Is Peace Corps Safety Too Safe? And What Today’s Safety Culture Means For The LGBT Community

- Selim Aritürk, RPCV, Tanzania, 2000-2002

One of my favorite professors used to begin his introductory economics course with a controversial question: “What is the optimum number of airplane accidents per year?” He’d list how many accidents there had been last year, and the year before that, and ask us what the optimum number should be for this coming year. We would say “zero,” because nobody wants to see anyone get hurt. Then he’d walk us through what you would actually need to do in order to reduce the number of air accidents.

You could, for example, require all airplane seats to face backwards, because we know that facing backwards is safer in the event of a crash. But he pointed out that we are less comfortable (and would spend more on dry-cleaning) if we all had to ride that way. You could force parents to buy seats for their babies and you could force the airlines to provide those families with child seats so that babies in the air are held just as tightly as babies on the road. But forcing families to buy another ticket would also drive up the cost of flying to Grandma, and then more families would instead choose to take to the road. Given that driving is far more dangerous than flying, this would have the unintended consequence of getting even more people hurt or killed in the year ahead.

The point is that any action you do to improve safety will have some sort of a cost; either a financial cost that drives people to a less-safe alternative or a cost that diminishes the experience (such as gratuitous airsickness). Finally, he’d make the point that the only way we could ensure the class’s desired goal of “zero accidents” this year would be to ground all aircraft, because any time we fly there is going to be at least some risk.

I worry that today’s Peace Corps has not fully grasped this trade-off, and that far too many important things are being sacrificed to a culture that has become safety-obsessed. Nobody wants to lose a friend. We lost two volunteers when I was in Tanzania, and it was very difficult for all of us. But the only way to ensure the number of volunteers lost overseas is zero is to ensure that number of volunteers sent overseas is zero, and nobody among us would argue for the shutdown of Peace Corps. Likewise, I strongly believe that today’s Peace Corps culture has made us so safety-obsessed that we can’t see what we have traded away.

When I arrived in Tanzania, I found a wonderful and successful Peace Corps program. Our directors had decided to place as many volunteers as possible on their own, without a site mate. There were a few exceptions, but by and large, most of us were the only American in our village. As trainees, we worried this might make us lonely; we were assured it would be quite the opposite. One of the Volunteer Leaders at my training told me “when we placed volunteers together, they tended to stay together because the community would think ‘oh – they’ve got each other – I’ll leave them alone,’ and so the volunteers did not get as absorbed into the community as we would like.” My experience proved her right: in my first weeks at site, it was not possible for me to spend a single evening alone, because every family would invite me to join them for dinner. They got to know me, and they taught me how to take care of myself, and what to watch out for in the village. They helped me learn to be the best teacher I could be at their secondary school.

When I was in Tanzania, we had a handful of volunteers in large towns or cities, but far more of us in tiny communities where everyone knew our names. If you got off the bus at my village and asked for Mr. Selim, you would be guaranteed to find someone at the bus stop that knew me. One friend asked for directions, and was led to me by a student who knew me so well that he followed my footprints to the village shop where I was buying beans.

I recently spent two years in Azerbaijan for my current job, and while I was there I got to be friends with a few of the Peace Corps Volunteers and staff. Azerbaijan is a country of contrasts: flat deserted plains and lush mountains, the wealthy capital where I lived and the poor villages where the PCVs served. The rat-race cities full of post-Soviet aggression, and the small communities full of Azerbaijani hospitality. On one road trip through the South, we saw a beautiful dirt road winding up a mountain and said, “let’s turn here.” That spontaneous decision led us to about two hours of driving where we didn’t see another car. We got hungry, and it was obvious these small towns had no restaurants, so we asked where we could buy some bread. “I have an oven! I will give you my bread! Come have tea!” was the response. An Azerbaijani friend in the car insisted on paying, but the homemaker would have none of it.

A Peace Corps friend was in the car, and I said “this is what Peace Corps should be doing. Stop putting volunteers in the big cities where they get jeered at, and start putting them out here – where the village will take care of them.” “It would never happen,” she said. “Look – there’s no paved road, and the rules say a PCV should be on a paved road so that there can be all-weather access in and out. There’s no reputable bus company here, only villagers with run-down taxis. And there’s no cell phone coverage – how would the volunteer call us for help?”

Paved roads. Reputable bus companies. Cell phone coverage… to ask for help from someone hours away! How many of those did the PCVs need 50 years ago to be safe? How many of those did I need 10 years ago? The point is that someone somewhere has made a list of what a site needs to be “safe” and “caring village that will look after PCV” somehow ended up lower on the list than cell phone coverage. Some of the volunteers would tell me they were in cities with good-quality roads, good cell phone coverage, reputable bus companies… and urban communities that barely noticed they existed when they needed help.

