Vive la politique!
Growing up, I've moved from one political stereotype to another. The first stereotype was Texas, where I was the most liberal of my friends by far thanks to my family—when I asked future political scientist Amy what the difference between republicans and democrats is, she said “Republicans are bad and democrats are good.” I spent much of my time having heated debates with other high schoolers, grumbling about the constitutionality of prayer circles at a public school, and mocking the fundamentalist girl in my biology class who did her final project on evolution and how it's wrong.
But before I got pushed too far to the left and started wearing a Dennis Kucinich button, I went to college in Washington, where instead of kickers in cowboy hats, there were hippies playing hacky sack. Now I was one of the most centrist of my friends. I just didn't agree with the people who believed organized religion is the worst thing to happen to this country, said they wanted to move to Canada after 9/11, and threw their Nalgenes away in disgust when animal rights activists pointed out that the company makes cages for animals used in experiments.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I thought it would be more of the same. The University of Puget Sound is the number one small school in alumni joining the Peace Corps (the number one large school is the University of Washington). In many ways the political environment in the Peace Corps was the same as it was in Washington. But even though it sometimes felt like my only opportunity for political debate was with Obama supporters who called me conservative for supporting Clinton, it was soon clear that Peace Corps Volunteers are much more diverse than they seem.
Living in a foreign country, especially Africa, affects everyone's outlook. Many volunteers become more conservative and patriotic. It's easy to say that America should send more money to Africa to fight AIDS and malaria, build schools, and feed the hungry when you're in America. But when you're in Africa, you see the hoards of white Land Cruisers covered in NGO stickers driving down the washed away dirt roads covered in trash, past the naked kids with bloated stomachs, and the adults in raggedy clothes selling peanuts for a living or just sitting around, not able to read because they dropped out of school at 12. Where does all the money go? The cynical answer is that most of it's going into government officals' pockets and the rest isn't making a difference.
It's very hard not to become cynical about development work. It's also very hard not to appreciate America. I was reading an article about the effects of Katrina and couldn't muster up the sympathy I was supposed to feel looking at bleek black and white photos of trailers with cars parked next to them. That would look like a mansion to a family of ten living in a tiny mud hut with a donkey instead of a car. I'm about to go back to America, and my main money concern is what size apartment we can afford, not if I can afford to buy a sack of rice to feed my family.
Living in a place that changes your perspectives so much gives volunteers a more sophisticated political outlook. Among the volunteers who manage not to become cynical, some become very motivated to do development work but have much more realistic, scaled-down goals than they had before coming here. For me, the experience has helped me get a better grasp on international politics. I love listening to the contrast between new volunteers' often naive, optimistic perspective and old volunteers' cynical outlook. Add to that the opinions of volunteers who are about to start a third year in Burkina. They're just as cynical as the rest of us, but they've managed to think of things in a more positive way while acknowledging the things that suck. Listening to all the different perspectives has done the debating for me.
In high school and college I was an active participant in political debates. In the Peace Corps I've listenened more than I've debated. It seems like the issues are much more complicated here than they were back home. Or maybe I've become more mature—instead of “Gun control good, prayer in school bad” it's “If all the ex-pats left, would Africa be able to handle it? Would it be morally wrong to leave or is it condescending to think Africans need white help?” Um, good? For now I'm content with watching other people duke it out before figuring out what I think.