Why is it that "second" always gets a bad rap. Second hand clothes, second prize, second-fiddle, second-rate, second-string. I saw a running T-shirt once that said "Second place is the first loser." In the Peace Corps, however, second can become a first priority.
Every Peace Corps volunteer is placed with a host organization to work with. That organization provides work, guidance and supervision for the volunteer, helping them to infiltrate into the culture and to become accustomed to society norms. The host organization is where the volunteer spends a majority of his or her time working. My organization is Compassion International, a fantastic children’s aid organization that works ceaselessly to release children from the grip of poverty. I work a normal 9 to 5 schedule five days a week which leaves a fair amount of time before and after work for other activities. In the Peace Corps these are called Secondary Projects and they can be a time that PCVs can branch out and put their own unique and creative stamp on their community.
My first Secondary Project sort of fell into my lap. Each morning, at the first crack of dawn, I lace up my running shoes and hit the dirt road. I start and end my route just outside a boarding school (a secondary school, nonetheless). One day I just figured that as long as I’m running I should see if any of the kids there would like to run with me. I went and talked to the head teacher about it and he told me that I was welcome to invite the students to join me and that I might find some boys who were willing to run but that the girls wouldn’t come. "Girls don’t enjoy exercising," he told me which parallels some of the beliefs here that women are second-class citizens. I told him that I’d still like to invite them to join. I expected that I could find maybe a dozen students interested if I was lucky. The next morning, much to my surprise, I had 40 kids show up, half of which were girls. Since then I’ve had almost 100 students run at some point in time and I was even able to collect 30 pairs of gently used running shoes when I went home and have since distributed them to my most dedicated runners. Each morning I teach the kids the importance running can have to their lives as it has been to mine. Running improves one’s physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual well-being. Studies have shown that students who exercise perform better in school. It requires self-discipline and motivation. The prospect of getting shoes also encourages them to run. Most run either barefoot or in flip flops, and the girls generally run in skirts.
Another Secondary Project I’ve sort of taken up has been to go into town with a burlap bag and a pair of gloves to pick up trash around the taxi park, a densely populated area. Ugandans have very little respect for their land. They have an abundance of land and very little trash, so they just throw trash anywhere. The landscape is filled with plastic bags and plastic bottles nearly anywhere you look. They say that 90 percent of an iceberg is under water – the same can be said of trash. You only see 10 percent, the rest is under the grass and in the soil, clotting drainage systems and making the soil impermeable. Picking up trash was a difficult project to begin. It wasn’t something I really wanted to do but felt more like something I had to do. It’s like swimming up stream. I can’t get it all and I can’t make people stop throwing it down, but I figured that as long as people are constantly staring at me anyway, doing something positive for them to stare at would hopefully set an example for them to follow. In doing so I discovered something unexpected. Little kids would stop to help me pick up trash. Local government leaders saw me and were shocked that this “white man” would humble himself to picking up their trash, and in doing so they said I was setting a great example for others to follow. It’s been a humbling experience to say the least.
The third project that is currently underway is an after school sports program where I’m teaching kids from six local secondary school Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate is a popular game on college campuses and is best described as a combination of soccer and football, but with a Frisbee. The game just made sense for me to teach here. The only equipment required is a Frisbee and a field. It’s non-stop action too, much like soccer so it’s very aerobic. The kids took to it like a duck to water. (Unlike one Peace Corps Volunteer who tried to teach baseball to the kids. Too many rules, too much equipment and absolutely no knowledge of the sport.) So in a few weeks we will have the first Ultimate Frisbee tournament between the six schools. The winner will receive a trophy, a goat to roast and eat and they will then compete in a tournament in Kampala, the capital city. We’ll use the tournament to not only promote physical fitness, but to also teach about HIV/AIDS prevention through dramas, songs, signs, speeches and a trivia game. A local business has even contributed towards the tournament, so the trophy will be named the Nile Bakery Cup. Corporate sponsorship, even in Africa!
These secondary projects won’t be making any major headlines in regards to what the Peace Corps is doing around the world. I’m not building homes, teaching new farming methods or saving the planet necessarily, but it is something. I enjoy interacting with the kids and I know they enjoy interacting with me. When I was a teacher I used to say that as a teacher you can’t always see the results of your labor, as you would in, say, construction after a building is completed. I just have to do my best and to realize that the small differences I am making are in fact making a world of a difference. To read more about my Secondary Projects as well as other stories, feel free to view my blog http://pervispc.blogspot.com.