right. Though I hate to disappoint, there are more moments where I’m not doing work than seconds of the day where I am. I have bursts of activity punctuated by massive pauses. Downtime defines my week. I am not a visionary. I am not even a very good teacher. And when I’m angry at this country and tired of its challenges, I’m a poor excuse for a humanitarian. Some days my high point is making a grocery list. Some days I don’t step outside. Some days I sit and wonder how everyone got this impression of me that seems so backwards from the person I’ve become here.
The real accolades go the people back home. The ones who faithfully write letters and the ones who ask how they can help. The serial package senders. The enthused emailers.The worried mothers who let their babies go and the dads the keep tabs from timezones away. The things you do take more gumption than anything I do here. If they made a poster for the big-shots in my life, it’d be you gracing it, bright and shiny and a beacon of hope.