Friday, November 9, 2012

Goodbye Senegal

 Well well well…  How the hell did I get to this place?  No really that’s not a rhetorical question, I’m pretty much at a loss for how any of this actually happened.  Stubbornness I suppose.  That’s probably it.   I think that’s a more neutral and accurate way to describe what has kept me here because it certainly wasn’t always noble selflessness.  What a journey this has been.  These last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.  Oh lets not kid ourselves you’ve read my blog all I do is think, usually to an unhealthy degree.  Anywho these past two weeks have been especially thoughtful and I’m happy to say that after all of that thinking I am more confused then ever.  Confused, enthused, amused, bemused, all of the above. Sit back and relax because you have the distinct privilege of watching me try to digest 2 years of Peace Corps service in the next thousand words or so… I suggest a stiff drink first.

Ok now that we’ve all started drinking lets start reading!  Thank god that’s not how my first grade teacher introduced reading to us.  Right, way back in PST our doctors made us write a little letter to ourselves to be opened in times of stress in order to have a little perspective. Mine has been nailed to my wall for two years, until I brought it to Dakar and opened it right now!  What was inside you may ask?  Why would I tell you that?  I need to keep up the suspense. This is for your entertainment so trust me. 

Five days ago I left my little village of Dassilame Serere for good.  It was a moment that I had been looking forward to for a long time if I’m going to be honest.  So long in fact that I somehow completely forgot that it would be the most difficult thing I had to do in my entire service.  Three days before that I had the pleasure of showing my replacement around village for something we like to call VV, another exciting Peace Corps acronym.  It just stands for Volunteer Visit so not actually very exciting.  The trip unlike the acronym was great though.  Elise, my replacement, came out for three days to see the village, check out my projects, meet to important folk, and generally get acquainted before she had to come for good.  It was a lot of fun and a great way for me to pass on the kind of information I would have loved to have when I first got there.  The day before I left we had a big village party where a bunch of my PCV friends and village friends all came to celebrate me :-).  We killed a turkey and made some of the best Senegalese food I’ve had in my entire service.  Why was it good?  Well because I bought extra MSG filled seasoning of course… yeah true fact…  Don’t judge you first world hipsters, it was good.  After lunch I called everyone together and told them how much I appreciated everything they did for me, how much I respected them and their work and village, and how sad I was to be leaving. They reciprocated with such wonderful complements as you work like a black person, and you know all of Serere.  Neither of which are true but it was nice of them to say.

That night I sent Elise and the other volunteers back to Toubacouta so that I could pack and have time with my family.  People kept coming by to say goodbye and that’s when it hit me.  This is going to be really fucking hard tomorrow.  Ding ding ding.  Correct answer.  It royally sucked.  I got up grabbed my bags and walked to the road with my family.  A bunch of other people came out and everyone I saw made me tear up.  I couldn’t look at people.  They knew exactly what was going on which made them start to cry and then I was just a mess.  For all of my questioning and wondering I finally got it, what I had here was real.  I really did love my village and my family and friends and it hurt just as much to leave them as to leave my American friends and family.  It was harder by far then anything else in my service.  Who would have thought? 

From there I went directly to Dakar.  In Kaolack my 7-place driver turned out to be Serere… then he turned out to have family in the same household I lived in during PST.  Small world.  Even smaller when I met another Serere a few days later who went to primary school in my village.  That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to miss.  The random in depth conversations with strangers where you inevitably find some way that your lives connect.  It’s nice.  I think a lot of people get bitter and jaded here, myself included at some points, but at the end of the day I love Senegal, her people and her culture.  It certainly has problems but no country is perfect. 

I feel like my head has come up above water again.  When we’re working in village its hard to see the big picture, its often hard to see beyond the mysterious animal bits in the lunch bowl.  Overall though we’re moving forward.  I had a great conversation with my APCD, my boss, about long-term vision in Peace Corps and I think that gave me a better perspective on why he does some things he does.  PCV’s can get pretty self-righteous about the things we think we know, or deserve, or require and how the institution above us is messing it all up.  They’re imperfect just like us.  Not that I wasn’t always right, cause I was, you know now I’m just right with humility… is that a thing… Maybe not humility but a healthy dose of respect even through difference. 

I’ve spent the last five days since leaving village filling out mountains of paperwork, thank you Washington, going through medical tests, and writing reports about all of my work.  Looking at my service on paper suddenly all of the questioning and uncertainty kinda goes away.  On paper it looks pretty damn good.  That makes me proud even though I know it’s more complicated.  If nothing else I know that I tried.  I’ve come to the realization that even though I wanted to do more or be better I probably did as much as I could do while staying sane enough to finish my service.  That’s enough I suppose.  When I finished all of the paperwork I thought I would feel relieved and content but I suddenly started to feel empty.  I thrive on structure and the structure had just been taken away.  I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. 

Change is hard.  I know its necessary but it’s still hard.  My life, which has been so constrained in so many ways, is now full of possibilities again and that terrifies as much as it excites me.  Peace Corps is hard but hard in different ways then American life is hard.  I have to worry about getting a job now, and making money, and moving forward in a career, and planning a wedding, and explaining this experience to people who know nothing about anything.  Village life is so much simpler.  I don’t know where I’m going with all this.  I guess I’m in a weird place.  I’m in freefall again and I’m not sure when or where I’m going to land. 

So what was in the letter?  Honestly it was a little disappointing. We talk about how much we grow during Peace Corps, but there’s also so much of us that stays the same.  I still have so many of the same insecurities and hopes and I’m still very vague and unsure about weather or not I succeeded in my one main goal, “to help my village”.  I like to think that I helped them in some way, but who knows in the long run.  We plant trees under which we will never sit, or that will never mature at all because they were eaten by goats.  It’s really a crapshoot.  Like all of life.  I’m the same person as I was, but with a whole lot broader perspective.  I think that’s probably what it is. 

Everything is so ambiguous.  Luckily Peace Corps has taught me to be ok with that.  The world is shades of grey, and conflicting truths, and necessary opposites, and inherent connections.  That used to frustrate me, but now I think thank god there’s more to figure out.  The world would be so boring if it was simple. That and other fortune cookie tidbits brought to you by the Mostly Harmless blog.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my random attempts to try to order this experience into something coherent and meaningful.  It’s been grand.  It really has.  I leave you with the words of someone far more elegant then I:

"I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature-not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
- Norman Maclean

Thanks for the memories Senegal.   You’ve made my life richer and grander.  I’ll never forget you.