This is a Peace Corps issue, but this is also an LGBT issue. We’re more than halfway through President Obama’s first term, and we still see a Peace Corps that’s overdoing it with a take-no-chances policy – a Peace Corps that still won’t allow same-sex couples to serve together. I’ve heard Peace Corps staff and LGBT RPCVs alike say “we can’t let LGBT couples serve together overseas – they might get hurt.” Stop and think about that statement for a minute. Take out the words “LGBT couples” and put in another minority group. Put it up on the Peace Corps website and say “these sorts of people should not apply.” We would never accept that – why do we accept this for ourselves?

No matter what Mahmoud Ahmedinejad might want you to believe, there are LGBT people in every country. And we can be sure that not all of these LGBT people are single. If we can find LGBT couples that manage to stay under the radar, can’t we as Americans also stay under the radar? During my Peace Corps service, a few volunteers did have a site mate of the same gender. Some of them even shared a home with their site mate. Why would it be necessary to announce to the entire world the sexual orientation of a volunteer, or of a couple?

Current Peace Corps policy only allows gay and lesbian volunteers to join if they come as a single. But what happens if they meet someone while overseas? The policy on that is unclear. Should a volunteer be ordered to stay closeted? I am told that some country directors have said yes, and specifically told LGBT volunteers not to come out.

When we started the Peace Corps, we were given briefings about the safety situation in Tanzania. We were taught what “relationships” meant in Tanzanian society, and how living with respect for the host culture is the only way to ensure safety in the host country. Women were taught how women dress in the host country, and men were taught how men dress. We were also taught how host country nationals date. But how do gay people in Tanzania stay safe? How do they dress? How do they date? We were not taught the answers to these questions, but a few of us figured out the answers on our own. In a big chunk of the world, the answer is blend in. Stay under the radar. Don’t get noticed. We saw how some Tanzanians got shunned or hurt – and we learned from their sad experiences.

There’s a difference between giving safety tips and banning certain activities. When I taught HIV prevention, I didn’t teach abstinence-only. I taught the Peace Corps-approved “ABC” method: Abstain, Be faithful, and/or use a Condom. Abstinence is safest, but if you’re going to have sex, it’s safer to be faithful to one partner, and no matter how many partners you have, a condom can only make you safer. We taught the ABC method because it worked; because we knew that when you empower people with knowledge, they make the decisions that are best for themselves.

Why can’t we follow our own advice when it comes to LGBT issues? The person who should decide whether or not a PCV should come out is that PCV him/herself. That PCV knows his community. That PCV does his homework. That PCV is the one who will be in danger if something goes wrong, and that PCV should be the one to decide what is and is not safe. If the volunteer truly thinks safety will not be a concern, and if the volunteer truly thinks he/she can do something to make life better for LGBT people in the host country by volunteering with a local NGO, then he/she should be the one to make that decision. Would I have come out in my village? Absolutely not. But we don’t live in a world of absolutes, and not every village is exactly like my village.

To come back to my professor’s example, the only way we can ensure that no LGBT volunteers get hurt is to ensure that no LGBT volunteers are sent overseas. None amongst us would accept such a policy for LGBT individuals. Why do we accept it for LGBT couples?

Talking about gender is nothing new for Peace Corps. Countries don’t change overnight, and some people might never accept our ideals, but that hasn’t stopped us yet. On the contrary, Peace Corps has made a real difference for women worldwide. We’ve talked about stopping female genital mutilation, we’ve talked about the importance of keeping girls in school, and we’ve had our neighbors watch in shock as straight American couples share the housework. We’ve talked about all kinds of gender issues. It’s time we look at gender to include not just male and female but everything in between. It’s time we end the ban on couples. It’s time we let LGBT volunteers be who they are, and it’s time we arm them with the information they need to make the decisions that only they have the right to make.

The author can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Knocking Out Depression in Tanzania

-Mick Zelski, RPCV, 2007-09

In my final year of college, as graduation finally looked like it might be a reality for me, I naturally had to face the looming question of what I was going to do next. What kinds of opportunities were out there for an anthropology major who had experience working on a organic farm? One day while walking through the student union, I noticed a table staffed by a lone woman with information about Peace Corps. Instantly curious, I approached the table and spoke to her. She told me that she was holding an informational session later in the week if I was interested. I certainly was, and thus began the journey that would ultimately lead me to an even bigger journey, one as rewarding as it was challenging. But my first, challenge happened even before I became a volunteer: I had to convince Peace Corps to take me on despite a personal history of depression.

