So you’re thinking about joining the Peace Corps

Back in January, I wrote a guest post for the official Peace Corps blog, Peace Corps Passport, and submitted it for review. In September, this post was published to the Peace Corps website. Here’s the original version.

 I found these two kids in front (and their shirts) via a casting call through the Peace Corps marketing department

I found these two kids in front (and their shirts) via a casting call through the Peace Corps marketing department

One of the funny things about life after college that they don’t tell you in colorful brochures or limited-enrollment seminars is that your entire focus shifts from self-betterment to the betterment of other things. These are things that we honestly don’t care about much, because let’s admit it: the 22-year-old iterations of ourselves are all fundamentally self-centered creatures who dress up like hipsters must be forgiven for being unable to go ten seconds without perceiving the world as a Hollywood movie in which we ourselves are the cute, ditzy, vivacious protagonist who by the end of 90 minutes gets the guy and the job promotion for which she is fantastically unqualified. But bills need to be paid, and even the most self-absorbed of us eventually come to realize that what pays the bills is managing other men’s affairs, working around other men’s clocks, fulfilling other men’s dreams. If we don’t reach this understanding on our own, then our parents and our student loans and our Facebook friends’ status updates are only too happy to elucidate us. And as we experience more of life so we learn, and as we grow older so we dutifully fall into line.

But sooner or later, the questions begin to trickle in. Is this all there is? Am I happy, or am I settling? Is it normal to feel disillusioned after only six months? Am I holding onto something that would be better to let go, simply because I’ve worked so hard and invested so much time to get to this point and it’s all I know? And am I so distracted now, am I so absorbed by the complexity and challenges of my daily life, that I can no longer see the forest for the trees? Have I ceded control of so much self-awareness that I can no longer identify what really matters to me?

Confronted for the first time with the beast of uncertainty snapping at the heels of stark reality, the only way to find answers is to seek out new perspectives. Getting a new job is one way to do this. Relocating to a new place is another. Changing your lifestyle just might do the trick. And if you want to try all three at the same time, you could do something crazy like joining the Peace Corps.

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My life hasn’t quite been the same ever since arriving in Zambia two and a half years ago

All of the cliches are true. The highs are incredibly high — soul-affirmingly high. I’ve felt ridiculously, euphorically happy with my life more times in the past year than I did in the previous 25 years combined. The lows are an existential well that has no bottom. And making it even deeper is the knowledge that nobody’s dug this well for you but yourself. Helping people is cathartic, but from the short stoop of a two-year service it’s pretty much impossible to see far enough to tell if you’re actually making a difference thirty feet down the road.

Life is a bit lot less comfortable than it was back in the suburbs. You’re going to be a local celebrity, and you’re not going to enjoy it as much as you thought you would. In fact, you’re probably going to hate it sometimes. You’ll probably get some annoying disease you’ve never heard of before. Your fellow volunteers will end up being some of the best friends you’ll ever have, although most could use a haircut and a couple don’t bathe as often as they should. You still might find yourself inexplicably attracted to a few of them. And you just might end up marrying one.

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Dirty, sweaty, and feel like you just lost the big game? Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer

But if you get to the point where you don’t think you can continue on in the same life track you’re in right now without losing your mind or selling a bit of your soul, consider doing something drastic like uprooting your life and moving somewhere radically different. The place doesn’t matter so much — although travel agencies and beer distributors would have you believe otherwise, sunsets look about the same everywhere. But surrounding yourself with thousands of people who come from a completely different background and value completely different things than you do is an exhilarating and profoundly educational experience. If you want all the time in the world to try to make even the tiniest positive difference in yourself and your community without the excuse of a full-time job to justify not having the time or motivation to take these steps along the path of self-discovery, then this is where you may want to be.

It took moving to Zambia amidst a cloud of uncertainty for me to find the clarity of inner peace. To discern what I value instead of what others have convinced me I should value, to surround myself with influences that inspire me and help me to constantly learn more instead of with weak affirmations of the path of least resistance. To discover that in the process I have somehow managed to become a more curious and humble and appreciative person. And the coolest thing is that instead of merely reading about my cultural faux pas and my existential crises and my wacky fish-out-of-water tales on this blog, you can do it too.

