On the Chobe River with the hippos
Visiting Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side
I have so many emotions wrapped up in my departure from Botswana, and from Peace Corps. As always, it's taken me a long time to sit down and write this post. Each time I try, my eyes fill up with tears and I walk away from a blank computer screen. I can never find the proper words to fit my feelings into, and each sentence I write looks bland and generic to me. It's not enough to say, "I found myself" or "I loved my time there" or "I'm excited for the new adventure that awaits me".... I wish I could put my heart on this blog and you could see how it has swelled with admiration and affection for all those I lived and worked with in Botswana.
I've learned so much more than I imagined I would, in ways I never expected. I didn't gain the book smarts that my pre-Peace Corps self thought I would. I assumed that, with all my new free time, I would give myself the education I never had. That I would read all the classics, see all the movies, catch up on my current events and come home the smartest little idealist ever. That did not happen. My free time was spent either surrounded by hoards of children or sitting in pure, simple silence. By the time I had a few moments to myself I often didn't have the mental energy to read anything, much less struggle against my useless internet connection to try to download the New York Times.
But I found that my street smarts were heightened. I could give you a hundred tips on how to hitch hike effectively. I gained cultural sensitivity that, when I met PCV's during my first few months of service who also had such sensitivity, I arrogantly assumed was racism or sexism. I figured the exact science to how many cups of water I needed to adequately bathe myself when my taps ran dry. I could talk for days about the struggle faced by women for equality in Botswana and why many aid programs simply don't address the necessary issues to be successful. I got frustrated when people asked, "how is Africa?". Africa is not a country, it is a continent. Diverse and rich with culture, Botswana is just one small portion of a huge continent I hope to explore more some day.
Do I feel different? Yes, because I am different. Often times since I've been back, I've felt like that weight on my chest is getting heavier. The other day at lunch, the waitress asked my sister and I if we'd like bread while we waited for our food. Instinctively I asked, "is it free?". My sister made a face at me as the waitress said, "of course", and while she walked away, my sister asked if I'm going to be weird like that for a while. I don't intend to be, but I guess I will. I'm also different from who I was when I first departed. Watching children you love die of AIDS will do that. Trying to convince your male clinic workers that it's not OK to laugh at someone's HIV status, or that women deserve sexual independence, will too. So will being a single woman in your mid-twenties in a culture where, if you don't have a child you're considered broken. And being asked for money from people you thought were friends, who you never hoped would look at you like an ATM. I'm different in the sense that I'm a little more stoic; my jokes are slightly off-color, and my heart has a much greater capacity but a bit of a wall around it now.
My relationships have changed in both wonderful and challenging ways. I found a group of friends who became my pillars through the storm; we uplifted each other time and again (and again and again), and laughed our way through the hard times. When projects failed, family members passed away, we got into fights with people back home who just couldn't understand what we were doing or how it was changing us, we were there for each other. We "got it", so they say. No need for explanation or questions, we were there night and day when one of us needed each other. I can never thank them enough for making my service what it was, nor can I describe just how necessary they were to my survival. In my darkest moments, I knew I could reach out to my fellow volunteers, and that they would be able to relate to what I was experiencing.
I made Batswana friends that rejuvenated my desire to continue in the field of development work. Ma Sangweni, my counterpart at Camp Hill for the last few months, worked tirelessly no matter what I requested of her. She had three children at home and a husband who passed away last year from cancer, but she showed up to work on time every day and gave me energy when I desperately needed it. When she could tell I was becoming frustrated because of a cultural misunderstanding, she would do a little dance and slap my back, wrap her arms around me and remind me that we were both doing our best. She made my passions her own, and treated me like a daughter. I will never forget her bright laugh and tender disposition.
My friends and family abroad kept me going with unconditional support, in every form. Care packages, letters crafted with love, emails and phone calls came pouring in from every corner of the globe. Leaving the warm bubble I had created for myself in the States was one of the most difficult things I'd ever done at the time, but it proved that many of my relationships are strong enough to endure the distance. It's never easy to walk away from the people that you care about, but the foundation I had at home is what gave me the strength to pursue my dreams. For that, I am eternally thankful.
In Botswana, I found love. Meeting Fritz last year was one of the best things to ever happen in my life, and I wholeheartedly believe that, ever the romantic, I was always meant to go to Botswana to find him. I'll simply say that I can't imagine a more perfect partner for my life. He energetically celebrates my every victory (even something so insignificant as FINALLY learning how to throw a frisbee), and does everything in his power to put a smile on my face when I'm down. I am the luckiest, and the thought of moving to Idaho with him to start our life together brings me so much joy.
As for our future plans in life, that remains to be seen. Working and living in Botswana for these last three years gave me the highest highs and the lowest lows I've ever experienced. I wouldn't trade a single moment for anything, though, and I think I'd like to do something like this again later in life. Perhaps not Peace Corps, and perhaps not for such an extended period of time, but I'm certainly not done with this area of work. I thrive on the adversity faced while living in a completely new and different place. I enjoy the social engagement that's required in grassroots work, and selfishly I feel good about trying to do good.
I guess that's what I've learned: that my bleeding heart is mine alone and not the responsibility of anyone else. No one asked me to go to Botswana; most of the people in my villages probably didn't want me there anyway - I went because I wanted to contribute to some greater, global thing. But in doing so, I learned that the people in these rural areas where I strive to be have survived (happily, at that) for thousands of years before I arrived, and will continue to do so for thousands after I leave. Serving in the Peace Corps humbled me in great ways - it taught me that if I really want to do something significant, I must re-evaluate my motivations. I honestly don't know what will become of my projects now that I've left Botswana. I hope that they will be continued, but I don't know for sure. More than anything though, I hope that I left my mark on the hearts of the children and adults I spent my days with and that if they don't remember my work, they will remember how much I love them.