Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Invitation, and Serious Doubt

"You will definitely be living with a host family for two years," the Africa Desk Officer who oversees Mauritania told me, and I, as they say in books, felt my stomach drop.

I received my invitation to serve as an Agroforestry Agent in Mauritania, leaving in June, this morning, and was excited. I know that Mauritania is the armpit of all Africa placements, that it's proverbially "the hardest" place you can go. That it's (again, proverbially) the hardest service you can do. Not because of the people, because the people are known for their hospitality and kindness to strangers. No, it's because there's no water and no arable land (that's an exaggeration) and it's the Sahara. What's not the Sahara is the Sahel. And what's not either is the riverbank of the Senegal, which is a tiny little sliver of the actual area. But they speak Arabic and French, and they're kind people, and being on the front lines of reforestation efforts, that's something in which you can really, really believe. That's something towards which you could really work, and feel like maybe you were helping, in a tiny little way, to save just a small part of the world. To stop the Sahara from taking over that particular oasis, or even that family's garden, that would be worth two years of my life. Helping to establish a more stable and sustainable food supply, that would be worth two years of my life.

It would be worth two years of my life, or maybe more, and in all ways but two it was the absolute dream placement. There's possible work in a beekeeping extension as a secondary project, I would get to plant lots of Moringa trees (which are beautiful and supertrees in terms of providing food and medicine and shade), and promote the idea of fighting the Sahara. Of course, there's the fact that it gets up to 130 degrees F, and is nearly a perpetual sandstorm (that's an exaggeration, too). And that much of the country gets about two inches of rain every year (not an exaggeration. Sometimes it's less). I thought, "Okay, these things will give me a wonderous desert-camping ability, and I'll have an appreciation and respect for water beyond anything I'll ever gain by not living in-or-near the Sahara." I thought, "Wow. That's going to be hard. But I bet I can eat goat, and I like goat. And I bet I can do it. I'm excited to try. There's probably really interesting Venn-diagram interactions of French and Arabic/Muslim cultures and cuisines. There's probably wonderful, flowing desert clothes and beautiful, tiny, intricate artwork. Just because you hear about it being the hardest place doesn't mean it's not rewarding. It must be rewarding beyond all belief, because they've got more than six people in-country right now. Let's go." No catch yet. In fact, it gets better. There can't be mosquitoes in the Sahara, because they'd all die before hatching. No mosquitoes? SWEET! And better, because I know someone going to Mali (neighboring country), and Senegal (which is supposed to be amazing) is just south of us. And, did I mention, French-speaking in a way that Madagascar was not.

"So, where's the catch?" is what you're all asking yourselves right now. Let me go further. Let me remind you about how much I want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. How I've wanted to from literally the minute I found out about the Peace Corps more than four years ago, in a storybook "sudden, enduring inspiration" kind of way. How I've been tirelessly working towards being placed for nearly two years now, and how even in the face of both Madagscar delays, it was disappointing but okay. The only doubt I've suffered, the actual doubt, was when I read about the "difficulties" section in the welcome book for Madagsacar--"You'll be sick and lonely and tired of everyone. You'll be exhausted, frustrated, and repeatedly called "vazaha". You won't be able to communicate with anyone, you'll be homesick, you'll have culture shock, and much of the food will be bland, unfamiliar, or both. You will have no down time, and you will regularly have emotional breakdowns. [and then the next section:] So, what are the hard parts?" I had a flicker of doubt right then, and that was all. What I have now (or had more intensely, two hours ago. Thanks to Jen, Andrew, Lauren, and Katie for helping me put myself back together again) is a massive amount of doubt about whether I can make it through my service years.

I would be living with a host family. For two years. Two years. Those of you who know me well know that I have a fairly impressive, but preposterous, talent for alienating people. I do it very well. One reason I am so good at it, is that I really do enjoy having time to myself. In fact, to deal with stress, I need time to myself, to talk myself through things, to cry without an audience, to rant out loud to an empty room (with no one in rooms with adjoining ventilation systems) about the frustration I feel with the world. As some of you have noted, I am sometimes an angry person. Angry at the world for not being perfect*; for some reason, that defect has always been something I take personally. But I'm getting a lot better at dealing with it, and one way is to just let the anger out verbally, without needing to try to explain it in a rational way to anyone. It's not about rational. It's about emotional maintenance, and it's not as common and overweeningly explosive as this paragraph makes it sound, so if you do not know that about me already, please don't run away screaming.

