In case you haven’t gotten the memo or noticed my increased activity on Facebook, I’m home!!!... for about four months now. I wanted to write a blog before I left, but leaving was so emotional and intense that this little self-appointed task got pushed to the back burner. I also kept writing on my many “to-do” lists to write a little something about adjusting back to American life and being an official Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). I felt an inspired to finally check this item off my list after attending a meeting of RPCVs in Southern Arizona tonight. Here goes nothing:
I have never felt so divided as I did when I left Sierra Leone. I will never forget the blur of a day when I left Madina – the crying, the hugging, the confusion (mostly all coming from me). There had been a lot of anticipation built up for this day and as per usual, I had tried to strategically plan out every goodbye. The evening before my departure I walked all around the town to say goodbye to some of my favorite teachers, students and friends. I can’t express the guilt I felt as I told them my time in Salone had ended. Here I was essentially living the way my friends do for two years, but it was all pretend because I had a deadline and opportunities waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic. There was a pretty accurate phrase in Krio that summed up some of my emotions that I kept on repeating to people; “a de fel am,” which meant I’m feeling the loss, but didn’t know how to fully express in Krio what I had gained. I wrote people’s phone numbers and thanked them for everything they had given. My Salone friends had told me stories of Peace Corps Volunteers before the war who they had never seen or heard from again. I was determined not to let that happen (although now I realize how hard that is).
One of my last memories leaving Madina was my good friend, Fatmata, walking me to the vehicle, holding my hand, and waiting until right before I left to give me money to cover my travelling costs. It was SO Sierra Leonean of her and I can’t tell you how much that little gesture has stuck with me and how much it made me feel a part of the world I was now leaving. I spent the night at my boyfriend’s house in the district capital. His family was gracious enough to take my demon-possessed (but loving) dog, Lucky. I saved the two hardest goodbyes for last, but they were challenging for different reasons. Lucky was a dog and I don’t hold her to a higher standard than people, but I knew she would not survive long without me, for several reasons. I felt terrible abandoning this creature that I cared about and one who had become, selfishly on my part, dependent upon my presence. (Sidenote: To my surprise, Lucky is still alive and kicking. Apparently, she calmed down after I left.) Saying good-bye to Momoh was the hardest goodbye of all and one I am still struggling with.
Those two days were difficult and I felt lonely as I travelled from my town to the capital, where I would be departing from. I had left my peeps wearing this amazing pant suit that Fatmata had made me as a departing gift. As I was waiting for the taxi at the infamous Congo Cross junction to go to the Peace Corps compound, I heard some chuckling from behind and my good padi, Chels (a.k.a. Relsea) yelling, “Yainkain, what the heck are you wearing?” I couldn’t tell you how much of relief it was to see my friends and be reminded that these guys were going through similar situations. Our last few days in Sierra Leone were filled with paperwork and, for some, making final plans for their trips. We went out on the town for a little, but the energy and enthusiasm we had once had grooving to Salone’s finest beats were lacking when our minds were preoccupied with how we were going to juggle these two worlds.
As I expected, that division did not cease after I landed in America – if anything the feeling of separation deepened. I was so happy to see my family and see their feeling of gratitude for my presence and safety. Unfortunately, I only had a short three weeks at home, before I was making moves again. In case you haven’t noticed, which probably means I don’t know you very well, but I’ve been chilling in sunny Tucson doing the grad school thing at the University of Arizona. To most people, it would be exciting to move to a new city and meet new people. Usually, this wouldn’t pose a challenge for me, but just coming back from Salone, the last thing I wanted to do was make new friends. I just kept on thinking I have friends, who I haven’t seen or spent time with in the last two years and now I have to make NEW ones. Not cool. I also didn’t have a lot of time to digest and reflect upon what happened the last two years. I knew I had changed, but how? How could I fit my new thoughts and new ways of doing things into American Rachel? I struggled with this and felt awkward meeting new people while I wasn’t really fully confident in who I was. I eventually grew out of this awkwardness a bit, so don’t worry friends and family in Pennsylvania, I’m not a total loser.
Another struggle has been calling people in Sierra Leone. I’ve talked to Fatmata, my principal, and a couple others, but I mostly talk to Momoh. It’s refreshing to hear the sounds of Madina in the background and be able converse in Krio, something I had been accustomed to. Although it’s comforting to talk to him, every time I hang up, I still feel this emptiness. I don’t know when that will go away or if it ever will.
I still have trouble being able to articulate my experience. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t bad. It is INDESCRIBABLE. How can I explain to people that I gained more than any Sierra Leonean I ever met or tried to serve? I sometimes catch myself in class smiling as there’s this whole world spinning around me. I’ll be completely immersed in a memory from Sierra Leone and right now it’s so easy to picture, smell, and hear things that were in my constant periphery for the last two years. When I catch myself during these imaginations, I am forced back to reality to a windowless room to talk, talk, and talk. I’m afraid for those days when I try to imagine a person and their features are blurred or when I try to remember a song that played on repeat on my little radio everyday but I can’t remember the beat. I’m really dreading those times, but eventually, they will come.
For right now, I just want to remember. I wanted to share this little part of my heart with you, because one that I learned in the Peace Corps is it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to have doubts and questions and not to know things. There’s so much to learn… a whole world of discoveries waiting to happen.
I’ll leave you with a quote from 2011 in my first blog about why I joined the Peace Corps, “After living in a third world country, I didn't just want to talk to my friends about the problems in the world - I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to be a voice for people that didn't think they have a voice. I wanted to be that person that hugged someone when the rest of the world turned their backs. I wanted to be that lending hand where ever, whenever and for whoever needed it!”
WOW, Rachel of 2011, you were quite ambitious. I think (and hope) I’m a bit more realistic now, but it’s nice to be reminded of this enthusiasm. Another Peace Corps Fellow and I were having a conversation with an older volunteer from the ‘60s this evening and she remarked on how she loved of our fresh perspectives just recently returning from our services. She served in Turkey and she was telling us about her times that she had went back to Turkey and how she showed her husband around her former hometown. I was reminded that Sierra Leone will also be a home to me. I will never forget my time there and although most memories will become foggy over time, the fact that I had the opportunity to make the memories in the first place makes me pretty lucky.
p.s. I fully believe things come full circle. As I'm sitting in Arizona walking down memory lane, my replacement in Madina, Matt Solberg, is totally kicking butt! I'm so happy the community is blessed with an amazing Volunteer. Here's an update from his end in Salone: http://talesofthesolberg.blogspot.com/ Go Matt!!