Lately I’ve been reading various posts and comments on this topic. It’s on Facebook, it’s on Reddit. There are blogs, and podcasts, and videos, here: http://www.poshcorps.com. There are articles with snarky headlines like “Has Peace Corps become Posh Corps?” (though the article itself wasn’t snarky at all): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ross-szabo/peace-corps-posh-corps_b_887566.html.
The term raises a lot of issues. For one – what IS “posh corps?” Some people define it purely in terms of physical surroundings. If you have hot water, or a washing machine, or regular internet access, and, of course, the pinnacle, an indoor toilet – you are in posh corps, and somehow your experience is considered inferior by those who don’t have such modern conveniences. This is a very common cultural phenomenon within Peace Corps.
Some people define posh differently. They are more interested in the contrast between urban and rural life, say, which can be extreme. That is certainly the case in Georgia. Or they look at the impact that modernization has on volunteers and how they integrate their experiences. A recent film made by the folks at poshcorps.com takes this approach by focusing on volunteers serving in South Africa, one of the most modern countries where PCV’s serve.
Some people feel guilty. A recent post in the 50+ Facebook group I belong to asked the following question: “Hi guys….did any of you ever suffer from “posh corp” guilt? Is so, how did you deal?” The response was pretty energetic – 57 comments. Some people described their surroundings, some debated whether it was appropriate for PC to be in certain countries, and some really focused on their work, arguing that their surroundings were irrelevant.
I am in the last group, for sure, with one caveat. I strongly believe that PCV’s should not live at a level that exceeds that of their surrounding community. Not only does it look bad, it can and usually does impede integration. It just feels wrong. But – that raises the question, what is the community level?
If you are living on an remote island, say, in Micronesia … hmmmmm, someone I know did that … it’s easy to figure out. There’s no running water, no electricity, no toilets, huts made out of woven leaves, a ship every 3 or 4 months. You get the picture. Definitely not posh corps, and everyone lived pretty much the exact same way. But here in Georgia, it’s much harder.
For instance, everyone here has a cellphone. Even in the most remote villages, it’s a common sight to see everyone from teenagers to ancient crones chatting on their mobiles. There’s a mobile network that extends throughout the country, though admittedly it’s better in some places than others. Many, many people have computers and internet in their homes; wifi is less common outside of the cities, but easily acquired at a fairly reasonable cost. Of course, that cost is prohibitive to someone who is supporting a family of 8 on one salary, so lots of people don’t have it. Almost everyone lives in a real house or apartment. Some are luxurious; most are functional, and some are hovels. Insulation is non-existent, and it’s really, really cold in the winter, so heating by wood stoves is of limited utility. As a result, many families close off parts of their homes and only heat a few rooms. That’s really common, too. The standard of living varies widely between Tbilisi and everywhere else; to only a slightly lesser degree, between any city or large town, and villages.
So, not surprisingly, a lot depends on where you live. Here in Gori, a city of 50,000, I live in an apartment that is very typical. I pay the same rent as everyone around me. I know this because it’s common practice in Georgia to ask what a mere acquaintance’s rent, salary, pension and savings are! It’s in an extremely run-down Soviet apartment block. The concrete stairwell, with its windows partially covered with plastic sheeting, peeling paint and mold, snaking pipes and wires, and half-tiled landings, would be unimaginable many places in the U.S.
Thankfully, it’s nicer inside. I have running hot and cold water, most of the time. I have electricity, the holy grail, most of the time. When the electricity goes off, so does my water, because it gets up to my 5th-floor walk-up via an electric pump. I have a washing machine, but no dryer. Hanging out wash in freezing weather, not fun, but then again … I don’t have to do it by hand. So there’s that. I have internet and wifi, most of the time. I think anyone would say I am having a posh corps experience, but this is how everyone in an apartment building lives in Gori.
My host family lives in a house that would compare to any middle-class housing in the U.S. In fact, I’d say it’s nicer because of the verdant garden, beautiful veranda, and lack of McMansion-like qualities. So – what standard am I intended to conform to?
What it comes down to, really, is that it seems to me that as long as a PCV is living within reasonable parameters, it doesn’t matter if you are posh, or living the way I did in Micronesia. What matters is the work. Are you productive? Are you sharing skills? Are you forming meaningful relationships? Are you making a difference, in any way? If the answer to some of those questions is yes, or, if you’re very lucky, all of them, then whether you have running water or not is just irrelevant. I very much dislike the macho posturing and judgmental attitude that causes some volunteers to feel guilty, or inferior, or somehow less. I know that I have done so much more here in Georgia than I ever did in Micronesia. Partly that’s because I’m older and have a lot more experience. Partly it’s attitude. Partly it’s luck – I got a good organization, and good people to live and work with. And when I finish my service (in a mere 5 months!), that’s what I’ll take with me, and that’s how I’ll be remembered, I hope. For what I did and who I was – not where I lived.