Tag Archives: Samoa

It Depends: A Peace Corps Guide

by Kelly Branyik

Serving 27 months (or longer) as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) demands a significant commitment, so it makes sense that there is an equally large up front demand of training and preparation, followed by continuous growth and learning during service. Each step of the process alone can be enough to prevent someone from making the choice to serve as a PCV, but when looking at the big picture of the whole Peace Corps experience, it can be completely overwhelming. Which is exactly what prompted this book. Each chapter discusses one aspect of the Peace Corps experience, all the way from first making the decision to join Peace Corps to what happens after service ends and PCVs become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV). Chapters cover topics like working with local community partners on primary and secondary projects, learning the language and culture, the difference between pre-service training and in-service training, and more.  Most chapters also have guided exercises for reflecting on reasons for joining Peace Corps, identifying positive aspects of the experience when everything seems bad, and getting the most of the whole experience. Interspersed throughout are stories from RPCVs to give some idea of what life may be like while in Peace Corps, even though everyone has a unique experience and it depends on your specific circumstances.

“It Depends: A Peace Corps Guide” by Kelly Branyik is a thoughtful, encouraging book that breaks the overarching Peace Corps experience down into bite-sized components to help demystify the process and simplify each step. The categories are specific enough to address a variety of concerns individually, and also broad enough to cover most aspects of Peace Corps life. The book is written with a combination of “how-to” or “what to expect” along with anecdotes and stories to illustrate the larger topics with personal examples, understandably with greater emphasis on the “how-to” because so much is involved there. Branyik shares some of her own experience as an RPCV who served in China, and also incorporates stories from other RPCVs to demonstrate the variety of projects, struggles, and victories that may be part of Peace Corps. Branyik strategically brings in these examples to emphasize the title of the book, that the individual experience of Peace Corps depends on your own circumstances. She offers a broad overview of what to expect while reiterating that no guide can tell you exactly what to expect from Peace Corps because the experiences are so unique and different.

This book bills itself as a Peace Corps guide, and I think it fits the bill in several aspects (wow, the application process has changed significantly since I went through it!). However, the guidance becomes a bit muddied at times with the author’s personal reflections. Combining a guide with a memoir contradicts the main point of the book, the title, that “it depends.” She brings in a variety of RPCV stories to demonstrate the different experiences, but by also incorporating so much of her own experience, the singular focus and examples she provides tell one story rather than a variety of stories. Main complaint aside, this book offers a lot of practical guidance for getting through the Peace Corps experience and coming out the other side with positive things to say about it. Certainly worth reading for anyone who has ever even remotely considered joining Peace Corps.

(Bonus, my story is in the book as well! It’s worth reading just to hear about my life without running water).

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Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before

By George Turner

Something of a history book, George Turner offers his observations of the traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and routines of Samoan people sometime around 1880-90 (ish). He describes everything from the geography of the island chain (including American Samoa which was, at the time of publication, part of the country of Samoa instead of a U.S. territory) and the political and decision-making systems of village and district chiefs down to common foods (and how to prepare them) and attire for day-to-day use as well as special events. He even delves into the creation myths from indigenous gods and belief systems, and also the stories behind the names of various islands and villages. If it can be observed and written about by a white guy, Turner documents it.

“Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before” is organized in a straightforward fashion without any preamble, probably similar to other writing at the time of publication (I haven’t read many documents from 1880-90, so it’s hard for me to compare). Each chapter is titled with an entirely self-explanatory heading, and subheadings indicate the specific topic to be addressed in the following paragraph. Chapters are fairly short, which makes it easier to put down and pick up the book for bite-sized reading.¬†Differences in grammar and sentence length sometimes make it difficult to follow the topic of a sentence, which can make it hard to find flow when reading (but certainly make for interesting meta-analysis of the writing and content!).

I read this book mainly because I am an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Samoa and wanted to know more about the pre-missionary history of Samoa, and partly because the recently released “Moana” movie addresses myths and gods with which I was unfamiliar from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, my knowledge of Samoa has gaping holes. I found answers to some of my questions, and was particularly fascinated by the chapters detailing the histories of island and village names (to the point of feeling giddy and making exclamations out loud while reading the origin stories). Much of the book I read with a grain of salt because Turner writes with a colonial attitude toward the Samoan natives, frequently referring to their “heathen” behavior. If your interests fall within the very specific range of material addressed in this book, then it is worth the read. For the general public, probably not.

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