One of the things I said before joining Peace Corps was ‘It’s not as if I am going to prison; I’m volunteering. I can leave if I decide to leave.”
Well, as a result of the Peace Corps’ sharing spirit, I was recently gifted Seasons 1-6 of Orange is the New Black. [In return, I contributed The Americans Seasons 1-6 to the vast share drive that is Health 10]. In case you are just as out of tuned with pop culture as I am, Orange is the New Black is a book [and Netflix series] about life in a women’s prison. [Also I now want to read the book]. Turns out Peace Corps service is a lot like prison. [For the record, I have never actually been to prison or even jail so my observations on similarities are solely based on my 5 months in the Peace Corps and a TV show].
How exactly are the Peace Corps and prison similar? Glad you asked…
Getting to our intended destination involved a lot of scary moments on various forms of transportation with the final leg of the journey being ‘greeted’ by an peppy official and all the volunteers being bleary eyed and hungry.
First stop after customs and baggage retrieval was the nunnery where we were promptly segregated by sex and fed a communal dinner in near total silence.
First day deer in the headlights feeling: After a first night of sleeping on uncomfortable, lumpy, mattress, the new PCT is fed communal breakfast and promptly split up into groups, and interrogated [interviewed?] by several officials about health history, ‘what makes you happy?’ ‘how do you cope with stress?’ and ‘why did you decide to join Peace Corps’. Upon first arriving in prison, the main character author discovers a plethora of rules and regulations that she doesn’t understand, isn’t allowed to question, and needs to follow to the letter. I feel like that applies to PCVs both in the sense of expectations from Peace Corps the organization and from the host country in which you are placed. Things that make no sense to you at all (in prison: you sleep on top of the covers; in Peace Corps | Rwanda you aren’t allowed to ride a moto on a paved road even if the paved road is a shorter distance and safer.
Strange hook-ups: “We are a group that would never mix if not for our common affliction”. I heard that somewhere once or twice, but it’s applicable for both prison and the Peace Corps. Some times its just a hook-up. In the Peace Corps, the need for affection is strong; while in prison, the need for protection is real. Hook-ups happen; they are frequent, and often occur among people you would never suspect. People who wouldn’t given each other the time of day on the outside become cozy bedfellows on the inside.
The Rumor Mill: Everyone knows everything. Never has the adage “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead” meant so much as in the Peace Corps and, apparently, prison. Want to keep something private? Tell NO ONE.
It takes one to know one: Friends [parents, significant others, other people on the ‘outside, loving kitty cats] will never really know what it’s like to serve either in the Peace Corps or prison [or military but that’s outside this scope of post] unless you’ve been there. Having supportive people on the outside is important, but sometimes there are things that can only be expressed to another PCV/prisoner.
Pushing the boundaries: Very few things in my world are black and white; very few things in Peace Corps [prison] are any shade of gray. This leads to some interesting decision making choices on the part of PCVs such as myself. While I am not stupid, and have no desire to run to the capital city, drink, and party all night in a night club, other ‘rules’ in my opinion are a little more fluid. Both PCVs and prisoners like to test those boundaries. One key difference though, pushing the boundaries too far while in Peace Corps will get you sent home early while pushing the boundaries too far in prison keeps you from going home.
Focusing on the outside too much or forgetting that there is an outside: I’m still early in my service so things are moving at glacial speed, but I am acutely aware of what’s going on on the outside. My best friend is having a baby in 3 days. 3 days! and yet it will be another 10 weeks until I can meet the little munchkin. People are celebrating holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving and Election Day none of which are even on the radar in my little Rwandan village. My kitty cats are going on without me. Friends are graduating, going off to college, starting new careers, and I’m… weighing babies… every day. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp have been lifesavers for these slow days, but on the flip side, what am I missing? On the flip side, there are other volunteers who are so immersed in site-life that you wonder if they realize that this [Peace Corps] is only temporary. Either way, prison or Peace Corps, you have to find a way to come to terms with ‘imprisonment’ [service]. You have to navigate the fine line between staying on the staff’s good side and integrating into the local community yet not getting too comfortable and forgetting that another world exists on the outside.
Care Packages/Visitors: The presence or absence of one [care package] can make or break your entire month, and having a visitor can give you enough energy to get through the darkest times.
Release date: In both prison and Peace Corps, you know your sentence before going in. While prison sentences can vary depending on several factors, Peace Corps service is almost uniformly 27 months which is about 800 days. In Peace Corps, you get time off for good behavior [aka vacation days] and since its impossible to close out service for an entire group at one time, someone gets to be first and someone has to be last. For example, my official COS date is August 14, 2020 [only 644 days away] but I am hoping [praying] to be released a little earlier than that. Time will tell.