Turn that perspective on its head! Go find that inner peace! Drink from the Kool-Aid and forget about the sugar and empty calories for just a moment. (For 27 months, to be precise.) You’ll work them off when you’re running around scrambling to find a job again afterwards. A new life is out there waiting for you in the place where your comfort zone ends and your uncertainty begins. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.

These crazy kids never fail to put a smile on my face

These crazy kids never fail to put a smile on my face

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Two years in Nshinda

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Over the past two years I have watched fish ponds spring up throughout my district like boils, pockmarking the flat wetlands seemingly overnight. I have walked down verdant bush paths, along baking hot asphalt, and through raucous marketplaces. I have drifted off to sleep to the heavy patter of an all-night downpour in mid-January, and I have awoken to the late-June sunrise piercing my hut with shafts of light at 5:30am.

Over the past two years I have biked two thousand kilometers across the changing of seasons, through clouds of gnats and beneath searing sun. I have waved to two thousand screaming children.

Over the past two years I have discovered to my chagrin what it is like to be at the same time shocking, appealing, confusing, novel, desirable, and terrifying. I have been jeered like a Super Bowl referee who misses a blatant horsecollar and leered at like a leggy blonde trying to slip past a construction site. I have been prodded like the beleaguered family mutt and ogled with the same combination of fascination and apprehension as a tired python in a zoo. I have reacted with amusement, with anger, with irritation, and sometimes even with patience.

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like -- wait for it -- chicken

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like — wait for it — chicken

Over the past two years I have had enough strange experiences to fill hours of outrageous stories for bored future grandchildren. I have had my arms stroked lovingly by wondering six-year-olds, and I have been embraced even more lovingly by a drunk man in the market before I could spin away, startled, from his grasp.

Over the past two years I have traveled several hours in the open backs of trucks driven by several different strangers, and none have been serial killers. I have attempted to play my guitar for kids in the neighborhood who instantly bolted, thinking that it was a gun and that it was I who was the serial killer.

Over the past two years I have marveled again and again at the unsolicited generosity of pure strangers, and I have seen the power of a simple human connection. I have learned that, despite our various differences, most people tend to be pretty much the same wherever you go.

A rural fish farmer who likes goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes goats

A rural fish farmer who likes talking about goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes talking about goats

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of aspiring fish farmers. Some of whom actually turned out to be interested in fish farming, instead of making an appointment merely to see the muzungu. I have visited their farms, greeted their wives, and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have offered advice on how to improve existing ponds and laid out plans for where to dig new ones. I have told the farmers that I would check back with them in one week. In one month. I have returned to find that little or no progress has been made. And again I have greeted their wives and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have reminded myself over and over again of the oft-repeated Bemba mantra: Panono, panono. Slowly, slowly.

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Over the past two years I have shrieked like a preteen girl every time I’ve seen a spider the size of a Volkswagen. I have scraped twenty-three rat carcasses off my floor, carried into my hut by my highly annoying, highly-trained assassin of a cat. Each time, I have told myself that I am building character.

Over the past two years I have stared at the same spot on my wall for a full half-hour. I have stared at the pattern of bark on a tree branch until I spotted Waldo. I have stared at outrageously prematurely developed teenaged girls until I realized that I was staring and mentally kicked myself under the table. I have stared at an ant crawling along the dirt for so long that it finally snapped at me huffily that it was rude to stare. I have had entire conversations with myself. Arguments, even. I have lost.

Over the past two years I have convinced hordes of kids to sweep my porch, weed my yard, wash my buckets, and cut my grass. I have paid them in old plastic bags and empty bottles and matchbox covers. In turn, hordes of kids have convinced me to buy handfuls of weeds masquerading as fresh produce and to unwittingly repeat, “Show me your penis.” They have paid me in toothless smiles and gleeful howls of laughter and with grubby paws clutching at my leg hair.

