There comes a time in every Peace Corps volunteer’s service where they consider early termination, or ETing in PC parlance. I don’t usually feel comfortable making such a sweeping generalization of PCVs, given that all of our services are so wildly different from one volunteer to the next, but the thought of ETing seems to be a nearly universal consideration. There seems to be a point in nearly everyone’s service where going home – America! Cheeseburgers! Hot, running water! NPR! – pulls on you; the idea of laying down the good fight and going back to the life you knew, and where people knew you. It calls to every PCV, usually at night just as your last candle burns out and your headlamp batteries are dead and oh! is that Mr. D. come knocking? Yeah…sometimes ‘Merica just seems like the place to be.
So, when those times come, should you stay or you go?
Well, it turns out that while going home might seem like the easy answer, most PCVs agree that it is much harder to leave than it is to stay. Counter-intuitive you say? That’s what I thought, too, before coming here. Now, having been through my own desires to ET and watching as PCV friends struggled with their own thoughts of home, I agree with the conventional PC wisdom: the decision to go home is tough.
Now, I think it’s important to note that there are many good reasons to ET. For some, Peace Corps service turns out to not be the place for them. Any PCV will tell you with understanding, “If you don’t want to be here, then don’t be here.” There’s no reason to be unhappy. Peace Corps service gives you an opportunity to make a difference in the developing world, but when the curtain drops it’s really your own life that you have to worry about. Did you make a difference to yourself? Within yourself? If Peace Corps service isn’t the avenue to pursue that personal change, then ETing can be the right choice.
Similarly, some volunteers go home for school, to support their families, to take a job, or any number of other life choices that come around before their service is up. I think the real fear of ETing comes from those volunteers (like myself) who go through a period of thinking, “I just can’t, or perhaps don’t want to, hack this anymore.” But going home to all those people who had supported me, believed in me, and sent me off with going-away presents and encouragement? Admitting that I failed at Peace Corps? That seemed unthinkable to me; a shame I simply couldn’t bare. Before coming to Zambia, my RPCV friends told me “there is no shame in coming home early,” and PC staff have reiterated that same point over and over again during training. At first it seemed like a warning: you might not make it. It was almost offensive coming from the staff, but gradually I realized that they weren’t trying to criticize or scare us but rather help us give ourselves permission to leave if we needed to. Even still, ETing remained a taboo in my own mind, for myself.
Then, one week after posting, my intake lost its first person to ET. He went home because his love for a woman left behind was greater than his desire to stay in Africa. Here in the Mbala area we lost a person from the LIFE group just before our provincial meetings in June. This volunteer was in his 2nd tour of PC service (previously in Fiji) and rejoined for the cultural exchange and experience of international work. Though I wasn’t able to speak with him before he left, word on the grapevine says he left for a job back in the States after this 2nd PC tour wasn’t fulfilling his reasons for joining again. I admire his bravery to be able to say, “this isn’t what I’m here for,” and to gracefully take his leave. Do I have that same courage? I’m not so sure.
But that’s just the thing: in Peace Corps, each volunteer is stuck soundly in our own shoes and no matter how many stories you hear or volunteers you know who choose to ET, eventually the choice to go (or stay) comes down to just you. Where do you want to be, and which choice is right for you?
Throughout most of June and July, I struggled daily with these questions. I knew I didn’t want to be in my then-current housing situation. I knew I didn’t want to struggle everyday with alcohol problems in my host family, nor dread coming home to unpredictable evenings. Those things wore on my mental state until I didn’t want to be in Africa at all. But, the idea of coming home brought blood to my cheeks. I couldn’t fathom going home and telling people I had quit. So for a while I did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do in Peace Corps: I stuck it out because I was too cowardly to go home. I stayed because I didn’t feel like I had any other place to go. I should clarify here that it isn’t because people at home wouldn’t have welcomed me back (they would have, with open arms), but rather because I felt like home should be wherever your heart is, and I didn’t know my own heart’s address. Despite all that was going on in my day-to-day life, it was not knowing where my heart and self belonged that hit me the hardest.
Well, turns out that time and physical labor heal most things, or at least puts a band-aid on long enough for you to think about something else. In a last ditch effort to figure myself out, I dug as deep as I could for inner strength and tried to solve my problems in the village. With the help of my sensational farmers, I built a new house, moved to a new village, and many other little changes that are old news by now. It may seem like this was the obvious choice (“If it isn’t working out, then try a little harder!”), but the risk was in if this last effort to stay had failed. I would have drained my last reserves of emotional energy, tried every trick in my book to make things work, and would still have found myself without options. I would have gone home, but would have left my hopes, idealism, and inner-drive to better my life and the lives of others in the African dust. Tough those things were here, that loss of identity and belief would have been an insurmountable challenge. I’m not sure how long it would have taken to finally recover myself, especially at home in the midst of self-inflicted guilt and shame.
But, I got lucky and being too cowardly to go home gave me a fresh opportunity to stay. And now? I wake up each morning in my new home happy, surrounding by people who care about me, and truly believing in the work I’m doing here (and in myself). So, to ET or not to ET? To stay or to go? I still don’t have the answer for someone struggling with that question. I can only say which choice was right for me, and even then, I wouldn’t recommend my decision-making process. Staying was the right choice for me. If I had left, I would have always looked back on that period of my life with some shade of regret; of that, I am now sure.
So, if you are struggling in the same way I did with your Peace Corps service or perhaps some other challenge in your life, I hope reading my experience may give you a little insight on yours. If nothing else, I want to offer you a piece of advice my father gave to me years ago when I was working a wearisome job in the middle of nowhere and loathing every second of it. We were speaking on an intermittent phone connection and I was deep into a pity party for myself when he said, “You know, Hannah, you can survive just about anything for a month.” Since then, I remind myself of that fact (turn out, you really can manage just about anything for a month with an adequate supply of patience, good humor, and occasional illicit spirits) whenever I’m faced with something I simply cannot imagine tolerating for another second more. So, perhaps the best advice I can give is to stick out for a month, and then re-evaluate.
After all, you were tough enough to join the Peace Corps. My bet is that for a month, you can survive just about anything.