I’ve been back in the US less than a week. It’s a very weird feeling. Wonderful but weird. Everyone I’ve seen has given me a super warm welcome, of which I am thankful. Generally, the interactions go a little something like this: They see me. They smile. I smile. We hug. They squeeze. I say it’s good to see them (which it is (these people have lived in my mind for 2+ years, so it is nice to get them out of my brain and into my eyes)). Most people ask one of the following questions:
“How are you?”
“How was Africa?”
“How was your trip?”
Answering these questions can be difficult. The general “how are you” is forever tainted because Tanzanians say it all of the time; many people think it’s actually one word (howahu). It’s also just a very vague question. I have been trying to find an answer I can live with, so I’ve been responding: “hanging in there” (which is absolutely true). The “how was Africa” question used to make me more angry than it does now. I see people’s faces as they ask it and I know they are not intentionally being ignorant. I softly smile and subtly answer, “Tanzania was wonderful, how have you been?” Africa is huge. I lived in just one small part of that continent, it’s unsettling how many people don’t know that. I’m also finding that deflecting some attention off of me and turning the conversation onto other people is helping me cope. “How was your trip” is my least favorite question. I lived in one place for 2 years. I wasn’t on vacation. It certainly wasn’t a “trip”. Again though, I know this question isn’t intended to offend me. I answer, “It was a great experience. Living in a new culture for two years teaches you a lot.” That’s usually enough for most people, so it ends there.
HOWEVER, some people have been asking really insightful questions and are genuinely interested in my experiences. They ask specific questions, look into my eyes when I speak, and hang onto the words I’m saying. In only 5 days, it has become obvious to me who is legitimately interested in my experience and who just wants to politely greet me. Both are okay! It just took some getting used to. It’s also interesting to see how many people immediately compare my experience to a life experience of their own—sometimes comparable, sometimes not. I’m developing my elevator speech. I know my top 5 favorite stories. As I tell stories, I’ve been getting emotional. PTSD isn’t what I want to call it, but I have been and will continue to experience some intense reverse-culture shock. So I’m sorry in advance if I just start crying. It’s not you, it’s me.
Sometimes the conversation turns into a serenade to me. “Elizabeth, you changed the world.” “Elizabeth, you touched so many lives.” “Elizabeth, they were so lucky to have you”. Did I change the world? Did I actually touch people’s lives? Were they lucky I was there? These questions are things every Peace Corps volunteer reflects on, almost daily. Am I doing anything? Making any sort of difference? Would my students actually be better off with a Tanzanian teacher who can speak to them fluently? Am I making positive changes in my community that will last? Do I matter?
I didn’t change the world. I didn’t teach everyone in my village to speak perfect English. I didn’t leave my name on any piece of infrastructure. I didn’t convince all the teachers in my school to stop using corporal punishment. This experience was undeniably difficult. Of course, I came in with the notion that I wanted to make a difference and change the world. I didn’t do that. You know what I did? I built relationships; I taught kids. I’m not talking about spelling, verb tenses, or punctuation. Sure, we did those things but that’s not really what I hope they remember. I taught them about kindness. Silliness. Friendship. Mutual respect. Peace. I impacted the lives of people I came into contact with. I acted as an example for my girls. I taught my boys about respecting women. I taught my colleagues new teaching techniques and how it is possible to teach successfully without a stick in hand. I represented my own country with class and proved not all Americans act/think the same. I taught them that not all white people are best friends with celebrities or have a million dollars. I taught them the world is actually round and there are people who look like them all over it. I did make a difference. Some days that felt like a lie. As I look back though, I can can confidently say that I impacted hundreds of people, in small but meaningful ways.
Back to the topic of “changing the world”. Some people go on trips with church or leadership groups, stay in the country for 2 weeks, build a house or give out some supplies, take photos, and come back. In my two years, I observed this scenario a lot. I learned the truth about foreign aid and must admit, I have a lot of opinions. Voluntourism is real and can be a real problem. I watched people come and go—without learning the language or the actual needs of the community. They dump things (not education) and then leave. Those things are misused and unused and ultimately unsustainable. This is why I am so proud to be a Peace Corps volunteer. When you look at my list of “tangible achievements” it’s pretty small. I didn’t really give any things. My attempted library grant failed. It wasn’t sustainable at my school (too much corruption and not enough buy-in from the village/school). If I had pushed that project, I am certain it would have failed as soon as I left. I wasn’t giving away money every day, instead I was working with a living allowance that was the same amount of money that my fellow Tanzanian teachers had. I was living in the village with them, not in a big gated house in the neighboring town. I grew to know the language, understand the culture, and thus, was able to make the small strides to sustainable changes. The other day my counterpart sent me a video of him teaching more of the menstrual health sessions to his students. He did that by himself, after I had left. Seeing the proof of that project’s sustainability made me beam with joy. Peace Corps is the best method of foreign aid and I’m grateful I was able to experience it.
That being said, I am not a martyr. There were days when I hid in my house and ate an entire sleeve of thin mints without sharing. I gave my students care-package lollipops but always saved the green apple ones for myself. I didn’t give money to every homeless person I saw. Sure, I made sacrifices and I definitely lived minimally but everything is relative. I lived without running water, electricity, a western toilet. I did laundry by hand and peed in a hole in the ground. I killed bugs and other fun, crawly things. For the first time in my life, I felt actual hunger (but it still didn’t compare to the lives of my students). As you’re asking me questions, know I’ve got plenty of stories to tell–about the good and the bad.
I do not want to scare people away from asking me questions or talking about my experience. Please, ask away. It’s just a hard to always know how to respond. I don’t want to only share the highlights and have people think I was on vacation for 2 years. I also don’t want to tell people the bad stuff, only to have them judge/pity me or Tanzanians. If you don’t know what to ask me, ask me about my students. I can talk about them all day! I’ve said it before–they taught me more than I taught them. They taught me about kindness. Silliness. Friendship. Gratitude. Patience. Diligence. Faith. Hope. They taught me how to persevere. They taught me what is really important and what is necessary. The difference between what you want and what you need. Those kids made me want to go to school every day and gave me something to look forward to. Their raw, genuine nature…I’ll probably never see something like that ever again. I miss them terribly.
Being back has been overwhelming…in expected and unexpected ways. I’m already drafting my next (and probably final) blog post about the inner workings of the “transition phase”. Only being here a few days, I need to wait a bit and settle in more before writing a full post about all the feelings and thoughts I’m having. I do need to say that I’ve loved seeing my family and friends. The kindness and generosity people have shown me (from putting up welcome signs, treating me to meals, or saying tons of lovely words) has meant so much. It’s good to be home.