I’m approaching the end of my Peace Corps service. I have been for a long time. The transformation I’ve incurred here is a staggering testament to all the Ethiopian people encompass. May I reflect their strength and kindness wherever I go.
I didn’t join the Peace Corps because I always dreamed of joining the Peace Corps. I joined the Peace Corps because it was a way for me to contribute to increasing educational opportunities for the world’s most at-risk students. I resisted this life and flirted with other possibilities after college: teaching English in Hong Kong, partnering with educators in Delhi, taking over a pre-cal classroom outside New Orleans. I fancied myself a progressive, but never the hippy type to join the Peace Corps. When it all came down to it though, this calling was what I was most scared of passing up. After my semester abroad in Rajasthan, I was haunted by dirty street children begging for money and food. What if I had those nightmares my whole life?
When I accepted my invitation to join the Peace Corps, I didn’t dream of living in a mud house or tripping over rocks on the road to the café. I didn’t consider the possibility that I’d become rough on the outside just to protect my weary self from insult, profanity, and threat. To be honest, I never imagined humanitarian work would be so hard.
I’m not prone to self-loathing, but I felt grossly unprepared in relation to other volunteers at the beginning of my service. I was green. Fresh out of college, I could read news articles through a post-colonial lens, but I had no idea how to set up a tent. Or fight my way onto a minibus. Or even live alone. I could recruit a smart, sweet freshman girl to join my sorority, but I couldn’t tell a grown man to stop staring at my chest at work. I could say a nice prayer before a spread of food, but I had no idea where to begin to plead with God to give mercy and provision to children starving in the bush. That was just the beginning.
In the first year I grew strong, but in the second year I grew good. In the first year I learned how to cook food from scratch, but in the second year I learned how to bring a pot of chili to my neighbor’s house and share it for dinner. In the first year I learned a series of insults in Amharic that would leave the most seasoned duriye (street boy) stunned, but in the second year I learned a series of greetings in Amharic I’d exchange daily with the ladies who ran souks on the side streets leading towards my home. In the first year I defended myself against children chewing sugarcane and asking me to buy them cookies, but in the second year I swung those children around my hips, tickled their rib bones, and pulled bananas out of my bag.
There are many things I can do now that I couldn’t do in May 2012. I can speak two new languages. I can travel through a country alone. I can decipher who’s worthy of my trust. I’m not perfect, and I’m still not even the me I thought I’d be by the time I’d go home. I haven’t run a half marathon. I haven’t memorized a slew of poems. I’m not convinced of the job title I’ll put in the signature of my email in ten years, or if I even want a life like that anymore.
But if I were stranded on a desert island and had to pick someone to survive beside, I’d chose me. Not because I’m the most fit or savvy. Not because I could outsmart wildlife and their instinct to live in the evolutionary scheme. I’d choose me, not because of what I can do, but because of who I am, and the people who’ve made me this way.
“Akkam jirta?” Is the local Oromo greeting. It means, “How are you?” The responses are “Nagaa dha,” I am at peace; “Faya dha,” I am healthy; “Jira,” I am here.