Tag Archives: comfort

COS

I’ve made no secret of my itching desire to be done with my assignment here in the rural bush of southern Africa. It has been tough and trying. After 23 months in this place, a summary is impossible. So many things have happened and I feel I’ve lived through so much.

I remember when I created my list of goals back in the beginning of my service. I purposely left them broad so I could accomplish them over time and feel success through my developing perspective. I have seen it and discovered a lot more about myself in the process. There are parts of me that have changed, which is inevitable. Even in a “safe” environment like my home culture I still would experience change. How does adaptation to this place factor in?

Many things in my “job” happen here on a whim. The other day, for instance, I had a small group of peer educators from Debswana drop in on me totally unannounced. They wanted to have a short meeting to discuss the assistance they had provided in the past and lay out a way forward. It wasn’t anything particularly difficult, but the impromptu nature of this way of life has been ingrained in me. I have been asked to present in front of large groups on 10 minutes notice, sometimes on topics I know very little about. Panic doesn’t have time to take over, and I’ve become pretty good at winging it.

Holding a lengthy conversation with a complete stranger is another skill I’ve picked up. Sure, most Batswana pull from a small collection of reused questions: “Where are you from? You speak Setswana? How long have you been here? Where do you stay? Where are you working?” But there’s still a certain comfort in the tempo of knocking out answers to make a fast friend. That’s how you survive here. I think I can read people better, at least well enough to know if someone is going to do the job I ask them to or give me a good hitchhike or to try taking advantage of me.

I arrived here with essentially no network, but now I can say it is pretty wide. Much of it is populated with acquaintances and familiar nameless faces, but that’s life in the village.

Pointing to concrete accomplishments is tough. Not because I don’t have quantifiable evidence to show for my time here, because I do. But I want to be able to boast about my recycling project – that one never got off the ground. Or the times I stepped outside my comfort zone to work with young people in that scouts troop, except it fizzled out. Failure is the most important part of this job and I have learned to embrace it. There’s just no space for it on my résumé; I guess that’s what this blog is for.

I can talk about the large numbers of men I helped get circumcised by mobilizing with my hospital’s team. I can also point to the people in my support group, which have come along over the past two years. The grants I have written, the travels I have taken, the partnerships I have built, the new things I tried, and the friends I have made will not be excluded when I talk about these 2 years.

The scary part of right now is that I still do not know what comes next. There are ideas and scenarios, but nothing is final. Only 72 days until my supposed departure date and I’m still not sure where I’m headed.

Last week, my intake group – Bots 10 – got the chance to reflect on how far we’ve come and to celebrate together. It was our Close of Service conference, affectionately known as COS. There was storytelling and reminiscing about old friends who have left us. I took a few moments to let the sentiment set in and enjoy the company of these people. The group is very diverse, in such a way that makes me think many of us would never have met or interacted in the “real world.” But that is what is part of what is special about them. There really will not be another group like them in my life – one that has experienced the lifestyle we have together for a length of time that requires a high level of endurance… one you don’t get in other volunteer or study abroad trips. We have learned and survived the types of things that make this thing hard: not the power outages, pit latrines, or bugs but the boredom, loneliness, and existential search for purpose. These people provided a sort of sanctuary from the rest of the culture and are my friends. I will miss them and will always appreciate their essential role in this experience. Godspeed, Bots 10.

Cheers

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You Again

Leaving the United States has been a reprieve from a lifestyle. I don’t mean to place negativity on America, because it hasn’t all been an intentional effort to disconnect (though admittedly some of it has). People are stressed there, and our culture has a much different set of values than this place does. I’m more relaxed here and free from some past baggage. My network has changed drastically. Living thousands of miles away from your former life creates an inevitable schism in your relationships.

I’m now facing the impending, uneasy reacquaintance with that life. There’s so much of it I’m looking forward to, though: I can easily call my family and close friends again, visit and travel with them, eat and drink with them… There’s comfort in that and a lot of love to be shared. People with whom I’ve kept in touch from this side have an idea of what my life has been like these past two years and have kept me updated on theirs. It will be seamless and easy to renew our bonds.

However, there’s a certain amount of awkwardness and guilt associated with others. I did seek a sort of “reset button” when I left, and I have felt relief in closing some chapters of my US life. But I didn’t necessarily prepare for that with others. The world is small and I wonder how some encounters will play out. The US is fast-paced and busy (that’s part of the reason I left), but I have been so fortunate with relentless support from some people. Friends and family have kept in email contact and some even buy Skype credit to call me regularly. It has been an incredible display of commitment and encouragement, which has been a crucial grounding throughout this experience. Comparing that with the relative indifference I’ve felt from others is the challenge.

What should I expect from people who were formerly central to my social life and identity? Living in the bush is like a get out of jail free card: my relative lack of access to internet and resources (I’m a poor volunteer) removes some guilt from my end. But how much time does it take to send an email? Or put a post card in the mail? I can ask these questions of myself, for I certainly haven’t been the best at this. This severed (or weakened) tie was not deliberate. Was our relationship one of convenience and proximity? Maybe the line isn’t so finite – I didn’t exactly ask everyone to maintain a long-distance friendship with me, I just thrust it upon them. Neglect was made on both ends. Shall we just call it even?

Homecoming should be absent begrudging hostility. I’m excited to go home, after all, because America is a place of wonderful people, infrastructure, food, productivity, live music, showers, big cities, central air conditioning… the list goes on. Before I get to all that, I need to reconcile that imbalance, and leave behind any bitterness. Readjustment is going to be hard enough.

Cheers

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