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Over the past two years I have seen enough tragedy to fill an epic novel. I have seen droughts wipe out farmers’ maize crops and I have seen fish ponds that took months to dig dry up in the heat of October. I have seen a teacher whose only crime was being born female run out of town by a community claiming she was involved in witchcraft, and I have seen men who I thought epitomized virtue repeatedly cheat on their wives, laughingly denying their infidelity the entire time.

I have visited a 15-year-old boy on his deathbed. I have seen the agony etched into his stretched face, the terror in his eyes as they rolled back into his head. I have stood numbly, helplessly, as his exhausted mother mustered the last of her resolve to thank us for coming with a tight, despairing smile.

Over the past two years I have attended seventeen funerals, and walked or biked past dozens more.

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Over the past two years I have learned what it is to be humble. I have been shown what it means to be wise. I have realized that I am not either of these things. And yet despite this, I have decided to try. Maybe, unlike in baseball and bowling, the effort itself just might count for something.

Over the past two years I have seen that it really does take an entire village to raise a child. I have also seen that it takes an entire village laughing uproariously to fish a bucket out of a well after a mortified new Peace Corps volunteer has accidentally dropped it in.

Goodbye, Nshinda. Thank you for teaching me about the things that matter, the things that we cannot change, and the things that we should never stop trying to change. Thank you for showing me the warmth of a village and the resiliency of a people. And thank you for accepting me into your community and into your lives. Mushale umutende. Stay in peace.

Sunset over the football pitch

Sunset over the village

The streets of heaven are crowded with angels (and one fussy cat)

A few months ago, my brother forwarded me a link to an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by a journalist whose cat had just passed away. When your own family members are sending you links about cats, you know you’ve become that person.

But I read the article and found that I could relate effortlessly to the author’s struggle to quantify what it was exactly he was feeling. To balance an actual emotional investment in a pet with the scores of things in one’s life that demand more important investments, emotional and otherwise. To rationalize a seemingly projected attachment with the very real and fundamental need for most of us to bestow and receive affection. And to recognize that, like the author, I had against all odds come to develop a grudging sort of relationship with the haughty little queen that had deigned to take up residence in my house, and in my life.

Ours was a fairy tale story. Kind of. Like any woman worth pursuing, I had heard about her well before we actually met. It was March 2013, and I was in the middle of my Pre-Service Training when I received information about where I would be living for the next two years. My soon-to-be volunteer neighbor sent me a text to say hi, and added that her cat had just had kittens in case I wanted one. I’ve never really been an animal person — anyone who knows me knows I have a hard enough time expressing my feelings for people, much less a pet — but having a cat meant not having to deal with mice, rats, tarantulas, and other, creepier things in your hut, so I told Sarah that I would love to take her up on her offer. A cat owner I would become.

Two months later I found myself biking back from Sarah’s house with a hissing, squalling kitten strapped to the back of my bike. I had just moved into my site a few days prior, and between the stares and cocked eyebrows that my cat-in-a-basket was eliciting from passersby, and the other stares and cocked eyebrows that I was already receiving as the new foreigner on the block, I was feeling about how my panicked prisoner sounded. Later that evening I crouched next to my bed with my headlamp trained into the farthest, darkest corner of the room; gazing back at me with unmitigated terror was a quivering mess of downy fur that stuck out on all sides like porcupine quills. I sighed. “Little cat,” I said conversationally to my new kitten, “This isn’t going to work. You’re supposed to be making me feel less scared, not the other way around.” I prodded a small dish of dried fish with my foot that I had filled as a peace offering. She flinched at the sound and glared balefully back at me. “Fine,” I replied, trying not to sound huffy. “It’ll be there in case you change your mind.”

It was the first time I’d ever spoken seriously to an animal. It would not be the last.

Fast-forward two weeks and we were beginning to overcome our inauspicious start. I had named my reluctant new housemate Hobbes, in a nod to my favorite fictional feline, and after her initial terror had turned to distrust, then to acceptance, and then to curiosity, Hobbes had taken to following me around everywhere like a little dog. I was overjoyed, and tried hard not to show it. I watched her antics with growing amusement as she tested boundaries in that manner unique to small kittens, approaching an object of curiosity like my brush slowly, edging toward it with the utmost of caution, then finally poking an exploratory paw out to touch it. Once assured that the brush wasn’t going to fight back, she happily abused it until she got bored and moved on to something else. When she sidled up to me and kneaded her little body up against my legs, I gratifyingly took this for a sign of affection. Little did I know that she was simply beginning clinical trials for How To Make The Human Like You, storing away data points for future reference when she might best use this to her advantage.

By the time we’d been together for three months, Hobbes and I were well on our way toward comfortable domestic bliss. I learned her routines and her favorite activities (mostly, sleeping and eating). Her favorite place to nap was on my sunny front porch, and her second favorite place to nap was wherever put her within paw’s reach of me in case food happened to materialize out of thin air. But not just any food. I found that even though I bought small dried fish specifically for her, my snobby pet preferred pretty much everything that I ate instead. And when I informed her that she received better food than most of the kids in my community, she just yawned dismissively as if to say, “It’s not a farthing less than I deserve, Human.” We were getting to know each other.

As I watched my cat pad languidly but purposefully around the hut, I began to realize that it was I who was living in her space, and not the other way around. My home started to change in small ways because of my furry roommate — a cat door appeared at the top of one of my brick walls, complete with a tree branch ramp for her to reach the entrance from the outside, and all food went into large sealable storage buckets after I quickly learned that it took approximately 1.7 seconds for a curious cat to come sniffing around if I left it out unattended. Just as quickly, Hobbes learned the sound of my food bucket sliding out from under the table and from then on, no matter what she was doing at the time, the rough scratch of plastic on cement would instantly send her on a swift beeline toward the kitchen, tail pointed high in the air and twitching in anticipation. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t inclined to give her any of the food I was cooking; she was quickly mastering the same complex technique my neighbor kids employed to get me to give them something: ask so loudly and persistently that Matt eventually acquiesces in order to get you out of his hair.

After about half a year, Hobbes had transformed from a kitten into a small cat. And she was a looker, too, covered head to paw in silky soft white fur with a calico tail. Her slim paws and small, regal head made her appear prim, even delicate; only her piercing green eyes belied her true nature as a ruthless hunter and cunning tactician. She learned things about me — things like Matt doesn’t like to get cat hair on his clothes, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats in his lap, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats taste-test his food while he’s cooking — and then used this information chiefly to do these things anyway when she wanted to be sure to get my attention. And whenever we disagreed on something, I invariably lost, for what lonely man can withstand for long the guiles of a determined cat?

As so often comes packaged with beauty, Hobbes developed the kind of personality about which adjectives like “haughty,” “snobbish,” “dismissive,” “high-maintenance,” and “demanding” are tossed about with disapproval but also with grudging respect. And although I huffed and scolded and remonstrated, I couldn’t deny that I was entertained. Arguing with my cat was marginally but undeniably preferable to arguing with myself, and since she maintained her end of our original bargain and kept the house swept clean of anything smaller than she was, I was content to put up with her incessant complaining and her fur accumulating everywhere. So by the time she started having kittens of her own, kittens that cried loudly, pooped and peed everywhere, tore up anything I left within their reach, and generally negated the value of having a cat to keep out the riffraff, I was already too set in my ways to offer much in the way of resistance.

Thus began the halcyon days. At first, intoxicated by new fatherhood, I spent hours observing the kittens with unconcealed delight, documenting their every action for posterity with my camera and marveling at how tiny and adorable they were. Then later, after Hobbes continued to pump out litter after litter and it began to seem like there were always cats in various stages of growth underfoot, I slumped comfortably into the caricature of the beleaguered dad, largely ignoring the little yowling balls of fur pinballing around the hut. I would look up over my book at an exhausted Hobbes sprawled on the floor and with a raised eyebrow I would angle at her the time-honored look that said, “You did this to yourself, girlfriend.” She would shoot back the time-honored look that said archly, “Let me remind you, Human, that you’ve just about outlived your usefulness to me.”

