A difference

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At the end of my 27 months in Zambia, I’ll have to confront several uncomfortable truths.

I’ll have to acknowledge that my time spent in Nshinda will have done much more for my own personal development than for the development of my community, to say nothing of my host country. I’ll have to realize that even after two years I’d still be lucky if I catch half of what someone is saying to me in Bemba. I’ll look in the mirror and find staring back at me a person who will be in his late twenties, unmarried, unemployed, and will be a pretty good bet to move back in with his parents. (Ladies, it doesn’t get much more attractive than this.)

And the most uncomfortable truth of all is that I’ll have to admit my Peace Corps service won’t have made much of a difference.

But then I remember Sebastian. I remember the innumerable hours I’ve spent with my counterpart hanging out by his fish ponds and chatting. I remember organizing meetings and visiting other fish farmers together, always waiting for him because he is always late. I remember biking the forty kilometers to town and back with him, stopping to greet every person he knows along the way (and Sebastian knows pretty much everyone).

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I remember the countless times that he’s teased me about being fat and the countless times that I’ve teased him about talking too much. I remember ribbing him about how slowly he rides his bike, telling him that it’s because he smokes and smoking is bad for you, and I remember him jawing right back that he’d go a lot faster if he had my nice expensive American bike. I remember that Sebastian always talks about Sebastian in the third person, and I chuckle to myself as I realize that Matt has started to do it too.

I remember his wide grin, his playful spirit, his kind heart. I remember his incredible passion and his insane work ethic. I remember haranguing him constantly about the value of keeping records and tracking expenses, wondering if it’s all just a waste of time. Then I remember sitting with him in my living room in the evenings, flipping through the pages of a battered old notebook as he proudly shows me where he has painstakingly jotted down every kwacha he’s spent on his fish farm and every fish he’s netted from his ponds.

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I remember that from the very first day I arrived in Nshinda, he immediately and cheerfully assumed the role of my father, my tour guide, my teacher, my translator, my therapist. And I remember that over these two years, he has become not only my colleague but also my brother and my friend.

And I’m reminded of a parable:

A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.

“What are you doing, son?” the man asks. “You see how many starfish there are? It won’t make a difference.”

The boy pauses thoughtfully, then picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean.

“You’re probably right,” he says cheerfully. “But it sure made a difference to that one.”

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12 thoughts on “A difference

  1. Cannot believe its been 27 months Matt! Always know that you HAVE “made a difference”. The man staring back at you in the mirror has seen and done more than most do. 🙂 So looking forward to seeing you when you return! XOXO Kelly

  2. Although I haven’t been as active in the commenting, thank you for taking us with you on your journey through your blog, Matt!

  3. Matt, I felt similarly when I finished my service in Mongolia in 2011. I was sure that I had made no difference whatsoever in my community. The thing is, you can’t measure your progress in months or years, or even people. I remember that I would occasionally meet a teacher from the countryside whose English was excellent. When asked how they learned it so well, they would proudly reply, “I had a Peace Corps volunteer.” Those volunteers were long gone, and had no idea that they had made such a difference.
    You may not see the difference, and the next person might not either, but somewhere down the road the difference will be felt.

    • Hi Christina, thanks for the comment and kind words. Definitely true, and I try constantly to keep a healthy dose of perspective at all times.

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