You may recall that the Peace Corps has three goals: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. The cultural exchange embodied in the last two is an on-going challenge for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), but also often represents the best stories and experiences of service. Yet it has always been on the PCV to "bring" the USA to the host country, and the host country back to the USA. What about working the other way, with host-country nationals bringing their culture to the USA and the USA back to their own countries? This idea has been around for some time now, particularly when discussing ways to improve the Peace Corps to better meet its goals. I cannot recall for sure, but this might have even been in the original Kennedy/Shriver vision for the Peace Corps' future.
The idea is to bring a PCV's counterpart to the USA at some point during service. Cost alone makes this nearly impossible. Another hurdle is finding these counterparts. In Madagascar, volunteers usually were assigned counterparts to work with, but only time would tell if they were effective co-workers. Or if they were operating within the law; in my first village, there were numerous rumors that my assigned counterpart, head of the community forest protection alliance and one of the richest men in town, profited from illegal logging of the forest corridor. Only rumors, but they highlight the difficulties in selecting counterparts. While some assigned counterparts turn out to be excellent connections, many others do not, so PCVs find their own [Hence my favorite Peace Corps recruiting slogan: Peace Corps, the toughest job you'll ever look for]. Other challenges to bringing counterparts to the USA include culture shock and village rivalries, to name but a few. In short, such an exchange is very difficult and not within the Peace Corps' abilities.
Yet sometimes PCVs themselves find ways to bring their counterparts to the USA. I have been luck enough to see a current PCV and her Malagasy counterpart arrive in the USA twice now, and it is quite an experience to behold. Both times it was a PCV and her silk-weaving counterpart from Sahalandy, in the USA to attend the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. On the most recent occasion, earlier this week, I played New York City tour guide for the PCV and her counterpart. It is not really my story to tell; the tale of the big city from the counterpart's eyes or the experience from the PCV's perspective would be far more interesting. Suffice it to say that I was impressed by the Malagasy woman's cultural awareness and relaxed attitude to the hustle-and-bustle of NYC. The insights she made were interesting, such as pointing out how fat Americans are (every Madagascar PCV can relate to hearing this one!). She was also impressed with the cleanliness of New York City, an attitude I have not heard too often but definitely understand when compared to Antananarivo. We talked a bit about her exhaustion with the Malagasy political crisis and her concern over the locust infestation in Madagascar, but mostly we just toured the city and I listened to her observations. Much like the other visit I witnessed in DC in 2011, the Malagasy woman mostly stressed how much she wanted her children to see the sights. It was a great example of what made me join the Peace Corps in the first place: the belief that people are very similar throughout the world, with the same basic dreams and desires, in this case the hope of offering a child new opportunities and a bright future.
If you're interested in Sahalandy, and their Malagasy representative Lalao, they are premiering their documentary and will be selling throughout the weekend at the Folk Art Festival (or always online via Etsy). There is another Malagasy artist in attendance this year in Santa Fe, too!
**Final thought: Lalao really wanted to see churches during her visit. She did not mention this until the end of our tour, and for some reason it never occurred to me yet makes perfect sense - Malagasy people tend to be very religious (Catholic or Protestant), yet most people who join the Peace Corps tend to be much less religious. So some Malagasy believe that, as PCVs are representatives of the United States, Americans must not be religious. Maybe someday more devout Christians will join the Peace Corps to present a more balanced view of Americans (and, as a side note, more political conservatives); in the meantime, we stopped by St. Patrick's and, despite the scaffolding around the exterior, Lalao loved the church and was very happy to view the interior. A reminder to future PCVs hosting counterparts in the USA: visit a church or two!