When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps 50 years ago on March 1, 1961, he began a legacy that even he could not have imagined. Since then, more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have been trained and served in 139 countries. Today, there are 8,655 volunteers serving in 77 countries.
There's no doubt that being a Peace Corps volunteer 50 years ago was different from today. There are Peace Corps volunteers today who have electricity on a regular basis and access to the Internet in their rural villages, who have Blackberrys and use Blackberry Messenger to instantly keep in touch with loved ones back home. But while these modern technologies can make things like applying for a grant for your organization and keeping up to date on current events a reality at the touch of a button, life as a Peace Corps volunteer is still different from life back home. Most of us live without running water (although many have taps in the yard), bathe in a bucket daily and have a toilet outside lovingly referred to as the pit-toilet. Oh, and I live in a traditional Zulu hut.
Some Americans are surprised that Peace Corps volunteers are even needed in South Africa, the most developed country in Africa. But after living in KwaZulu Natal for more than a year in a village located in a municipality with a shocking HIV rate of 36 percent, I can attest that even more Peace Corps volunteers are needed here to address this epidemic.
Although life as a Peace Corps volunteer may be different today than it was back then, there are some very important things that have remained the same. Volunteers still work with their counterparts to transfer skills to host country nationals. Most of us are the only American working in the community where we are placed, and it may take a couple of hours by taxi to get to the closest fellow volunteer in some cases. We still live with host families and live life like the people we are serving. There is still a big focus on learning the local language and participating in cultural ceremonies.
We are still thousands of miles away from the life we have grown very comfortable with and from our support system and loved ones. And we live off a stipend often smaller than what the people we are working with earn, which forces us to really live like the people here as much as possible.
The lessons you learn as a Peace Corps volunteer probably have not changed much either. I have learned patience is a virtue and will get you through the hardest times. Laughter really is the best medicine. "Now" really never means "now" no matter how much I want to believe it. Things in Africa just take longer. Life does not care about your plans, so be flexible and hope for the best. Get yourself up and dust yourself off every time you fall, because you will fall.
Death happens so frequently here that it teaches you to live your life fully in the present. Sometimes nothing cures a bad day like a cold soda and a chocolate bar. You may not change the world overnight or in two years, but that does not mean you should not try. Relationships and the people-to-people connections will leave a much deeper footprint than anything else you may accomplish in two years.
And perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned so far is that people really are the same, regardless of race, religion, language, culture or economic status. The first Peace Corps director, R. Sargent Shriver Jr., who sadly passed away just six weeks ago, said it best: "Peace Corps requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us."
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to serve my country for two years abroad in a program I believed in. I wanted to travel the world and learn about another culture, see life from a different perspective and to use my skills to help others. I really believe that people are all connected, and if the world started to see each other as brothers and sisters, peace would flourish. The Zulu word "ubuntu," which means a person is a person through another person, sums up this belief beautifully.
I came to South Africa prepared to read by candlelight every night and excited to fetch my water from a bore hole. I didn't plan on having constant access to my world back home or electricity regularly. And although my Peace Corps experience is indeed different from what those who first served in 1961 experienced, the important threads of serving as an American abroad for two years in development work remain, and for that I am thankful.
Ryan Ruggiero, a Mays Landing resident and a graduate of Lehigh University, is a Peace Corps volunteer in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, with the Community HIV/AIDS Project. She is assigned to a nonprofit organization in her village, where she has a girls club, works with out-of-school youth to educate the community about HIV and tutors children in English.