Here is an essay that I have been working on since returning from Zambia. I am still trying to formulate my thoughts into a cohesive expression/understanding of the past two years...
Since returning home from two years of volunteer service in Zambia through the Peace Corps, it hasn’t been malls, grocery stores, clocks, or all the white people not staring at me that I’ve found most overwhelming. Of course readjusting to the fast pace of life, the easy access to information and 50 different types of shampoo has been anything but underwhelming, the most difficult adjustment has been fielding questions from friends and family that never fail to include, ‘That must have been so difficult’, ‘I could never do anything like that’, or ‘How did you deal with all the poverty?’. If the past two years have taught me anything, it is that my definition of service deserved a dramatic restructuring. I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding service, peeling back the layers of what it means to serve others so that, through all the complexities, I’ve arrived at a very primitive definition of service.
It is not our responsibility as citizens of the western world to ‘save’ those of developing countries. They never were and never will be ours for the saving. The best type of service we can give is service that comes from a combination of understanding and empathy, service that is both informed and aware. When you put yourself out there, truly allow yourself to be swept up by new experiences and foreign cultures in a place that all too often seems like another planet, you serve others. You take a look outside of yourself and your world. You quite literally step into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them for awhile, and you do so while gaining a worldview that can only enhance your introspection. I left Zambia with a million more questions than those with which I arrived. Thinking you know all the answers will only leave you stuck in a self- satisfied world that can become all too comfortable.
But grassroots development is most definitely not the only definition of service. Service can build its roots as close as your front doorstep. There is no need to move to a developing country for two years in order to become aware of the world around you. One does not need to renounce their possessions or live in a mud-brick hut with a thatched roof to have empathy for those living in poverty. The ultimate necessity is awareness. Read not only the newspaper, but online blogs and discussion forums. If you plan to give money to an organization aiding in development, look into not only the goals and aims of that organization, but where most of their costs are to see where your money is likely to end up.
We often think of service as a sort of transaction between two entities; one performs the act of giving, while the other in turn performs the act of receiving. Both are happy in their perceived roles, and the transaction we picture is straight forward and void of any confusion or misunderstanding. But when the lines are blurred the roles become interchangeable. The giver becomes also a receiver, and vise versa. This is the place where service finds its true definition, a definition realized only through awareness of these interchanging roles. It’s a bit ironic that it took serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in one of the poorest countries in the world to begin to comprehend the true nature of receiving. John Steinbeck once wrote to a friend, “It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self- knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.” Break out of the black and white roles of service, into the lovely gray of relationships where both parties stand to benefit.
Africa doesn’t need money; it doesn’t need more Peace Corps volunteers; it doesn’t need fancy formulas for development; what it needs is awareness of its reality on the part of both Africans and foreigners. Africa does not exist to fulfill the sole role of receiver; it has way too much to give back to us to be stuck in such a box. T.S. Elliot claimed that, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” When we challenge our view of the world, we challenge our actions in accordance with that worldview. We grow; we learn; we serve. We peel back the layers to reveal that we went broke thinking the simple should be hard.