financial security
Financial Lifestyle Mindset

Financial Resilience: Lessons from the Peace Corps

Volunteering overseas with the U.S. Peace Corps taught my dear friend Sara Bruya and me a great deal about personal and financial resilience. Both of us journeyed overseas to teach English – me in 1993 to post-Communist Poland, then ten years later Sara made her way to Gabon. While we served in two very different countries, we each noticed, experienced, and were strongly impacted by several similar facets of life in our host countries.

With far fewer resources at hand we discovered that people in these countries were far more resourceful and skilled. They were in a much better position to provide for their basic needs without relying on money than many of us in “developed” countries. The people we encountered were also rich in social capital and operated frequently in the realm of “financial interdependence” as Vicki Robin wrote about in this guest post and expands upon in the book she co-authored Your Money or Your Life).

I’m delighted Sara accepted my invitation to share observations from her Peace Corps Gabon experience and illustrate how she is applying what she learned to create resilience for herself and her community. These lessons in resilience seem particularly timely as we emerge from the elections here in the U.S, and watch the number of Covid-19 cases spike all while heading into the holiday season.

Even though we’ll need to continue to restrict our social interactions for the next three to six months and build community online and in small groups, I encourage you to contemplate how you can apply the ideas Sara shares to bring more connection, satisfaction, and resilience to your own life and community.

Take it away, Sara…..

Exploring the “Sense of Normal” in Uncertain Times

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting social and economic impacts (as well as a tense and tumultuous election season here in the U.S.) have prompted a lot of reflection on our sense of “normal” and whether we will be able to get back to it. In any case, at the individual household level, these times may reveal new insights into the personal choices we have made thus far, our general assumptions about how life is supposed to look, and maybe even about our needs vs. wants.

There are many circumstances in a lifetime that can prompt a person to take stock. The important thing is that, with the insights generated in such moments, we can develop the tools to create a more resilient life, one that can help us respond more nimbly to unexpected changes.

Sara with her Peace Corps host family

How fortunate I am to have choices—even to be overwhelmed by choices.

I wrote this in my journal in 2003, during my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, a country bisected by the equator on the west coast of Africa. The United States was just entering a war with Iraq, and I was pondering what impact that war would have on our country. After witnessing the fall of the towers on an otherwise beautiful September morning in New York City, I realized that life could quickly take a drastic detour from the “normal” I had been taking for granted.

I live in dreams of my future—creating it just the way I imagine it. And yet, what if a day comes when I no longer
have the choice I’ve grown used to? What if the freedoms I’ve enjoyed to this point are no longer available and I
am left to do whatever is necessary to survive from day to day?

On this front, I am learning something from the Gabonese.

Resourcefulness: A Key Characteristic of Resilience

Looking around me in Gabon, I saw a different way of living—one that included modern conveniences (internet access, local and international TV channels, supermarkets, cell phones) and innovations (including a very convenient circulating, shared taxi system) but was also resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity and the shifting availability of basic necessities.

I saw a much closer relationship between people and the natural world, from which they were adept at sourcing what they needed to offset the costs of buying staples in farmers’ markets and supermarkets, using skills transmitted through the generations.

We are too removed from the sources of what we depend on in the States. That is probably the
single greatest thing I appreciate about living in Gabon. People are the source of their own sustenance.

Many Gabonese families had a large garden, often at a distance from their urban residence and sometimes maintained by extended family members in their ancestral home or village. On these plantations, they planted and harvested crops like cassava (manioc), bananas, tomatoes, eggplant, taro, okra, hot peppers, and other fruits and vegetables on an ongoing basis. Some would also make periodic visits to the forest to forage for wild-growing edibles and medicinal plants; to hunt antelope, wild boar, and other game; to collect firewood; or to harvest a palm tree to make wine.

My host family in Lambaréné had purchased a plot near the Schweitzer hospital, and began clearing the land and constructing a cinderblock residence themselves. All family members participated. I put in a few days of labor, helping the kids haul sand and water for the concrete, while their grandmother spent the day collecting firewood and other useful things in the surrounding woods.

In the States, we generally don’t have bananas and manioc growing in our backyards. In Gabon, people
farm, they hunt, they gather…

I observed that Gabonese families were able to provide for their basic needs when government and commercial infrastructures fell short. I also remarked that while many in Gabon suffer a lack (or unequal distribution) of basic goods and services, many in the U.S. have lost the basic survival skills that would help our communities maintain equilibrium in the face of sudden changes to our “convenience” lifestyle.

