A few weeks ago I posted about community entry (CE), or the first few months of a PCV’s service after swear in. As you read this, I am heading to Lusaka for In-Service Training and despite the long trip (about 18 hours from my site to our conference accomodations), I am brimming with excitement to see my fellow RAP volunteers and swap stories of our long first three months in site. Community entry is generally thought to be one of the most difficult periods of time in a PCV’s service, with the one year mark and close of service period as close seconds. As I illuded in earlier posts, my personal experience during community entry has been nothing short of one of the most challenging periods of my life. Because my goal with this blog is to cross objectivity with honest experience and information, today’s post and those in the following weeks will highlight some of those challenging experiences. Some of these upcoming stories are humorous, some are cringe-worthy, and some are frightening to a degree that I had to warn my parents about them before they read about it online.
That all being said, I have one request of you: don’t be afraid. I don’t tell you these stories to scare you. I tell them because they are of my experience, and if I have no other purpose as a blogger, sharing my experience is the best piece of myself I can give to you and to the ether into which I write. On a more “here and now” level, negative experiences are part of being in Peace Corps. So much so, in fact, that Peace Corps dedicates several sessions during training (not to mention numerous handbooks, handouts, and manuals) to the ups and downs of service.
As a trainee, Peace Corps gives you a handout that looks like this:
They call this neat little graphic the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment”, and it’s intended to give trainees an idea of the typical emotional roller coaster that awaits them during their service. Overall, it makes sense and I hear it’s fairly accurate from volunteers further along in their service. From my own experience, I would agree that the first three months have a lot of ups and downs as you adjust to new food, make new friends, adjust to a host family, struggle with a new language, and generally cope with being treated as a middle schooler all over again. Toward the end of the training, your confidence has grown and you feel like a high school senior with your parent’s car, a hot date, and a pocket full of gas money; that is, confident, excited, and ready to get the heck out of dodge. Then, like a high school senior thrown into being a college freshman or a first job, community entry begins and you are once again thrust into uncertainty, trepidation, and ego-crushing doses of reality.
For me, the above graphic then becomes a bit too simplified. Thus, for your viewing pleasure I have taken the liberty of redrawing it to reflect my own experience.
Ah, but even this version (and please excuse the poor photo quality) doesn’t quite do justice to the rapid transitions between highs and lows that community entry can inspire. Let’s try again:
Oh yeah, that looks about right. The Richtor Scale of Peace Corps. Seeing these images, you may be wondering, “Is Hannah an emotional nutcase?” I assure, I am not! Before coming to Zambia, I wasn’t much of a crier, wasn’t one to dwell on decisions for very long, and was generally quite certain of myself and my choices. Enter Africa. The new cultural context, challenges in expressing myself (as you may have guessed, I really value being able to share my thoughts and feelings), and some more unexpected challenges have me enjoying a good cry at least twice a month, sleepless nights filled with anxiety, and sometimes trouble making myself step out my front door each morning. Not an ideal situation.
But what exactly, you may be wondering, has so ruffled my feathers? Well, it’s not really one thing or another, but more the long, slow cascade of many events piling into one crushing pile of stress and angst. In short form, here are some of the challenges from my community entry:
– Malaria. Contracted before posting (I’m assuming), the symptoms reared their ugly heads over the first three weeks of CE. I was finally pulled in to test, treat, and recover the last week of May.
Here’s what I look like with mild malaria. Flattering, I know.
– Alcohol problems. While my village and site are lovely places, there are some distinct and serious problems with alcohol. Coming from a little Alaskan town whose unofficial motto is “A drinking town with a fishing problem” and being a dedicated appreciater of fine beers and ciders, I never anticipated that local drinking would be such an issue. But, the proximity of my own hut to those who drink frequently and boisterously meant that I simply couldn’t get away from it. This would become a growing problem over time.
– Jealousy. The volunteer who served before me actually lived in a different, more developed village. Via his suggestion, I was moved to a much smaller village to help avoid theft, constant attention from villagers, and being in close proximity to bars. This sparked serious jealousy in his original village, leading to intentional rumor-mongering and the spread of misinformation by those harboring bitter feelings. To me, jealousy had always been a child’s emotion seldom expressed as straight up jealousy by adults. I would soon learn that jealousy is a common emotion in Zambia and is expressed much more openly and honestly than we do in the States.
– A scary encounter. On my way back to my village after my malaria recovery at the provincial house, I had a very frightening experience with a canter (open bed truck frequently used for transport to bush villages). The conductors of the ride were under the heavy influence of alcohol and I was nearly abandoned in the bush late at night after hours of verbal abuse. Fortunately, this story has a very happy ending and while I emerged from the experience deeply shaken, I am safe and won’t make the same transport decisions twice.
– A site change. Once a PCV arrives at their site, that place is supposed to be their dedicated home for the next two years. The CE period is meant for volunteers to adjust to their communities, learn the scope of their work, and make their hut into a comfortable, beloved home. Alcohol and behavioral problems at my original site led Peace Corps and myself to agree that moving my site (meaning I would move to a different village) would be for the best for both my mental and physical safety. So, I spent most of the month of July helping my group of dedicated, wonderful farmers build a new hut and just as CE ended, I moved in. As I now head to IST, I’ll be re-starting CE in some ways when I return to my new home.
Meet (some of) my farmers. This photo was taken the day we cleared a field for my new hut. I owe a tremendous and unpayable debt of gratitude to these people for the generosity, labor, and welcome they have given to me as I built and moved into a new home (again).
– The threat of loss. In the middle of July, one of my dearest and most important friends (and neighbors) seriously considered early termination (ET). At a time when I myself was struggling with the decision to stay, I simply couldn’t fathom losing one of my best friends and important piece of my support network. Thankfully, this story also has a happy ending.
So, there you have it. An exceptionally quick and dirty version of some of the challenges of my CE. Are any of these problems unique to me? Not by any stretch of even the most creative imagination. Many volunteers have similar experiences and face them with grace, strength, and courage (and occasionally alcoholism) (kidding) (sort of). Facing them myself was, as I mentioned, one of the greatest trials of my life. I dug deep for emotional strength I didn’t know I had. I grew a thick skin. I leaned on friends for support and grew to feel greatful instead of guilty when they responded time and time again with encouragement and optimism. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned to solve my own problems in a foreign culture with the remarkable and generous support of Zambia’s outstanding Peace Corps staff.
They say that the first 3-6 months of Peace Corps service are “a period of minor adjustment”. I hear that now and smile with the irony. Adjusting to Peace Corps is akin to visiting an overzealous chiropracter. Adjustment will be had. It may be slow or lightening fast; easy or difficult beyond your reasonable ability to measure; but you will either choose to find positive change within yourself or small change in a pocket for another bottle of relief. Thankfully (and due to social stigmas in my village), my change has been of the non-alcoholic variety. It’s possible that I’m even coming to enjoy change (gasp!).
So, Peace Corps – it’s tough. But I’m tougher. And that’s just something Zambia will have to adjust to.