My name is Scott Erik Fleming, beginning on January 21, 1999 I will be a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the West African nation of Gabon. Gabon is located in a tropical climate bordering the Atlantic Ocean at the Equator and is about the size of Colorado. The official language is French.
In-country training begins January 21, 1999 and lasts until April 16, 1999. After that I'll be doing Rural Primary School and Teacher Housing Construction from April, 1999 until April 2001. The project attempts to assist Gabon in realizing its objectives to provide modern classroom space for all primary school pupils and to attract qualified teachers to rural villages by providing adequate local-style housing.
Many people have asked me why I decided to join the Peace Corps, uproot my entire life and move half way around the world to help people who would, quite honestly, do just fine with or without the skills I have to offer. I have to admit that my personal justifications and motivation for undergoing such a radical change in lifestyle appear crystal clear on some days and totally unintelligible on others.
As I write this, I am a twenty-eight year old architect living in San Francisco. The city lights are twinkling beyond my windows, I have a glass of Guinness Beer on my left and the sounds of Portishead are drifting through my space. I have a wonderful girlfriend whom I absolutely adore. I have a good job at a respectable architectural firm. I've worked myself out of debt for the first time in a decade. I am surrounded by friends and family that care for me. I just ate a pepperoni pizza. My shower never runs out of hot water. The grocery store down the street never closes.
Everything I could want is at my fingertips…at this moment, my life is perfect!
Nevertheless, I'm still going to go to Africa.
Why? Why Africa? Why the Peace Corps? First, let me make it absolutely clear that I have never been the type of person to harbor any intention or desire to 'save the world.' The World, I believe, will get along just fine with or without my temporal presence. In addition, and within the spirit of certain philosophical principles in which I subscribe, I believe that every person has a right to exist for their own sake, happiness and well-being - no person is ever obligated to sacrifice others to self or self to others. Ergo, benevolence must be pure in heart and mind, free of threat or fear of reprisal and benefit all parties concerned. Anything less is an insult to oneself and can only lead to pain, animosity, insecurity and self-destruction.
I have never walked in a protest march, never written to my congressman, never even bothered to become a member of Green Peace or Amnesty International - sometimes I will separate my paper, plastic and glass and deposit them into the appropriate containers. Anyway, I am too much a realist and too selfish a person for such a lofty ideal….saving the world! C'mon now, I'm not seventeen anymore. And I'm not so naïve to think that anyone or anyplace can be 'changed' by my presence in an enduring and meaningful way, no matter how honest or effective my actions or motivations may be. 'Complemented' and 'Improved,' perhaps, but 'Changed' and 'Saved?, probably not.
That's not to say that I don't have altruistic tendencies, but I approach such things on my own terms and in harmony with my personal agenda. I acknowledge the fact that I can offer myself and my particular skills to a person or community, but I know that I cannot change that person or community to accommodate the way that I think, do the things that I think should be done, feel the way I feel, etcetera…etcetera. I think that this attitude might be my saving grace when I am in Africa; the Gabonese people can choose to take what I can give or not but I won't be disappointed either way (but be kind, don't quote me on this when you read my letters from Africa), because I'll be there for my own reasons. If the Gabonese and I can both benefit from this experience then so much the better.
I do believe that the actions a person may perform can have an extraordinary impact in another persons life, but usually this can only be achieved if the recipient of said action takes the necessary and difficult steps to take advantage of the gifts given to them by another. And this is what I am getting at - you can give of yourself until you burst but don't get riled up if no one cares or if your gifts aren't used in the way you intended. If you do, you might want to question the sincerity of your gift. For example; when I am in Gabon I may be successful in actually building the primary schools and teacher housing that I have been assigned but that hardly means that my efforts will be utilized in the way that I intended them to be - a classroom can just as easily be used to house cattle or store food as it can be to educate students, but in either case (hopefully) the space will be used to someone's benefit. I can build the Gabonese a classroom but I will leave it up to them to decide if they will use it as such, either way I'm not so concerned, they have their own priorities, expectations, sentiments, future…as do I.
Africa is in my blood, but I cannot tell you exactly why. Perhaps it has something to do with watching PBS, Wild Animal Kingdom and National Geographic television specials as a small boy. Perhaps it simply has something to do with the inexplicable intrigue and mystique of the Dark Continent as expressed in the literature, cinema, photographs and traveler's tales to which I have been exposed. Perhaps, as more than one friend has suggested, I lived there in a previous life and am simply drawn…although I don't believe such things. All I know is that I have wanted to live in and travel through Africa for as long as I can remember and now I have made an opportunity for myself and I intend to take advantage of it.
I can blame my mother too; every summer for twelve years she loaded the family up in the car and set us out on a four to six week travel odyssey across the United States. During these trips I was exposed to a rich variety of experiences; I climbed over rockets at Cape Canaveral, volcanoes in Washington, Glaciers in Canada and drunk hookers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans; celebrated birthdays in Yellowstone, Vancouver and Annapolis; watched Fourth Of July fireworks in Washington D.C., San Francisco and, yes, even Beaver City, Nebraska. These trips instilled a sense of wanderlust and desire for perpetual movement that I still cannot put to rest. So much so that when I was nineteen I traveled alone through Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Turkey for three months. My desire to travel and experience the world is overwhelming and, consequently, I bore easily of The Grind, which brings me to my next point…
I'm twenty-eight years old and spend my days sitting in front of a computer performing tasks for which I sometimes find interest but possess no real passion. The routines inherent in my choice of career bores me to tears and nourishes a mindfulness of dissatisfaction that makes my spirit itch; that's not the person I want to be right now. I will return from my time in the Peace Corps when I am thirty and I figure I'll have the next forty years to sit in front of a computer doing the exact same thing I'm doing now, there's time enough for that some other time. Now, I am young, healthy and driven by a curiosity that makes me want to simply see, feel and do.
Everything in life is about the polarity and movement of one thing against, and with, another thing to effect some other kind of end or beginning. I think that I'll move to Africa for the time being. I'll see what begins and ends.
I'll be back…