Don’t Pity the Fool

A fool is “a person who acts unwisely or imprudently”(New Oxford American Dictionary). Being called a “fool” is typically an insult, as immortalized by Mr. T’s catchphrase, “I pity the fool!” I counter that being a fool is actually good for us sometimes. Many Americans I know, especially me, spend a lot of time cultivating an image of omniscience and perfection. That tact stunts learning and is a very unsustainable approach to Peace Corps (as well as life). Conversely, fools don’t worry about looking foolish. Fools take risks, make mistakes, laugh at themselves, and grow. Failure isn’t a shadow dogging their steps; it’s a stepping stone to success.  This past month, I’ve really been trying to embrace my foolish side and challenge my need to preserve a pristine self-image.

For example, I walked to the local middle school two weeks ago and, rather than making the prudent decision of taking the road that I knew, I decided to be foolish and take a potential shortcut. The “shortcut” was beautiful and heavily wooded. Along the way, I met several great community members who helped me out by pointing me in the right direction. After about 20 minutes of walking, I emerged from the path—only to find myself at the bakery, a 10 minute walk from my house! Mildly frustrated, I headed back to the path and took the right fork. Another 10 minutes later, I walked out by the abandoned tavern, roughly a two minute walk from the bakery. I had spent a grand total of 30 minutes doing what would ordinarily be a 12 minute walk, and I was nowhere near the middle school. I was angry at myself for being so foolish, but then I started laughing. Had I not gone exploring, I would have missed out on a gorgeous morning walk, meeting several great people, and a new potential running route!

View of the beautiful “shortcut” pathway

Prudence would also say that when doing a job, follow your job description and avoid tasks that you have no experience in. But by being a bit foolish, I’ve allowed myself to learn some new (and unexpected) skills, including helping students apply for university, designing and printing wedding invitations, food prep, and math tutoring. Every day, about 15 primary (elementary) school kids pour into my org. These kids are classified as “orphans and vulnerable children,” which can mean range from a child who has lost one or both parents and is living with a caretaker or in a child-headed household to a child who is vulnerable to the impacts of HIV. After providing the kids with an early dinner, my coworkers and I offer to help the kids with their homework. Inevitably, their homework is multiplication and long division. I have zero qualifications to be a math tutor; the closest experience I have to tutoring is editing my friends’ CVs, and my version of math is exclusively done via Excel. My fear that I would make a mistake, lack of experience, and inability to explain math in Setswana held me back at first, but my coworkers reminded me that our kids’ caretakers don’t have time to help them with their homework. I definitely make mistakes, but perhaps even my butchered attempts to help our kids work through their math problems are better than no help at all. Opening myself up to doing new tasks totally outside of my experience has been nerve-wracking, but in a lot of ways, these moments have been the best part of my volunteer experience so far.

My attempt at making pap, a staple food here (spoiler: I couldn’t stir fast enough), set to “We No Speak Americano” by DCUP & Yolanda Be Cool

My final case for acting the fool is simply going outside. Since greeting rules dictate that I greet everyone within a ten foot radius of me, the amount of human interaction when I step outside my door is significantly higher here than in the US. This increases the risk of a negative interaction (such as being hit on for the millionth time) but also the potential for a rewarding interaction. Recently, I’ve been spending much of my free time holed up in my room, exhausted from all of the extroverting. Today, I chose instead to go to mass with my host family. I was nervous; not only was I going to church in a totally different country, I also didn’t know many of the Catholic rules and rituals and ran a high risk of accidentally being disrespectful. We arrived a little past 9 AM, when mass was supposed to start, and greeted dozens of people. Service started around 10 AM, and we sat through three and a half hours of singing, praying, kneeling, and sermons almost entirely in Setswana. By the end, I was fretting about whether it looked bad that I had stepped out to use the bathroom and hadn’t taken communion (I’ve always learned that non-Catholics shouldn’t take Catholic communion). I was exhausted from trying to pick up on the Setswana words and blend in as much as possible with the congregation. Afterward, we filtered outside to share in a delicious meal celebrating the Pentecost and the new members of the Catholic Women’s Association, and I slowly realized that my potential slip-ups hadn’t affected how people interacted with me. I certainly made mistakes, but getting to share that experience with my host family made it more than worth it. The wise choice may have been to stay home and avoid offending anyone, but the foolish choice was to risk stepping outside my door.

Yummy Pentecost meal of samp, pap, chicken, pumpkin (butternut squash), cabbage, and potato salad

And in the end, isn’t Peace Corps itself a foolish choice? Is it wise or prudent to leave everything and everyone we know and love behind for two years to live a hemisphere away, among people we’ve never met? To miss important events back home, on the off chance that what we find on the other side is worth what we’re giving up? To forego a paycheck that has enough figures to be worth counting? Sure, the Peace Corps has many rational benefits: valuable experience, a strong network, resettlement benefits, etc. But those weren’t the draw for me, nor do I think that they are for most people who join Peace Corps. I joined Peace Corps for many reasons, but one was to take risks, make mistakes, and have the kinds of transforming experiences that only people willing to make a total fool out of themselves are able to have.

Have any thoughts or questions? Share them in the comments section!

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