The 30-Month Retrospective

18 May

It’s been nearly ten months since I’ve updated this blog. Ten. This may be the second longest hiatus I’ve had, and that includes a nearly two year stint in the U.S. Unfortunately I’ve found updating this blog to be a very mercurial job. I write when I feel something deep enough that I want to share it with the greater world, and unfortunately I’ve been so incredibly busy for months now that I haven’t been able to let a worthy thought fester long enough that it sprouts a post… until now. I’m a little out of practice, but here it goes…

The Retrospective

I don’t think you can say that there is a single instance of someone having an “ordinary” Peace Corps service. Most involve hanging off over-crowded public transport, stumbling through a language other than your native one and making connections with people and seeing places most Americans have and will never even consider getting near. Take that kind of an experience and now make it your metric for normal, because mine has been even significantly less “ordinary” than that.

Before I get started at the beginning of this wild ride, I think it’s important to frame this story like they do in the movies, where the bulk of a story is a flashback brought on by an event. For me, and for this story, that event was a trip back to Kédougou, the city that had been my home for the lion’s share of my Peace Corps service. I went back to introduce my replacement to the community after having been gone for 6 months. Although it was good to be home, I was hit with a wall of emotion that sent me sailing back to where it all began: a hotel conference room in Philadelphia on October 27th, 2011.

It was there that I had my first staging event for Peace Corps Mali, there I met the group of forty or so people I thought I was going to spend the next 27 months of my life getting to know, becoming family. Unfortunately I was with those same people less than six months later at a hotel in Ghana deciding what we would do next, since Peace Corps service in Mali was no longer an option open to us. I, along with a small group of those same individuals, decided to give this whole thing another shot right next door in Senegal.

So there we were, eight months into this roller coaster and in our second Pre-Service Training. We were miserable and angry, every last one of us. Although we all coped with it differently, none of us coped with it well as we could have, and it showed through to the staff and our fellow bright-eyed stage-mates. Unfortunately, I think it was unavoidable. Now that I’ve seen many of these Peace Corps “refugee” groups move in and out of countries, I’ve realized that that feeling of despair, of being uprooted so quickly during such a formative life-experience is something you can’t put into terms. You can’t make it understood, it just sucks, and someone who hasn’t been through it can be sympathetic, but they’ll never truly understand that specific and acute emotion. Period.

Because of this it’s not something that will ever be a phenomenon well-understood by the greater Peace Corps community. Regular volunteers who serve normally will never understand or be able to fully empathize with that aspect of a transfer’s service. It will forever remain this strange but strong bond evacuees from anywhere in the world will share… this understanding that transcends all other lines. It’s probably one of the closest things most Americans will ever feel to being displaced from home, an experience I don’t wish to belittle with this anecdote, since our displacement is a much easier one to recover from. Regardless, I feel it still stems from the same basic human emotions, forceful and unwilling removal from a place you call home.

But I digress… back to the story.

Once training was over it was off to Kédougou, the place I would slowly develop an intense love-hate relationship with. It was a strong departure from my first site, a small village of 500 Bambara Christians in a dry dusty area of Mali a few hours south of Mopti. My new site was 20,000 people, regional seat of an area in the midst of a gold rush, mountains and trees. Over the course of the following 17 months I would stumble my way through work, family and social scenes trying to find my place in it all. Eventually I shed my anxiety, my constant comparisons to Mali, and truly became a Peace Corps Senegal Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer.
Enter 2013.

A quick and turbulent year later, I was already finishing a third-year extension application having finally decided to “extend” my Peace Corps service instead of packing it in after a strange but ultimately rewarding 27 months in and out of West Africa. I chose instead to take the helm, and become the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the CED program, moving up a rank to manage the very same people who I had come into this country with, the very same who remembered me and my compatriots most vividly for what can only truthfully be described as a piss-poor attitude.

Those people, the same people I now had to encourage, support, and lead. Needless to say an easy transition it was not. I had little experience with leadership up to that point (being the president of a college club doesn’t prepare you for a role like this), and I stumbled pretty hard out of the gates when I first made the shift of hats during the Pre-Service Training of the September 2013 group.

Sitting in-between the volunteer community and our superiors, trying to manage relationships is as diplomatic a manner as possible, was no easy task, especially considering that I had no legitimate seniority over the people I was trying to lead. But, just like in Mali, and again in Senegal, and then finally for this third time in Dakar/Thies, I adapted, picked myself up and found a way to make it work, finally hitting a stride with the Pre-Service Training of the March 2013 group. And finally then, as I sat back where the second leg of this crazy adventure began, the place that will always for me be my service and my Peace Corps, that lovely little town of Kédougou, the true weight of everything I’d done, everyone I’d met, everyone I’d come to love and care about, and all the places I’d been… it all hit me.

I’d stumbled and wandered my way through six countries, three separate and distinct services, thirty months and too many experiences too accurately count. I’d met more people and made more friends than in any such period of time before in my life. I also, I’d like to think at least, grew up in the process. These thirty months, and the three months to come… I’ve gained so much, more than I could ever hope to give back to these places, these people.

My service has been a little more exaggerated and theatrical than that of your average Peace Corps volunteer, but I’d challenge anyone to find another volunteer who doesn’t share a fair amount of these same emotions, these same experiences. Blood, sweat, tears and a host of other bodily fluids… laughter, love, exasperation and every emotion in between… Peace Corps service takes a lot out of you, but you get infinitely more in return. And I don’t think a single one of us would trade it for the world. I only hope my next adventure is half as rewarding as this one.

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