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I’m in Nairobi at the moment, lounging in the lap of luxury at a hostel with hot water and electricity. After eight very long and trying weeks in my dusty little border town, I completed Pre-Service Training and swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer.

It’s a weight off my shoulders, let me tell you.

In some ways, I suppose I’m ready for the “real” adventure to begin now – tomorrow I start the trip that will eventually lead me to my work site and my job for the next two years. The adventure of course actually began two months or so ago when I left New York and met the amazing crew of folks who I now may refer to as my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. We boarded the flight at JFK as thirty-six, and thirty-six assembled today at the US Embassy to take our oath of post. To have 100% of your training group make it through the rigorous training is all but unheard of, but we’re special. Truly.

I’ll try to blog more when I get to site, but for now, I’m just going to close this entry with a little poem written by my fellow VOLUNTEER Louis. It summarizes our experience … with the requisite kiloton of inside jokes.

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Addressed to My Fellow Volunteers
by Louis Vayo
(Reposted with permission)

What do I remember most about Loitokitok?
The dust.
The dust from the ground rose like pillars of smoke
from a bonfire
When the motorbikes came flying by,
Kicking dust from their tires and into my eyes
I’m not much of a crier, but I’m not gonna lie,
All that dust made me pretty sad.

And you know what I don’t understand?
When the Kenyan teens greet me with a wave of their hand
they say, “Safi Kabisa” which means completely clean.
How do the Kenyan teens stay completely clean?

But nevertheless
In the beginning those overdressed, fat-cheeked kids were cute,
and with each “how are you?” those kids got cuter..
I don’t remember who I told
but I said to them,
“I don’t think those ‘how are you?’s’ will ever get old.”
..how naïve I was…
but everything was so new to me
there were so many things to learn, and so many things to see.
And I saw things I’ve never seen before
Like a goat in a crate, or a family of four
riding on a motorbike. So that’s what it’s like
on this African tour.

Still, It’s amazing all the things we’ve experienced,
From Kilimanjaro’s beautiful, twin peaks in the distance,
To our Kenyan Mamas’ constant and fervent insistence
to eat more, despite our resistance.

And those Kenyan Mamas, they are simply unreal
So hardworking, yet gentle, and with hands made of steel
That pot has got to be hot mama, can you not feel?
And the Kenyan men, so strong and so proud through & through
Still they are always ready with a smile and a greeting or two
To make us feel welcome.

But despite their warm welcome..
Adjusting to Kenyan life has not been easy.
Some days just had too much Blue Band, and Kenyan T.V.
But those few hot days in my business clothes, that was the worst situation
When the sweat from my head dripped off my nose, I think I’d smell ugali in my perspiration

We faced so many troubles, but all of you know
We battled spiders, bats, bugs and bad smells in the choo
We sat through hours & hours of church, still with hours & hours to go.
And we’d wait, patient, for Kenyan partner groups to show for a meeting though,
they were late, or they forgot, even though you watched them
scribble down the date

But hey, that’s just the Kenyan way,
An unwritten cultural rulebook we need to learn and obey.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Pedestrians yield themselves to cars
Women are seen as whores in bars
When we share, what’s ours
becomes theirs
And the locals charge expensive fares,
But only if your skin is fair.
Because here in Kenya, fair skin means money
It’s just like saying that the sun is sunny
well that’s funny because
that’s a stereotype we are here to correct, (I think) we’ll consider it a “win”
If we can gain our respect independent of the color of our skin…

I’ve also learned that Kenya is the land of many hidden children
We can’t always see them, but we always hear them
So we walk home to the sound of “Mzungu!, Mzungu!” their tiny voices screaming
And after thirty-six “How are you?s” in a row, it’s lost its meaning.
And I’ve been meaning to tell you, I don’t know if I did
But when Michael Smith flips out on that one, unlucky kid, Hell..
Michael Smith, sometimes i’m right there with you.

