Modern world, modern volunteer

Disclaimer: The thoughts in this blog pertain strictly to my experience in Comoros. I cannot speak for the situation in other countries.

During the past year I have received a lot of surprised, and sometimes slightly disapproving, comments about how much access I have to the internet, a cellphone, and technology in general. Peace Corps is supposed to be primitive, isn’t it? Why am I not living in a mud-hut with no electricity and only emerging once every six months or so? The simple answer is because that is not how things are here.

Peace Corps is about meeting our host country nationals where they are and striving to help them find ways to meet their needs, no matter what their starting point is. Some time ago, serving in Peace Corps did mean giving up all modern amenities. But the first-world countries aren’t the only ones that have seen changes and advances. Most of my fellow villagers have cellphones, though the signal is undependable, data is expensive, and it’s a gamble as to whether or not there will be electricity to keep them charged.

The point is, we are modern volunteers serving in a modern third-world country. Being a modern Peace Corps volunteer means I can stream The Weeknd from my smartphone to my Bluetooth headphones that are hidden under my hijab while hiking up my cliff, picking my way around the goats that always seem to be in the way. Being a modern Peace Corps volunteer means I can let my little host siblings play with the different snapchat filters, to their endless delight. It means I can write about my family, the school, the village, the stories I stumble across and into, and post everything before the memories start to fade.

One of my host sib’s favorite thing to do is have mini photo shoots. They never get tired of this and ask me every day to take their picture. They have discovered I occasionally post them on Facebook, and now fervently request that every photo I take go online so their fans in America can see what they’re up to.

Technology is also extremely helpful with language. While there are zero materials online for Shindzwani, the resources for French translation has gotten me out of more than one bind. Abou, father of the five boys in my host family, and I often sit together in the evening working on language. We usually find something to read and work through it first in English, and then in Shindzwani. Between his English and my Shindzwani and both of our charades skills we can usually manage to work everything out. But sometimes we get to a word that neither of us know in the other’s language and that can’t be acted out. Example, he asked me for the definition of brimstone the other day. You try and act that one out.

When this happens I usually pull out my phone and get the French translation, since Abou speaks pretty decent French. Abou watched this for several weeks and then I turned up one day and he was looking up words in his own smart phone. He found an English to French app and uses it all the time. It occasionally gets him in trouble, like the other day when he ran across the name Butch in an old kid’s book I gave him. Not recognizing it as a name he looked it up. You can imagine the questions he had for me about what a woman who looks like a man, the definition his dictionary gave him, had to do with a story about a kid and his pet skunk.

Technology has a massive impact on my abilities in the classroom as well. Sure, this can be done without online resources. Undeniably so. However, it can be done so much better with a little help from the internet. One of my biggest resources has been my mother. With decades of teaching language under her belt, my mother knows what she’s talking about when it comes to this subject. More than once I’ve emailed her, at a total loss on how to teach a subject, or how to solve a problem in the classroom. And every time she’s ready with creative ideas that can only come from the years of experience she has. My teaching style would not be what it is without her help, made available through the fact that I have a smart phone and 3G connection in my little village.

The fact that many people here have cellphones, limited access to the internet, and a few other modern conveniences doesn’t make us as volunteers obsolete. As technology makes improvements here and access to the outside world increases knowledge of a second language becomes all the more crucial. The internet is useless if you don’t know how to read a common language such as English, or worse yet if you don’t know how to read at all.

Part of being a volunteer is learning to use all the tools you at your disposal, locally. And that is exactly what we are all doing. Sure, I teach in a classroom made of palm fronds. Sure my “chalkboard” is an old sheet of ply wood painted with chalkboard paint and I routinely trip over the rocks that stick out of the dirt floor. I make that classroom work with nothing but chalk and a blackboard. No books, no posters, no paper handouts. But you can also find me after class, listening to American music with my students, watching movies on my computer with my family, using the flashlight on my phone to help someone navigate down a steep path at night. These are the tools we have and use to accomplish the job we came to do.

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