One of the biggest struggles I have encountered during my time here is balancing my preconceived notions of what my Peace Corps service would be like and my actual experience. I didn’t really know what to expect when I moved to Rwanda 16 months ago but I still managed to create a myriad of situations that I believed I would encounter during my service. And guess what? A lot of those situations have yet to present themselves and sometimes, when they actually do, they have been absolutely awful compared to what I had envisioned when I romanticized my service. I expected non-stop adventure and as it turns out you have to respect the fact that sometimes just getting through the day is adventure enough!
The discrepancy between my visualization of the Peace Corps and my actual experience is like tracing a beautiful image from a book but the pages are misaligned, so what I end up producing is similar enough to the original but not quite what I had in mind, a little messy compared to the book’s version. If you have ever done an art project with me you know that I like symmetry and neatness and I tend to act like a petulant child when my art doesn’t turn out well, which is most of the time since I am not much of an artist. Now that my project is a tad sloppy and chaotic compared to what I had imagined when I signed up for the Peace Corps I discovered that my task is to find value and beauty in the altered version of my original plans. As it turns out my service has been one big lesson on flexibility and the power of a positive attitude!
I find that when people (including me) think of the Peace Corps they imagine volunteers who live out in tiny rural villages in mud huts, bathe in the river, and read books by candlelight with tarantulas and snakes lurking in the dark. When I arrived I discovered that the local government had banned traditional huts and my site had electricity. My school had a roof and while the community is by no means wealthy it is not completely full of destitution and poverty. With every new luxury I was afforded I felt as though I was becoming increasingly distanced from the Peace Corps ideal. I felt like a bad volunteer compared to the imaginary volunteer that I had conjured up in my mind before I was even accepted into my program. When I finally arrived in Rwanda and projected that imaginary volunteer onto myself I found that the two people did not seamlessly blend together but overlapped, misaligned like a sloppy tracing.
This encouraged me to ponder what it means to be a good volunteer. I am still learning what this concept entails but most importantly I know what is not required to be a good volunteer. I can have electricity and still be a good volunteer. I can have someone help me wash my clothes and still be a good volunteer. I can spend a rainy day watching movies and still be a good volunteer. I can try a project and fail miserably and still be a good volunteer. It has been a slow process but I think I just recently came to accept that my service is perfect just the way it is, even if it has been drastically different that the experience I had once envisioned for myself.
So for any future volunteers reading this I encourage you to embrace the truth that there is not one “Peace Corps experience.” Your service is what you make of it and while you will have the best and worst days of your life during your 27 months you will also have a lot of days that are just in-between. Don’t forget that even though you are a Peace Corps volunteer you also here to live your life. So when you skip out on a school event trust me when I say that there will be plenty more. When you want a mental health day then take one and don’t feel guilty. You can take a break in America and be fine but I find that most volunteers tend to hold themselves to such high standards expectations that they almost always fail in some way. Of course in reality it is not actually failure, but when you pressure yourself to achieve unrealistic goals then it is easy to “fail.” It is great to have lofty expectations and goals but be sure to put them into local context (things move slowly) and be realistic about what you can do and still live a healthy and happy life.
So my recommendation to all you future (and current) volunteers is this: enjoy every day (the days go by slowly but the months fly by), be proud of what you achieve and be kind to yourself when things fall apart, try to respond to ludicrous situations with humor and grace (even when your colleague informs you that you are so fat you should be entitled to two husbands or a bird flies into your face while you are teaching) and most importantly never compare your service to another volunteer’s experience, even if that volunteer is the person you thought you would be.