A mostly universal characteristic of Peace Corps Volunteers is that we are imbued with, and often exude, a strain of idealism. Our idealism varies in direction and scope from person to person but, by and large, we are all inherently optimistic about something. We think we can change the world, or at least a small corner of it. That is why we choose to join the Peace Corps, and why many of us stick with it. What many people do not realize, upon joining the Peace Corps, is how much the experience will change them. Sure, many people think that the Peace Corps experience will help them develop, discover, or hone new skills and aptitudes. And this is definitely true. One thing that new Volunteers rarely realize, however, is how much they have to sacrifice to be Volunteers.
There is, of course, the well-publicized, and, by now, clichéd, list of creature comforts that many Volunteers do without during their services—hot water, running water, clean water, electricity, paved roads, cell phone service, cheese, personal space, pizza, sushi, air-conditioning, privacy, ice cream, etc. These are what people expect, and anticipate, to give up. No, what I am talking about are the true costs of Peace Corps service.
There have been something like 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers since the organization’s inception. To date, about 290 Volunteers have died during their services. Stuff like disease, accidents, murder have claimed the lives something like 7 Volunteers since I swore in. It is not something we think about a lot—even taking the malaria meds that save many of us becomes second nature—but there are inherent risks in being a Volunteer.
A not-insubstantial number of Volunteers develop with long-term health problems as a result of their services. I know two people who have developed chronic headaches since coming to Togo, likely as a result of viruses. Other Volunteers have long-term stomach problems when they get back to the States. I am likely typing this with malaria and blood flukes kicking it in my system. Hopefully nothing else at the moment. I have been one of the healthiest Volunteers that I know, either by luck or design. These are, however, the risks that we signed up for when we took this job. They are risks that Peace Corps spends a lot of time and money educating us about and trying to minimize.
No, the untold sacrifice that many Volunteers make is that they give up their homes for two years or more. Often, when they come back, they find that home has unalterably changed. Last week, for example, D got a call from her mother telling her that her great-uncle died unexpectedly. He was suddenly hospitalized the previous week, and seemed to be improving, and then abruptly died. D was really close to her uncle. He was one of those people who inspired other people to do great and wonderful things. His death was tragic not only in its abruptness, but also in the void that it left in her life. A Volunteer from the 2011 stage left when her mother died suddenly. A Volunteer left here in 2010; his father died a couple weeks after he got home. Just a few days ago, a Volunteer here got a call that her brother had suddenly died.
Grief is bad enough when a loved one dies and you are there. You can, hopefully, be with the person, attend the funeral, have closure, and grieve with family and friends. There is little solace to be found in a static-filled trans-Atlantic phone call nor in the bare concrete walls of your house at midnight when you alone with mountain of grief piled in your chest, when there is no comfort to be found in a sleeping world. Grief is infinitely compounded by the knowledge that you could have been there but, instead, you chose to be Africa. Who would choose a month in village over a minute to say goodbye to a loved one? Peace Corps service necessitates not seeing your loved ones for extended periods of time; the unspoken aspect to this is that you likely will not be there to say goodbye to them as well. Even when return is a mere couple of flights away. That knowledge just makes it worse.
Beyond deaths in the family, home is never the same place it was when we left. 2 years or more have gone by. That is time that we have spent here that we did not spend with our families and friends. None of us are the same people we were when one of us climbed on a plane to sail out into the unknown. To paraphrase Frodo, we can never really go back. We have changed. Home has changed. Maybe even the definition of “home” has changed. It is, I think, telling that Volunteers approaching the end of their services coordinate their departure dates so that they can be back in the States in time for a family function.
Ive written a lot in this blog about living here face to face with the reality of the transitory nature of life. I had not viewed life in the States as also being transitory. I think this was deliberate. Humans are programmed to live in the here and now. If not, we would go extinct as a species in a spasm of insanity. I certainly would have. Even now, as I begin to think of life after Peace Corps, I am painfully aware of the fact that, not only am I different than when I left, but the way I remember relating to the States is no longer valid. It is three years out of date. Home, or my perception of it, was not something I expected to sacrifice when I came to Africa. However, my sacrifice is a lot less than that of many Volunteers. In this, I am lucky.