Liz: Full Frontal

Isn’t it just like me to disappear from the Blog World and come back just to completely bare all for you?  Yes, it is.

Where have I been all this time?  Has nothing been happening?  Well, actually everything has been happening, and I can’t seem to process any of it.

My orphanage project is still in the fundraising phase.  Do you want to know the truth?  I’m terrified.  I’m terrified I will not be able to raise the money.  I’m afraid to get everybody’s hopes up for nothing.  I’m afraid that all the donations all you wonderful people have made will come to nothing.  That I will fail you.  Fail the kids.  And maybe worst of all, fail myself and the image I have of the volunteer I should have been.

You join the Peace Corps knowing that you’re in it for two years plus training.  You tell yourself you’ve got the stamina and perseverance to make it through those two long years.  To say goodbye to all you know and love for something new and unknown.  Family, friends, lovers, foods, even language are left behind so that you can “make a difference” in the world.

But what no one tells you is that two years isn’t too long; it’s too short.  At least, for me.  Not because I love it so much, but because it has taken me this long to define my experience and define myself as a volunteer.  It has taken me this long to become comfortable in this new skin, to grow into this new person.

What am I talking about?  Well, I came here with an idea of who I was supposed to be.  I came here with all these expectations.  But how could I?  How could I know who I needed to be and what I needed to do when I didn’t know anything about this place: how it works, how it doesn’t work, and how I would react?  I’m a different person than I was two years ago.  How could I not be?

Along with everything else, my definition of a Peace Corps volunteer has also changed.  I realize now that there are so many ways in which a volunteer can be successful and have an impact; that success doesn’t have a rigid definition either.  And, most importantly, I’ve learned what kind of volunteer I am.  And now, it’s time for me to close up my projects and get ready for my replacement.  And as reasonable as I can be with myself, I can’t help but feel like a failure, and see all the ways in which my replacement will see me as a failure.

There are a lot things that I did (and didn’t do) that do not make sense, unless you were here to witness every event and everyday.  Why didn’t I work with the agroforestry guy who lives up the road from me?  Because early in my service he made it clear he wanted to start a relationship with me (even though he’s married and even though he tried the same thing with my predecessor) and when I explained that I was not interested and was only here for the work and cultural experience, I never heard from him again.  (Except that day he ran into me in front of a group of men from the agricultural delegation and he continued to berate me for “abandoning” him and my responsibilities as a volunteer.  That was a great day.)  How can I explain that there were days (more than I will ever admit to) when I couldn’t leave my house and desperately hoped that no one would stop by because I just couldn’t face anybody?  That I could not take being called “The White” one more time; that I wanted some anonymity when walking to the market to buy my groceries.  You will never know how taxing it is to have every movement you make noticed, to walk down the street and have unwelcomed comments thrown at you, to be criticized (your body, your accent, your behavior) and scrutinized until you feel that hardly anybody actually can see you for who you are, and even less are interested in making the effort.

Everyday you are reduced to your image and whatever connotations that person has of that image.  You must strike the balance between generosity without letting people suck you dry; you must learn to greet everybody in the street (even though some will ignore you or insult you or tell you to go home) because you are not just you, but a representation of your heritage, your country; you must develop a thick skin because even your closest friends will insult you, and you them.  And you must learn to forgive yourself, because there will be days when you retreat into the safety of your home, the expatriate community, the Hilton for Happy Hour, you will lose your temper and flip people the bird or tell them to get stuffed, you will fall off the exercise wagon, you will cry, you will stumble, you will fall in front of everybody.  But that’s okay, because you’re human…and so am I.

So did I make a difference in the world?  I think I did, in some small way.  Writing my description of service has reminded me of all I have accomplished, and all the truly wonderful people I’ve met, fellow volunteers, Cameroonians, and Couch Surfers.  But one thing I can answer in all honesty is that the world made a difference in me.  And this new me will continue to affect the world and so on.  I guess that’s what growth and evolution is all about.