I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was ten and a woman in the grocery store had a patch on her backpack. I asked her what it was and she told me that she lived in a village far far away and helped people with getting clean water. I asked her why they couldn’t buy the gallon water that we had put in our carts. And she said, “Imagine coming every day for water to clean your clothes, to wash the dishes, to take a shower, and for water to drink but the water was dirty and filled with germs.”
That’s what started my wish to one day earn that patch. To live and love an area where I can live like my neighbors and experience their culture whilst helping them. I remember the countless opinions I heard when I first applied to the moment I left.
You are a crazy girl.
I could never do that.
How can you live in a village?
They must at least provide electricity or running water. You’re American! How could they not give you things you are used to?
I heard African languages are hard.
What if you get attacked or robbed?
But what I remember most where the volume of the following remarks and the emotion behind them.
” I almost went abroad too, you know.”
“Oh, I always wanted to do something like that.”
“I always wanted to travel and be strong enough to live on my own in a far away place.”
“We almost did something like that. “
“I almost applied to the Peace Corps.”
When I heard this in the course of a year and sensed the lingering regret behind these words, I knew what I was doing was right. It’s not that “almost” was never in my mind. Though this was my dream, I was afraid. What Indian girl raised and groomed to only be a doctor wouldn’t be afraid?
Trust me, that fear never dissolved. I just learned to live with it. To be prepared because fear is just doubt and strength is certainty. I was certain I was strong enough to do this and that I would come out stronger still.
From the plane in Lusaka, I have eaten food I have never heard of and saw villages always helping out their neighbors. Houses of mud bricks baked in the sun and sand near the river to cement it down. I have ridden a bus without a door, open to the dirt road with seats to fit two, seated by four.
I boiled every bit of water, added chlorine, and then put into a filter. Diarrhea was a common nuisance as traveling always messed up my digestion. “Have you joined the club?” is the joke passed down from the volunteer elders meaning if we have crapped in our pants yet due to illness. I struggled and still struggle to learn Bemba and find my way around this entire village. People begged me for money, harassed me for my gender, and judged me for my upbringing and the luck that I was born in America, unlike their children.
Rats ate through my clothes and skitter in the night. My ceiling is dried straw and black plastic to keep out rain which it doesn’t do well. I am so broke I cannot even get books to read on my Kindle to last quiet nights. If there is no sun to charge my lights, I am asleep or in bed by five, not even able to cook without seeing my way. I’ve killed an African squirrel with a broom, about 30 camel spiders with one hand, and is still blessed to not have yet encountered a snake myself. I’ve see pregnant women come for delivery but then go to their funeral the next week, leaving their children. I’ve went to the weddings of girls young enough to not even know Justin Bieber if they were back home who would eventually have their first child in a few months time. I also seen some of those babies not survive, especially a toddler who fell into a pot of oil.
However, I’ve seen more in darkness as the lights of stars blazed out with the streak of the purple indigo Milky Way stretching out a yawn before me. I’ve seen moons bright enough to light my path. I’ve hiked to a man made dam where I slept in a tent with my best friend and talked about all the dreams she wished for her children who were my age. I’ve fished with my host father, almost waist deep in a sweeping river. I’ve seen waterfalls hidden in the folds of the village lands. I’ve been to a girls vs. boys football match that when the girls won, their coach was hoisted up and carried off on her back as she exclaimed, “I’m going off to sleep; I am not needed here anymore!”
I travel on oxcart to far off meetings, walked for funerals, and rode in vehicles and buses I am always surprised turn on. I’ve drank sugar can juice squeezed manually with ginger and lemons while I got fish caught right in front of me and grilled with onions and tomatoes. As I ate my fifteenth foot of sugar cane and mangoes, my neighbor’s son came and asked me for help with his English homework, and I am quite sure his teacher gave him high marks the next day. I’ve tasted cinnamon straight off the tree and felt the yellow dye of turmeric stain my fingers right from the roots.
I was given a country where English was spoken in its veins and where soap was just “soapu” and if you really try, you can communicate and laugh in a conversation where barely either side speaks a language fully. Where children’s laughs are easily earned and they run to you every day as you return home. Where women can have immense amounts of physical and emotional strength and are the epitome of “the strong.” Where ten year olds lead the brigade against HIV and community truly means come over whenever and a meal is always available to you.
This year I have made friends I could never imagine myself to have. A forty-two year old tailor who is as opinionated, kind, and dedicated as me. And it’s great that she has no patience for pathetic excuses like me. I am also the spoiled baby of a family who always gives unconditional help, love, and protection while really trying not to ask for much.
I have met girls I would have never met in America and odds brought us together and for one, especially took us apart. Doesn’t mean she is forgotten. Not a twenty-nine year old Texan with more energy and life in her eyes than I have in my body. I would never met a proud and strong Arizona citizen who never goes without her UA hoodie and her taste for margaritas and tomatoes with her eggs in the morning who can take my jokes and give smack back. Or a girl from Cali who exudes excitement and a love for Mexican food and motivates me every day to try new recipes, new methods of coping, and new ideas of projects while also inspiring me with her own work.
I’d never think I’d meet a mother of four so happy to be accepted by the Peace Corps after the past she had. Especially a woman who makes my day, any day she happens to be in my life. Or a veteran who is so passionate about Africa and its histories, languages, and stories that has so many gut wrenching unbelievable navy stories for a whole night of laughter amongst our peers. I would never have met such a strong woman in our program coordinating director or commander in chief as I nicknamed her after losing three of her siblings in a year and still working to answer our pleas, and questions, still believing in the work we do.
In this year, I met a little girl named Asha Chanda who was small enough to fit on my forearm in August at the age of 2 and with my help by teaching supplemental feedings and nutritional recipes, weighs more than her three year old cousins by about 4kg and hovers over them with a good three inches. I can no longer throw her in the air or carry her as she has now gained weight and is healthy.
However hard it gets and stuck I feel, I have gained so much that most haven’t. Memories of people who get me to constantly stare in awe and moments of speechlessness I will never be able to replicate or forget.
I know after 27 months, I will arrive home with no more money and less baggage than I left with. Possibly in debt if I plan to rush off to the next part of my plan.
But in this one year, my riches include a home away from home, another family who knows my name in this world who misses me every time I leave, a Zambian dog of nine months who annoys me and wins my affection every day and no word like “almost” in my dictionary.