Before I begin, please read this article:
What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure
This fellow volunteer has put into words that which many of us PCVs fail to express about our experience. And there’s that word again…fail. Failure. To be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal. The action or state of not functioning. To break down, cease to work well.
According to these definitions, I have failed.
The reason for my month-long gap in blog posts was not due to lack of electricity or internet. Unable to process or admit what was happening to myself, I had few things to say that were positive. Without realizing it, I was slipping into a state of not functioning. I began to think I was unsuccessful in achieving my goal. I eventually ceased to work well and broke down.
You may think I sound like some malfunctioning piece of machinery. Just call the mechanic, tinker with my gadgetry, squirt some oil in those cracks and I will surely get moving again. Unfortunately the workings of my brain and intricacy of my emotions are slightly more complex than that of a Xerox. Of course if you have ever been on the receiving end of a glitchy copier, you may argue my point…
Anyway, as many of you know, Peace Corps has been a goal of mine for several years. A dream. It encapsulated my desire to serve others, be challenged, experience new cultures, live abroad, learn, grow. The perfect way to jump into the world of international development. Yet, I was blinded by my optimistic and idealistic nature. Like planning for a wedding and neglecting the reality of the marriage, I was slowly losing myself to the many challenges one faces when living in a foreign environment. Language barriers, isolation, unwanted attention, being treated like a child, not listened to, being homesick, lack of independence, not having a defined role at work, feeling guilty for not doing enough…the list feels endless. Yes, I was learning a lot about myself, but one day I simply did not recognize myself. Something had to change.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, as I have tended to keep my posts optimistic and even humorous at times. Because you have all supported me so much, I want to be honest with you. I have been in Washington, D.C. for a little over a week now receiving support and care from Peace Corps. First of all, I could write an entire entry on what it is like to go from the tiny dusty village roads to the shiny marble columns of DC in less than 48 hours. Talk about culture shock. It was like Back to the Future Part IV, only I couldn’t find Michael J. Fox.
I am still trying to process everything that has happened and even though the jetlag has worn off I still feel like I’m in a dream. Or that the last seven months were a dream. Anyway, the technical term for my situation is “medevac”, or being medically evacuated from country. This gives me the chance to regroup, explore my options, find solutions to my challenges, and ultimately decide what is best for me. Being back in the states, and in DC specifically, has given me a new perspective about being a young, white, American woman living in the rural hills of Rwanda.
With time to kill between appointments, I have taken the time to explore many of the museums and landmarks here in the area. One of the most profound exhibits I encountered was on the idea and history of race, especially in the U.S. I feel so ignorant. What I am going through as a PCV in Rwanda is what millions of people go through their entire lives here in the states. Maybe without the cultural or language differences in some cases, but still with all the other challenges that come along with being a minority. I have been privileged my whole life without thinking or understanding what life might be like for my Hispanic classmate or my black neighbor or my Korean coworker.
I would like to think that in theory I understood how life could be different for them. But how could it ever have resonated with me unless I experienced it myself? What times in my life have I been an outsider, a minority, or unaccepted? And here I am, a minority in Rwanda, yet I am still privileged because in this case, people want to be the minority that I represent. I have the option, no—the privilege, to remove myself from the situation and go home to a place where I am comfortable, where I understand the conversations surrounding me, where nobody stares at me, and where I can be whoever I want to be. In what other situation does a person of a minority have that option?
This safety net allows me the privilege to fail. The privilege to not just put my toes in the water, but jump head first into the deep end knowing that an oxygen tank awaits me at the bottom. Because if things get so bad that I am drowning, I can take a deep breath and be transported back home. I wish all of this wasn’t true. I wish that the concept of minorities based on skin color didn’t exist. I wish that people wouldn’t act differently or treat others differently because of it. Obviously I’m not the first to think this, but facing these realizations head-on has made me even more determined to go back to Rwanda and overcome those many challenges I listed earlier. There are many things in this world that I cannot change, cannot control. However, I can control my attitude and my actions towards those things.
In the words of William Ernest Henley:
I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.