Both cultures seem somehow out of balance, in opposite ways.

In the midst of restrictions resulting from the current pandemic, I have realized that my Peace Corps experience prepared me, in many ways, to cope with new social paradigms, prolonged uncertainty, distance from friends and loved ones, disruption to the flow of resources, and limited control over circumstances.

What I Am Doing Now to Become a More Financially Resilient Person

In the interim years since I returned to the States in 2004, there are other factors that have positively impacted my ability to cope with and adapt to a “new normal.” The “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” is the definition of resilience—a word I’ve come to hear and reflect upon a great deal more since encountering people (like Laura!) who are focusing on integrating more regenerative practices into their lives.

In the last decade or so, I’ve taken some significant steps to build more financial resilience, self-sufficiency, and community networks. Tweaking these three aspects of my life over time has yielded noticeable results for me during this pandemic. These are some of the decisions and actions I’ve taken that have helped me feel more grounded and more secure in uncertain times:

  • Paid off my student loan and consumer debts.
  • Created a budget and adjusted my spending to reflect my income.
  • Moved to a cheaper cost of living area (geoarbitrage) where I can be outside and grow food year-round.
  • Found ways to reduce expenses where possible (buying used clothing, living with a housemate, eating out less, joining swap groups online).
  • Learned the ethics and principles of Permaculture and work to apply them.
  • Created work-life balance so I can be doing what I love with more of my time.
  • Built professional and personal skillsets that are mobile.
  • Joined a time banki and educated myself on other, non-monetary forms of capital.
  • Make an effort to know my neighbors and be neighborly.

These aren’t novel ideas. While I arrived at many of them circuitously and on my own, I’ve since learned that others have written extensively about using some of these tactics in a comprehensive plan to achieve a more secure financial picture.

To me, it just seemed like living within my means, tailoring my lifestyle around my values instead of what the mainstream tells me I should care about, and working to build community and self-sufficiency where possible (and where it makes sense with my skills) was my best way forward.

I am now writing from central Florida, where I live on a bike trail and share my ¼ acre property with a housemate. I can walk to the grocery store, to bars and restaurants, and easily bike to friends’ houses, the beach, or downtown. I’ve planted a garden with over fifty edible varieties (several native plants) and have also identified the edible and medicinal volunteer plants—purslane, Spanish needle, oxalis, sida, spiderwort—and integrated these into my diet.

I can report back to my Peace Corps self that now I do grow manioc and bananas in my back yard—along with many other plants that I first learned to grow, cook, and eat in Gabon.

In the coming years I will be able to increasingly eat from my own yard and share the extras with neighbors and friends, trade them for other things I need through the time bank, or find ways to generate income with the products of my land and labor. These efforts also contribute to larger social and environmental issues I care about by building neighborhood and community bonds and restoring private urban property to a more productive and regenerative state.

Financial Resilience for All Through Community Sufficiency (in Addition to Self-Sufficiency)

Soon I will have tomatoes and basil. I think gardening is going to keep me sane during my Peace Corps
service. I’d much rather be planting veggies or digging up soil than teaching English grammar!

In the Peace Corps, I found life as an EFL teacher to be quite a challenge, but I was meanwhile discovering my passion for gardening that continues to the present day. It has kept me sane during stressful employment situations, moments of personal loss, and pandemic restrictions!

These are skills that I am also aiming to share with my community—specifically my neighborhood—with the aim of creating a more conscientious and resilient local network.

community resilience
A gathering in Sara’s previous neighborhood in Massachusetts

Each neighborhood is unique and personalities vary. Some people are open to connecting, others are not. I’m trying to meet each neighbor where they are and honor their ways, though some of our politics, practices, and lifestyle choices may differ. My hope, over time, is to see greater organization and cooperation among us—and this has already begun.

Linda offers to help me with garden projects, Brian offers cardboard from his remodeling project for my weed suppression methods, Bill tells me to “treat the tree as my own” when I ask to harvest some mandarins, Bob shares a CSA vegetable delivery with me because he “doesn’t cook,” Gaby stops to ask if I need anything from Lowes, Cathy Sue offers plant cuttings from her yard, and Larry (who had planned to install artificial turf) has decided to use wood chips to landscape his yard after seeing the value of a free alternative.

