Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

I can still remember the day of my initial interview with my Peace Corps recruiter. It was a cold and snowy March morning in Colorado. The driver’s side window of my car had been broken by some intoxicated college kids the night before, and the plastic trash bag I had duct taped to the opening flapped in the frigid wind as I drove I-36 from Boulder to Denver. Trusting the butterflies in my stomach (which, I like to believe, are only there to reassure me that I’m doing something I really want to be doing), I made my way to Peace Corps’ regional office.

My recruiter, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer himself, was tall and had a kind smile. “Africa,” he said as he paged through my application. “Africa is a tough assignment. If you want to change your mind, now is the time to do so.” I smiled and told him I was sure. “All right, Africa” he said, “pack your bags.”

Almost four years later, I find myself here, in Africa, trying (and failing) to find some way to say goodbye to this remarkable place that has been my home for the past three years. When I left the states in 2005, a two-year contract sounded so incredibly daunting. My dear friend Samantha, trying to ease my trepidation, reminded me that when I returned George W. Bush would still be president. I’m not sure if that made the two years appear longer or shorter. But now, on the brink of 2009, I can say that it indeed has been a long time.

And it has been a “tough assignment” as well, as I think all PC assignments are. I would be lying if I said it hasn’t. Though my good days certainly outnumbered by bad days, some of those low points were so low, it was hard to remember the good. Many days, I wondered if anything I was doing was making any kind of positive impact on this country. After committing to a third year of service, I spent weeks wondering if I was completely crazy to want to stay and do this for another year. It’s very difficult to evaluate your impact when doing this kind of work, and with no one reassuring you, that innate self-doubt permeates one’s mind.

But this experience has changed my life in ways I cannot articulate. What I gained professionally during my three years with Peace Corps is definitely tangible, but what I experienced personally means far more to me. I was a wide-eyed 22-year old when I left for Africa. I’m coming home a different person (not to mention 26).

And yes, some days, the suffering and sadness were tremendous. The media has certainly taken advantage of the human tragedies and wars and famines that do, in truth, wreak havoc in many parts of Africa. But that idea of Africa being “dark” is not what I will remember about this continent, and the suffering and the sadness are not the first things I will think of when I think of Namibia. What has stood out the most for me and made the greatest impact on my life here have been the people. And that is what I will remember most about Africa. The people.

I will remember the genuine smiles on people’s faces when I spoke to them in their mother tongue. I will remember the overwhelming kindness of strangers. I will remember seeing intense gratitude for the most simple of things. I will remember the angelic voices of singing children. I will remember hospitality of a level I have never experienced before. I will remember their honesty. I will remember seeing hope in the face of true despair. I will remember real smiles, products of pure happiness. These are memories I will carry with me forever. And having these memories makes experiencing all those low points of this “tough assignment” completely worth it.

I wonder how Africa will remember me.

Long ago, I abandoned the noble ideals that I had joined the Peace Corps hoping to fulfill. Whether they were unrealistic or whether I just failed completely at meeting them, I don’t know. And I don’t really care. Somewhere during this experience, I subconsciously decided that the best I can do here is put out more positive than negative, do more good than harm, make more smiles than tears, and foster more hope than hopelessness. I think I succeeded in doing these things.

And I hope when Namibians remember me, they will remember a person who did the best she could, where she was, with what she had.

Tomorrow, I leave Namibia and embark on the long journey home. The problem that keeps nagging me is this notion of “home.” The idea suggests a comfortable, familiar place that one can easily slide into. I’ve been to the states to visit twice during my tour of service, and neither time did it feel like an especially comfortable or easy adjustment. What is ridiculous is that I’m absolutely a product of America; I’ve spent the majority of my life in the states and there’s no reason I shouldn’t feel “at home” there. But as much as I’d like to think otherwise, I know that reentry will not be easy for me. It’s hard to go back to a place that you know so well only to find yourself feeling like an outsider. Even former volunteers who hated their time in Namibia struggle to adjust to life back in the states. No matter how much you resist, it’s impossible not to undergo some deeply profound changes after living in a culture foreign from your own for an extended period of time. For those of us who embraced this culture and found true happiness in Namibia, going home and trying to somehow fit back in where you used to is even more challenging. But I know it’s time. I’m willing to give it a try.

This will be my last blog post, so don’t bother checking back for the “oh-my-god-where-am-I?!” culture shock post. I like the idea of preserving this blog as a kind of time capsule of my time in Namibia. I started this blog to keep in touch with family and friends back home and to share my experiences in Africa with those I care about. It turned out to be more therapeutic for me than I had anticipated. And though I recognize that it’s been a feeble attempt, I hope this blog helped portray Namibia as the beautiful country that I’ve experienced it to be. Namibia is now a part of who I am, and I will carry it, and its’ people, with me always.

And so I dedicate this blog to them, my Namibian friends and family….

who brought color and richness into my life…
who helped me see myself, and the world, as they truly are…
who challenged my spirit and broadened my horizons…
who taught me the values of patience, strength and genuine humanity...
and who, most importantly, showed me how to find beauty in all things.

You will all be dearly missed.

“The good experiences will enrich her mind, the people and the land will give joy to her soul, and the difficult times will teach her who she truly is.” –Barbara Jean Myers