Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts on Service

I want to take a moment and write something out of character for this blog. If you are looking for experiences about Morocco, cultural insights, or funny stories you can go ahead and skip this entry. Times have been a bit tough lately in terms of work related to Health, yet I must constantly remind myself that I am not just here for the purpose of development.

I’ve been re-reading an old American history textbook from college that I had my parents send me. You can go ahead and laugh, I’m fully aware that I’m a bit of a nerd… ok, very much so a nerd. I’ve also been re-watching the Band of Brothers miniseries. For those of you who know me well or are mildly acquainted with my story with the military as well as my development in relation to patriotism, the fact that I am in the Peace Corps should offer no surprise. Let me tell you though that as many of you are, I too am not a static individual. I never have had all of the answers and continue to discover my own ignorance and immaturity… I am a twenty something after all. I guess that’s all part of growing up. That being said, I want to try to explain to you how I see this time in Morocco…

There is a part of me that is extremely individualistic and let’s be honest… selfish. I guess that’s a part of having moved around a lot and never having to take anyone else into account for very long. That goes for friends and girlfriends on one level, but on an entirely different plane that also includes my country of birth.
I confess that I have been all over the map when it comes to seeing myself as an American. At a younger age I was more enchanted with the dream that is our nation, but as I began to get beyond the “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” account of our story and then found myself living abroad, I began to be alienated from my birthplace. I viewed myself at various points in my life as either a “kingdom citizen” (those who grew up in the Church will understand that one), a citizen of the world, or as some kind of a being constantly creating its own meaning and divorced from any labels. The journey through these paradigms has left conflicting voices in my head all vying for dominance, but let that lie for the moment.

There were many things that factored into my decision to join Peace Corps, some noble, others less so. I’m not going to talk about them right now. Interestingly enough, though, I am coming to find that it is not necessarily what motivates you to begin something, but what motivates you to stay. I’ve had several opportunities to leave; a job offer to which I had applied before coming, an outside shot at joining the world of musicians here in North Africa and in Europe (that’s an interesting story for another day), as well as simply how easy it is to just leave. Every time something has come up that could switch my direction so far, I have done my soul searching and make the conscious decision to stick. I don't know that that means this will always be the case, I can only speak for the present.

Yes, there are times when the work surrounding Health is slow or really non-existent. My Programming Staff has actually looked into changing my site because of the lack of people with which I have to work here. Let me take a moment to explain why that is. Over the past few decades there have been plenty of examples of failed development projects worldwide and the stories mostly go something like this…
X (where X is a large sum) amount of money was donated to buy Y (where Y is some sort of thing that was supposed to make life better) for Z (where Z is some people we consider desiring of our help) and we come and install it. For a certain number of years Z all feast on the bounty of the land that didn’t exist before we got there until one day Y breaks. Z then comes looking for help only to find that we have moved on to Q (where Q is the next new thing that is supposed to make life better) and are now working with V (where V is some other people we consider desiring of our help). The problem was that we dropped something off and didn’t bother teaching anyone how to fix it, or build it or really do anything other than use it. The end result is that we really didn’t help anyone; we just kept people in a cycle of dependency.

What we are supposed to be doing is what we call “Capacity Building” which means we’re supposed to be teaching people how to do things for themselves. So when I talk about a Medical Waste Incinerator project what I mean is that I’m working with people to assist them in raising the money and building the medical incinerator and then helping them educate others in running and maintaining it. Let me just say that although my tone at the moment may sound sarcastic (or maybe that’s just in my head), it’s not because I don’t believe very strongly that this is what should be done. The sarcastic tone is that this approach means that seeing the fruit of your labour is neither frequent nor guaranteed which leaves for a frustrating day to day experience. The difficulty in my site is that there are no active associations with which to work, only farmers who are scattered throughout the hills and aren’t given to working together on any particular anything.

This brings us back to the question of what motivates me to stay. My answer is quite round about, but I promise we’ll get there. Stephen Colbert in his comic genius once said of the Peace Corps that he loves it because it takes all of the people who hate America out of the country and puts a shovel in their hand. Extremely overstated, but at the time it hit close to home. I’m not supposed to make political statements on here (which for me comes close to being impossible), so I’ll tread lightly. Let’s just say that it had gotten to the point where all I could see was who we as a people screwed over in the past, who was getting screwed over in the present, and who we were setting ourselves up to screw over in the future. If I sound like the joker at every party who has to bring up the topics that utterly ruin the mood, the comparison is a valid one. If this makes you feel any better, my pessimism wasn’t simply related to my country, it was also my faith (but I’m going nowhere near that one now).