Some possible next steps we could take in our neighborhood would be to gather these neighbors and propose/host the following activities:

  • Conduct an informal assessment of our neighborhood’s needs and resources
  • Host a Neighbor Day (Labor Day) block party
  • Map the neighborhood fruit trees and add them to FallingFruit.org or the Endless Orchard
  • Etc.

And from there, we’ll see what happens. Perhaps the group will discover some common interests or common needs that could grow into sub-groups around tennis or brewing or investment or camping.

Maybe we’ll discover that, in some ways, we’re stronger together and implement some activities for common benefit (like CERT training, a neighborhood watch, buying staples in bulk, or sharing tools).

Maybe we’ll form structures for providing and exchanging goods and services amongst ourselves—I’ll grow pumpkins, maybe another neighbor will make them into pies, another neighbor will freeze and distribute them for Thanksgiving. Or maybe we’ll put a long table in the street and celebrate Thanksgiving together—six feet apart.

Create More Community Sufficiency and Financial Resilience in Your Own Life

While gardening happens to be my passion, it doesn’t have to be yours. Knowing where your food comes from and building more resilience into your personal supply chain is prudent, and perhaps the current pandemic conditions have brought this to greater awareness. But if digging in the dirt isn’t your thing, you don’t have to grow the food yourself.

So, what is your thing? What type of skill or resource could you provide in your neighborhood? It could be related to your professional focus, or maybe your local network is a place to showcase other hobbies, talents, and passions. Can you hem a skirt, fix a fence, help with math homework, bake bread, tune up a bicycle, or lend a chainsaw? Developing knowledge of something you love and finding a way to “enact your gifts”ii in your local community is an important part of creating a resilient lifestyle.

While many of us now struggle with the emotional and economic impacts of imposed social distancing, the fact is that we have been enacting a kind of social distancing in our neighborhoods for decades. In general, we’d sooner run to the Box Store for a tool or an envelope or a cup of sugar than knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow one. In my former Boston neighborhood, some people told me they had never actually met the families who lived across the street from them for 30 years until I hosted a Labor Day picnic in my yard.

Today, we mostly rely on distant corporate supply chains to acquire what we need, and we live with an attitude of “I either have to do it myself or pay to have it done for me.” But there are other possibilities. We have the power to weave a safety net of local organization, community connection, support, and security if we stop isolating ourselves from our neighbors.

In that same Boston neighborhood where households seemed generally isolated, I first encountered neighbors who were sharing a lawn mower. It belonged to the people next door, who stored it in the garage of the neighbor across the street where it was more accessible. The three of us would use, clean, and return it full of gas. We agreed to split the cost of the next one. (Now I borrow Laura’s lawn mower and give her time bank credits for using it.)

Building this kind of local social fabric excites me, and I’m eager to see what will grow organically in my current neighborhood.iii While I may at times be a catalyst, and I enjoy bringing people together, I think the key ingredient to more neighborhood resilience is an attitude of willing participation. The connections need to grow over time, through the small interactions of neighbors and households. I will grow food and share the surplus. Hopefully others in the community will step up to contribute to our fledgling network in other meaningful ways.

What Choices Can You Make to Develop Greater Security & Financial Resilience?

In Charles Eisenstein’s thought-provoking response to the current pandemic and its numerous effects, he signals this moment as one that brings individual choice to light:

“Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.”

One thing we can choose is to be optimistic. And proactive. The disruption to the “normality” we have long taken for granted may just be enough of a wake-up call to impact our individual and community resilience for the better.

My Peace Corps experience inspired a great deal of reflection on my social and cultural expectations, the comforts I take for granted, and the possibility of scarcity and uncertainty. It helped me, in many ways, to prepare for and respond to change.

What insights, from these pandemic-related challenges, do you want to bring into the future? And what choices can you make right now to develop greater security and financial resilience moving forward?

Sara Bruya is a gardener, artist, and freelance editor living in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Notes

i This video from the Long Beach Time Exchange gives a good overview of time banking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yEfIgxViDc

ii This language comes from Charles Eisenstein in his description of the “Gift Economy” in this short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz_xZ5MDK2w.

 Some communities are working to formalize these local structures, and there are useful resources available from experienced groups like the Transition Network and others.

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