Another year has come and gone. I KNOW! How is that even possible? It seems like only yesterday I was packing my bags for Madagascar, and yet here we are.
But Life, as life tends to do, happened, and my long awaited trip to Madagascar turned into a should I or shouldn’t I go to Rwanda. [Spoiler alert: I probably shouldn’t have gone to Rwanda]
But despite any misgivings I may or may not have had, I DID in fact get on the plane. A plane headed to Kigali, and late in the evening of June 6, I along with 23 other Peace Corps trainees arrived in Kigali –dragging behind us entirely too much [actual] luggage, and if I’m honest, a bit of invisible luggage in the form of fears, hopes, dreams, and expectations.
Just a few weeks ago, the oldest volunteers’ service came to an end and the newest volunteers were sworn in and sent to their sites with their own literal and figurative baggage. The key difference between these new volunteers and our group is that these new volunteers are based in the education sector while my group is based in Health. I don’t know if that makes me a ‘veteran’ volunteer or not, but I feel some relief that my cohort is not the ‘newest’ group in country any more.
Can I believe that I have made it this far? No, not really. I’ve had issues with my health center from the beginning. Do I have thoughts/feelings/words of wisdom? You better believe it.
Words of wisdom
- Advance research about your host country is a good idea but has limits. For example, when researching Rwanda, the 1994 genocide is the first thought in everyone’s mind. Then maybe gorillas, if they are into nature. Guidebooks will give you insight into the life of a tourist and ideas about places you might want to visit, but very little into the life of a local. And especially not as a rural local. And especially not as an outsider coming into a rural area.
- And while you can be a literal country expert, the PC director has to the power to make or break your PC experience. Example, Health 10 and Health 9 had very different experiences. A lot of that is due to the Country Director.
- Time goes quickly. Even the difficult days of PST, where every waking moment was controlled by Peace Corps, time passed by rather quickly. A day’s end seemed to come right after dinner, and the beginning was far too early.
- Time goes slowly. There are days when I do very little.
- Being able to be Peace Corps Volunteer is a huge privilege. Sure, you will hear people say “it’s a privilege to serve” but I mean a different kind of privilege. The path to getting here—which at minimum requires a college degree and the ability to leave responsibilities in the U.S. behind for 2 years—is littered with privilege. I wish more Americans could have this experience but the barriers for entry are too high. Especially if you are not a recent college graduate, have children, an exorbitant amount of debt, ect.
- For people who don’t like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and [fill in the blank with social media de jour], I hear you. People who can’t have a thought without making a post about it annoy the snot out of me, but for PCVs living in remote spots, Facebook, WhatsApp et.al. are nothing less than a godsend for feeling like you still have contact with the outside world.
- My mental health has be mostly stable. I’ve had a few issues; a few what the fuck am I doing here moments, but I have maintained my sanity. I’ve never suffered from depression and/or anxiety before, but I’ve had more panic attacks in the last six months than I have ever had in my life. I assumed leaving would be 100% my choice. Turns out that’s not always how it works. And if I do end up not serving the two years, who knows what the actual cause will be. Because in the end, a hundred things can happen that are outside the realm of control that can cause service to end early.
- I am American. Not I am “an” American. That I knew. Living in another country has made me more aware of the things about me that are truly American: personal space, free will, self-reliance, imagination, and non-conformity are all things to be celebrated. My preference for a straight answer rather than vague mumbling in agreement when someone really had no plans to agree. My thoughts on pet ownership [despite what our Country Director thinks/says cats are great for companionship and critter control] and child rearing [hitting a less that five year old child for not wanting to take medicine, go speak to the ‘muzungu’, or a myriad other offenses] is not OK in my book. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to sit back and sit on my hands and watch parents literally BEAT their children. [PC’s official policy is that volunteers are not to get involved in matters concerning host country nationals. PC can kiss my ass on this policy and if I’m ever administratively separated it will be because I stood between a child and adult daring the adult to, as the saying goes, ‘pick on someone their own size.’] There are million other little things. It’s all American.
- I am proud to be American. Mostly. I have no illusions that America is the greatest at everything and I disagree with many stances that my government takes but I don’t believe you have to have a “love it or leave it” mentality to be patriotic. It turns out that I do love America and have affection for many of our most ridiculous habits, traditions and idiosyncrasies.
- Some things are neither better nor worse, just different. But some things are most definitely better or worse. Living abroad gives you the chance to clarify your values. What merits compromise? What doesn’t? I feel confident in saying that as a woman moving through western society, I have it way better than 99% of the women I know moving through Rwandan society. Cultural relativism is one thing, access to education and reproductive rights, freedom to reject misogyny, the ability to have legal recourse against rape and domestic violence—that’s another. Not that these things are perfect in America. But they are So. Much. Better.
- It’s hard to explain to Peace Corps to outsiders. From the long periods of idleness where you struggle to find work to the long periods of idleness that actually are work [sitting for four hours drinking tea with your neighbors because some neighbor’s relative–you’re not sure whose–died]. Important community integration work! A lot of it does not makes sense to people who haven’t lived it.
- Everyone’s service is their own. How I hated hearing that during training. It sounds like a platitude but it turns out to be true. As a volunteer in Rwanda I have it way different than those in Paraguay, Georgia, or Vanuatu ; as a woman my service is different than a man’s; as someone in a rural site my service is different from someone who lives in an urban environment; as a close to middle aged person with a career my service is different from a fresh out of college person. The list goes on and on. Everyone’s service is their own.
- I don’t regret it. A couple of months in I said “even if I had to end it now and go home tomorrow, this experience has been worth it.” I still feel that way.
So here I am at almost 7 months in. Do I think I will I make it to the end and celebrate close of my service? [July 2020 for those who are tracking.] Who knows? Do I feel some great loyalty to the Peace Corps? Not really. If we were evacuated due to Ebola, would I be sad? Not at all. If I get accepted to grad school at an earlier time than my COS date, will I go? Almost certainly.
These [certainly are] the days I’ll remember. Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 maniacs accompanies this post.