This time (more-or-less) a year ago I went to a small gathering of PCVs on the beach. I had been at my site for less than a month, and I was near-giddily grateful to meet even a handful of local volunteers who had been ensconced in their villagers longer than I had. Who had known my experience, lived it, mastered it, and were perfectly at ease navigating the overwhelming assault on the senses that was (is!) Mombasa town. As my guide – an education volunteer in his late 20s – darted nimbly through the flashing crowds, I raced to keep him in sight, resisting the urge to reach out across the gap between us and grab his hand.

For the duration of the weekend, I sought to absorb everything that was said by anyone – comments, jokes, unfamiliar Swahili phrases. I made precious mental bookmarks of cultural norms. When I was invited to break the fast of Ramadan with a family in my friend’s village, I was elated beyond words when the women I dined with commented on how well I behaved and how easily my Swahili flowed. ”It is like she was born Coastal,” one older woman mused with a faint smile, as I daintily sank to the ground with my feet curled under my long skirt. Victory, I thought to myself. But even with this shimmering confidence drawing a temporary veil over the general anxiety of being a “newbie,” I found myself vaguely wishing I were able to take notes.

I reflect on all of this now with the naivete stripped away by experience: there is no ancient wisdom to be gleaned from older volunteers. There’s nothing magical about the one-year mark. All the advice that’s given and received is an attempt to take on individual’s extraordinarily non-generalizable Peace Corps experience and shape it into something that might be useful to someone else. Assuming it’s not too different. And your coping styles are similar. And your past life experiences. And your ease with languages. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I’m pondering all of this because now I am that volunteer. Not the shy one chasing a navy blue backpack through the crowded streets or the one agonizing over whether to use “iko” or “ziko” in a given conversation (answer: whichever the heck you feel like, SOMEONE will understand you.) Wisdom of the ages? Well, I can tell you which kiosk carries the good soap that smells like minty lemons instead of the stuff that looks like it was stolen from a prison shower, is that helpful?

It becomes particularly pertinent when one realizes that in about a week or so, I will be shepherding a small phalanx of trainees through my village as part of a “volunteer shadowing” exercise. I will be introducing them to village officials, dragging them to health classes, showing them around my very tiny rural clinic, and possibly dumping them at the shore for a little while so they can practice their Swahili on the pushy, obnoxious beach boys. I ought to be preparing for this grave responsibility. Or something. But this afternoon, as I stared at a massive teeming pile of crap (books, lesos, a tie-dye mumu, unread newsletters, a cockroach-infested market basket) in my living room and wondered ruminatively if I could get away with just shoving it all under my couch and calling it a day, I wondered, what do I really have to offer these kids?

I have NO CLUE where they’ll end up geographically, so I can’t help there. 70% of the projects I’ve tried to start never got off the ground, or crashed and burned spectacularly when particular community members realized there was no outside funding zooming towards them. Those that have survived, beautiful though they are, mostly depend on specific people in the community taking an enthusiastic interest in their continuance – great for sustainability, but perhaps less so for projects they can take home and be guaranteed my same level of success. My Swahili suffers from “village decay,” wherein all 15+ pronouns are indifferently and indiscriminately condensed into the word “hii.” I could offer them cautionary tales about health issues, but the training contract I’m under specifically says (in graceful legalese), “Please don’t terrify the new kids by telling them about your parasites.” I still use empty cooking oil cans with cardboard boxes on top of them as end tables. As much as I want to swoop in and offer them a panacea, some clandestine alchemy to transform yourself into the ideal volunteer (OH how viscerally I remember being in their shoes!) I simply can’t. I don’t’ have one. I’m just here, doing what I do as best I can do it. Peace Corps is a lot like throwing spaghetti at the wall: start with a whole pot then rejoice like a crazy person when some of it sticks.

(You can see I’m not invited to host pasta parties very often.)

But I guess that’s mostly it: I’ve been doing this for a year and I’m still mostly sane. More to the point, I’m still here, aren’t I? I like my house and my neighbors. I have some nice friends (both Kenyan and foreign). I have some projects that mean a lot to me, a number of which I have faith will continue even after my term of service ends and I’m back in America. I’m not always as busy as I’d like to be, but I fill the hours and find things worth doing. I have not yet been devoured by wild animals or stoned as a witch. I only rarely get ripped off while buying textiles or tomatoes or tea.

So here’s what I’ll do, I guess: offer them a modest collage of minor wisdom. Make them tea. Introduce them around. Advise them on the proper price of cloth. Offer them a brief respite from the intensity of “training as usual.” Teach them witty ways to tell off grabby public transit conductors. Reassure them that they’ll wake up one day and BE the older volunteer who seems to have everything figured out, even if they absolutely do not – because they probably won’t. So far, it seems like the only people who really have the Peace Corps puzzle solved to satisfaction are the people who are finishing their service. Or the people who are on their eight MILLIONTH contract extension living in a hole in the desert making nuclear reactors out of coconut shells like they’re The Professor from Gilligan’s Island. You know, those fabled “super volunteers” who seem to exist mostly to make the rest of us feel awkward about the fact that sometimes our greatest victory in a given month was not to throw a child out a bus window after they asked for sweets for the hundredth time. I’m not the “super volunteer” of legend, but perhaps for this modest syllabus, I don’t need to be. Just the label of “one-year volunteer” is enough.

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