So You Think You Want to Be a Peace Corps Volunteer? [Part 1]

 

When I told people that I was applying for the Peace Corps back in 2014, there were quite a few staple reactions that I received.  These ranged from “Wow, you are going to do such amazing things and change the world and every child in Africa!” to “I always wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.. you are living my dream as an old hippie” and even “Why would you go halfway across the world when there is so much work to be done in America?  Do you not love your country?”.  My answers became more routine as I spoke with a greater number of people about the upcoming possibilities, just as my anxiety rose as the days drew closer to my scheduled interview date.  I can still remember the deeply entrenched fears that lay submerged beneath the surface, of wondering whether or not I was competitive enough to be accepted into the Peace Corps, and what I would do if I was rejected.  I felt a strange sense of calm and acceptance wash over me when I received my email in December that I had been placed on the waitlist for Namibia – who would have thought that peace would come with such an unsure reply.

 

Throughout January and February, I went through the always detailed, sometimes frustrating process of Medical Clearance for the Peace Corps.  This included multiple trips to doctor’s offices because of repeated testing, locating all of my old medical records, getting fingerprinted, sending in passports in order to receive my Peace Corps official passport with Namibian visa attached, and a trip to the passport office that left me in tears.  All of this, and it was not even guaranteed that I would be leaving in April to fulfill a life long dream to serve as a PCV.  This did not stop me from teaching yoga for a week at a Mind-Body-Wellness retreat in San Miguel, Mexico the month before we were potentially departing, with two very special women in my family.  It was in this beautiful country, sitting next to a small lake listening to an indigenous man play the didgeridoo, that I received the email confirming my placement with the Youth in Development program in Namibia.  I was ecstatic, overwhelmed, full of anxiety and relieved – I must have sat by that body of water for 30 minutes, allowing everything to process in my mind.  Life has such an interesting way of putting you in exactly the right place at the right time so that you feel supported and fulfilled in your endeavors.

 

As my 27 months of service are drawing rapidly to a close, I have been doing quite a bit of reflecting on my overall experience.  I have also spoken to a few people back in the States who have asked questions about what Peace Corps service is like, as they are considering applying as well.  So in this blog, although it is not unique or the first of its type, I wanted to highlight some of the things that I will greatly miss when I leave Namibia.  I have tried to answer as openly and honestly as possible while still retaining a non-biased perspective of my service.  I hope that it provides some insight into my personal recollections and thoughts, but encourage those who are thinking about joining the Peace Corps to look for as many resources as possible to base their own decisions around.  And of course, always trust your gut instincts – it is what brought me to the Peace Corps and what has kept me safe during my 27 months abroad.

 

  1.  Greeting before starting a conversation.  This is something that I was starting to do before I left for Namibia, and I noticed how much more aware I was becoming of the present.  Instead of rushing from one place to the next, or one person to the next, I love that every conversation you have here (with sober individuals, at least) begins with “hello, how are you?”  To me, it does not feel like the disingenuous way of the South of the U.S. where the person was merely asking to be polite.  There is something truly thoughtful about greeting someone, especially when it is done in the local language, that makes me feel a bit more connected to my often strange surroundings.  In the terms of the service industry, I believe that it helps to humanize people who are normally only observed as performing a task – something that my father and I spoke about often when he was visiting, as we watched tourist after tourist avoid eye contact with a local and only address them for their occupation that served them.  I don’t think that this is something that I will leave behind, as it has become very much engrained in my character.
  2.  Mahangu, ombidi, mutete, Oshikundu and donkey meat.  Much of the food in Namibia is quite basic – pasta, rice, bread and meat – but there are a few traditional foods that I won’t have much access to once I am back.  Unless people are starting to eat donkey meat nowadays.. but somehow I doubt that.  In the northern parts of the country, mahangu (millet) is a staple item, eaten as the carbohydrate of many people’s meals and diets.  It is also used to make Oshikundu, a cloudy, sweet and sour drink, when it is mixed with sorghum and left to ferment.  Mutete and ombidi are wild spinaches that grow during the rainy seasons, picked and then dried, to be rehydrated into a delicious stew with other vegetables and spices.  If anyone knows of any Namibian stores in the U.S. in or around the North Carolina area.. hit me up.  I’ll even take a general “Africa” store, despite its ridiculous attempt to capture an entire continent in one store.
  3.  Sunsets, sunrises and any time the sky changes color in general.  The Namibian sun has been my absolute worst enemy over the last 27 months, from sun spots to wrinkles to eye sensitivity.  It is unforgiving, relentless and makes walking around the community (a huge part of work as a volunteer) sometimes unbearable.  But damn, I have never seen the sun coming and going appear so vividly and beautifully.  The colors that are ignited in the sky, ranging from deep purples to honeydew orange, is enough to inspire peace and respite on my toughest days.
  4.  Being able to walk everywhere in my town.  I have learned that small towns have their charms as well as their downfalls.  I will never miss being stared at everywhere I go or being talked about constantly because I am different, but I love being able to walk from my house to the location for work, back to one of the schools and then to the grocery store all in a matter of a few hours.  I think about how much I have lowered my carbon footprint in the time I have spent living in Khorixas, since the only time I am in a car is when I am traveling out of site.  It will feel strange to go back to a world where people drive to the store that is a 10 minute walk away  in order to save time and energy.
  5.  Things just coming together.  Never in my life have I lived and worked in a country where things are planned so last minute and procrastination run so rampantly.  This was a huge adjustment to make, as I have always been a person who make preparations that sometimes drive others crazy, but I think I am a more balanced person for it after learning to adapt.  You would think the lateness and lack of planning would lead to a lot of events that do not take place, but it is quite the opposite – somehow, everyone involved comes together and pulls off their parts with incredible quickness the day of the event and it actually happens.  Sometimes it feels like magic and I often had to stifle my surprise at the beginning of my service, while now I only shake my head in amazement.  It will be strange to go back to a world where planning takes priority in a job and if there is a lack of it, things fall apart instead of fall together.A small sampling of the things I will miss about Namibia, its vast array of cultures and its colorful eccentricities.  I am thankful to have finally (in 2 months) fulfilled the dream of joining the Peace Corps and have served in a country that I did not even know existed until I was assigned to live in it.
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