I knew that our domestic partnership had always had an expiration date. This was a marriage of convenience, not of passion — I provided my cat with a comfortable and leisurely life, and in return she provided me with a mirror for my affection and an additional personality to fill the lonely hut. I knew that we’d have to part ways eventually, but it just didn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal. Hobbes would stalk primly off into the wild fringes of the village after I left, terrorizing lizards and mice by day and continuing to toy with the neighborhood tomcats by night. She would be fine. She was infinitely better adapted to this life than I was, and I thought that she would survive and thrive long after I had gone.

But as it turned out, I thought wrong. After spending a few days away from site running errands in Mansa, I returned to my hut late in the afternoon to find Hobbes sprawled lifelessly on the kitchen floor. Bite marks around her neck bore fatal witness to what must have been the only time in her life she was unable to escape the determined pursuit of one of the village dogs. As I stood there dumbly, trying to comprehend what had happened, I heard pitiful cries from another dark corner of the hut. A closer inspection revealed three tiny kittens, clambering blindly over a fourth recently dead sibling. They had just been born a week earlier and wouldn’t be able to survive much longer without their mother. Still reeling from the macabre scene, I stepped into the living room to get a grip on my emotions. Then I steeled myself for what I knew I had to do next.

I chose for the gravesite a secluded spot in back of my house, away from where the neighborhood kids liked to play. News of the cats’ deaths had spread swiftly through the village, and a few dozen of those kids were congregated now, as curious to measure my reaction to the recent turn of events as they were to watch me fill the shallow grave back in. They fidgeted but stayed uncharacteristically quiet as I bent over shovelfuls of fresh earth. Finally one of the smaller girls broke the silence, asking me in a tiny voice if I was going to have a funeral. I looked down and was quiet. I thought about the dozens of funerals that our community has borne witness to over the past two years, about the mothers, sons, uncles, and babies taken too soon from this world, and about the dozens of life-sized holes in the community that they have left behind. Then I thought about Hobbes, about the life that we shared together as unlikely companions over the past two years, about the way her outsized personality had filled my home, and about the cat-sized hole in my heart that she had now left behind.

The sun was setting now, and in the receding light I looked back up into the darkening faces of the surrounding children. They shuffled uncertainly. I forced a smile and told the little girl that of course not, of course we wouldn’t have a funeral. It was only a cat. Only my cat.

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What I don’t know

Lenge "helping" to net a pond

My little host brother Lenge “helping” to net a pond

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.

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Some of my neighbor children returning from work in the bush

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.

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

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.

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

A letter to myself from two years ago

Dear Matt,

It’s 4am, and you’re laying awake in your old bed in Mom and Dad’s house, too wired to continue sleeping. In just a few hours you will hop on a morning flight out of Fresno-Yosemite International to begin the first leg of your journey to Zambia to start your Peace Corps service; your mind is racing with a thousand different thoughts and feelings as you try to make sense of it all, to know what will happen. For a guy who doesn’t often experience emotional turbulence, it’s a strange sensation.

I know we’re not the biggest fans of unsolicited advice, but since your insomniac ass is trapped in bed for two more hours while my long-winded rambling ass is sitting in my hut with rainclouds looming and a full charge on my solar battery, this is just how it’s going to go. Relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen how it all plays out, and everything is going to be more than fine.

You tear up for the first time since receiving your invitation to Peace Corps as the uptempo bass of Shakira’s Waka Waka pulses through your headphones. You feel ridiculous, a grown man of 24-nearly-25 experiencing a distinctly and embarrassingly emotional reaction to an overplayed commercial pop song. And yet you can’t stop picturing parting ways with Mom and Dad just an hour ago at the security checkpoint, catching your last glimpse of them waving through a glass door as you trudged off toward the boarding gate. It could be the last time you see them for two years. You don’t know then that you aren’t just saying goodbye to your parents, you’re saying goodbye to an entire way of life. With the only way of life you have known up until now. You don’t know then that this will be the last time you will cry for the next two years.

