A sabbatical story...

My Peace Corps Sabbatical

An immersive experience of another culture, a Peace Corps Sabbatical plants you into an organization in a developing country and gives you hands on local experience. After graduate school, I was offered an international development placement in West Africa for six months and while I didn’t change the world, it proved to be the single-most perspective-changing experience of my life.

Many organizations around the world have some version of the Peace Corps. In Canada, there are CIDA internships, in Denmark there’s DANIDA and in Japan there’s JICA. It’s a great way to learn-on-the-job from local people while sharing your skills, and working within a local organization gives you exposure to people and ideas you would never get just living abroad. And you can go at many different points in your career. It’s not necessarily just for recent graduates — many positions are available for mid- and senior-level professionals and even retired experts.

I never felt loved until I went to West Africa. You are surrounded by love, whether it’s welcomed or not. Sometimes knocking at your door at 7AM on a Saturday morning.

Peace Corps volunteer placements are certainly not for everyone. Forget the romantic vision of ‘saving the world’ and smiling children crediting you for changing their lives. When you come home the most changed person will be you — working in a developing country can be incredibly rewarding in terms of the people you meet and the ideas you are exposed to. But it’s also a lot of work. Hand washing your clothes, malaria, undesired attention, and culture shock can all be part of your daily reality. But the more the culture you are entering differs from your own, the more you have to learn if you maintain an open mind.

I spent 6 months based in a local authority (think city hall, but for a small city of 50,000) in Ghana to work on the Medium Term Development Plan for the municipality with the Planning Department. Our team consisted of three urban planners including myself, and two local interns. The local authority provided me with housing, fully integrated me into their team, and I had full access to everyone at the 180-staff office.

White lady, your world is user-friendly. Mine is friendly.

My work days involved everything from typing out what the two senior urban planners would dictate (I was much faster on the computer than they were), co-authoring the development plan goals, objectives and indicators, socialising with work colleagues when there was no electricity, tagging along on site visits to inspect development projects (public latrines, water wells, nurse quarters, schools), joining workshops on planning for future development projects, attending public participation events in the evenings, and creating my own projects such as an eco-tourism development plan and a beautification plan ahead of the Ghana at 50 celebrations.

All of my office colleagues were Ghanaian, and all of the departments heads and seniors had masters degrees, often from abroad, and our development plan was quite advanced and well received by the national authorities. But I had just as much to learn from my un-educated colleagues. After a few months of establishing trust and friendships, I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of extraordinary insights, philosophies and ideas from so many of my colleagues and friends.

There were twice-weekly rotating power outages (plus many unexpected power outages), sporadic running water at the house, and my only appliances were a beer fridge and a gas stove. I had three stomach infections and malaria, and was constantly exposed to exhaust fumes, very loud music and excited screaming children calling at me. It was a completely different reality than I had ever known, and despite the fact that I had already lived in Japan, Turkey, France and Italy, I adapted just as slowly as all the other volunteers I met in Ghana.

The two most memorable quotes I heard while I was there:

‘I never felt loved until I went to West Africa. You are surrounded by love, whether it’s welcomed or not. Sometimes knocking at your door at 7AM on a Saturday morning.’

‘White lady, your world is user-friendly. Mine is friendly.’

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