Flashback to 2013: “I think you should definitely sign up for the Masters International Peace Corps program.
Those two years of my life as a volunteer were amazing.” I was wondering what Professor Kent Glenzer was going to say next, but no words came over the phone. Nervous since I didn’t really know him that well, and was intimidated by the idea of grad school, I asked “Why were they amazing?”
He replied without hesitating: “I didn’t do jack shit. I started a rock band that toured the entire country of Mali singing about Malaria. We made it to the top of the charts in the country, and sang on the radio. It. Was. Great.”
The year and a half at a grad school with a major Returned Peace Corps Volunteer population gave me more opportunities to pester my classmates about their experiences. Driving home together one night my wiser and more mature classmate Bonnie gave me the best advice she could: “The only thing I learned in Ghana as a PCV was that you will always get more out of the experience than you give in return.” She smiled a little and sighed, with nothing else left to say, leaving me hanging on her words for just a moment longer, wondering what I should think.
What they said shocked me. Why on earth would someone live abroad for two years in a country as a volunteer, and do….nothing? And worse, feel good about it?
Flash forward to 2016:
I stare at my dining room table, and all I can see out of the mess of papers and numbers and my leftover dishes from breakfast and lunch
are just a bunch of blurred lines. I stare at the grant proposal in front of me, practically finished, with numbers that look neat and tidy, in fear of what the future will do to destroy all that order. I wonder what I was thinking, trying to juggle three jobs: teaching English in Bafia, training teachers in Yaoundé, and finishing up my masters’ degree remotely from Monterey. So many other projects were boiling in the back of my mind, designing a better framework for the STEM clubs as a coordinator, finding more ways of making the Volunteer Advisory Council more productive as the president. How could I ever get all of this work done?
I cursed myself for all the things I had meant to do today, but didn’t. The calendar I was going to create this morning, the number of emails I was supposed to send to my professor. The connections I was supposed to be making to find a job. I cursed myself for watching a TV series, or my desire to take yet another nap, the third one this week. But more than anything else, I cursed myself for missing Teacher’s Day. As I finally arose from my work, I realized how late it was, and quickly dressed up and ran to the parade grounds, hoping I wasn’t too late to march with my colleagues. By the time I arrived, I knew too well that I was too late, even by Cameroonian standards, staring at the remains of what must have been a glorious event full of colorful outfits and official speeches. My friends had marched without me, while I had been staring at a computer screen.
It’s been over a year later since I talked with Kent and Bonnie, and it’s only now that I really understand what they meant. I could work on my computer all day, filling in budgets and emailing professors, but that will never help me appreciate my Peace Corps Volunteer experience. The moments that have been the most powerful for me in country are not the moments where I am designing a project, or planning the next lesson. The most powerful moments were those I spent with the people around me, doing absolutely nothing productive. Instead we just exchanged ideas on everything. Spoke about love, life, death, and everything in between. We became friends, bonding over shared experiences and hardships, laughing over funny moments that came our way. The moments where we ate the same meal, and marched to support the same cause. I’ve learned more in this past year than I can ever remember learning before, and have become a better person because of it.
I will always get more out of this experience than anything I put in. I have done “jack shit,” because I will never be the one to actually produce or create direct change in this community, only inspire and encourage it. And that has to be ok somehow, for me to walk away from my computer, and go and celebrate life with my friends. That matters more than anything else.