06h00: my BlackBerry wakes up and hollers at me to wake up myself. Soon thereafter, I hear the buzz of incoming messages: an eight-hour backlog of messages – email, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, BBM – flooding this tiny handheld device. Good morning, world.
Peace Corps conjures the image of a village, tiny and isolated, hosting a lone, idealistic young American. With nowhere to go, the Peace Corps Volunteer has no option but to integrate with the community. Not so long ago, this cloistering from the broader world was a defining aspect of the Peace Corps Volunteer Experience©.
But this ain’t Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Not anymore. Worldwide, increasing numbers of Volunteers these days have access to electricity and high connectivity. Many developing countries, coming to the telecommunications game late, simply bypassed landlines and established mobile systems. High connectivity has become a basic need in both the developed and developing world. Today Peace Corps Volunteers in many countries head into the relative isolation of their village armed with cell phones and even mobile broadband modems.
There hasn’t been water in my village for a week now, but I can check email from the pit latrine in my backyard. For R60 (about 8 USD), I get unlimited access to the Internet via my BlackBerry. This limitless connectivity offers dangerous glimpses of another life, a life beyond the village. Often I find myself drawn away from the present moment, navigating the world beyond with my thumbs: staying in constant touch with distant friends through Facebook and Gmail; reading the New York Times or NPR; even reading the blogs of Peace Corps Volunteers in Vanuatu, Thailand, Guatemala. I have literally tripped and fallen while walking through the village because my eyes were on my BlackBerry instead of the road.
Still, South Africans – especially those who think outside the village – have embraced this new connectivity. Seems like most South Africans own and use cell phones. Or two. Or even three. Many own phones with Internet capability. (Not uncommonly, the owner of the BlackBerry or Nokia smartphone has no idea how to set up email or access the Internet. Even in the rural villages, there is a culture of conspicuous consumption. A shiny phone is a powerful status symbol.)
Still, an increasing number of South Africans – especially adolescent and highly-educated South Africans – have recognized these mobile devices as powerful tools, taking to Facebook and other social media. (I struggled to explain the concept of email to my students until I explained it as being like a very long SMS, or text message.) The social matrix constructed in these media may serve as a digital extension of social relationships that already exist within the village.
Effective Peace Corps Volunteers serve as facilitators and connectors within their community. They identify community needs and coordinate the efforts of community members in carrying out projects, a role that today requires a high connectivity. Before I came to South Africa, I had resisted giving in to the siren call of smart mobile devices, proudly flaunting my basic flip phone. To work effectively with my South African counterparts, however, I too have had to get connected.
I regularly communicate with my language teachers and one of my counterparts through Facebook. I share ideas and set up meetings with my South African counterparts through SMS and email. I chat daily with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers over BBM, Blackberry’s instant messaging service, trading tips and tricks of the teaching profession and coordinating projects together. I use WordPress as a platform for sharing my writing and photography, raising money for the KLM Foundation, and in the near future for promoting my secondary projects.
Perhaps when I return Stateside, I will set aside my BlackBerry and go back to using my flip phone. For the moment, however, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I have to stay connected.