We’re leaving for our sites in less than a week, and I’ve been thinking more and more about what exactly I’m going to be doing for the next two years. I’m supposed to be training local Mauritanians, women in particular, to encourage and facilitate the education and empowerment of girls in their community. Peace Corps’ buzz word is “sustainability”, which means we’re technically not supposed to be doing the educating and empowering ourselves. The idea is to train host country nationals to do that, so that when we leave the process will continue. Basically, we’re working to make ourselves obsolete. Definitely an idea I can get behind, but I’m not sure how often that actually happens. If all the PCVs left Mauritania today, I have no idea which projects would continue in their absence, how effective they would be, and for how long. I’ll probably get a better feel for this once I actually start working, but its interesting to think about.
On another level, our work is supposed to impact general mentalities and social norms. All the sectors (Girls’ Education and Empowerment, Health, Environmental Education, English Education, Agro-forestry, and Small Enterprise Development) obviously target these to some extent, but I think GEE has more to do with culture than any of the others. The hard part of my job is going to be reaching across that cultural divide. I’m thinking that one of my most powerful assets as a GEE volunteer will be the example I set as a woman with a college degree, working on her own in a foreign country. On the other hand, it might be easy for girls to look at that and think, well, she can do that because she’s American, she’s not one of us.
As a foreigner, I’m definitely exempt from certain social and cultural norms. Taking advantage of those exemptions (consciously, not when I’m just being a silly, oblivious toubab) is something I’m going to have to think about, since it differentiates me from the girls I’m supposed to be mentoring.
I’m rambling at this point, and I have a lot more I’ve been thinking about, but I‘ll get into all this in another post: how the culture stands in direct opposition in certain respects to our idea of development, and whether or not it’s worth changing or losing parts of that culture (or even possible) in the name of development. Also, focusing on something like girl’s education when they’re not even getting enough nutritional value out of their food to grow hair, for example.
Of course, girls’ education is invaluable in terms of women‘s rights, and promoting women in development is one of the most efficient ways of promoting development itself, since educated and empowered women are that much more capable of contributing to society. In reality, though, I’m not under the impression I’m going to be shaking the foundation of gender roles in Mauritanian society over the next two years. The big gain out of this experience is going to be mine, and the biggest impact I’ll have on my village will be the little exposure to another culture my being there will provide.