You meet a tiny, vivacious girl from Texas at baggage claim at Philadelphia International who is barely taller than the giant backpack she has somehow managed to wrestle off the revolving carousel. You get to chatting and find that you are instantly bonded by your excitement and anticipation of joining the Peace Corps. You contemplate telling her about the Waka Waka episode. You decide not to, figuring that this is the type of oversharing that is Too Much, Too Soon. You don’t know then that she will eventually become one of your good friends, that you will travel on an international vacation and help produce a volunteer-run newsletter together. You don’t know then that she and several others in your friend circle will eventually come to hear the Waka Waka story anyway, and that although they will find it hilarious and tease you uproariously, they will understand perfectly how you had felt because they had all felt the exact same way.

You bound down the stairs to the hotel lobby early the next morning with a folder under one arm, balancing a cup of coffee as you greet flustered-looking travelers burdened with mountains of luggage. You correctly deduce that they must be fellow Peace Corps invitees and you offer to help them carry their bags up to their rooms after they check in, chatting with them the entire time and trying to find out their entire life stories in five minutes. They are a bit taken aback by this level of energy at 7am, but not as much as you are. Even though you are extremely introverted by nature, your entire decision to join the Peace Corps was fueled by a desire to break out of the mold that you’ve been forming for yourself ever since you realized that getting good grades and keeping your head down were the key to a peaceful prepubescent existence. So with this in mind, you have resolved to channel the stores of projected extroversion you typically reserve for networking at work conferences and ingratiating yourself to a girlfriend’s mother. You don’t know then that this is going to end up being great practice for when you will greet men, women, children, and terrified little babies over and over again during the next two years. You don’t know then that your friends will later chuckle at the recollection, telling you that at first they assumed you were a Peace Corps staff member, and then later that they worried you were going to be one of those people, the ebulliently and annoyingly extroverted camp-counselor types that everyone else wants to bop over the head with a two-by-four.

You walk purposefully along the disheveled line of bleary-eyed fellow invitees sprawled across the floor of the International Departures ticketing plaza of JFK not quite 24 hours later, waving your camera up before you like a peace offering. You are recording video of everybody’s responses to your made-for-Peace-Corps-propaganda query, “What are you most excited for in the Peace Corps?” and you doggedly press forward despite knowing that more than a few of your fellow invitees wouldn’t be opposed to bopping you over the head with a two-by-four right about now. You coax and cajole and wheedle, assuring them that they all know they’ll want to see this video again two years later when they finish their services. Everybody gamely participates, and their answers run the gamut of responses from things like “helping people” to “playing with children” to “discovering more about myself.” You don’t know then that six of the people in this video will no longer be in Peace Corps when you all reconvene for your Close of Service conference two years later. You don’t know then just how much these answers will change over the course of those two years.

You touch down in Lusaka the next day, stiff and jetlagged from 17 hours of flying and a few more hours of waiting in airports. This is the farthest you’ve ever traveled in your life. It’s hot and muggy, but the sky is blue and past the runway everything is verdant and green. As your shuttle leaves the airport, you pass people walking along the side of the road balancing baskets and buckets and branches on their heads and you make a mental note to yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You don’t know then that you’ll spend so much time over the next two years sitting and waiting and sweating and holding in bowel movements in cramped and muggy and noisy buses that you will be immensely looking forward to a nice, air-conditioned, personal-entertainment-system-right-in-front-of-your-face 17-hour flight. (With a bathroom!) You don’t know then that two years later you’ll still look around and marvel at the sky and the trees and the people and the fact that this has been your life.

You lucky bastard, you’re about to embark on the greatest journey you’ve ever had. Yes, you’ll have more ups and downs than a newly hatched butterfly trying out its wings for the first time in the middle of a breezy summer afternoon. But, rather like that butterfly, you’ll also experience an ethereal sensation of a new world opening up before you, a world bright and colorful and intense and real. Being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is the hardest job you’ll ever love. And it starts: now.

