It was near the end of my first year teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin that I started to feel confident enough that I could complete a secondary project, that is, a project related to, but not in the first paragraph of my job description as a volunteer.
These secondary projects had been talked about at our trainings as the things that separated above-average volunteers from the average volunteers. And I wanted to be an above-average volunteer.
One of the projects that was heavily promoted, especially for an education volunteer, was to paint a political map of the world mural on the wall of the local school. While heavily promoted, it was also one of the most intricate and time-consuming. But I was not to be deterred. I was going to join the elite squad of above-average volunteers.
I recruited two other teachers at my school, and my best friends in the village, incidentally, to help me with the map. We talked with our school director and created a budget and hired someone to cement the wall onto which we would be painting. We agreed to meet the next day and spent the night hoping that it wouldn’t rain so the cement would set.
The bulk of the work on the project began the next morning (thankfully, no rain). The guide for the project lays out a political map of the world in a large grid that is used to translate the countries from the paper to the wall instead of free handing the entire world.
We spent the next hour debating how we would first center the rectangle that would become the map on the wall and then another hour debating how the grid would be drawn. The director stopped by and offered his opinion. A teacher who happened to walk by voiced his. The small group of students that had gathered mainly just stared. I was starting to get frustrated.
More than the language differences, it had been differences between how Americans and Beninese people worked that took the longest to get used to in my village. I wanted to get in and get out when there was a project to do. Beninese people like to discuss. Everything, to my eyes, seemed to take longer.
We did make progress. We centered the map and drew the grid and my friend Kande proved to be extremely adept at drawing the outline of Canada. We left school that afternoon with a full map of the world chalked on the wall and prayers, once again, that it wouldn’t rain that night.
Word started to get out the next day. When I arrived at the school there were some students wanting to work. I wanted this project to be as much theirs as it was mine, so I explained what we were doing, marked what countries they should paint what color and stood back and watched. My two friends, plus some other teachers, showed up shortly after and set to work labeling the countries that the students had already painted.
Yes, there were a couple retouches that needed to be done, but at the end of the day, I painted in the final letter on the quote from Nelson Mandela (“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”) and the map was finished. I walked home from school that night feeling what it must feel like to be above-average, but I also started thinking about what it would mean to my students to have a resource like the map of the world at their school.
When I was growing up, my mom took me every week to our public library. I grew up loving books and loving the worlds that existed inside books. Most of my students had never seen a book. I had my first email address at the age of 10. Most of my students had never seen a computer.
Within my first week in my village, one of the biggest differences between my life and the life of those with whom I would be living for the next two years was the awareness I had gained in my 23 years of living a globally-connected life. It wasn’t even so much that I (thought I) understood cultures and people who weren’t me, but that I grew up with a decent perception of what was even out there. I understood that while the place I lived (the U.S.) was big, there were other places that were bigger. I understood that there is a great ocean in between where I was born and where I was currently living. I understood that people lived vastly different lives than I did.
In the end, it wasn’t the glory of being an above-average volunteer that made all the stress of the project worth it. It was this:
The next week, I noticed there was a small cluster of students and teachers who were standing around looking at my map as I pedaled up on my bike for our beginning-of-school staff meeting. When we finished the meeting two hours later, there was a different group of students standing in front of the map. A few of the teachers at the school drifted over and began pointing out African countries of which the students would be familiar. When I headed home, they were still standing there, not really talking and not really believing that all this existed outside our village.
Watch it happen here: World Map
Emily Becker lives a caffeine-fueled lifestyle as a freelance writer and editor. She loves all things journalism and most things nerdy and is a transplant to Brooklyn from Missouri by way of a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in western Africa.