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As many of you already know, I went home in October. I spent two glorious weeks enjoying family and friends in Florida and then 3 days in New York City happily accepting the UN Leo Nevas Human Rights Youth Advocate Award.
Visiting America after 18 months of living abroad was difficult, strange, and exciting. The aspects of America that I was most in awe of were not, as one might expect, amenities such as running water and electricity or even relative luxuries such as Mexican food (okay, maybe a little bit). Mostly, I was experiencing first-hand the adage about travel transforming us in ways that arenât always apparent until we return home. I remembered what it feels like to live in my own culture, to speak my own language, to completely understand social situations (although I was lacking some cultural references from the past year or soâ¦ gangnam style?). People who havenât lived abroad donât know how daunting simple tasks can be in a culture that isnât your own. Everything seemed so easy, so efficient, so effortless. More importantly, I felt like I could truly be myself because I could express myself and people understood me. I felt at home in an Anglophone dream world of punctuality, friendliness, and rationality.
Coming back to Africa after a trip like this is hard. If I wasnât asking myself âwhat am I doing here?â beforehand, now I definitely was. I had to stop and seriously think about what I was getting out of my service- socially, personally, professionally. These are difficult, yet necessary, questions to ask.
In truth, Iâve gotten most of what I wanted to get out my service professionally. Iâm experiencing development work from a grassroots level, learning new languages, etc.
Iâve experienced a lot of personal growth as well- in how I relate to other people, how I define success, how I respond to failure.
So, if Iâve already accomplished what I set out to accomplish, what do I do for the final 8 months of my service?...
I have absolutely no doubt that every Peace Corps volunteer feels this way at some point during their service. This is why we have countdowns and obsess over our futures after Peace Corps and our close-of-service trips. In a sense, we withdraw from the present as a way to avoid this terrifying question. We seek out our fellow volunteers who can give us advice, project ideas, inspiration. Yet, at the end of the day, we still feel that there is something missing from our service. The feeling that all the hassles and frustration are worth it, the feeling of self-worth and accomplishment, is no longer intact.
Getting over humps like these is something that I donât think Peace Corps administration addresses enough. Itâs almost taboo to talk about it, even though everyone experiences it. I think that understanding why
the humps happen is the first step to getting over them. I think that the humps happen because we undergo the most personal growth during the beginning of service- going through training, becoming integrated in our communities, overcoming cultural and linguistic hurdles, witness our projects succeed and fail, making host country national friends, strengthening bonds with fellow volunteers, etc. All of these experiences contribute the greatest amount of challenge to a new volunteer, and therefore the greatest amount of the self-confidence which is the natural offspring of that challenge.
Although Iâm still learning and growing 18 months into my service, the change is less radical than it was in the beginning. Everyday activities are not as much of a challenge. Chatting with people in village and attending events used to qualify as adventures, but now they are just day to day normal activities.
But just because the newness has worn off doesnât mean that we canât get any more out of the experience. There exists a certain Peace Corps ethos that demands a quest for oneâs outer limits and accepts no excuse for not trying. With this philosophy in mind, it is true that, to a certain extent, you experience what you open yourself up to experience; the trick is to never stop looking for adventure, never convince yourself that youâve learned all there is to learn, never stop challenging yourself.
When I got back to village, the rainy season was coming to an end. Rainy season is my favorite because I love the solitude of reading in my house and listening to the storm make music on my tin roof. I liked feeling cut off from village life, even if only for a short time, to reflect on my own. I was upset that this season, my last full one in country, was over.
Then, sitting on my hammock one night, I saw what I thought was a flash of lightning out of the corner of my eye. It was a firefly. I had forgotten about these insects that light up my village once cold season starts. The fireflies werenât the only harbingers of a new season: with no storm clouds to impede the view, I could see hundreds of stars in the sky. I was reminded that soon the nights would get cold and the market would be full of vegetables. The harmattan would bring a breeze during the day; the end of the harvest would free up my neighbors to drink tea in the afternoon under the giant mango tree; the marriage season would bring the sounds of the balafon to the village every night. But, before all of these wonderful things arrive, there is an uncomfortable âmini hot-seasonâ.
I realized that volunteers, like seasons, sometimes go through these changes. We, too, have to push ourselves through the uncomfortable periods of doubt, of changing focus, before being revitalized again.
Since this epiphany, Iâve opened myself up to new challenges. Iâve started a girlsâ life skills club at a primary school in a village 10km out in the brush. There, early marriage rates are high and they had never seen a foreigner until me. Once a week I cross this rickety bridge to get there. Sometimes, I feel that just crossing this bridge is enough adventure for my whole Peace Corps service.
Iâm co-teaching a kindergarten class to help introduce non-violent classroom management techniques and positive reinforcement. Iâm also helping to bring Camp G2LOW to my regional capital. Iâm spending time with my extraordinary Peace Corps friends- amazing people who understand me as only another volunteer could.
I know that there will be plenty of time afterwards to reflect on my service in solitude, but I have a lot to see, feel, learn, accomplish, and DO before then. Until next rainy season, when I will head home for good, Iâm finding inspiration in fireflies, stars, and balafons playing off in the distance.