But seriously, together we can laugh and support each other
Each of you have become like a sister or a brother

And soon we leave Loitokitok, though the cows are still mooing
The roosters still crowing, and the Tusker still brewing
But will all that distraction, I forget what i’m doing here.
Can any of you relate? Do any of you agree?
Then I remember, I’m here to throw starfish back into the sea
One by one, and that’s okay with me
because when it’s done, if it’s one life we saved
One life we changed for two years we gave
..it’d be worth it
Because after two years, we’ll be rearranged,
Though I think all along we will have known
That life that has changed will be our own.

And for two years we’ll face all manner of trouble
From Malaria to funeral orgies, and with mephlaquin: seeing double
But let me tell you the real dangers
When returning to America, we’ll be the strangers
And we’ll think it’s strange: the roads are paved
the toilets flush, the furniture’s plush
they use microwaves

But we have two years to go ’till then
So let’s let the adventure begin.

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When I started this blog, I had visions of it being a factual, humorous window into the world of a post-BA Peace Corps volunteer, a way for my friends and family to stay availed of my whereabouts/activities, and to some small degree a place where I can jab at media portrayals of SSA by counterbalancing myths and stereotypes with realities and resources. I had – have? – no intention of making it into A Diary About My Feelings, indistinguishable from the thousands of emo kids on their DeadJournals talking about how despite all their rage they are still just a rat in a cage.

Well … that didn’t last long, did it? BECAUSE THIS IS AN ENTRY EXCLUSIVELY ABOUT FEELINGS. RUN! HIDE! SAVE YOURSELVES!!

I’ve started getting that typical question “Wow! You leave so soon! How are you feeling??” and I can’t quite answer honestly. This isn’t for lack of desire to do so, but because there is no answer that’s true now and will also be true in 10 seconds. Pick an emotion – ANY emotion – and you can be fairly certain I’ve felt that way in the last 72 hours at some point. And its polar opposite. And a half-dozen related feelings that don’t make any sense. Hell, I’m not even making sense *now*.

Today is the first real WEUjlqmwr439U3NW funk sort of day. I’m excited, I’m looking forward to adventures, I CANNOT WAIT to get the stress of prep behind me and meet all the FAAAAAAAABULOUS new people who have been poking their heads into my blog and facebook (and I in theirs.) Until this point, that soul-vibrating excitement, combined with the fact that I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest and ergo unable to sit down and think about what this all really means, has shielded me from the interpersonal melodrama of departure. However, as I cram four years of cards and letters and textbooks and memories into neat little cardboard boxes, I’m finally beginning to process the whole This Is The End For At Least Two Years Or Maybe Forever In Some Cases aspect of everything. I’m not particularly good with goodbyes. Bah.

The weather yesterday was breathtaking, so two very dear friends and I went for a picnic in a local nature reserve. Although it was never called “The Goodbye Picnic,” as we gnoshed our sandwiches and stared out at the Hudson River, there was a palpable feeling that this was the epilogue to something big. I mentioned my emerging apprehension, to which one friend responded with a quick story: when she was little, her mom used to take her and her siblings to the zoo. Rather than stay the whoooole day until they were all tired and cranky and sunburned and crying and being insufferable brats, they’d always leave when they were still having fun. The best time to go isn’t when you have 100% had your fill and are sick to death of a place, but rather when you’re still fresh enough that you’re sad to leave.

The mental characterization of my wild, whacky college as a zoo is actually pretty close to the mark, but even in abstraction, I like the metaphor. It’s somewhat comforting to think that the reason I’m kind of blaaah today is because I’ve experienced so much that’s so meaningful, it’s worth being sad to leave it behind.

Anyway, this entry is far too long, and I think the muffins I’m baking for my BFFs who are helping me pack might be burning. Better sign off.

When I was in high school, we had school-wide assemblies every week, twice a week. Lame. I KNOW. The first one of the year was inevitably and without fail “the bookbag talk.” It was a cliché. It was reviled. It was naptime. But, as I’m beginning to ponder my new adventure, it’s … newly meaningful?

