Does Any of This Matter? 

Peace Corps service is often shrouded in mystery. This is true for family and friends of the PCV, as well as the PCV. The question often gets asked what do PCVs do. The answer to that differs from post to post, and amongst volunteers serving in the same post. 

Peace Corps boasts three goals. 

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Before my service, I thought of Peace Corps mainly in terms of goal one. I thought about the tangible work. I thought about the data driven outcomes and evidence-based practices. While all of those things are extremely important, they are not of sole importance. In the 18 months that I’ve called Swaziland home, I have known many volunteers who struggled with the idea of “not doing enough”. At times, I have wrestled with the question of whether or not I’m doing meaningful work. In ten years, will it matter that I taught that Life Skills class? In seven years, will it matter that I co-facilitated that permagarden workshop? That’s the Goal One lens of Peace Corps. 

Some time ago, I was perusing Reddit when I was reminded of something salient. Not only does Peace Corps have more than one goal, Peace Corps service is as much about diplomacy as it is capacity building. It’s important to build community spaces. It’s important to build the community’s capacity for effective and sustainable change. It’s also important to build and foster friendships. It’s also important to show America as more than the often told single story of rich white people living lives of great abundance. 

There are times when the presence of a PCV leads to valuable conversations about America and the world. This is not to suggest that PCVs or America have “figured it out”. I don’t believe that we have; however, I believe that magic happens when diverse voices, ideas and perspectives get to sit at the proverbial table and speak freely. The metrics don’t exactly capture that. Similarly, they don’t capture the newfound excitement of the Form 4 student who tells me that he’s looking forward to my class tomorrow. They don’t capture the conversation with the young lady who expressed her excitement that her community gets to host a Black volunteer. 

On the other side of that diplomacy coin is (hopefully) the eradication of the single story that (insert host country/region/continent here) is only one thing. Previously obscure places become more than names on maps. With personal stories and experiences, Africa becomes more than a singular, monocultural place made of brown and bush. 

As I start to wrap things up here in Swaziland, I’ve pondered more on what it means to have had a successful service. My reflection has shifted my focus from making monuments to making memories. I haven’t built or renovated any structures in my community. However, I have taken my students on a world tour (including my home in DC) using Google Maps Street View. That probably won’t be in any annual report, but seeing the faces of my students as we explored the streets of Abuja, Paris, and Cairo makes up for any lack of metrics. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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To be seen, or the visibility of Black PCVs

Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever received is to “be who you needed when you were younger”. This can apply to many things. Today, I’ll apply it to Peace Corps prep work. When preparing for Peace Corps service, many people search tirelessly for information. What will it be like? What do I pack? Where will I live? What will I be doing? Do I have enough snacks? Many times, this search leads to blogs and social media allowing soon-to-be/hopeful PCVs a vast information buffet. 

During my own search, I found a lot of information about Swaziland including blogs and social media accounts of PCVs preceding me. Despite the wealth of information available, I struggled to find written accounts of Black PCVs. This was especially true of Black men. That gap was part of the impetus for starting this blog. In FY 2016 (when I started service), Black PCVs made up 7.8% of the 10000 plus volunteers in service. In the interest of sharing the Black PCV experience around the world, I have linked the blogs of Black PCVs here, under other PCV blogs of interest on this blog. My hope is that potential PCVs and other interested folks find this page resourceful in their quest to gather information about Peace Corps. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

This Ain’t Easy: Difficulties in Service

Peace Corps service is difficult. I often get asked if/what I miss about America. My answer is always food, and the variety of it. In fact, I have a list of places to eat when I return to DC. This question is often followed up by some variation of “isn’t it difficult being away from your family for so long?” Technology seems to shorten the distance. However, if I had to single out one thing, I’ve found the most difficult part of my service, this far, has been being “always on”. 

I’ve had jobs where I participated in on-call rotations. This is different. There’s a certain brain drain even when apparently doing nothing. One of the core expectations of Peace Corps is:

“Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance.”

That professional performance item doesn’t end when the work day does. In fact, the “work day” is never over. Off days are non-existent. Off days are work days. While it’s true that I’m not teaching 24 hours daily, there’s still work to be done. There’s still siSwati to be learned, improved, and perfected. There’s still Swazi English to be deciphered. Relationship building and maintenance is work. Active listening and mindful presence is work. Waking up and walking from my house to the latrine means that I have to be ready to interact. My actions (or lack thereof) are highly visible. All day, everyday, I am the face of America. I am the face of all Americans. I am the face of Black Americans. I am the face of American men. If I eat ice cream with a fork, Americans do that. If I’m loud, boisterous, and use lots of profanity, Americans do that. 

Months ago, I was speaking with a musician in Swaziland. Somehow, the conversation turned to drug use among musicians. The musician said something that would stick with me. When discussing musicians and heavy drug use, the musician stated that drugs were prevalent because it’s not natural for a person to be in a near constant state of performance entertainer mode. Day after day. Night after night. Show after show. The musician explained that they are expected to continually perform at the highest levels. Otherwise, they are replaced by someone who can perform at those high levels. In no way am I suggesting that PCVs do or should indulge in drug use. I am offering that anyone considering Peace Corps service might want to develop healthy (read: non destructive) coping mechanisms and vices.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

A Personal Touch

Recently, I was in the Peace Corps Swaziland office for a meeting with both local staff and staff from Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington. As myself and other PCVs were introducing ourselves, an HQ staffer mentioned that I looked familiar. I asked where she hung out in DC thinking that we might have run in the same circles. She said that we didn’t know each other from DC. That it was Peace Corps related. She asked if I had been to any of the regional trainings. I told her that I hadn’t. I asked if she possibly knew my twin brother, explaining that we often get mistaken for each other. She was certain that she hadn’t met him. Finally, it clicked. She said, “you have a blog, don’t you?” I proudly responded that I was the human behind whatisKirbydoing.com. We were both satisfied with that solution. 

Hours later as I was reflecting on that interaction, my exchange with the Peace Corps staffer morphed meaning. She felt that she knew me. My blog allowed her to feel like we had connected before. It was in this moment of reflection that I realized that this blog is serving its intended purpose. I wanted this blog project to allow readers to join me on my journey through Peace Corps. This interaction was confirmation of the fulfillment of that purpose. 

I am reminded of a similar interaction from many months ago. A friend from DC mentioned that she enjoyed the blog because she felt like she was here with me. I’m thankful and delighted that this blog has fostered that connection. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Getting naked in Cape Town (SFW)

It was Sunday evening. I had returned to Swaziland to attend training. I was on cloud nine after having the most amazing weekend in Cape Town. I had started the weekend with two goals. Eat great food and ride bikes while naked. Cape Town is known for some exquisite cuisine. The World Naked Bike Ride happened to be on the same weekend. Both of my goals were exceedingly accomplished! I ate amazing Thai food and sushi. Other PCVs at the training commented on how refreshed I looked as I shared highlights of the weekend. I smiled. I was extremely rejuvenated. 

One PCV friend asked when I would be writing about this experience on my blog. I responded that I wouldn’t be writing about the naked bike ride weekend. I had reasoned that the weekend was not related to my Peace Corps service, and that this blog was singularly about my service. I had reasoned that I wanted to be a “good” volunteer, and not attract bad publicity or attention to the Peace Corps. 

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is a clothing optional bike ride that takes place in more than 70 cities around the world. People from all walks of life join in to celebrate people powered transportation. Most ride bikes. Some ride longboards. Some participate in roller skates. Others choose to run. 

The reasons that people choose to participate, like the participants themselves, are diverse. Some people want to bring attention to our global dependence on non-renewable energy. Others want to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and remind motorists to share the road. There are naturists, and naturism activists, who use the ride to promote a clothes-free lifestyle and remind the world that nakedness does not equal sex or lewd behavior. 

