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Minimum number of buckets floating at the bottom of my village well, as of November: 6

Maximum number of pounds lost by a male volunteer from my stage: 60

Total ETs from my group, out of 30 people: 5

Days that admin closed the Tamba regional house to prevent a Halloween party from occurring there during Ramadan: 9

Rat families evicted from my hut cabinents: 2

Minimum number of packages that arrived in Tamba in November for volunteers who COS’d in May: 3

Characters required in addition to my name for a letter mailed in Senegal to reach me: 10

Books read during my 14 months in Senegal: 62

Months at site before I could really “hear” Pular: 6

Months at site before I started to feel semi-competent speaking Pular: 11

Mailing address: BP 320 / Tamba will get it here for domestic mail. I’m convinced that all you’d really have to write is my name and “Tamba”—kinda the same theory that says you can find any volunteer by going to their general area and asking around for the white kid.

Reading recommendations: George Packer’s The Village of Waiting is by far the best RPCV book I’ve read. Instead of cloying sentimentality and romanticization, Packer gives a more realistic story: internal conflict from the start and an ambiguous ending (he ET’d with six months left).

Also, I reread Heart of Darkness, which I’d developed an irrational hatred for in my freshman year lit class. This time around it… resonated differently. I still disliked the pervasive racism and sexism, but now I could relate the story to some of my own physical and mental conditions. Which, while it might concern anyone who’s read the book recently, I found pretty intriguing:

I remembered the old doctor—”It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.” I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.”

I feel a pressure when talking to or writing for people who have no direct experience with Peace Corps to maintain whatever mythos they’ve absorbed—wowthatssuchagreatthingyouredoing being the most common. Peace Corps builds this up with brochures about the “great adventure” and “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and “life is calling” and whatnot—and while the challenges they describe (living and working in a foreign culture, creating your job as you go, sticking around once the romance has worn off) are certainly accurate, they don’t reach the depths and extremes that I’ve found here.

There’s a phrase from the PCV-written essay that won Vanity Fair‘s essay contest last year that stuck with me: “I have never known such rage.” It seemed like somehow breaking the unspoken rules of the Peace Corps mythos machine (there is one, I swear—I can hear it whirring as I write) to write that word: rage. But it’s exactly the right word for what I’ve experienced here—certainly not the only emotion I’ve felt, but one of the more surprising ones I’ve found in myself over the past year.

They go something like this:

graph

The work that I’m trying to create as I go along accounts for some of those—frustration and anxiety at slow progress, joy in small successes. While it’s entirely possible to go through two years of Peace Corps without actually accomplishing anything related to development (people do, intentionally or not), most volunteers maintain a self-imposed pressure to do meaningful work.

But that gets tiring. Everything here can feel tiring: huge issues to stew over but only small tasks to occupy me… this perverse form of loneliness that leaves me isolated in a crowd but never allows for anonymity… I desperately miss anonymity, but here everyone has a name for me—toubab—and a demand to attach to it—money, marriage, maybe just attention.

Forgive the geek factor of a Matrix reference, but I feel like coming here was the red pill that revealed workings of a world that I only had abstract ideas about before. I now have faces and names, relationships and experiences—complications and context—that I can’t un-know or, if I have any integrity whatsoever, simply walk away from. But all the same there are definitely times when I wish I could rewind, choose the blue pill, and go back to my very safe, very comfortable American existence.

The bottom line, however, is that I’m still here. I still want to be here. There are lots of good reasons for that—admiration and loyalty for village family and PCV friends, moments of exhilaration and beauty, the conviction that I still have more to learn and more to give, general hard-headedness—and I’m looking forward to my second year.

Bandi in pond

7 Responses to “index, year 1”

Congratulations. Hearty ones. I am in continual awe–not because of what a great thing you are doing, but because of what a very hard thing you are doing.

agreed. it’s certainly not something i could ever do, and i’m grateful for how honestly and beautifully you’re sharing the experience of it. your strength continues to astound me.

Still my favorite voice of the Peace Corps. Honest, Sincere and Detailed. Still the place I would send people for a first hand account. Good luck on your second year!

man, that diagram kicks ass. i think we should all make one, just to abuse anyone and everyone of their illusions that somewhere else would be better than where we ended up.

Clare, thank you for this entry. I’m PC Morocco, and have really appreciated your blog. this entry puts words to thoughts i hadn’t been able to express for a while.

thanks everybody 🙂

I’m a bit late on joining in, but count me in the impressed tally. Your strength is envigorating, and your writing is fantastic. Consider a compilation of these blogs for Peace Corps — might get a buck out of it.