An unintended consequence of being here in Morocco is that it allowed me to step outside of the bubble of academia and the day to day of my petty political, historical and theological grievances and into the unknown where none of that mattered, and has caused me to reexamine my identification. When one is constantly surrounded by various “end of the world” problems (at least in your own head) and you tend to be of a sort who dives into them with both feet like I am, stepping out can make you really examine what you really cared about in the first place. Let me say really quickly that I’m not bashing academia, I love that world and am probably headed back at some point, nor am I saying the things I cared about were petty. What I am saying is that I lacked perspective; perspective I am still gaining. That being said, being in Morocco has allowed me to drop the pessimism related to my origins.

I’m going to write a sentence that not too long ago would have been impossible for me to write without pages of explanation and obfuscation. I AM AN AMERICAN.

Now back to why I mentioned my true geekiness with the textbook and miniseries. For the textbook, I believe that there is merit in returning again to the stories of your past. Since I’ve been here I’ve been continually coming back to man’s story be it Herodotus and Plutarch, or the Qur’an, Al-Ghazali, and Ibn Khaldun, or texts on European and Economic History, or Theology and its development. I started broad but have recently been delving into my own national identity. I don’t know that I ever allowed for balance in my recounting, but for some reason it took Morocco to make me see that not only do we have our Nathan Bedford Forrests and George Wallaces in our history, but we also have Harriet Tubmans and Martin Luther King Jrs. The point is that we have been forging our history ever since nomadic tribes stumbled on the land while hunting large mammals across the frozen wastelands of the north. And although that forging has not always been honorable, it is our story none the less. I think it was highly na├»ve of me to assume that we should get it right all the time.

Now on to the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. I got this as a Father’s Day gift for my dad a couple of years ago. It is about the 101st Airborne Division during WWII which happened to be my grandfather’s unit (who I never met). I have always been drawn to service in various areas of my life, and what now seems like three lifetimes ago it drew me to seek an ROTC scholarship in college. I’m not going to go into that episode of my life, but I find myself once again unwittingly serving my country abroad. Some of you reading this may scoff at that idea when coupled with thoughts of the sacrifice made 60 years ago. I understand your skepticism, but let me explain…

The world has changed. What happens in your backyard does affect me and national sovereignty is slowly losing its significance. The United States of America is a world power with its economic and military might stretching across the globe with both positive and negative outcomes and whether we like it or not those negative consequences, unintended as they may be, come back to haunt us. I’m not talking solely of military actions, but also of cultures who one day have no electricity and the next have a satellite signal beamed into their homes with the wonder that is American cinema, TV, and music. We have battles in our own country, as “modern” as it is, over the value of certain types of images. Now imagine a culture that hasn’t based its social contract on the separation of church and state grappling with Chuck Norris, Penthouse, and MTV.

We are here not only to do development work, but also to be who we are… energetic, idealistic, and caring Americans. We are here to bring a little bit more understanding into this constantly objectifying world. We are here to be the counterbalance to blind hatred. We are here to head those negative consequences off at the pass. We are here for ourselves, our country, our world, and all of our futures. It doesn’t come with Purple Hearts, parades, or holidays and no one will ever ask us to stand up during church on a specified day to honor our service, but we are here none the less… I am here none the less.

So now finally to answer the question of why I am still here… Even when work goes slowly, I’m still a part of something greater, and although my part in the play may be small for the moment, I’m still on stage.


Pamela said...

You fascinate me, cousin. I'm so proud of you. I went to epcot this weekend with Chris and we ate in morroco and I thought of you the whole time. Miss you lots. xoxo

Christopher said...

Stephen Colbert is awesome. Never give up, never give in and soon enough, you'll surely win!

Justin said...

Beautiful reflection. Your insights and awareness are challenging.

Sheila said...

Hey Sam!!!

You randomly popped into my head today, so I looked you up! I miss you! Someone at work mentioned today that their daughter was taking her last final today, and it reminded me of sitting at Spider House drinking Hot Cider with you (I have no idea what you were drinking, but mine was good!)....and then my mind wandered to other stories shared at Spider know....and if you don't - good! lol!

Mark and I are doing good here in Hawaii, but we definitly miss home (Trudy's!!) Anyway, I just wanted to send you a short note - I will continue to read your blog to catch up with you!

Love ya!