Only a small fraction of Peace Corps volunteers serve with a partner. Until recently, only those married for at least one year were accepted, but the organization opened positions for unmarried and same-sex couples. The Peace Corps’ reasoning for only accepting married couples is that service can put a strain on a relationship, but I suppose they realized that the strength of a relationship is not dependent upon whether or not a committed pair has a marriage certificate. Additionally, some people get married for the sole purpose of wanting to serve together, and obviously, that is discouraged. Married or not, serving as a couple presents its own challenges as well as benefits unique to those who go the traditional route of serving solo.
In our intake, there were five couples: three married and two unmarried. All are young and have their own unique dynamic. Our experiences do not reflect theirs nor any other couples serving together in Peace Corps. Further, there are people who come solo but end up finding love with a fellow volunteer or host country national, which is another story altogether!
Support and companionship
Perhaps this is the most obvious benefit. Being the only American in a community is a unique experience, but I imagine that it can get lonely when it comes to wanting to fully express yourself without a language and cultural barrier. We have each other to rant and get through the bad days. Rarely do both of us have such days simultaneously (actually, 99% of the time it’s just me), so we can lift each other’s moods when one of our skies is grey. We’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time watching insects and giggling about the silliest of things that only we would find funny. Life in the village can be tough, so I’m thankful to have Adam to make the adjustment easier.
Solo volunteers aren’t unsafe, but there is less of a risk of safety issues with two people. When in crowded areas, foreign women are a target for harrassment. Grabbing, marriage proposals, and general creepiness is common. However, when I’m with Adam, these never happen. In fact, while at a notoriously sketchy market in town, I was waiting outside watching our bikes. As soon as Adam went inside the shop, a swarm of boys crowded around to bother me. In the village, however, I never received any harassment, and I think that’s true for most volunteers. People generally respect me as a “married” woman. Yes, people assume we are married and we keep it to ourselves that we actually aren’t. Another safety perk is that if one of us falls ill, we can care for each other. This is especially pertinent if – let’s say – one gets bitten by a snake (yes we had a snake in our house!) or one falls off a bike in the bush with no phone service.
Cinci babili, te cinci uli weka. This is the Bemba equivalent of two is better than one.
Life in the village is slow; every chore takes at least double the time, but with both of us, we can get more things done so we can spend more time working on projects. I fetch water while Adam does the dishes. I scrub the clothes and Adam rinses and puts on the line. Adam starts the brazier while I prep vegetables. He stirfries the noodles while I make bread dough. We work together to stake ponds and run meetings. As we have gotten better acquainted with our farmers, we can go off in separate ways to do farmer visits, covering more ground in the same amount of time. I got a taste of being a solo volunteer when Adam was at a camp, and yes, it can be exhausting doing everything alone! I was often too tired to bother to cook. So I give a lot of credit to all of the solo volunteers. Speaking of camp, we had the opportunity to attend several camps (such as Camp T.R.E.E). When one of us is away, the other can remain in the village and continue to work.
Every PCV receives a monthly living allowance to cover necessities like food and transport. The amount is small by American terms, but it is sufficient enough in the village (debatable). Adam and I each receive an individual allowance, so we’re basically DINK (double income no kids). Though we do consume double the food, we saved money on things in which we only bought one: a mattress, cooking equipment, tools, etc.
Gender Roles and Expectations
For me, this is probably the biggest challenge of service. Gender roles are clearly defined in the village setting. Though women here are incredibly strong and knowledgeable, men still have the most power and make decisions for women. Women and children do all of the cooking, cleaning, water-fetching, and do plenty of work on the farm along with men. Looking at the schedules of men and women side by side, it’s clear that men have ample free time while women barely have a moment to rest. Unfortunately, some men spend their free time drinking, furthering the divide and sometimes leading to domestic violence.
Men often speak to Adam before me. They look at him in conversations and talk over me when I speak. When I’m out alone, people greet me and then immediately ask, “Where’s Adam?” When the head teacher visits, he walks by me and asks for Adam. It. Drives. Me. Crazy.