Our principal, Dr. Elizabeth Griffith, would place a series of variously-sized schoolbags by the podium. She’d say that now was our chance to unpack our fears, our prejudices, our stereotyping, our preconceived notions, and leave them at the gates. This would open up room in our baggage for new friends and new experiences and new beliefs and all the knowledge we could cram in. I don’t remember all the details, but it was a bit like the speech George Clooney gives in “Up In The Air,” if in reverse.

I am on the cusp of an enormous number of BIG GIANT changes in my life; I finished my thesis, I’m moving out of the country, I’m gaining new friends, I may lose some of the old (you always tell everyone you’ll stay in touch, but how often do you really?), I’m beginning to think about the rough and rocky path to my careeeer? And yes, I say it like that in conversation: extending the second syllable and pitching up the tone at the end as though I’m asking a question. Because I am, aren’t I? In some way.

I’m also packing up my life. Literally, and figuratively. My two best friends have already promised to help me pack my belongings (we’re ordering pizza, drinking wine, maybe making a slumber party of it – IT WILL BE EPIC) so that doesn’t worry me too terribly much. It’s only been today that I’ve begun to think about the “things” I’ll take with me and the “things” I’ll leave. “More than anything else,” a professor told me recently, “graduation is an opportunity to take with you all the good things you’ve gained and leave the bad.” I have no doubt the same can be said for moving to a new continent 8 timezones away. And so, in this spirit, I begin to take stock of my mental rucksack.

Leave: Vexation at the apathy of my generation.
Take: Knowledge that, hell, I’m certainly not the only person out there trying to change things. I know some awesome, competent, activist types. It only takes a few sparks to start a fire.

Leave: The epic frustration that comes with facing a problem so enormous as HIV/AIDS in a place so vast as Africa, compounded with the intimate knowledge of the failings of humanitarian intervention in general.
Take: Learning from others’ mistakes – if I can identify where humanitarianism fails, both as an individual and as part of a larger system, perhaps I can steer away from those courses. Or at least, do no harm.

Leave: Overthinking.
Take: Listening for understanding.

Leave: Worry that I won’t be able to maintain the friendships I’ve formed when I’m so far from twitter, facebook, e-mail, cell phones, text messages, and of course, immediate proximity.
Take: The love and memories I KNOW I’ve gained, which are mine to keep forever, regardless of what happens next.

Leave: Reliance on the familiar
Take: Openness to the unknown in the form of embracing the good experiences and accepting/processing the bad.

Leave: Naïve idealism
Take: Cautious optimism?

Leave: A-effing-dW, anthropological theorist, enormously respected scholar, primary resource for the giant term paper I’m currently finishing, and insufferable Africana know-it-all.
Take: My friend Nora; telling me that the circle of life does, in fact, involve me turning into AdW. Bless her.

Leave: Cynicism, doubt, ill-ease with systems and people and situations relating to East Africa, or to the media, or to the application process, or to the broader political world.
Take: The following little story – an anthropologist once told me about a time he had been driving on a stretch of highway running north out of Nairobi that’s INFAMOUS for police officers shaking down tourists, asking for kitu kidogo (“a little thing” – i.e. bribes to make imaginary traffic violations go away). It had been a bad day, or a hard trip, and he was sick of dealing with it; when he was pulled over and immediately thought, “God, this just takes the cake …”

When he presented his paperwork, though, the officer simply looked at him mildly and said “Congratulations, you’re the first car to have everything in order. You can go.” And like that, the straw that would have broken the camel’s back vanished entirely. And he was fine again.

“This is the thing about East Africa,” he told us solemnly, “is that you must be open to grace. East Africa is FULL of these moments … you spend a lot of time wanting to roll your eyes and going ‘Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse,’ or ‘OH GOD, HERE WE GO AGAIN,’ and then everything turns out in a way that’s unexpected and inspiring. If I can give you a message, let it be this: allow yourself to be open to and experience grace.”

And so I will.

I’ll even save room for it in my luggage.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly