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Guinea RPCV Stephanie Chasteen: physicist, traveler, writer, workaholic extraordinaire
Guinea RPCV Stephanie Chasteen: physicist, traveler, writer, workaholic extraordinaire
Friends of Guinea (non-profit)
How Peace Corps Affected Me
I spent two years in Guinea, West Africa, from 1997-1999. I lived in Baguinet, a small village near Fria on the western side of the country. My job was Community Development and Public Health -- a nebulous title at best. I spent most of my time talking with people and reading. My largest project was a small health post which I helped find grant funding for, and oversaw construction. I also helped train community health workers to talk about AIDS and diarreah in the villages. I preferred education to construction.
If you are interested in finding out more about Guinea, visit my Friends of Guinea page. I did a good deal of the work to create the group, and continue to breathe much life into it. The webpage is entirely my own doing, except for the forms, and I'm very proud of it. I continue to be very active in dissemination of information about Guinea, and networking of Guinea-bound volunteers and parents.
You can help us, by using our links when you buy books and CD's online, donating directly to our cause, or helping us with various computer and organizational tasks.
Much of our computer work is done for free by Klatha Community Computing. Klatha is an independent computing and internet consulting business run by David Loebell. He can help you with all aspects of computing including, such as purchasing and web design. Dave is also a Macintosh expert.
If you are interested in seeing webpages from other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Guinea, click here.
How Peace Corps Affected Me from a letter to a friend
YES, Peace Corps definitely changed my perceptions. It's hard to explain... and we knew it would be hard to explain... People ask about Peace Corps and, like, what do you say? How can you sum it up in a few sentences, without being too trite, or going on too long and boring people. Because, all the time, people ask "Peace Corps? How was that?"
I usually say something along the lines of, "it was like spending a year to climb a mountain, and then being rewarded by the view of the valley and landscape below."
And by that I mean not just that I could see where I came from, but where I stood. Before I traveled I was in a forest, not really seeing beyond where I was. Then I got this view... like how you're so hemmed in among the buildings in NYC and you crave to get out on a roof and see, just see, look around you. Now I can see around me. It's like a vision you can never lose.
Ok, I'm rambling a bit, and being vague. Let me start at the beginning.
Travelling around the US taught me quite a bit. I was trying to get in touch with something inside me at that point, living ascetically and renouncing material posessions. I spent most of my money on gas for my car, which seemed terribly appropriate. I ate spaghetti and cream of wheat. I ate in a soup kitchen for a while. Tried panhandling but it was hard, I didn't enjoy it. I spent a lot of time in small towns, because those were the gateways to the national forests with free campgrounds. I found, over and over, that it was OK to trust people. People's reactions to a young woman travelling alone was generally to take care of me. I looked weird -- nosering and short hair -- but never had any trouble. There were a few instances in which I felt I had to be careful, and I got a bit scared, but it always worked out OK.
I still remember a lot of people I met on that trip - the artist in Boone, NC, who took me to his sculpture studio; Larry, the 45 year old who lived with his mom and brought me firewood in Virginia; this shaggy-haired guy who tried to pick me up at a campground near Savannah, Georgia; an old friend of my grandmother who's 80-something and lives in a Baptist home in Georgia and talked to me about religion and answered some of my questions, and told me that I worshipped the Creation (the world) instead of the Creator (God) (she's right, by the way).
See, I grew up in an all-white college town. Traveling these other small towns taught me quite a bit about what the Average Joe voter is. I find it hard to get upset like some people do about how people vote and the way that this country goes. I think about those sorts of people and what I think they want and how their situation is... it makes a bit more sense to me. It's easy to forget how most people think, and how they are just as immersed in their everyday environment as we are. Of course they distrust scientists, of course they get annoyed when we change our minds about whether global warming is happening, of course they want a tax cut. Makes sense to me.
And then when I went into Peace Corps it taught me even more about America. I mean, here were these people who saw Arnold Schwartzenegger in all these movies and thought that we just went around killing people all the time. And I'd look at this movie, that we just take for granted, and think, my god, we MADE this movie, we ENJOY watching people get slaughtered, this made a lot of MONEY. It's really weird when you stop for a moment, time freezes, and you suddenly see your own culture for how utterly BIZARRE it is. I enjoy Schwartzenegger as much as anyone... but still. Step outside. And it's like, wait a minute.
Or, how we worship science. I'd start to give a scientific explanation of why something worked and their eyes would glaze over. At first I thought, dumb peasants. And then I thought, you know, it just doesn't matter to them! It's not what matters. Why should they care about this system of thought, this logical way of looking at things? There are things that are much more important to them. Family, relationships, their place in their community, what they will eat tomorrow, whether their kid needs to go to the doctor.
That taught me, too, a lot about why Americans aren't that interested in science.
And, so, why is science important? I think it's only important in so far as it helps us make decisions that help us get what we want in life. As a world-view... it's something I enjoy, but not everybody has to. I'd love to communicate my excitement about it to people who are interested. Otherwise, it's a habit of mind which can be useful in making decisions and living life better.
So, my view of science as a world view was really affected by Guinea. Have you read Thomas Kuhn, the structure of scientific revolutions? You should...
And also I learned about how many resources Americans use, and waste. It's amazing. It's really really amazing. I was an environmentalist before, but now even more so. I mean, they would re-use a plastic bag over and over and over until you couldn't anymore. We just throw all this stuff away. It's so over-packaged. It looks so wealthy.
But we also have so many things that save us so much time. It doesn't take us all day to prepare a meal for 8 children. We have all this good health care. We have so much opportunity. We can really choose a lot of what we do and what happens to us. I realized that as a white upper class educated person, I'm in the top 0.1% or something of the world in terms of opportunity, education, and wealth. Now, sure, I knew that statistic before. But when you're looking at the people who are the rest of the world... boy, it really hits home.
And one of the most important things I realized...
I was there in my village one day, feeling groovy, sitting and eating tea, trying to tell the Guineans how great Guinea was. They were always so down on it, and saying that as Africans they're so poor. I'd say, but hey, we have no community anymore in America, just because we have money we're not happy, we don't talk to our neighbors, we just work all the time, we don't sit with our families for hours like you do.
And then I realized how hollow that all was.
Because I had a choice.
I could be there in Guinea, or I could leave. They couldn't leave. Not really. They could travel around West Africa, if they found the money, but they were always stuck in that eschelon of the world. And it's an eschelon of the world that sometimes made it difficult for me to breathe, I wanted to get out of there.
I could travel and look in and experience and leave. They, on the other hand, were stuck down among the buildings of New York just as I had been before going to Guinea, unable to see the sky, unable to see the view or where they stood. But I had the power to go and see other places, and choose where to stay. They didn't.
And choice is about power. I realized how much power I have.
And power is kind of scary. I don't think people realize how much power they have, and how that translates to having power over other people. Because if you have power, someone else doesn't. And we make these decisions that affect other people -- free trade is one example.
That's partially why I feel so frozen in making decisions about my life. I have this huge opportunity, such privilege, so what do I DO with it? I want to do something good.
So, does that answer your question of how Peace Corps and travel affected me? It's so hard to explain. It's one of those things that it's nothing like what you expect until you get there, and then all the gaps fill in and you're like, oh, of course, this is what it is. And since the gaps filled in, you can't remember how you thought of it before you went. And even if you could, you couldn't explain the difference because you just have to be there. Like you can't explain the taste of chocolate, or really prepare someone for what it's going to be like to go to high school, or know what it's like to have an orgasm until you actually have one.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.