As anyone who has gone through the Peace Corps application process knows, the medical clearance portion of the procedure is notoriously thorough. Having nothing to hide, I disclosed my past and present medical issues, including a diagnosis of depression that I received as a teenager. It was something I had struggled with over the course of my adolescence, seeing doctors and therapists as well as trying a few medications in an attempt to manage my condition. Eventually, in the midst of my college years, I found a psychologist that helped me define my depression, as well as a medical doctor who zeroed in on the root cause. I was prescribed medication that was very effective and things finally started to look up for me. This information was included in my completed medical forms, along with the requisite letter from my therapist and doctor’s signature stating that I was healthy and that they stood behind my decision to apply for Peace Corps service. I thought that would be enough, but it wasn’t.

Soon after I sent in the forms, PC contacted me to let me know they had received them and that a review was in progress. I had been nominated for a position in Africa that was to begin in June of that year; all I needed was medical clearance, then I could get that coveted invitation to serve. Then one day in late March, I received a phone call from an OMS staff member to ask me a few questions. The concern was about my depression and, specifically, what kind of coping strategies I planned to use as a volunteer regarding this issue.

The question caught me off guard. In my mind I had all but conquered my condition and was ready to face the world. When answering the question, I fumbled. I didn’t have any clue how I would react to living in the conditions that PCVs face and came up with nothing. It was suggested to me that I contact local RPCVs as well as attend another informational meeting in my area so that I could ask former volunteers what they did to cope during the hard times. Fearful that I would not get clearance in time for the Africa assignment, I asked if taking more time would ruin my chances. Her rather abrupt response was that assignments are not official until an invitation is sent out, so my spot was not secure to begin with. Annoyed, I thought to myself: Who better to put in a potentially depressing situation than someone who has dealt with depression for years? But she had a point. It is only in the best interest of Peace Corps that they send people who are healthy and will be able to handle a two year assignment in difficult and unfamiliar conditions.

Taking her advice, I asked RPCVs about their experiences and how they got through the rough patches. Unfortunately, I wasn’t told any specific coping strategies. However, what I did get from these conversations was the unerring sense that Peace Corps was perfect for me. Three weeks after the initial phone call, I called PC again to relay what I had learned. In this conversation, I simply laid out how I felt: I still didn’t know how I would react to being on my own in a Third World country, and couldn’t possibly know what to expect once I got there, but that I understood myself enough to be able to handle what comes my way and not let depression affect my service. Furthermore, my desire to be a volunteer had only been strengthened and it meant more to me now than ever. I thought I came off as desperate, but it worked. I was told that it sounded like I really was ready to be a volunteer and that my paperwork would be moved on to the next step, which was giving me an assignment. A week later, I got my invitation to serve, and in June of 2007 I flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to begin my service as a PCV.

Once I was there, I began to fully understand why depression would be an issue. Living in a Third World country can bring you down quickly, or wear on you over time. Being without familiar foods, missing friends and family, struggling with a new language, and isolation all can contribute to feelings of depression. So can hearing the sound of a dog being mistreated, staring extreme poverty in the face, and losing a friend to AIDS-related illness. Additionally, I entered at a very tumultuous time in PC/Tanzania history. Over the course of my service, I estimate 80-90% of the staff that was present when I arrived had left for various reasons, including the Country Director. On top of all this I am gay, which presents an entirely different set of challenges. Having googled “homosexuality in Tanzania” before I left, I found out that it is illegal and carries a heavy prison sentence, up to life in some cases. While I was not surprised to learn this, I began to accept the fact that I would be living in a culture that considers homosexuality immoral and illegal, and not the openly gay lifestyle I was accustomed to. In fact, the lowest time I experienced during my service was due to this very issue.

It just so happened that I was placed in the same region as another gay volunteer. A third year extender, I saw this volunteer as exemplary in almost every way. His language skills were amazing, he was working on multiple projects, and he was about as integrated into his village as one could be. In addition to his stellar work, he was very social. This included having sexual relations with Tanzanian men. Never bringing this to his village, he thought he was being discrete enough. Then without warning people stopped showing up for meetings, projects he worked on were neglected, and things disappeared from his house. Eventually he brought this to the attention of the village officials, who informed him that someone from his village found out about his activities and was spreading the word. Despite more than two years of productive service, his good work and respect for the community did not matter. His village friends could barely look at him, let alone speak to him. He was shunned. Under these circumstances, there was no way he could remain in the village and he was forced to return to the States. The silver lining is that there were people that told him they did not care and that they did not want him to go, but his story is a telling example of how many Tanzanians view homosexuals.

