I was recently contacted by a candidate for a volunteer position in the Community Economic Development (CED) sector at Peace Corps Namibia. She will soon have her online interview and she reached out with some good questions about my experience. I was happy to answer them and thought you might find some interest in this…
What type of work are you doing? What kinds of companies do you work with? What kinds of skills are needed most, and do you find yourself teaching the most? What kind of reception are you finding for your ideas?
Peace Corps Namibia has 3 work sectors into which all Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) fall: Education, Health and Community Economic Development (CED). I work in, CED. In the past 6 years that the CED sector has grown in the country, most PCVs have been placed within business clubs (e.g., NCCI, the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) or various Vocational Training Centers (VTCs) to offer entrepreneurship training, consulting and mentoring.
My position is a little different in that I am assigned to a “Local Authority,” which is Nam-speak for Municipality, Town Council and Village Council. Essentially, I work in the “City Hall” of my small town of Arandis (population: 8,500). There are 58 such local authorities in the country along with 14 regional councils (they’re like “states” in the US) and these organizations constitute the “sub-national” governmental agencies. PC-Namibia has decided (and I concur) that placing “seasoned” PCVs within these organizations gives us a better chance to influence more people than the traditional host partners. In this new CED “sub-sector,” I was the first such assignee and I am pleased to say we have since placed 3 more PCVs and are hoping for 4-5 of the group of 17 new PCVs arriving in April 2018. It’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s been successful (in my opinion) and we’re working hard to develop more sites and recruit more “experienced” PCVs into this sub-sector.
To answer your specific questions: in my role as a Local Economic Development Specialist in the Arandis Town Council (ATC), I work with everyone from young entrepreneurs wishing to start new businesses, to the owners and managers of existing (small, medium and large) companies, to international investors wishing to establish operations in our town or region. Unlike most of my fellow CED PCVs, I don’t do so much training of basic business skills, although I do a fair amount of consulting, counseling and mentoring of these business people (call it “post-training” support…). I also represent the ATC in negotiations with potential investors (so far from South Africa, Germany, Portugal). The businesses range from small retail shops, to home-based seamstresses, to large national chains, to US$ multi-billion international conglomerates – and the industries range from high-tech to mining support to manufacturing to financial services.
While the traditional Peace Corps model is to have PCVs work alongside Namibia nationals, to date I have “a job…” The ATC hopes to recruit a Namibian national to replace me soon, so that I can can work alongside him or her before my assignment ends. As PC continues to build this CED sub-sector, I expect we will better resemble the traditional PC model of PCVs working alongside local national counterparts going forward.
Finally, as far as reception is concerned, my friends and colleagues here could not be more welcoming. They are eager to learn new skills and always express gratitude for the work I do and the support I give. That being said, we are all challenged by their lack of basic skills and experience that would make this work easier. While most have university degrees, they often lack some basic personal management skills that hinder our ability to make rapid progress. What we might consider simple things, like proactive leadership, time management, commitment tracking, contract administration, effective meetings, etc. are often unknown or weak – which makes it difficult to focus on more complex issues. I’ve come to realize that many of us have been fortunate in how we were raised – and the “soft” skills we have are so easily taken for granted. I have a lot of patience for my colleagues here, and know that this is a long, slow process that requires continuous and repetitive attention to these basics…
What is the most satisfying aspect of your experience – both in terms of the work and in terms of relationships?
The work is challenging and fulfilling and so many of the relationships are great, of course. It’s hard to pick something to stand out but here are a couple of items:
- The “ah-ha!” moments are pure bliss. When you teach a new concept, or a new way of looking at a problem – and you see people adopt it, adapt it, make it their own – it truly is fun!
- The “inter-generational” friendships I’ve established have surprised me. I’m nearly 60 yet some of my best friends (both fellow American PCVs and Namibians) are in their 20s and 30s. Here, we tend to gather together more around common interests than in age- or peer-groups. The young folks give me such energy and I (hope to) give them the benefit of my experience.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
The helplessness you feel when you face a loss of life. In my time here, I lost my best Namibian friend in a deadly traffic accident (unfortunately, Namibia “excels” at roadway fatalities) as well as my elderly father back in the US. I knew the latter was a distinct possibility before I left for service – the former was a shock.
How do you deal with being away from friends and family? Who are you connecting with there? Do you have to deal with loneliness?
I use WhatsApp (for texting, audio and video calls) and email for direct communications; I browse Facebook and Instagram to follow others’ activities and I write a blog to share my own activities. I have a fiancée with whom I communicate daily and a grown son with whom I communicate about once a month. I don’t feel lonely so it’s not been anything with which I’ve had to “deal.”
What kind of technology is available, e.g., wifi prevalence, transportation, water, electricity?
WiFi is available at many work sites and at some public locations (restaurants, guesthouses, etc). Cellular data (even up to 3G) is available in many towns. The CED PCVs usually have better access to technology than our Education and Health colleagues. We are not normally placed in villages or more remote rural areas where network access is limited. Similarly, we tend to have better access to transportation, water and electricity. I have PC friends living the prototypical PC life (in a hut, on a homestead, in a village, many kilometers from their shopping town, without electricity and with no running water), but that’s not normal for the CED folk.
What are you living conditions like?
I live in a small, fairly new, clean and well-appointed 2-bedroom house. I have a full-sized fridge, 4-burner stove/oven, microwave, kettle, double bed, large shower with hot water and electricity. We occasionally have power outages or water cut-offs, but my situation is no different than my neighbors (and far more stable than other PCVs) so I have nothing to complain about.
Do people speak English? What other languages are used? What languages did you have to learn?
There are many languages spoken in the county and most Namibians are fluent in 3+ (some in as many as 5 or 6). The national language is English and most business communications is in English or Afrikaans. The language we learn during our 9-week Pre-Service Training (PST) depends on where in the country we will be living. I learned Afrikaans and my diverse townsfolk speak English and Afrikaans as well as their “mother tongues,” which is typically Darmara/Nama, Otjiherereo or one of the Owambo dialects.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you went that would have helped you to know in advance?
Yes! Namibia is often called “Africa-Light,” or “Africa for Beginners.” There are parts of the country that need traditional “development” support but, for the most part, this is a country dealing with complex, modern, 1st-world issues. The business challenges we have are as sophisticated as any I’ve ever dealt with before.
My interview is next week. Do you have any insights into what Peace Corps is looking for? What should I emphasize to increase my chances of getting accepted?
Be honest. With yourself and with your interviewer. We are all capable of adapting to a variety of changing circumstances in our lives. But over the course of 27 months away from our “comfort zones,” our true selves will always come out. We can’t “fake it” for such a long period of time without our usual support systems, so it’s not worth trying. There are some of us who went home after a few days, weeks or months in country – it just didn’t work out. There are others of us who don’t ever want to leave (and are finding ways to stay here, indefinitely). A lot of folks (most of us, I reckon) are doing the best we can, making our contributions, and will be quite happy to return to our lives, careers, families and friends when our service period is over.