Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Note: I received a recent email from an acquiantance of mine. She served in a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, like me; though my service ended in 1997 and hers much more recently. Although we lived in different places, the same man was sous-préfet (local administration) of each of our villages. She asked me how my readjustment had gone. Below is my response (edited for context).

A few points of reference: Beindou is the tiny village I lived in. Kissidougou is the city I visited weekly, since it was about 7 miles from my village. Conakry is the capital of Guinea. NZerkeore, Dalaba, Kankan, Labe, Mamou, and Gueckedou are all medium/large cities in Guinea. A 'gros camion' is a huge truck used to transport goods and people from one open air market to another across the country; wares are shoved in the cab of the truck and the people sit on top of the wares... extremely dangerous, especially on bad roads.

* * *
My readjustment was somewhat atypical in some ways and probably normal in others. Two days before I was to leave Beindou, I stepped into a hole (long story but I WAS completely sober :-) and bruised my thigh quite badly. Normally, I might have gone to Conakry immediately, since it required some sort of attention. But the villagers and sous-prefet had organized a goodbye party for me on my last night, the day after I hurt myself. Since they'd gone to the trouble of setting up this party, I sucked it up my last day there. But because I was injured, I was not able to go around the village and say my goodbyes to everyone in the way I'd planned. The party was really cool, and quite touching, but since I could move only with great difficulty, I only stayed for the essential part and left when they started dancing. As a result, when I left, I felt as though I was leaving without a sense of closure, so to speak and I felt bad.

It bugged me so much, I had to go back. I saved for the next 18 months and got enough to buy a plane ticket back to visit. That year and a half was really tough. There was the usual readjustment stuff they talk about, which is bad enough. When they went on about reverse cultural shock in those seminars, I thought it was psychobabble baloney. I figured, I'm going back to the place I've always lived, so what's the big deal. Except I wasn't the same person as I'd always been. I found out the reverse culture shock was real. Then you add to that the sense of unfinished business and it was a rough time. And obviously no one really understood. I think my family tried as much as they could. They couldn't fully understand what I was going through but at least they realized there was more going on than they could really wrap their heads around. Because of this, they didn't try to diminish what I felt or act condescendingly. That made a big difference.

But even well-meaning friends didn't have a clue. To them, the Peace Corps was like visiting a great museum. A great experience and very educational, but when you get back, you go on with your life as though nothing major had happened. Something like the PC is a life-transforming experience for many of us who do it. One or two friends implied that I should just get over it and move on. I lost a bit of regard for them.

In the beginning, my readjustment was really hard. I remember once, shortly after I got back, I visited an old college professor of me. She was talking to her husband at the time, going on about the shape of their garden and how they were never going to win the village's garden competition or something like that. I remember being struck at how superficial it was. About how irrelevant were the things we obsess about so much. In the year or so after I got back, I was somewhat harsh like that in my assessment of people.

In time, as you might expect, I've become more accomodating. When I took off my rose-colored glasses, my memory reminded me of a few things. I remembered the times when Guineans would argue on forever about who played what position in a soccer game. Taxi drivers would spend 20 minutes arguing about which car should go first on the ferry that took maybe 10 minutes to cross the river. Many people (especially those imbued with liberal guilt) think such self-indulgence is unique to the decadent western world. When I stopped being so judgemental, I comprehended that everyone, rich or poor, argues about irrelevant, superficial crap, including me. For better or worse, it's part of humanity.

When I did finally go back, I did find the closure I was looking for. I said goodbye to everyone. I said what I had to say to my three best friends that I might never see again for the rest of my life. By the time I left, I was content. And things have been a lot smoother since then.

Of course, I still miss Beindou. I still remember about sitting in my doorway during a rainstorm watching little kids streak through the puddles and trying to hear BBC's Focus on Africa program through the rain pounding on my metal roof. I still reminisce about sitting on my porch, at night, chatting with my friends, with cooking fires, kerosene lamps and obscenely bright stars the only illumination. I still remember about playing Lido (which is similiar to the board game Sorry) with the local little kids on a hot afternoon. I'm still grateful to my next door neighbor who once lectured me about closing my windows when I spent the night in Kissidougou, even though theft was almost non-existent in my village. I still laugh that my house's fancy metal roof leaked but the grass-thatched roof of my friend Benjamin's family hut did not. I wonder what's become of the then-little tree in my backyard that is quite literally the fruit of orange seeds I spat out there one February afternoon. And sometimes, when I get pissed off at home or stressed at work, I think of myself sitting on the sous-prefet's porch playing some clapping game with his little boys or debating African (but not Guinean) politics with him or having his wives chastise me for being too thin (I was then a svelt 200 pounds); you can't do that and not end up relaxed. I remember being shook up on the first trip I ever took where we drove by a 'gros camion' on the Kissidougou-Kankan route that had just tipped over on the badly potholed dirt road. I remember the vibrancy of N'Zérékoré, the hot dustiness of Kankan, the green of Labé, the majestic beauty of Dalaba, the refreshingly cool weather of Mamou, the oppressive humidity of Conakry that made it hard to breathe, the disgusting dirtiness of Guéckédou, the homey familiarity of Kissidougou. Next Wednesday, I think, will be the 8th anniversary of my swearing in as a volunteer. And I still remember. Thanks for reminding me to remember.


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