I’ve been in Zambia for over two years now, and during that time I’ve written nearly 200 posts on the topic. You’d think I’d have gotten the hang of this Peace Corps blogging thing by now. And yet I still don’t feel like I’ve come remotely close to adequately showing you what it’s really like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure, I can describe the things I do, the things I see, even the things I think. But these are still things that I know, wrapped up in a me-blanket stitched with the threads of my perspective and woven into the fabric of my experience. And I’ve slowly come to realize that the essence of the Peace Corps is much more intrinsically linked to the things I don’t know than to the things I do know. What it’s like to be a volunteer is much more accurately depicted in the things I’m unable to express than in the things that I can.
I can show you photos of adorable grinning children and I can share stories of how they simultaneously bring me boundless enjoyment and constant irritation, but I don’t know how to convey the consternation I feel at knowing that in a better world these kids wouldn’t be hanging out at the foreigner’s house all the time because they’d be in school instead. I don’t know how to show you how it feels to see ringworm, malnutrition, and open sores so often that my brain starts to trick me into thinking that this is normal. I don’t know how to describe the hopelessness of seeing something so easily fixable in a different world and being unable to fix it in this one. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
I can relate to you funny encounters from when I’ve greeted people in the local language using the completely wrong words, and I can describe how I tell them what color the water in their fish ponds should be when they have a good bloom, but I can’t tell you what people in my village say about me behind my back. (Or, let’s be real, in front of my face — my Bemba is still as painfully awkward as a middle-schooler with acne and braces with a crush on the ridiculously early-developing and decidedly acne-free girl in front of him in his 8th grade English class). I don’t know what they really think about why I’m here or what I’m doing. I don’t know if they like me, dislike me, are amused by me, or are annoyed by me. And I can’t fully trust my counterpart and best friend when he assures me that people do like me, because I know he likes me and this is what people tell their friends when they like them and want to protect their feelings. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
I can show you how I draw my water from a well and charge my phone from a solar panel, but I can’t explain how it feels to know that in just a month’s time I’ll go back to faucets and electrical outlets while my neighbors will be pulling buckets out of a hole in the ground for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how to show you that the amount of guilt I feel at these times could fill the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how to describe the crushing disillusionment I feel in play-acting at what for everyone else around me is real life. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
Writers are often told to write what they know. When I remember this advice, I can’t help but despair a little — with every passing day, I find that I know less and less. But what I don’t know could fill a book. Or a blog. So maybe I’ve been going about this whole writing business the wrong way. Maybe I need to start writing more about what I don’t know instead.