Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Romance vs. Reality

Peace Corps has such a romantic image. Before coming here, I imagined such exciting and idealistic images like traveling the world, laughing all the time with local children, building schools and wells, spending my days in the field vaccinating cattle and helping livestock farmers, making a tangible difference every day, etc. Picture Angelina Jolie in aviators and khaki pants, working in a refugee camp, an independent, worldly woman actively fighting poverty – that’s the image of Peace Corps that comes to mind for many people, including my own pre-Peace Corps self. While it’s a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t at all change my decision to come, this is not reality. Of course, it’s not reality anywhere – we aren’t always living meaningful thrilling lives no matter where we are. But I’d just like to dispel the myths.

The truth: nothing like that former vision. Village life is pretty boring. Not much to do for entertainment – good thing I grew up as an only child and know how to keep myself occupied. Work is excruciatingly slow right now (as I understand it is for most PCVs at first) – I’ve been trying to meet with my supervisor for weeks to create a workplan and re-evaluate my job description (aka I’m not here to count pills for the nurses) but he’s always off doing something else, or doesn’t call to tell me when he can’t make a meeting we have together. You really have to create your own work here, and I’m trying. While my Facebook status updates (and even this blog) always sound so exciting, those really thrilling days happen maybe once every two weeks – the rest of the time I’m just here, trying to find work to do, getting frustrated with my inability to understand most of the people around me (my Runyankore just isn’t that good yet), avoiding harassment from men, wishing I could be doing more meaningful activities and interacting with more people. And the food – oh! I’m afraid I’m becoming anorexic (not really, Mom, don’t worry) because of the monotonous diet. I’m not keen on making some of the local foods myself (they take hours and aren’t even that tasty), and have been subsisting mostly on rice, pasta, potatoes, PB&J, milk, eggs, bananas, and some other fruits and vegetables. The diet is just so routine. Case in point – you go into a local restaurant and they never have a menu because everyone knows what will be on it – matooke (steamed plaintain-like bananas), posho (maize meal), maybe rice, maybe millet, maybe meat, maybe groundnut (peanut) sauce. That’s about it. It makes sense to not have a huge variety of foods when most people here grow their own foods (and how many different things can you really grow in one garden?) but it’s still getting old for me. I’m convinced I’ll gain 30 pounds in the first month I’m back in the U.S. just because all I’ll want to do is eat!

But despite these challenges, that’s life – not every day is an adventure. This isn’t a vacation, this is where I live and work, and I’m learning a new rhythm of how to carry out my days. I’m learning that the little accomplishments, like understanding 30% of what someone says to me in Runyankore-Rukiga, holding a meeting on the same day we planned for it to happen, networking with another organization in the area, or learning to cook something new, are what really get me through. If I look at the big picture, I get frustrated by how slowly things are going – but if I live one day at a time, things are manageable, life is good, and I can see the small impacts I’m having that, over time, accumulate to be something truly meaningful.


Sandra said...

You have to give it some time, Britt. At the end of your stay, you will have tons to do and you will regret having to leave without being able to finish everything. This is the case anywhere you go. Maybe this is a good time to work on your language skills until everything starts up? To us, your life still sounds fascinating, even when these fascinating moments are a few weeks apart. You're doing great and you seem to have planned a few trips pretty soon, which will get you over your boredom. Shall I send you some books?

Britt Larson said...

Thanks, Sandra, I appreciate the pep talk. This is definitely the time when we're supposed to just integrate into our community, work on the language, etc. I'm sure you're right - at the end of service, I'll be wondering where the time has gone and wishing I could have done more.

And I can't ever say no to books - I would be thrilled if you want to send me some. I promise to send something in return! :)

Deb Rufner said...

In spite of how it feels, just being there is making an impact on those around you. Each and every contact you make with another person there sends a message to them that someone cares about them. Someone traveled far from a comfortable home and far from friends and family to come to be with them and to want to make their life better. Just knowing that can make that person and those around him or her feel loved and cared about and that can be the start of empowering them to want to make their lives better. So make that your goal for now - just show them they are cared about and that you are there for them - and the projects and concrete accomplishments will follow. I love you!