Today is the start of Peace Corps Week, a celebration of all things Peace Corps and a time for evangelization. I’ve been doing my part with the new group of volunteers that’s preparing to leave for Senegal in March. I’ve responded to emails and even met for coffee with invitees deep in the throes of the only two states nameable at that pre-departure point: “nervous and excited.”
I’m conflicted about how to answer questions other than “What should I pack?” and “How much French did you use?” They’re so enthusiastically open-minded that it seems somehow inappropriate to burden them with the challenges and frustrations that they’ll experience for themselves soon enough.
Also, I feel a vaguely judgmental pressure from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community to have loved my country of service and to reminisce fondly about my time there. At a Peace Corps association meeting this weekend, another RPCV asked me how I was adjusting (“It’s pretty damn great.”) and if I missed Senegal. “Not really” was my short version of an honest reply. “Oh, that’s too bad,” he responded.
The thing is, I’m still in recovery. I’m still in a defensive—not yet nostalgic—mode. I think of Senegal and I think of feeling like a moving target. I remember the asshole chefs de gare and the dangerous, cramped sept-place rides. Useless bureaucracy and unquestioned misogyny. I still resent members of the Peace Corps administration for their incompetence and even outright malevolence.
I can still feel utter isolation, like those baby monkeys that researchers lock in bare wire cages with nothing but a bottle and a ragged towel. I remember the pressure of holding my emotions in and choking back a two-year repressed scream—and the fear I wouldn’t recover. I reread my journals and I see cycles of depression and elation, expansion and withdrawal.
But here’s the uplifting moral of the story: In spite of all the bullshit from Peace Corps, Senegal, and my own twisted psyche, I’m glad I went and I’m glad I stayed.
Because there were so many beautiful parts, too—bike rides through open countryside, a village family who accepted me unquestioningly, and smart, funny, passionate volunteers who exemplified the best of “community.” Sunrises and rainstorms and knowing the constellations and moon cycles. Actual conversations in Pulaar, winning-over strangers, and those other precious moments of success.
I have complete respect for the volunteers who made an honest evaluation of their service, decided they’d be happier elsewhere, and left early. I am in awe of the volunteers who could genuinely say that they loved being in Senegal, some enough to stay for a third year.
But I also want to recognize a third category: those of us who spent two years swinging between extremes of joy and rage—with the occasional pause at contentment, if we were lucky—unsure of what we were supposed to be doing, who we were doing it for, or why the hell we were staying. We stayed, even if it was only through pure force of will, and when we left we still didn’t know how to feel about those two years of our lives.
But we—I—do know that Peace Corps was a choice, a privilege, and a gift. The fact that it was also a struggle and a royal pain in the ass doesn’t negate its positive value but instead gives it complexity and depth. It was beautiful, ugly, and incomprehensible.
Before I went to Senegal, I mistakenly thought “ambivalent” meant “indifferent.” Once there, I quickly learned to appreciate its actual meaning: having equally strong and entirely opposite feelings about one, same thing.
I loved. I hated. I was there and now I’m not, and I am thankful for both.
And that’s why you should join the Peace Corps.