I’m not an outspoken person in the first place, so I’ve really had to up my game by speaking louder, not letting people interrupt me, and speaking more. Sometimes I want to give up and just walk away, but that won’t solve anything. Adam has been an ally by having me lead meetings. If someone interrupts me, he’ll go back to me and say, “Lianne, what were you saying?”. I have to constantly tell people that Adam and I were trained in the same exact way together and that most communities receive only one volunteer, but they received two equally trained volunteers. I can stand alone and do this work by myself elsewhere; I am not merely his assistant here to prepare his bath water (which I don’t do anyway).
Even though we encourage women to come to meetings and to try out fish farming, all of the people we work with are men. During a discussion on nutrition, a farmer mentioned that women don’t want to prepare cassava nshima because it requires a lot of effort and he’s upset about it because he wants to eat more of it. He inquired as to what we can do to solve this?
“Well, men can cook. Why don’t you cook?” Blank stares. Laughs. Then I went on a rant about gender roles and they actually listened respectfully.
Another time, a newlywed couple visited our house. She just finished the 9th grade and is 19 years old. I’ve seen him around and he’s usually been drinking. The first thing out of his mouth was complaints that she doesn’t cook him nshima. I retorted, “So why don’t you cook?”
“I don’t know how.”
They giggled, but I was dead serious.
Perhaps they don’t often hear people questioning the traditional roles, so it’s a start to get used to hearing about how things can be different. Empowering and educating women and girls is a key driver in development in the long run. But equally important, and in some ways moreso in this patriarchal society, is educating boys and young men to support women’s opportunity and development.
This ingrained mindset won’t change during our time here and maybe not within our lifetimes. It’s not like America has this whole gender equality thing figured out, either. “Panono panono” – little by little. Now that we’ve been here for several months and they have seen me out alone, me leading meetings, Adam doing the dishes, etc., they have slowly been understanding of my and Adam’s roles and giving me the respect I deserve. I just hope that this can translate to respecting women in their communities.
Lack of alone time
Americans tend to value privacy and alone time, but that’s thrown out the window in our village. Living near a school and in an exposed area near busy roads, people are always visiting or staring at us from a distance. I enjoy people’s company but sometimes I just want to be in solitude. Even though Adam and I lived out of a station wagon for a year traveling through Australia, our home isn’t exactly large enough for us to have our own space. Luckily, Adam understands this and knows to leave me alone when I want to be alone! And if we receive visitors when I’m sick with giardia, he can go out and talk with them while I’m suffering in bed.
More Effort to Integrate into the Community
During pre-service training, our teachers drilled into us that integration is vital to a successful service. When we are accepted into the community, we are trusted more, thus making our work easier. I think we are decently integrating, but it takes more effort for us to go out there and invite ourselves to people’s homes and interact whereas people may be less intimidated by single volunteers. I also think people are more likely to invite single people to come and eat versus us two. When I ride my bike around alone, I get more invitations to homes than when we’re together. Plus, we don’t have a host family so we don’t enjoy some of the perks of becoming close to a particular family by spending time every day. I miss having a host family like we did in training. It is easy and comfortable to just hang out with each other, so we don’t go out and seek friendships as often as one who is alone may.
I’ve always been pretty independent and like being my own person, so always being know as “Adam and Lianne” or “Ba Adams” or “Adam’s wife” can be frustrating. I suppose this happens everywhere, but I have to make more efforts here to inform people to call me by my name, not Adam’s “madam”.
Given our lifestyle, we’re used to spending A LOT of time together, but some couples are not accustomed to it. Each individual may have his or her own job, friend group, hobbies, etc., and only spend time with his/her partner at night or on weekends. Going from that to being placed in a Zambian village as co-workers with ample free time can be intense. However, I believe this experience can help cement a relationship. For us so far, service has been an opportunity to build memories, support each others’ passion projects, and grow together through challenging circumstances.