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PCV Monica Ahuja works a consultant to other teachers in South Africa
PCV Monica Ahuja works a consultant to other teachers in South Africa
A mission to make a difference
By: GARY PULEO, Times Herald Staff February 28, 2003
COLLEGEVILLE - A little over a year ago, Monica Ahuja left her comfortable suburban home for the tiny South African village of Oakley and what might well be, as the Peace Corps slogan goes, the toughest job she'll ever love.
Now midway through the uncertainty of her daughter's two-year sojourn into the ultimate realm of volunteerism, Annemarie Ahuja admits she and her husband Sudhir, a computer analyst, are growing right along with Monica.
"I'm not only just proud of what she's doing, I admire it," said the Collegeville resident. "And one of the reasons I really admire what my daughter is doing is I don't think I could do it myself.
"I've done volunteer service and worked with community groups, but if you take me out of my comfort zone, everyday things in life I'm accustomed to, I would not be a happy camper," she added, laughing.
"She's really making adjustments to things that aren't comfortable for her because she has a greater thing in mind and wants to follow that."
Today is Peace Corps Day, a designation that began six years ago to rekindle awareness about what the 42-year-old organization does.
More than 165,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries since the Peace Corps was established in 1961, according to the organization.
That's a lot of people trying to do something positive in a lot of unfamiliar places. One aspect that has changed since the group's halcyon days is that the Peace Corps is now actively recruiting volunteers from a seemingly unlikely segment of society - retirees. Monica Ahuja's training class of 17 volunteers included five seniors, her mother said.
Monica Ahuja, now 24, initially hinted to her parents about her escalating interest in the Peace Corps while in her junior year at Gettysburg College. (Curiously, among American colleges, Gettysburg has one of the highest numbers of graduates, about three or four, joining the Corps every year.)
"We had no idea how serious the interest was," Annemarie Ahuja remembered, "because college is always about exploring different possibilities. So we always tried to remain very open to what she wants to do, because considering all of the options in life that young people can decide to address it's always good when your young one has positive goals."
Still, she confessed that neither she nor her husband was willing to start packing their daughter's bags when they were told of her intentions.
"We weren't crazy about the idea. We didn't know that much about the Peace Corps or some of the countries they're serving, because they're always serving in distressed situations. But although we knew nothing about South Africa, we weren't aware of any conflicts going on there.
"The Peace Corps is very much in touch with conflict situations," she explained, "and when they have people there they will, if necessary, pull everyone out at the drop of a dime if there's any possibility of conflict. Because they go over and above the ordinary to make sure their people are very safe."
A new culture
The most obvious fact of the Peace Corps volunteers' life is that they will not be living and working in an environment made comfortable through its familiarity; instead, they are thrust into an alien culture, an experience simultaneously exotic, intriguing and unsettling.
At the outset, Monica was not immune to feelings of loneliness, apprehension and helplessness - and the inevitable thoughts of terminating volunteer service, her mother said.
"In her letters, she mentioned to friends that in the beginning there were days she was very tempted to say 'What am I doing here?' And she had to convince herself to overcome smaller obstacles for the bigger cause.
"I'm sure now that doesn't happen to her as frequently now," Annemarie Ahuja added. "I'm guessing that when it's time to leave in a year that she'll have many attachments and she'll feel sad about leaving."
The first three months of volunteerism are the most difficult, she said, because contact with the outside world is forbidden.
"They have all these weeks of intense training and submersion into the culture while learning one of many native languages."
South Africa is unique in that regard, with no fewer than 12 official languages.
"She told us that the difference between South Africa and other African nations is that, although every African nation has many languages, they usually have only one official language. In South Africa, they've made them all official, which means they learn every one at school."
Verbalizing even a few basic words in a different language breaks down barriers, Annemarie Ahuja said.
"If you're able to speak in another person's language, even if it's not a lot, it says something to that person."
The dichotomy of the lifestyles between the affluent whites and the struggling villagers has created "a nation of extremes," she noted.
"The 10 or 15 percent of the country that is white is very well-to-do and they have everything that we have here. Monica said that to walk into a mall in one of the cities is just exactly like walking in a mall here.
"On the other hand," she said, "you go into the villages where you have the 85 percent of the population that is black and there they still have market days where vendors actually come in from the outside and occupy the whole village and everyone does their shopping that day."
Monica Ahuja's host family must forgo luxuries such as indoor plumbing and running water, but they are familiar with one modern icon, the electric bill.
"That's like a really big thing; she was really hoping that she would at least have electricity, because there are no land phone lines in the village at all. But because of the progressiveness of the white population, they have an excellent cell phone system, even better than we have here," said Annemarie Ahuja.
If it weren't for that little can-you-hear-me-now miracle, her parents would have to endure a three-week wait between communications, via the postal system.
"It's a very frustrating feeling when you have a loved one and the only contact you have is by regular mail. ... Everything is basically history by the time you get the information."
Luckily, Monica Ahuja's cell phone setup allows for unlimited incoming calls at no charge to her.
"So we have at least weekly or biweekly contact because we call her and she doesn't have to pay anything. For her to call us would be very, very expensive," said Annemarie Ahuja.
"So there you have the extremes: You would connect having a cell phone with being something you can afford if you have extra money, and yet that's a more practical thing over there. If you do see a phone in the village it will be a cell."
One at a time
Monica is a certified teacher, but her mission in Oakley - "interestingly, in Africa they have a lot of Western-sounding names from the white Dutch population, and a lot of those names that are unpronounceable, from the local natives," Annemarie Ahuja laughed - is to be a consultant to other teachers.
"She's basically a resource for them, to promote interest in new programs and being there for them for new ideas and suggestions," she said.
"She gets so excited when a teacher is interested and will try a few new things she'll suggest. And that's probably how that whole change over there will take place - one teacher a time, one pupil at a time. Because even in our country none of this happened overnight."
South Africa invited the Peace Corps to help improve the educational system in the villages after apartheid had left the lower classes severely neglected, Annemarie Ahuja said.
"And now they have to go about changing that to give them a normal education system, which embraces other subjects for the sake of learning and growing. The government didn't want the villagers thinking about the position they were in, because it would seem threatening to their own status."
Though a sense of mistrust routinely informs the villagers' perceptions of most governmental programs, that will change in time, she mused.
"It's a work in progress that will take another one or two generations," said Annemarie Ahuja, who plans to visit her daughter in June. "It's like a piece of stone that is going to become a sculpture. ... But you have many people contributing to it and they're each just chipping away at it.
"It doesn't look like anything right now because it's still in the beginning stages. But hopefully, you'll finally be able to see a difference and it will start to look like something."
Gary Puleo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 610-272-2500, ext. 207.
©The Times Herald 2003
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.