After this incident, which occurred less than a year into my service, I began to change how I felt about being there and my interactions with people from my village. I could not help but think that the friends I had just made and the people I was now beginning to work with would treat me the same if they ever found out about me. Having them in my house was difficult. To bring myself to visit their houses was even more difficult. The fact that I could never be openly gay to a Tanzanian became strikingly clear to me, and my reaction was to withdraw. For about a month, I experienced the lowest time in all of my service. Yet even during this period, seriously weighing leaving against staying in my mind, I found the strength to pull through and remain in Tanzania. There were a few reasons why I was able to stay, even though the temptation to walk away was quite strong at times.

One of the biggest reasons I stayed was the friends I made, both Tanzanian and through Peace Corps. A particular friend in the village stands out among the crowd. He was a joy to be around from the moment I met him and became my best friend. I could be in the worst mood, but after leaving his company my good energy would be restored. As for as PC friends, I simply cannot say enough. They become your extended family almost instantly. We were all in the same boat so I could always look to other volunteers for acceptance and understanding. With them I could be myself completely while otherwise occupying a world in which I had to keep a part of myself hidden. Additionally, I became a member of the Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN), a volunteer-run group that provides confidential peer support and promotes diversity within the PC community, which provided another outlet for me to express myself as well as be appreciated.

At the end of the day though, I had to look inside myself and decide if being there was what I really wanted. I had a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to seeing my service through to the end, and the longer I stayed the more commitments I made to the community I was serving. The thought of leaving without completing my projects would have weighed heavily on me had I left. In one of the conversations I had with RPCVs before I left America, one said something that helped get me through and stays with me to this day. As she was gushing over her memories as a PCV, she mentioned how envious she was of me that I was on the verge of going and she wished that she could go back and do it all again. The thought that I could one day look back so fondly on my service helped me to see beyond what I was feeling in the moment and focus on what I was there to do.

Throughout my service I dealt with depression more than I could have ever expected. I understand why it is a concern, and potential volunteers should realize how much it can and will affect them on a daily basis. Those of us with depression in our past have a higher risk of lapsing into a funk that can make us ineffective as a volunteer. However, a history of depression does not need to be a reason to be excluded from being a Peace Corps Volunteer. We also have the skills and ability to deal with the issue because of our past experiences. Tapping into that self knowledge and staying true to the ideals that made me want to be a PCV in the first place was the key to my success as a volunteer. When all was said and done, I stayed in Tanzania a total of 28 months. Now, as an RPCV, I can look back fondly on my service and be envious of those who are about to embark on their own journey of a lifetime.

Mick Zelski can be contacted at mickzelski@gmail.com.

Country Director in Tanzania Gets Shaft

- Mike Learned, Editor

If you are a participant on our listserv, some of the details of this story will be familiar to you. Some of the information is public, some I’ve had to dig up. Of particular interest to us is the support this Country Director has shown LGB volunteers throughout her tenure.

Early in June Christine Djondo, the highly respected Peace Corps Country Director in Tanzania was forced to leave Tanzania because United States Ambassador Michael Retzer had suspended her “country clearance” to remain there. Peace Corps is an independent agency. Country Directors report to the Peace Corps Director, not to the local Ambassador. The PC Director reports to the President. Diplomatic staff such as Ambassadors work in the State Department and ultimately report to the Secretary of State. A United States Ambassador is the highest ranking government official in a designated country and has authority of “clearance” for the presence of other federal employees resident there. Relationships between US Ambassadors and Peace Corps Country Directors have traditionally been respectful and cooperative.

There was a notable exception in the case of Ambassador Retzer and Ms. Djondo. From what I have been able to learn Ambassador Retzer, a political appointee who is a Mississippi business man and former state and national Republican official, had decided to merge some of the operations of Peace Corps Tanzania with the US Embassy by co-locating the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) office at the Embassy. He also wanted to merge the Embassy’s and Peace Corps’ Motor Pools and Health units.

Country Director Christine Djondo objected seeing such activities as compromising and undermining the Peace Corps mission in Tanzania and threatening the security and independence of Peace Corps programs and its volunteers.

Reaction from Peace Headquarters in Washington was immediate. Amanda Host, Peace Corps Press Director issued the following:

“The Peace Corps has always had full confidence in Ms. Djondo as country director. Unfortunately, U.S. Ambassador Michael Retzer did not concur and has exercised his authority as chief of mission to withdraw the authorization for Ms. Djondo to remain in country. Peace Corps strongly disagrees with the ambassador’s decision and has let him know the adverse effects this decision will have on the Peace Corps program in Tanzania, including the morale of Volunteers, new trainees, and staff. Because of the number of staff transitions in Tanzania, the June training class is being reduced by half to ensure adequate support for currently serving Volunteers and the new training class.”