Another way I create mental and emotional space for myself is that I cook my own meals, most of the time. With a few exceptions (family and close friends), I find it stressful to eat food prepared by other people (unless it's fast food, which doesn't really count as food anyway, in a lot of senses). Maybe I'm a control freak, but I find it comforting to do as much with the food as I can before I eat it. That doesn't mean gourmet meals, it means I like to grow what I eat. Failing that, I like to cook it, to be in charge of exactly what happens to it, because it feels more nourishing that way. So sue me, I get spiritual about food.

Neither personal space nor personal food preparation would be possible, according to the guy I talked to about it. In addition, I got a full rundown of the Peace Corps' talking points for those-who-have-already-been-taken-in-by-the-slogans ("Life is Calling. How Far Will You Go?" "Peace Corps: The Hardest Job You'll Ever Love."):

(1) Flexibility is key, you seem inflexible, so you may be a bad candidate for Peace Corps.
(2) Didn't you hear me?
(3) You're not supposed to spend two years with your door closed anyway, you're supposed to actually help people
(4) Your community wouldn't like you if you closed your door all the time anyway
(5) Did we not mention that flexibility is key?
(6) If you're unwilling to be flexible, we can rescind your application and remove you from further consideration
(7) You seem to be forgetting that Peace Corps needs people who are committed, and willing to make sacrifices. Maybe we should remind you that we're not a travel agency, we're an International Aid Organization.
(8) Call us if you have any more questions or want to talk about any of your other concerns.

My responses were:
(1) But I'm excited to go to Mauritania! I want to go to Mauritania! I've wanted to be a PCV for over four years!
(2) I am flexible, I just know myself well psychologically, and I know that having downtime has been both difficult and imperative in my past experience with international host family situations.
(3) I wouldn't spend much time behind closed doors, just if I needed the privacy to cry or something.
(4) But but but...I...I just said that I wasn't going to close my door all the time!
(5) What?
(6) Wait, I thought--what?
(7) I--wait, I--Uh--I'm not--what do you mean? I know it's an IAO. I want to help, I just...
(8) Thank you? For your time and consideration?

So, this has introduced doubt into my mind as to whether or not I can actually make it through two years of service. I've never felt this way before, never doubted that I could do it, only wanted to leave the possibility of ETing in people's minds, so it wouldn't be as hard to explain to them if I did. But now, it's almost like an experiment. I'm interested. I'm concerned. I'm curious--How Far Will I Go?

So, I'm going to go. I want to go, quite badly. Also, there's no other option. I don't want to get a job yet, and I don't know what I want to study in grad school, or if I want to go. I still really want to go do Peace Corps in its own right, too. As much, if not more, than ever. Only thing is, you can no longer bounce bricks off my confidence. Can I make it for two years in Mauritania?

I have come up with some coping strategies, though. One is to 'pray' for an hour every day by myself. Mauritanians seem to be pretty respectful of religion, so that seems like it could work. Another is to journal for an hour every day. Mauritanians seem to be fairly respectful of education, so that could also work. Add a bike ride or run every day, and you've suddenly got three hours or so of down-ish time. I think I can probably do it, but I still wonder: can I make it for two years in Mauritania?

Then again, maybe they'll have an attempted coup, too, and I'll have to be flexible again and go somewhere like Fiji. Wouldn't that be the pits.

* People are mean to each other, they're mean to the environment. They're selfish and hypocritical, judgmental, and smallminded. They don't think critically, they have messed-up priorities, they very often seem stupid, and they abuse language by writing and reading things like the da Vinci code. They're manipulative liars, they don't value food, farmers, clean water, clean air, greenspace, climate stability, real thinking, or the necessity of sacrifice. Oh, and they whine about other people too much.


Becca said...

