Just a shot of comedy before we get all serious. The take away?.. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And also that Andy is hilarious and should be given more credit. But that’s just one fan-girl’s opinion.
When you start your journey as a Peace Corps volunteer, two years seems like such a long time. So much can happen in two years. You are excited to see where this adventure will take you and ready to get your hands dirty in the process. Whether you applied to Peace Corps on a whim, or it was something you wanted for a long time, the day that you step off of that plane in to your country of service is a huge milestone. You have made it. You’re doing it. This will change your life.
My personal Peace Corps experience was definitely one of self-enlightenment. These last two years have shaped me in to a new person in so many ways. Maybe ‘new person’ isn’t the best way to put it. Let’s say it helped my realize who I really am. These experiences; moving away from everything and everyone you have ever known, learning a whole new language and culture, integrating into a new community, learning to be a self-starter with projects in your community, struggling with loneliness and feeling like you have lost yourself; all of these things are extremely formative and truly help you realize who you are.
One thing about myself that has changed for the better, much to my surprise, after two years here, I am much more in tune with my emotions. I used to be a person that held it all in. I didn’t like to show emotion and wasn’t a huge fan of sharing how I felt about things with anyone that wasn’t my best friend, and even then, I held a lot back. I don’t really know exactly what it was about my service that changed this. Maybe it was simply getting older. But also I think it had a lot of do with having to just figure things out on my own. You don’t have anyone to physically turn to, no one to hold your hand and get you though it. You have you. This means that when you do get a chance to talk it all out with someone, another volunteer, or someone back home, it all comes poring out. It’s what Cady Haron struggles with in Mean Girls. Word vomit. It happens to the best of us. Don’t try to have a 5-minute conversation with a current PCV. It will be much longer than that no matter how hard you try. Sorry world!
So now I am on my way out. Only a few months separate me from a plane ride home.
Throughout my whole service when a group of PCVs would be getting to close to their completion of service I always wondered to myself “why are they so sad? I cannot wait to be where they are. Heading back to America, or off on the next adventure.” I was honestly weirded out by how emotional they always were. I liked service, but wasn’t wishing the days were longer. I was enjoying my time, but also looking forward to the next step. Now that I am the one COSing…I completely understand and sometimes think that I am worse than anyone before me. Two years is a long time and like many others, I was counting the days, but in all honesty, the end creeps up on you. You’re either ready, or you’re not.
Most of my anxiety about closing my service comes from looking back at my time here. “Did I do enough? Why didn’t I do more? I really wish we could have gotten X project off of the ground.” And the one that hits hard, “I don’t know if I would call myself a good volunteer.” These things, for me, along with preparing for the future are great combinations that cause anxiety attacks like no other. But I had a bit of an epiphany while talking to my host brother the other day. Samba is probably around 32 years old. He has been here for all of the volunteers that came before me in this village. He has watched all four of us throughout our service and has formed his opinions. That’s scary to think about.
Samba sat in my doorway as usual and we talked about how I would be leaving soon. How he really wanted me to give him one of my blankets, particularly my plush blue one with the college logo on it. He loves it. Then I asked him, “If I am replaced with another volunteer, would you prefer a girl or a boy?” No one really has any say in the matter, but it’s a conversational question. He replied, “As long as they’re like you, I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl.” Insert surprised/nervous/what the heck do I say now emoji HERE. I just did what I normally do when people compliment me and said something along the lines of “no, I am not special, you want someone better than me.”
Samba’s face turned from smiley and jokey to serious right quick. He looked up at me an asked “Why do you guys always do that? The other volunteers did it too. You say you’re not good, but you have done work. You talk to the people of the community. You go to wedding and baptisms. You dance, and you laugh and you sing and you help your sister cook. You are good.”
I went on stammering and trying to explain to him that as volunteers we come here thinking about all of the things we could do to help our communities. We want to do as much as we can to improve the lives of our communities, and when things don’t work out like we hoped, we get discouraged and think that we didn’t do a good enough job. When I had finished he said confidently, and I quote, “That’s stupid.”
Luckily my sister called him for lunch so I didn’t have to reply, because my mind had just been blown. You’re telling me that the way that I define my worth is completely different from the way you define it? How can that be? You should be telling me that I haven’t done enough! That I should have tried harder to make gardening work. I should have planted more trees. I should have started that girls club that we talked about but never actually got around to having meetings. But instead your telling me that since I tried to be a part of the culture, I learned your language and I did a few projects, you are happy with me? Wow.
Now, this doesn’t take away all of my COS anxiety by any means. I still feel like I should have done more. However, it does help me remember the things that I am really going to take from this experience. The things that I’ve learned, the people who I have connected with, and those projects that I did get done. Those are the things that really matter. When I think about my life in 10 years, I try to think about how I will picture my service at that point. Sure, I will remember the chicken projects. I will remember the school sanitation projects and all of the kids smiling faces when I handed them their solar lamps to use for studying. I will remember teaching women how to build tree nurseries and how to properly transplant a tomato plant. But I know that what I will think about most are the kids that I watched grow up for two years. I will remember moments of laughter and joy. I will remember surprising people with my ability to speak Wolof, and I will remember how much people laughed when I told a make suitor that I didn’t want to marry him because he was ugly.
I think what I am really trying to get at here is that my Peace Corps experience has changed my life in so many ways. My passions have gotten stronger, and my love for people has grown exponentially. I had many bad days. Many days when I wanted to give up and many more days when I just wanted to sit in my hut and not have to talk to anyone. There were even a couple of days when I kept going simply because I knew I would hate myself if I gave up. I have realized now that that is OKAY!
I have experienced so much in the last two years. So much new. A lot of pain and a lot of Joy. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my fellow PCVs, and all my friends and family back home. I couldn’t have done it without my journal and my iPod. I couldn’t have done it without reminding myself daily why I was doing it in the first place. As Matthew McConaughey said in the Pandora commercial that convinced me to join the Peace Corps… “Life is calling. How far will you go?”
And I am so glad I did.