Mid-Service Training, it marked the one year anniversary of having sworn in as a volunteer. All the volunteers that swore in May of 2015 were gathered in Lusaka meetings. One in particular Chelsi had heard older volunteers talk about: The Bridge.
For whatever reason, Chelsi thought to herself, Peace Corps seems obsessed with metaphorical bridges. She was tired, it was the last session of a long day. Everyone else was doodling on their note pads or dozing. Chelsi felt a little pity for Jesse, the newest addition to the Peace Corps Zambia, Lusaka staff, as she started her presentation.
“This is a session that I inherited from Heather, who inherited it from her predecessor. So, this is only my second time doing it so bear with me.” Her curly red hair bobbed around her ears as she began passing out papers. “On the pieces paper is a wheel and in each section there is a ummm, portion of the experience of being a volunteer. And for the next few minutes I want you all to score, not satisfied to fully satisfied as to how you think you’re doing in each section.”
Chelsi looked down at the paper. It was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, of who knows how many generations. The sections were label: Personal Growth/Spirituality, my work, connection with family/friends, village life and my role in the community etc. Chelsi didn’t have a pen, or the energy to really it fill out. She waited until another sheet came around.
“Look at the portions were you are least satisfied and take a few moments about how you can improve in these places, become more satisfied. What actions can you take? How do you know you’re improving and who can keep you accountable?” Jesse turned a piece of paper around in her hands that looked identical to the one Chelsi was now holding. Waiting for the next few moments to pass Chelsi looked around the chinzanza the session was being held in. Around on the support beams for the grass thatched roof were white computer paper signs. I’m taking it day by day, everyone is doing better than me, I’m having a blast and Chelsi looked at the last one, hanging just behind her. YES, that’s the one for me.
“Okay, you guys can take these home if you’re not finished and finish them there. But let’s move on. Around our a, space here, there are signs. I want you to move under the one that best fits were you are in your service right now.” The volunteers started to shuffle around as Jesse talked. Chelsi just skootched her chair back a bit and watch the rest of her intake split up under the three other signs. “And once you’ve sorted yourselves talk to the other volunteers under your same sign about why you chose where you are, maybe some of the challenges you’ve been facing, or what has been working well.”
Chelsi sat alone under her sign. I’m not whole surprised by this. She understood the connotation of her choice, how it would be perceived by the other volunteers. After quickly ordering her thoughts she surveyed the chinzanza again. About half of the group sat under ‘day by day’, the other half under ‘I’m having a blast’. Only one sat under, ‘Everyone is doing better.’ Chelsi picked herself up and walked over to Ben.
“Hey man, I thought you could use some company for now.” He accepted her company and they made a little small talk but mostly sat quietly, alone, together.
“Now! If we can quiet down,” Jesse raised her voice to retake command of the chinzanza. “I want to hear a representative or two to speak from each group.” Chelsi slipped back into her seat. “Let’s start here,” she pointed to ‘day by day’, “and work our way around the room.”
‘Day by day’ quickly recounted their conversation about how hard it is to plan anything in Zambia, about how programs are forever postponed and how much of a struggle it is at times to feel satisfied in their work. But, if they keep reminding themselves to wake-up every morning with a refreshed view, they believe they will make it through to better times.
‘I’m having a blast’ didn’t appoint a representative, but instead talked over each other about how many new friends they have made, how some programs have been a great success, and how they found moments of joy in the ones that flounder. They loved their day to day freedom and glowed with hope about their prosperous future.
Between them was Ben, ‘everyone’s doing better them me.’ He told of how he felt pretty good about how his service was going, until he came to Mids and talked to his fellow volunteers. “It just seems like everyone has done all these great things to help their communities. Or they have really big programs planned and I think about what I’ve done and it seems like not much…”
Chelsi’s heart sank some for Ben. But before she was given the last word Jesse chimed in, from her perch on the front table. She looked directly down at Chelsi, “I just want to say before you start, thank you. It is a really brave position you’re taking. So many volunteers do feel this way at some point during their service, when they struggle, have set-backs, but it takes a strong person talk about them, especially in a large group like this.” Chelsi sighed inside. “Okay, go ahead.”
She started, pointing at the position across the room. “Day by day,” She shifted her hand to the group to her right, “I’m having a blast. I do whatever I want, pretty much whenever I want and there is always something that needs to be done.” Then moved her hand between the two. “I don’t feel I’m doing better or worse than anyone else here, we’re all just doing things differently and to expect it to be any other way is rather silly. I know I have to cultivate a feeling of satisfaction for the work I do, and to do this I have to be mindful of the fact that every volunteer is different, as are their communities. Services aren’t comparable. That’s not to say I don’t feel struggle, because there are times I definitely do, but I think because of this understanding, nothing in my service has felt so insurmountable that I considered going home. Now, with all of that pretext,” Chelsi took a deep breath. “There are plenty of days, I walk out of my house, look around and ask myself,” she pointed to the sign above her head, “’What am I REALLY doing here?’ There have been a steady stream of volunteers in my area for some 10 years. And as far as I can tell there has been little to no adoption of Peace Corps promote programs. Childhood malnutrition is rampant in my village, and as far as I’ve seen there’s little to no adoption of improved farming or gardening systems. Though I believe a lot of that has to do with the government and the mines promoting and propping up this ‘conservation farming’ silliness that is nothing but fertilizer and lime distributions. There are fish ponds around my area that were dug with the guidance of a volunteer who served 10, maybe more years ago, back when the volunteers here still had motorbikes, that began sitting empty when there ceased to be someone there to hold their hand. I know what Peace Corps and RPCVs say ‘but you’ll really touch the lives of a few people and make a huge difference for them,’ and sure, I know I’m doing that for a few people in my community, but is that what Peace Corps really wants? Is this a wise way for the agency to be using its resources? For its volunteers to be just the private tutors and personal friends of a couple of people? Because that’s not the sense that I get when I fill out my reporting form every quarter.”
When she finished there was some silence, before Jesse thanked her and asked everyone to stand up. I guess they were rhetorical questions? Chelsi though when any conversation was decidedly ended by Jesse asking everyone to stand.
Jesse dismounted her perch, shifting over to the nearest exit of the chinzanza. “I want to take that last few minutes of our time together to thank you and give you a little symbolic ceremony about recommitting yourselves to your second year of service.” Chelsi figured coming in to this activity most of her fellow volunteers would approach it with a pretty shallow perspective, but this is a pretty shallow activity given the time frame and the need for reflection. “Just line up and walk around, when you re-enter, we will shake hands.” Whatever the purpose of Jesse’s ‘props’ before her monolog, Chelsi knew Ben had been the one to be brave; he made himself vulnerable. Chelsi knew going into it, her contribution wasn’t going to be the one of, struggle, home sickness and need for resilience the group was expecting.
“Come on Kaondes! Hold yourselves together.” Sara shouted at Jason and Chelsi from her place at the end of the formal line. The former was jumping in and out of the line, over the wall unsure of what was going on and where to go, while the latter was dashing the long way around the chinzanza, out of step with everyone else.