4 September 2008

Peace Corps service is reliably marked by ups and downs, by the facing of a constant stream of challenges, practical, professional, and psychological. Yet this past month for me was the most emotionally testing by far.

It was a month in which those anticipated ups and downs seemed to climb and dive to extremes beyond their typical character, and every high was tempered by a sobering low. We saw the most sun since the rainy season began three months ago. We also experienced some of the most intense downpours. I took major steps in my two biggest projects. My volunteer assistance grant was approved by Peace Corps for the local mill that will be built to provide job opportunities for people living with HIV, and the HIV&AIDS community forum I have been planning with the teachers college looks to be on its way to happening. Day-to-day work, however, was agonizingly slow, with schools out of session, work partners in other towns pursuing degrees and certificates through summer classes, and rain regularly disrupting each day and usually taking electricity with it. With the hiring of a new APCD, program assistant, and administrative officer, the Peace Corps Addis office had hopes of being fully staffed for the first time since April – until the resignation of our EPC (I don't know what it stands for, either) was announced. Volunteers were overjoyed to hear that one of us who had left the program due to family issues was initiating the process to return. On the other hand, we were hit hard by the departure of six more volunteers (four by choice, two four medical reasons), reducing our current numbers to just 30. Ethiopia had a mixed showing in world news. Four Olympic golds and the restoration of the ancient Axum obelisk to its rightful home counted among the positives; severe food shortages in the southern regions and a bomb blast in the capital, killing four and injuring 24, were among the tragic negatives. Even the Olympics served this roller-coaster pattern. Watching with my community as Ethiopian runners took spectacular victories in the men's and women's 5,000- and 10,000-meters, and joining in the exuberant celebrations following, I was blessed to share the triumph of a nation that has begun in special ways to become mine. Yet sitting in local cafes surrounded by Ethiopians, witnessing thrilling wins by the U.S. including Michael Phelps' historic 8 golds, feeling the welling pride and excitement of those moments and finding no one with whom to share it, painfully underlined the fact that I am away from the country that will always be my true home.

We volunteers are entering the period that the Peace Corps literature terms, "mid-service crisis." Elements of Ethiopian culture that we formerly found interesting, quirky, endearing, or at least amusing, now somehow spark only annoyance. Excitement over the exotic has given way to longing for the familiar. When we get together, we talk about home more than is probably healthy, as many of us look forward to spending the year-end holidays with America family and friends. When we return again to our respective sites, in moments of quiet solitude our thoughts drift inevitably homeward. All my dreams that I can remember from the past three weeks have involved people and places from back home.

And yet, even now I can see glimmers of light at the end of this emotional tunnel. I can sense the competency and state of settled adaptation that I've been assured are coming. I'm feeling more savvy in my work these days. I know which organizations and offices are doing what, I know where to go for resources, I know who I can (and cannot) count on to get things done, I know who will be my leaders and advocates, I know generally "the way things work" and can more adeptly navigate the necessary processes and channels. An impressive portion of my town's 120,000 residents know me by name. Some of them even know what I'm doing here. Children in the streets are catching on to the drill that I ignore, "YouYouYou," "FarenjiFarenjiFarenji," and "MoneyMoneyMoney," but will faithfully and cheerfully respond to, "Hello," "Hi," "Good morning/afternoon," and any variant of, "Kristi." Often I hear them correcting their unenlightened friends. I can navigate full days in Amharic. I actually enjoy going to the chaotic Saturday market. Even the environmental conditions are looking up. The fleas and mosquitoes are on their way out with the rain, the mud occasionally has the chance to dry up, and – miracle of all blessed, blessed miracles! – one local shop has begun to stock Snickers and Twix bars.

Above all, it's such a comfort to know that I'm not riding this emotional roller-coaster alone. It's funny: You hit a slump, and you come up with a whole litany of extenuating circumstances. (It's cold, and I hate cold weather. My nose is runny. My couch has fleas. My bed has fleas. I'm out of postally-provided American chocolate because I binge on it instead of rationing.) Then you talk to fellow volunteers and discover that, across the board, they're feeling the same way, even though your lists of reasons read completely differently. You realize that you'll always have someone to talk to about the tough times, someone who will understand and empathize, a comrade to see you through.

So yes, it's true that I feel like screaming when I get the exact same questions over and over again from everyone I see, when my Amharic inevitably gets laughed at and repeated several times over amongst the giggling crowd of curious gawkers, when each person I talk to during the day feels compelled to point out the pimple that's popped up overnight on my forehead and cross-examine me on how it got there. It's true that I would probably sell my soul at this point for just one day at home with my family and friends, eating terrible processed foods and watching college football. But it's also true that the melancholy feelings will pass, that I'm not alone in experiencing them, and that most importantly, they are a part of a much larger journey that, in the end, will be wholly, unarguably worth it all.

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