Byron served in Lesotho 2003-2005 and
he is currently serving his second term with his wife in Ukraine 2011-2013.
Can I Touch Your Hair?
By RPCV Byron L. Williams, 2011 – 2013
‘Let’s see, how can I learn to speak Spanish in an immersion environment for the most cost-effective way?’ This was my thought process before finding out about the U.S. Peace Corps. I researched some immersion programs and study abroad programs while in college but discovered Peace Corps while at a college job fair. After talking with the recruiter I researched more and decided that this program was the most suitable for me due to a longer service than the others and better chance for community integration. My initial goal was to improve my fluency in Spanish figuring I’d be placed in a Spanish-speaking country. Ultimately, I accepted a service in Lesotho based on my given options. Funny how that worked!
My Peace Corps experiences (I served in Lesotho, southern Africa and currently in Ukraine, Eastern Europe) have helped me to: 1) see more value in experiencing a variety of cultures, not just one or two; 2) has instilled in me the desire to want to work abroad and power of civic engagement; 3) helped me to better understand how to communicate with English-language learners; and 4) better understand community investment in wanted programs. My services couldn’t have been more opposite: Youth Development to TEFL, unmarried to married, small African nation to huge European nation, minimal access to technology to expected method of work completion involving technology, developing nation to transitional nation
My service in Lesotho was, by far, one of the best experiences of my life. I think partially due to my dark skin, bald head, and proficiency in the local language all helped me to blend in and be accepted, and my attitude to work and enjoy myself at the pace of the community resulted in laughing a lot with locals. Don’t get me wrong, we completed work but at their pace, not the American pace. I realized the difference very quickly. Some days we met just to hang out and shoot the breeze (which gave me the opportunity to speak Sesotho) and other days were preparation for HIV/AIDS outreach activities which is what Sedibeng Youth Centre, the organization where I was placed, focused on. I liked helping while being able to stay in the background.
My service in Ukraine has been very different. My wife and I stick out like sore thumbs because we are black with locked hair. There are a handful of black people in the whole country of approximately 46 million people and I think most are African university students. I am very aware that we can’t blend in so we take more precautions because we always have to consider each other and not just ourselves.
Based on our assignments of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) we are expected and requested to speak more English by our students and counterparts. This does make full integration more difficult since our Ukrainian language skills aren’t put to the test everyday. As an African-American I have felt very welcomed. I know people are curious about many different aspects: my hair (I am asked this question in America and Ukraine), America, me speaking Ukrainian, my previous knowledge of Ukraine before arrival, my eating habits, playing basketball, my teaching methods, comparing governments, food preferences and more. I have been happy that they are interested in so many things that can easily initiate a mutual conversation, which makes my experience easier and more joyful.
From joining the Peace Corps I have been able to live in a different country while traveling. It has given me the perspective of working with people in their country and adjusting to their culture. Peace Corps has definitely provided me with the opportunity to use my skills outside of my immediate comfort zone that I appreciate. Before I began my Peace Corps in Ukraine the only associations I made with all countries in the former soviet union was Ivan Drago (the Russian opponent in ‘Rocky IV’), the Chernobyl meltdown, and that you never saw black people in any type of stories related to the U.S.S.R. to which I attributed this to their unforgiving winters (also based on rocky IV). I have been able to learn more about Eastern European history outside of a textbook and the same about Lesotho and surrounding African nations.
My experience as an African American serving abroad is a challenging but it gives me a great opportunity to making the world better place. And yes, I know it is cliché!