In buses, the teacher’s room, bars or sometimes just walking down the street, I frequently find myself engaged in interesting or entertaining conversations which raise my awareness of cultural and worldview differences.
So here I begin my new series, Ikiganiro Cyiza or Good Chat, so you might also get a good chuckle or be challenged to think about something in a way you never have before.
Peace Corps versus Marine Corps
On a long, curvy bus ride – after sleeping through as much as I was able – I found myself engaged in a conversation with a man traveling from Kibuye to Kigali on business.
He worked weekdays in Kibuye at a development organization and had heard of Peace Corps but his knowledge of what we did was limited. After some explanation of the history and mission of Peace Corps, as well as our work in Rwanda at the request of the government, he asked the Big Question: Why do I do it?
He understood I am not making money. He even seemed to understand my desire to make the world a better place. What he didn’t understand was, what was in it for me?
‘I learn about Rwanda,’ I said.
‘I like helping people,’ I added.
‘I believe all people should do what they can to encourage peace,’ I tried.
‘But what do you get?’ he insisted.
Money? A guaranteed job afterward? School fees? What?
Well, I do get a small amount of money to help me transition back to life in the U.S. when my service ends. But not very much. Peace Corps does have a career link to help us find jobs. But nothing is guaranteed. I guess Peace Corps might look good on a resume. That’s something. Nope. No money for school.
Basically, no. I explained. You don’t do Peace Corps for the material benefits.
My seatmate pondered this for a moment. We’d already covered the difficulties of Peace Corps: moving far from family and friends, forgoing the luxuries available in a developed country, having to learn a new language just to get by. So I knew he was beginning to think I’m crazy.
‘I like what I’m doing,’ I begin to defend my choice. ‘I believe it’s right and good and I enjoy it.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he says. ‘I understand. But what about money? What if you cannot get a job after your time in Rwanda? You need money. If I were you, I would be a soldier. I have a friend who went to America and he became a soldier. He says he is paid well and has job security. Why don’t you become a soldier?’
‘Well,’ I begin, ‘the military has a very important role in our world. I know that. But it’s not right for me. Truthfully, I keep hoping for a day when we won’t need the military. That’s why I chose the Peace Corps. I think it can help improve relations around the world so maybe we won’t need the military to make the world safe.’
‘But money!’ He insisted.
‘I’m not worried about that right now,’ I reply. ‘I believe in the Peace Corps’ goals. I have the freedom to work for peace in this way and for me, right now, that’s more important than money or job security.’
And that’s when it hit me.
We were looking at this from two totally different worldviews.
I come from a country of relative security, of choice, the privilege of having spare time to volunteer. The freedom to choose a career based on fulfillment and not just income. Money is still important in the United States. Absolutely. But I have a choice.
I’m an educated, 30-year old, debt-free, single, childless woman. If I don’t have money in the bank, it won’t mean the end of me or my family.
This man didn’t have that freedom. That privilege. There is no free time in Rwanda, between work, maintaining a home, and likely growing your own food, to pursue your passions. Even the national day of service isn’t called ‘volunteering’ – it’s community work. Nearly everyone in Rwanda gets married young and a child is usually born within the first year. Families are large and men are often the sole source of income. People will live hours away from their families just to get a better position so they can give their loved ones a brighter future.
Money and job security are crucial to life in Rwanda. You help your neighbors, yes, and those blessed with much are expected to help those who have little. But working for free? Investing several years far away with little guarantee of a better job or higher income afterward? Those are difficult ideas in the Rwandan reality.
I don’t want to pick up a gun. And as an American with privilege, I don’t have to unless I want to. But if I was Rwandan, it might be the best life choice for me and my family. For some Americans, it is the same.
Privilege is a powerful divider.
Developed country to under-developed. Rich man to poor. Black to white. Our life, our circumstances, the wealth of our nations, and the biases of society – those are what decide our options; the extent of our freedom.
I have every respect and appreciation for our armed forces. For most who serve in the military, it is about far more than money and job security – it is a passion, a calling, a duty. And in its own way, the military serves the cause of peace as well.
But I am also incredibly thankful for the privilege I have to make my own choice about what position is best for me. And right now, that is to serve freely in the pursuit of peace as a Peace Corps Volunteer. With or without job security.