My first WNBR was 2012 in Philadelphia. A big reason for my participation, at the time, was to be part of an exciting counter-culture. It was thrilling to be around 2500 people in various states of undress. 

To date, I have done the WNBR in six cities on three continents. While it’s still exciting to be naked and ride bikes through the city, I have added to the reasons that I ride. Having struggled with body image issues at various points in my life, I try to fully embrace body positivity, both in practice and thinking. People with all kinds of body types participate in the ride, and all are welcomed and embraced by fellow ride participants and most onlookers. Cape Town was no different. As we rode through the city, people lined the streets to cheer for us. The smiles were plenty. The weather was perfect. I was even gifted some delicious pizza after the 7.5 km ride. I even posed for pictures, and completed some interviews (one of which ended up on Japanese news). Body shaming has been normalized and is commonplace in far too many places. Simply stated, I ride because I refuse to embrace a culture of shame. 

After much internal debate on whether or not I should write about my experience at the Cape Town WNBR, I decided that it was necessary. Yes, this is a blog about my Peace Corps experience. However, that experience isn’t limited to teaching classes, building gardens, and writing grants. Also, I believe in the importance of fully representing the great expanse known as the US of A. Some day, someone will read this while wondering if there is space in Peace Corps for them with all of their unique intricacies. Let this post be a resounding yes! 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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​Monday In A Picture – For Colored Girls Who Reply “Pilot” When Asked, “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” 

Yesterday, it happened again. For the second time in my life, I met a Black woman pilot. I had left the plane and was walking up the jet bridge when I saw her. I noticed the bars on her shoulders, so I walked up to the young lady and asked if she was a first officer. She confirmed that she was. 

Nandi is a South African woman who currently flies as a first officer with Mango Airlines, based in South Africa. She stopped to chat with me for brief moment. I told her how excited I was to meet her, and the hope and promise that she gives me for the future. This is especially true now in my role as a teacher at my community’s high school. 

As a American man serving in the kingdom of Swaziland, I am increasingly aware of the privileges that I have through no merit of my own. One of the privileges benefiting me, as a man, is the fact that I get to see men in all kinds of positions throughout society. As a result, it’s rarely a question of whether I can attain a certain achievement. I have countless examples surrounding me as a man. As a Black man, I have fewer, but still numerous, examples around me. 

All of this brings me back to Nandi and my role as a teacher. I see teachers (myself included) as not only being responsible for teaching, but for inspiring their students. I want all of my students to truly believe that they can do anything. I believe that seeing examples who are relatable to our identities is important.

A Black woman gave birth to me. Black women, from various sectors in society, have been instrumental in my life. I noticed some years ago that Black women weren’t just underrepresented in the cockpit. They were non-existent. In more than 20 years of flying, I had never encountered a Black woman pilot in real life. So, I made it a travel goal of mine to meet one Black woman pilot. This task grew more daunting as I spoke with my uncle who retired from Delta Airlines after more than twenty-five years of service. He informed me that he had only met one Black woman pilot in years of extensive work and leisure travel around the world. 

In September 2014, I met Gabrielle in San Francisco. Gabrielle is a first officer with United Airlines. Yesterday, I met Nandi in Johannesburg. During this month celebrating women’s history, I want to make sure that Black and brown girls around Swaziland, Africa, and the world know that there are amazing women like Gabrielle and Nandi shattering glass ceilings and blazing trails for you. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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​Everyone has a part of the story 

During our first three months in Swaziland, we had all kinds of training. There was technical training and language training. There was training about the history and culture of Swaziland. There was probably more training that I have since forgotten. 
One of the things that I haven’t forgotten is a session in which we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of a single story

My story is, indeed, a single story. It is one of many. A single, personal view of a complex world. During this session, our training manager advised us not to perpetuate the single story of Africa being a singular, homogenous experience, culture, and people. After all, Swaziland is only a piece of Africa. And even in the kingdom of Swaziland, there are varied cultures and experiences among 1.2 million Swazis. In the spirit of promoting multiple varied stories and viewpoints, I would like to share some of my favorite blog posts from PCVs around the globe. 