Hi, I was supposed to go to Madagascar in June and found your blog on the Peace Corps Journals site. I was actually evacuated from Chad in 2006 and am finally going back to Peace Corps. I just wanted to tell you from my experience that living with a host family does not mean that you don't get privacy. I lived with a host family my whole time in Chad - I cooked dinner for myself every night(though I ate with my family in the afternoons also only because they wanted to include me). I had tons of time to myself and privacy because they didn't want to disturb me during my afternoon rest time. Living with a host family during training is entirely different from living with a host family at your site when you become more independent and able to be a part of the culture. Good luck in making your decision.

hilinda said...

I think this sort of confidence meltdown is part of the process, and it's probably just as well you're having it now, rather than having it after you get there. It's forcing you to work on some strategies, not only for coping with the issue, but for coping with NEEDING to cope with an issue.

Just remember that sometimes- often- the hard parts are the best parts, afterwards. That's what makes you stronger, makes you grow.

And for what it's worth, I'm sure that somewhere along the path you will run into things that will make you look back at this crisis and wonder why it seemed so important at the time. That's not necessarily a happy thing, but it's the nature of personal growth, changes in perspective and paradigm shift- that you can't remember how it felt to be who you were before you changed.

You're taking on a lot. It will be hard. You know that. You are probably underestimating how hard, but that's okay, that's part of the process, too. You are also likely underestimating how rewarding it will be, too, since it is world-rocking, life-changing, and you haven't done a lot of that before.

Embrace your doubt and your fear. You have a few months to work them out, to become more familiar with how that feels. Desensitization.

"How Far Will You Go?" starts now, not when you leave for your assignment. And it starts again every day.

John Armstrrong said...

Hey Katherine! First, I am so sorry that Madagascar did not work out for you. Second, I don't intend to impress upon you an opinion about what decision you should make. Having said that, I encourage you to take a significant step back in this process (which you seem to be doing well). Certainly, any time you are involved in planning a significant trip or new direction, you get compulsively, obsessively caught up in it. It sounds like you have some time before committing. Often I think the concerns and worries of something boil up in the decision process, with the chance of overshadowing the positive elements. On the other hand, it's probably wise not to ignore those concerns either. I'm certain you could handle the assignment - I see it more as a question of you deciding if you will truly want to do it for two years. If you have the means, I would encourage you to take some sort of a trip somewhere for a few days, as a way of stepping back and concentrating on something else for some time, then examining the question again. With you the best!

Therese said...

Hi, I found your blog when I was looking for information on the current situation in Madagascar. I am currently a PCV in South Africa (where the Madagascar volunteers will most likely be going for a while).

Anyways, I just wanted to say, that I, like you, really did not want to live with a host family. However, I have now been at it for 14 months and I can say that it is one of the best parts of my service. I really really did not expect it. It was rough at first, but I have really started to enjoy it. There are lots of benefits. You instantly have someone who will do anything for you--i.e. show you around, introduce you to the community and to your neighbors, and watch out for you when you need help. Plus my family has become friends that I can not imagine leaving.

That being said, they do give me alot of space. If yours don't, just make sure to nicely make it clear that you need it. If I didn't have any I would be in trouble.

Good luck! If I can give you any advice or help or whatever, let me know! I knew someone who served in Mauritania in the early 2000's and she loved it.


Heidi said...

Dang, and I was just selfishly thinking, "cool, now she'll definitely be able to make my wedding...." LOL. No, I think this would be great for you...definitely sounds like a growing experience. It would be good to learn how to have downtime in that kind of an environment. It's possible. Anyway, we should talk sometime soon, maybe after this week since it's finals....blah...

Love you. I know you'll make the decision that's right for you and I hope it's a fairly smooth process...

Katherine Crocker said...

Thanks, everyone, for the encouragement. I've decided that I'm definitely going to go, although I haven't officially accepted (tomorrow I'm doing that). Becca and Therese, thank you in particular for the insight about host family dynamics and possiblities--I'm a lot less worried than I was. Linda, thank you for the reassurance that meltdowns are normal and human, and Heidi, y'all're still going to have to come visit me. But hey, you could probably ride a camel. How cool is that? I will try to come back for your wedding...the way things are going though, I may not've left by then!

Thanks again, all.