18 June 2008

The rain fell steadily on a grey, dreary morning as I said goodbye to my friend. Though her leaving had been a long time in coming, it was still somehow no less of a shock to realize that this would be my last time seeing her in Ethiopia.

I had been with her throughout her journey to this point, had seen factor after factor adding up to this inevitable outcome. I, along with her many other friends here, had talked her through the various stages of this difficult decision. We heard all the circumstances we knew would eventually push her to go: a lack of meaningful work at her assigned office, active efforts by her supervisor to prevent her from working elsewhere, haunting first-hand experiences with the devastations of poverty and disease in a developing nation,unresponsiveness on the part of the Peace Corps office, feelings of helplessness, isolation, and utter frustration. We sympathized, being faced with similar situations ourselves. But we saw, too, an unmistakable confidence building in our friend. We saw her growing assurance in who she was (and was not), what she was (and was not)passionate about, and what she wanted out of life. Ultimately, we recognized a new found courage to pursue those things, to break away from the path being laid out before her in order to chart a course of her own.

We all gathered at her house on the weekend before her departure. It was the seven of us who had gone up into the mountains together, as part of her farewell tour. As we stayed up talking together late into each night, I was struck by how much we had gained from each other in just a short time – strength, confidence, comfort, friendship,connection, understanding for one another and ourselves – and saddened by the fact that a part of it all would soon be leaving us.

Faced with the early exit of one of our own, our thoughts and discussion were led toward that momentous question: Why are we here?Leading up to our arrival in-country, we heard U.S. officials talk about Ethiopia in the context of "historical friendship" and "a key ally", and we grasped vaguely some of the political reasons behind our assignment. As we were briefed on our PEPFAR-directed goals and objectives, we began to understand the programmatic and policy issues that would shape our service. And a recently published Internet news article supposedly revealing a lack of "skilled volunteers" (Multiple degrees, field research experience, internships with internationally-recognized development agencies, volunteer service with health-related community groups, Red Cross certifications,extensive travels abroad, and generally one of the most impressive assemblages of experiences among recent graduates with which I've had the pleasure of associating myself…are all apparently invalidated if some enjoy the occasional flip-flop sandal.) clued us into external debates concerning the larger purpose and philosophy underlying the Peace Corps. But together in that tiny house, surrounded by the stillness of the Ethiopian night, reflecting upon our friend's justifications for leaving and trying to formulate our own justifications for staying, we laid all those other grand considerations aside to focus on what all too often gets lost in the shuffle: our PERSONAL reasons for coming here, the hopes and aspirations that caused us to sign up for this adventure, and the growth and accomplishment being worked out in each of us individually as a result of our having taken this step.

It's been a month now since my friend returned home, but I am thinking of her especially tonight, when another gloomy rainfall marked the departure of yet another friend. Their leaving is a reminder of how personal this experience is, providing a unique journey and meaning to each that undertakes it.

And to both of them back in the U.S., each for very different reasons, should they be reading this now: I want you to know that however people view your service, it's you that made the journey and only you that can define its significance. It takes strength to leave your home and all its familiar comforts to challenge yourself in a new environment. It takes AMAZING strength to realize the right decision is to go back. You've enriched my life unbelievably. May you live and love all of life's adventures, whatever form they might take.

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