Your older, slightly grungier, hopefully wiser, and definitely more charming and handsome self,

Matt

Is the Peace Corps worth it?

At some point during their service, nearly every Peace Corps volunteer reflects back on the past month or year or two years and asks themselves the million-dollar question (er, well, in my case, the $280/month question):

Is it worth it?

Is the Peace Corps worth it for our host countries? Does the work we do really make a difference? Is bringing Americans to live in underdeveloped communities worth constantly provoking the jarring contrast between privilege and struggle? Is it worth the potential to incite jealousy and resentment, worth the possibility of engendering false hope and unfulfilled dreams?

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And is it worth it for us volunteers? Is spending two years of our lives here worth the infinitesimal gains we may make, worth the three steps back for every one step forward? Is it worth the job opportunities passed by and the friends’ weddings and grandparents’ funerals and annual family Christmas feasts that we’re missing back home? Is it worth the loneliness and frustration and restlessness and discomfort and despair?

I pondered this question many times before joining the Peace Corps, because moving halfway across the world to live in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa for 27 months was not a decision I wanted to make lightly. Before starting off on the path less traveled, I came to the fork in the road, plopped myself down, and camped out there for a year. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer meant giving up a good job with great benefits and fun coworkers. It meant bidding farewell to a Subaru-driving, organic-almond-milk-drinking, fixed-gear-bicycle-pedalling, sure-let’s-take-a-day-trip-to-Lake-Tahoe-and-then-come-back-in-time-to-watch-the-sun-set-over-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge-because-we-can yuppie’s wet dream. It meant leaving loyal and hilarious friends, weirdly and lovably simpatico brothers, unwaveringly supportive parents, and doting grandmothers. It meant walking with eyes wide open into a new world where I knew successes would be fleeting and failures would be constant.

But I decided to do it anyway.

And yes, sometimes my life here feels like one long and convoluted detour. I bounce over potholes and swerve around roadblocks on a daily basis. Meetings get postponed and postponed again, then canceled. Every great idea I have for a new project to start in my community is met with an equally great obstacle that is either cultural, social, or bureaucratic. Fish farming programs are delayed for weeks, and when they do finally come together the farmers focus on the most random things to spend two hours arguing about.

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Life outside of work is often even more trying. Every time I step outside my hut I get leered at and verbally accosted like a lissome blonde trying to slip quietly past a construction site. The same little kids who act like I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread one day throw rocks through my doorway and demand money the next. My neighbor’s youngest daughter is ill with a disease that is easily curable in America and the clinic and the hospital have both told him that there’s nothing they can do. I spend a lot of time doing nothing. An embarrassingly large, shocking amount of time doing nothing.

When I’m working on projects, I question my motives and wonder if I’m just trying to appease my sense of guilt at not doing enough, at never doing enough. When I’m sitting in my hut reading, that guilt spreads over me like the sticky sheen of sweat that slathers my body each evening.

But evaluating the worth of a Peace Corps service isn’t as simple as jotting down attendance at meetings or counting new fish ponds. Development may be the easiest of our organizational duties to slap onto a job description, but it’s often the most difficult foundation upon which to build lasting results. Perhaps more solid are the lessons that we’re learning and teaching here in our host countries, as well as the insights that we’re bringing back to America. The effects of cultural exchange, though harder to quantify, may very well last longer than wells and libraries and fish ponds. Because thanks to sons and daughters and sisters and college roommates and nephews and ex-girlfriends who live in gray tenement buildings in Algeria and sticky flats in Thailand and parched mud huts in Zambia, there is a growing network of Americans back home who are learning a little bit more about the world around them. And our neighbors in our host countries are receiving similar lessons as they observe and interact with American women and men on a daily basis, many of them young, most of them serving alone, nearly all of them coming from a radically different cultural and ideological background. They study our differences and answer our questions and reflect on our commonalities, as we learn their language and eat their food and share in their lives.

