We are more than a month into our five month Close of Service trip, it’s hard to believe! As time always does, particularly on vacation, it is absolutely flying right now.
I haven’t still quite come to terms with the fact that our Peace Corps service is over. I think in part because we are still in Africa, it feels as if we will return to Namibia after this holiday is over. Things are different in all African countries, but some customs and mannerisms are common throughout the southern part of this continent that have made us still feel comfortable this last month.
We’ve met many travelers over the course of this month and they have many great stories to tell. Some are traveling for several months or indefinitely. It has been interesting to hear their observations of the different countries we have visited. However, it has driven home the fact for me that the Peace Corps experience, or living overseas is genuinely unique. Had I been just a traveler in Namibia, even for an extended period of time, my perception of the local people would have been different. It reminded me of just how much you get to know a place in two years, but also how much we still don’t know or understand about our host country once we leave.
It can be easy to make snap judgements when visiting a place for a short time. First impressions can be lasting ones. After living in Namibia for 2 years, I think about this now as we have only been traveling in Botswana and Malawi, not living here and part of the community. I realize my impressions on vacation here are probably very starry-eyed. It’s hard to get the full picture.
Some travelers make the effort to get to know local people, but most are not invested in a community for an extended period of time like a Peace Corps volunteer. An afternoon hiking with a local person or a day at the beach playing soccer with village kids can give some perspective, but doesn’t give the same depth as working with the same people day in and day out for two years. While there is so much value in just traveling, you get a deeper experience staying somewhere for a long tome. I found great value in the deep connections that we made over a long period of time in Namibia. While Peace Corps service was at times difficult and frustrating, the other side is that some of the work was incredibly rewarding. Engaging with people and learning about a place like we did is something that I will carry with me forever.
At dinner the other night, a fellow traveler asked us to give our elevator speech about our Peace Corps experience. While questions like that are difficult to field (How DO you sum up two years of your life, in just 10 seconds?), it was a good one to be asked because I know once we get home, not everyone will want to listen to me talk about my Peace Corps experience for hours at a time. Most people want short sound bites and not lengthy explanations.
My gut reaction, the speak-to-think extrovert that I am, was to say, “It was really really hard but I’m really glad I did it.” But that doesn’t give much of an idea about my experience. Josh’s answer was more thoughtful on the fly, “You will be more impacted by the experience than the impact that you will make.” And I agree with that absolutely. As a Peace Corps volunteer you get the unique opportunity to really see what life is like instead of just a short glimpse. You don’t just hear about the loss of host country’s loved ones, you attend the funerals of those family members. You don’t just learn about how people observe holiday in their country, you go home with them and are a guest to see their customs up close. You don’t just hear about people’s love stories, you are in their weddings or attend them. You leave truly getting a rich experience, an idea of the bigger picture. The good and the bad.
It’s hard not to sound cliché, but right now I think my answer would be, “You’ll never see the world the same way again. It gives you a whole new perspective.” Gaining that perspective at times was a painful process, but during our travels this last month I have missed my Namibian friends, learners and colleagues very much. I think of them and their lives and all the challenges that they face on a daily basis. I’m so glad that their friendship has changed my world view, and that I get to call them friends and not just acquaintances.