A peace corps volunteer serving in Paraguay wrote an article for the HuffPost last month which sparked a small, but impassioned debate amongst those volunteers who enjoy regular internet access. The article was about her struggles with the feeling of guilt.
Usually, guilt is not something that drags me down. I don't feel guilty when I buy things. Most things anyway. I don't feel terrible taking vacations, and I didn't decide to do peace corps because of white guilt. I don't typically feel like I'm a disgusting human being when I drink a 3 dollar Starbucks concoction. But today I felt guilty. Viscerally, painfully guilty.
I've had an ongoing problem with my host mom, from the family who housed me for the first two weeks in my final site. The problem is over money. She asks for it, usually through her daughter. She needed it to buy the sheep for the biggest holiday of the year. After struggling with what to do, I told them that I could help a little (after all, I would eat some of the sheep) but I couldn't buy the sheep for them because I have no money. Later, I offered her something- about 200 Dh which is somewhere around 25 dollars, but she wouldn't take it. This was confusing and, also, infuriating. Why would she ask for money and then refuse it? Was I missing some cultural thing where you're supposed to offer it over and over and over again before it's accepted? What was the point of making me feel like crap? I don't know.
This is the family who housed me, who fed me, who gave me water and a bed in their living room. Their son gave me his time and his network to help ease me into life in my community. They may have tried to give me sour milk to help when I had dysentery, but they meant well. And my mother would tell me I am biHal weldi (like my son).
Today my host sister called and said that my host mother is very sick and needs help with money. I said I didn't have very much money, and I couldn't help. She said okay, that's okay. I said can I help any other way and she said no. That made my feel guilty.
There's a difference between being lucky and being guilty. Am I lucky? Yes. I am undeniably, unbelievably, unimaginably lucky. I am lucky in so many ways, there isn't enough space on all the internets to list them. One of the ways, however, is that I have money.
I don't feel guilty for being white. I don't feel guilty for being American. I don't feel guilty for being a man. I don't feel guilty for being wealthy through no effort of my own. You are born to whom you are born. Nobody is responsible. It is called luck.
Like all Peace Corps volunteers all over the world who don't look like the people in their communities, their apartness is automatic. And there are things that come with that separation- people in the community want help, people want advice, and at the same time, people will treat you like a child, point you out to their kids and say there's a foreigner, and assume that you have money, and by comparison, you do. Sometimes this is a pain. But I don't feel guilty for looking the way I do and being who I am.
Luck just happens, (and there's no avoiding the fact that I look like a rich white tourist here, and that's 2/3 correct). The feeling of guilt, on the other hand, is fairly easy to avoid when you grow up where I grew up. Even the homeless people on the street- you can simply look at the other side of the sidewalk when you walk past them. And some people who join the Peace Corps do so, in no small part, because they don't want to take the easy way out- they want to confront what's out there- to take a hard, close look at the people who don't have it so good. But you don't need the motivation of guilt to join.
What is my host mom sick with? I don't know. How much would it cost to help her? I don't know. But I didn't want to ask, "well how much would it cost?" And then get an answer and then say, "um, I don't know if I can help thaat much." There is no question of degree- there can be no token payment for guilt, at least not in my book.
There are two prisms through which I can look at this. Firstly, there is the prism of my job. I am a volunteer. I am here to do youth development. I am given enough money to live like a local. I am not here to save anybody. Dependency brews helplessness. I am not supposed to help with the medical needs of individuals in my community. I am not supposed to provide meals out of my budget for the street children selling cigarettes and plastic bags. Through the prism of my job, it is wrong to help my host mother and I should feel guilty for doing so. I met my host family because of my job.
But, on the other hand, I could probably pay for whatever it is she needs (I'm assuming it's not some major surgery, which it could possibly be). As an individual, I could afford to help. Even though living on my peace corps budget day-to-day means boiling water on the gas stove before putting it in a bucket and pouring it over myself every third day and calling it a shower. Even though, at the same time ,everybody tries to rip me off because I'm the white foreigner. Even though I have to put up with it from both ends, I am probably financially capable of helping to pay for my host mom's medical care. So, I feel guilty.
But what can I do? I can help her, but I won't. I'll feel guilty going to Europe to celebrate Christmas instead of spending my money on her medical care, but that's just the way it is.
Why do I feel guilty? Because I know her. I could spend the money on malaria tablets in some other part of Africa. I could pay for mosquito bed-nets. I could pay for HIV education, fight polio, or support for women's education in Pakistan. But that's not how guilt works. You can only feel guilty for what you see. (Whether or not this means you can only be guilty for what you see and don't act upon is another question).
So the whole thing is seriously shitty. Telling myself that I'm not here to hand out money doesn't help very much. Saying well, I came over here and am doing the freakin' peace corps and isn't that enough doesn't help very much either. Those are called rationalizations. Can't fight down emotions with rationalizations, and if I could, then I wouldn't be treating myself honestly.
The article by the volunteer in Paraguay who I mentioned before is below:
The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, nor any other governmental or non-governmental organization.
Nor is anything written here necessarily drawn from my own views, opinions, and observations. Please consider all postings and pictures complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality. For legal purposes, please additionally regard the author as utterly imaginary.
The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, governmental or non-governmental organizations.
Nor is anything written here necessarily my own views, opinions, or observations. Please consider all pictures and texts here to be complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality, this one or any other. For legal purposes, please additionally consider the author to be utterly imaginary.