Changing the World, One Small, Doable Action at a Time

This is Peace Corps week, and as you darling readers may have noticed, I talk about my Peace Corps service in Tanzania a lot.  It was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do volunteer work right, with a long term commitment that allows time to build relationships with a community, and performing only those services that are requested.  We do not do the voluntourist thing of showing up, building something that we haven’t bothered to really find out if it is needed and then leave after taking lots of photos of ourselves with smiling children.    As a bonus, the volunteer may have unexpected adventures such as learning to drive an oxcart and being invited to participate in an impromptu village performance.   For those not U.S. citizens, Peace Corps service is, alas, not an option, but the VSO is a good volunteer organization open to people of all nationalities.

More of interest to this blog is that, if we wish to add activism to our skepticism and feminism, a lot of Peace Corps strategies to effect change are helpful. It is, obviously (or perhaps not so obviously?) a good idea to attempt change from a respected place in a community and with a good relationship between oneself and the people one is attempting to change.  The evangelical/missionary approach of just showing up and assuming people are dying to hear one’s message is exceptionally unrealistic and unlikely to work unless backed by a ruthless institution happy to threaten hell in the hereafter and death in the here and now.  So, in Tanzania, I tried to get to know people, and listen more than I talked, and learn from them as well, and most importantly, do my job.  I was a teacher in Tanzania (and Tanzania has a serious shortage of qualified teachers particularly in computer science and information technology; I was fulfilling an immediate need without taking anyone’s job) and I always went to class and on time. (A lot of teachers in Tanzania don’t feel a need to go to class and actually do their jobs, so even though I am not that great at teaching, if I show up, I’m already ahead of the game.)

So, if I have a good position from which to attempt change, what then?  It’s very buzzword-y, yes, but small doable actions.  They rock.  I was not going to be able to end homophobia in Tanzania, or, for that matter, end it just at my school in Tanzania.  What I could do is, everytime the subject came up (I always waited for other people to bring up potentially touchy subjects, because that way I could be confident that people actually want to discuss the subject with me), I could give my little speech about not discriminating because we like computers and we owe them to Alan Turing.  (Yes, I know that we don’t discriminate because all people are people with equal rights, but it’s easier to convince people using reasons they are likely to agree with than otherwise.  E.g. it’s easier to give comprehensive education about how to make women happy during sex so they will want to put out more and point out that FGM makes this not work than it is to convince a lot of people that FGM is inherently wrong).  I can’t directly teach about the wonders of equality under the law for everyone–I’m a computer teacher, not a civics teacher and it would be inappropriate for a foreigner to teach civics to a nation struggling with the aftermath of colonialism anyway–but I can go over a brief history of important people in computing with my classes and mention how very horrible it was that Turing was basically tortured into suicide by the British government.  Likewise, I can’t end sexism in Tanzania, or the underrepresentation of women in computer science, but I can stand up and teach and consult to be a visible woman in computer science.  I can’t do anything about poverty, but I can teach anyone interested how to make wine in a bucket as an income-generating activity and way to save a lot of money on alcohol for personal consumption.  Also, I happen to believe that just by doing my job of teaching computer skills I was building capacity that, in this case, will very directly and immediately help my students achieve a higher standard of living, so there’s that.

This may not be much, and it is, in Peace Corps as in the rest of life, often necessary to cultivate a zen-like sense of general futility. For example, men often complained to me about how all those other foreign women dress immodestly by showing their knees, but it was good that I dressed like a “good African woman” (I wore clothes like a conservative Tanzanian lady; it was an easy way to show I was attempting to integrate into the culture, and also I really like clothes, so buying fabric and taking it to the dressmaker in the village was a lot of fun). No matter what I said, I don’t think I ever convinced anyone that really, one shouldn’t police women’s clothing, and I would invariably go home really frustrated, change into my scandalous knee-revealing shorts in the privacy of my home, and watch American TV until I felt better.  Not engaging in unwinnable battles or battles that will cause me undue stress is also a good policy.  When I heard someone on a bus talking about how much he’d like to do the foreigner, I just pretended I didn’t understand Kiswahili and had no idea that conversation was happening.  I also tended not to engage with the sleazy men on the street who would ask me to marry them before even asking my name.

The world isn’t going to become magically better by tomorrow, or after several years of tomorrows.  Institutions don’t change easily.  People don’t change easily.  Probably no one thing any of us do will have a large impact.  There’s a good chance I didn’t do much in Tanzania.  Maybe my students will get good jobs and have better standards of living for themselves and any children they have.  Maybe a few of them will think before having a knee-jerk “teh gay is EVIL” thought. I like to think I added an epsilon’s worth of better-place-making to the world.  Epsilon is, of course, the smallest set that is not the empty set.  It’s not much, but if we all add our epsilons, maybe we’ll get somewhere.  Onward!

Featured image is me driving an oxcart in Gallapo, a small village near Babati, in Tanzania. I had no actual reason to drive an oxcart, but I really wanted to, and the gentleman who owned the cart was very kind and taught me how, to the great entertainment of bystanders who hung about to point and laugh at a foreigner being completely incompetent at driving oxen. A good time was had by all.  

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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