This post was inspired by Nicole, also in Swaziland, who also wrote about the danger of a single story. I have been inspired by Alexa discussing the gifts from the garden in Uganda. Alison captured the magic and mystery of Swazi greetings and praise names. There is Abbie’s insightful look into things that are uniquely Moroccan. Ally listed common phrases that are heard throughout Swaziland, but would be unusual in America. I read about April’s language challenges in Kosovo, and was comforted by a shared struggle. Recently, Nate explored what the first day of school looks like in Swaziland. Nathalie shared the things that she’s learned in her first six months as a PCV in Swaziland. Faith, in Tanzania, compiled many memes about serving as a volunteer of color

Feel free to link to some of your favorite PCV blog posts in the comments.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Reflections from Madagascar

Recently, I vacationed in Madagascar to celebrate the New Year. Here are five quick reflections from Madagascar

  1. ​Yes, I went all the way to Madagascar and managed not to see one lemur. I didn’t make it to any of the national parks. I guess I have a reason to return, in addition to the beach and tasty stuff. A day on the beach is never wasted. 
  2. Speaking French could be  an (unofficial) prerequisite of visiting the island nation. There are two languages: French and Malagasy. English isn’t spoken with any regularity.  Luckily, a few people who did speak English were there to help me when I needed it. I’m extremely grateful to these language champions! (Side note: After speaking and hearing so much siSwati for the past six and a half months, I found myself greeting and responding in siSwati. Yebo babe would be uttered only to realize that I meant to say Bonjour Monsieur.)
  3. Madagascar is big. It’s the fourth largest island in the world. Navigating the island takes considerable time. I traveled on a taxi-brousse (intercity public transport) from Antananarivo to Tamatave. The journey of about 320 kilometers lasted 8 hours on relatively good roads. 
  4. The food was quite delightful. I enjoyed delicious seafood from traditional restaurants and traditional Malagasy hotelys. I sat in an ice cream parlour and had some peach ice cream that made my taste buds say “thank you”. I was fortunate to try several natural juices. I’m happy to report that they were all refreshing and delicious. There was even good Mexican food at a hostel in the capital. 
  5. During my trip, I was fortunate to meet some PCVs currently serving in Madagascar. They were all wonderful folks. We shared laughs, played games, and ate good food together. I learned that while the Peace Corps experience has some similarities wherever you go, it is just as unique the people who serve. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

​Umlungu myama – What They Call Me, Part Two

Last week, I started delving into what people call me and how I am addressed here in Swaziland. You can check out that post here

On more than a few occasions, people have questioned where I am from. When I respond that I am from Washington, DC, sometimes, I’m asked from which country (in Africa) my family and I originated. I’ve been told, by various folks in Swaziland, that I must be from Nigeria. I’ve also heard that I am Swazi. I’ve also been told that I from various other places. When I respond that I don’t know where our African origins lie, folks look closer to try to figure out where I am from. Some tell me that I couldn’t be from America. 

This typically leads to conversations about race and diversity in America. For some people who aren’t unaware of the presence of Black people in America, they may refer to me as umlungu myama (pronounced om-loon-goo mm-ya-ma). I was initially told that this means Black American. It was surprising to learn this because myama means black and umlungu means white person. When I first heard the term, I was confused as to how I could be a Black white person. Umlungu has since been clarified to also mean boss or foreigner. Umlungu myama makes a bit more sense, as one gentleman still thinks that I am of Nigerian origin.  In that sense, umlungu myama would mean Black foreigner. I’ve also heard Swazis use the term when describing me in siSwati to someone else. 

In the rarest of occasions, I’ve been referred to as umlungu, without myama. The person shouting in this instance is typically a young man trying to sell me something. I tend to ignore these instances, especially since it usually happens in a big city centre that I don’t frequent. Some things aren’t worth the bother. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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