But, Peace Corps never threatened to remove the program from Tanzania, preferring to work it through channels. Reaction from the State Department seemed passive. Ambassador Retzer had already submitted his resignation, and his actions against Djondo were taken only days before his resignation was to take effect. Former Republican Congressman Mark Green of Wisconsin had been nominated to replace him.

Now it gets interesting. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a former PCV and strong supporter of Peace Corps placed a hold on Green’s nomination as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prepared to approve Green’s nomination.
Dodd said no action would happen until Retzer rescinded his action or the State Department apologized and reassured Peace Corps officials the agency would be free to carry out its mission in Tanzania. A couple of days later Dodd issued a statement saying the State Department had sent a written apology to Djondo and that he would now allow a vote on Green’s nomination. He said he was confident that Green, who once served as a volunteer teacher in Kenya, “would be a welcome alternative to his predecessor.”

Dodd continued, “I also hope that the point has been made that the State Department must honor the independence of the Peace Corps consistent with our broad foreign policy objectives. I have been assured by Congressman Green for his part intends to respect and enforce this principle,”

Now what does this all mean? I understand that Director Djondo has been offered a job at Peace Corps Headquarters, and I have not heard if there are any plans to send her back to Tanzania. She has been treated outrageously, and deserves the best PC job here or overseas that she is qualified for. I would guess that every U.S. Ambassador in every country with a Peace Corps program has heard a lot more of this story than we have. Traditionally Secretary’s of State, including Secretary Rice, has communicated the policy of separation between the diplomatic community and Peace Corps. This policy clearly precludes the steps taken by Ambassador Retzer.

Current and recent Peace Corps volunteers were at the forefront of this story, communicating and emailing the world. I got more information from a number of sources, including John Coyne of Peace Corps Writers, Peace Corps Online, the Peace Corps Press Release, the Washington press, and from some people in the know.

 

Diversity Training for PC Staff in Tanzania

- a Former PC Volunteer

In February, Peace Corps/Tanzania’s Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN) held a successful training for Peace Corps staff. PSDN is a volunteer-run organization that was founded in June 2005 and based on the structure of similar groups in neighboring Peace Corps countries. PSDN trains interested Peace Corps volunteers to become “peer supporters,” who are then utilized by their fellow volunteers for emotional support. Because Peace Corps service can be especially stressful for PCVs from diverse backgrounds, PSDN has focused extensively on diversity trainings. The February staff training was one example of PSDN’s efforts.

A highlight of the two-day staff training was a panel discussion in which PCVs from a variety of ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation backgrounds talked about their experiences. Four volunteers identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were among the panelists who shared their stories.

Many of the volunteers on the diversity panel were nervous about “coming out” to the approximately thirty staff members who attended the training. While PCVs work closely with those who attended, the panel was the first time that many of them had shared something so deeply personal with Peace Corps staff members. Most of the trainings participants were Tanzanian and in Tanzania, like in many Peace Corps countries, homosexuality is illegal.

After each panelist had talked for five or ten minutes, facilitators opened the floor for questions. Nervousness and fears about the staff’s reaction on the part of the panelists were instantly alleviated. As one peer supporter wrote “the members of the panel were suddenly flooded with thoughtful and sincere questions and comments from the staff, which were nearly all prefaced with heartfelt thanks for the panelists in regard to their honesty and courage in regards to sharing their stories. The staff’s response was overwhelmingly positive, with many questions concerning sexuality as it is something many of the Tanzanian staff members openly admitted to having limited knowledge and information on.”

The staff’s questions were thoughtful and varied. Some asked about the panelists experiences in America (what it was like to come out to family, etc.), while others asked if panelists thought being gay, lesbian, or bisexual was a choice or biologically determined. The staff wondered if the PCVs on the panel wanted children and when they realized they were “different”. The training participants were split up into small groups, each headed by a PCV on the panel. This enabled all involved to discuss diversity issues in a less formal, but more intimate, way.

The training ended with an exchange of ideas lead by the staff participants. PCVs and staff brainstormed ways staff could better help to support volunteers from diverse backgrounds. When feedback was collected from the staff and PCVs on the panel, the sentiments expressed were overwhelming positive. Everyone who participated in the training felt empowered.

PSDN looks forward to continuing a dialogue with staff regarding diversity and to providing staff with resources and knowledge to enable them to support volunteers in the field. PSDN members and staff share the goal of ensuring all volunteers have a positive and productive Peace Corps service. Building on the success of the February training will make this more possible than ever before.


You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

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