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.