And through it all we ourselves are constantly changing. I think of the transformations we’ve undergone and will undergo, the strengths we’re discovering, the self-esteem we’re building. I think about the friends we’ve made, the tears we’ve fought to hide, the laughter we’ve shared. I think about the certainties that I’m coming to realize aren’t quite as certain as I once thought they were. I think about the humility that I am slowly learning, the compassion and respect for my fellow human that is surging within me. And I ask myself again if it’s worth it.

The answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes. Every single step of this incredible journey is worth it: the triumphs, the setbacks, the elucidation, the confusion, the disillusionment, the clarity. There are so many reasons why joining the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. And the number of fish ponds I’ve helped farmers dig is nowhere near the top of the list.

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Fun with glow sticks

Last week, ten volunteers organized and hosted a 5-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Mansa for 14 students and 7 adult mentors from communities throughout Luapula Province. The camp was a smashing success and great fun was had by all as we raved with glow sticks, made s’mores, and taught a delighted pack of pre-teen girls how to do the Wobble in between actual educational sessions on topics such as assertiveness, reproductive health, income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS sensitization, and gender equality.

On the second-to-last day of camp, a British expat working with a local NGO came to assist with a sanitary pad workshop and mentioned that a girls’ group in a district further north in the province was doing a similar project, to great success. These girls were teaching and promoting the use of sanitary pads to classmates in their free time, away from school, because school policy forbade them from coming to class when they were on their periods. The really neat part though, she told us, was that evidently the leaders of the group, two young girls barely of menstruating age themselves and one older woman on the local PTA, had all learned how to make these sanitary pads at a camp which a Peace Corps volunteer had brought them to the year prior.

The first thing that came to mind was wow, that unsuspecting volunteer hit a sustainable development success story gold mine! I wonder who it is? Then it dawned on me: hey, the mentor I brought to last year’s Camp GLOW was a member of the PTA. I asked the woman what the name of the community was, and she told me that the group was in Nshinda. I swallowed. I live in Nshinda. That unsuspecting volunteer was me.

I should have been happy. Proud, even. But instead, all I could feel was embarrassment — I’d had absolutely no idea that this was going on at all. All of my attempts to start a GLOW group at the school with the teachers following the previous year’s GLOW camp had sputtered and died like a lawnmower running over an old shoe. I felt guilty for receiving accolades for something I didn’t do, ignorant for being completely oblivious that this was going on in my community without my knowing, and a little miffed that nobody who did know had told me about it.

Only later, after some conversations with more clear-headed volunteers, was I eventually made to understand that my not knowing about the girls’ group was not an indictment of my failure at community integration. Not only do the girls not speak English and I not know the words for period, menstruation, blood, or sanitary pad in Icibemba, but it wouldn’t matter even if we were best pals who chatted it up in homeroom every Wednesday morning, because talking about menstrual cycles and female genitalia in public is taboo in Zambian culture (and probably no less so if you’ve got a conspicuous foreign male in your midst). One friend reminded me gently that in America, most 7th and 8th grade girls would rather die than discuss their periods with their cute young male teacher. The only way that this group could have been a safe place for pre-teen and teenaged female students to learn and ask questions about periods and sanitary pads was if I were not involved at all.

Slightly mollified but still feeling like a bad volunteer, I resumed working on the slideshow that I was compiling for presentation the following day at the end of camp. But looking through the images captured during the week and then watching the campers’ sparkling eyes the next morning as they watched raptly and giggled every time they or their friends made an appearance on screen, I began to realize that it didn’t matter that I was in the dark about this. The fact that these girls and this mentor had the initiative and drive and leadership to create this project entirely on their own speaks volumes to the core of true development that it is building, a foundation that will remain long after the lines in a Peace Corps volunteer’s resume have eroded away. I realized that this camp is for these girls and women, not for me. It doesn’t matter what I try to do with it, it only matters what they choose to do with it. With this newfound knowledge and experience, these girls are carrying back with them seeds of inspiration that have the potential to grow and change some small but important part of their community, in their small but important part of our world.

And if they can do that, then I’ll be fine never seeing a sanitary pad or hearing about menstrual cycles. Because, I mean, really? That’s gross.