December 3, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Blogs - Kenya: Personal Web Site: Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer Julie Guberman writes about Completion of Service

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: The Peace Corps in Kenya: December 3, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Blogs - Kenya: Personal Web Site: Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer Julie Guberman writes about Completion of Service

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Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer Julie Guberman writes about Completion of Service

Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer Julie Guberman writes about Completion of Service

So this is it. It’s really time to leave. People ask, “so you’re a second-year volunteer, that means you’re leaving soon?” I give a subdued nod and mumble, “Yeah this December.” And the first-year volunteer replies, somewhat enviously, “oh yeah? How you feeling about that?” And I, still subdued, “I’m ready. It’s time to go.” But the truth is…inside all the julies are dancing wildly “I’m so outta here!”

Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer Julie Guberman writes about Completion of Service

Friday, December 03, 2004
Swallowing a World

December 2004

So this is it. It’s really time to leave. People ask, “so you’re a second-year volunteer, that means you’re leaving soon?” I give a subdued nod and mumble, “Yeah this December.” And the first-year volunteer replies, somewhat enviously, “oh yeah? How you feeling about that?” And I, still subdued, “I’m ready. It’s time to go.” But the truth is…inside all the julies are dancing wildly “I’m so outta here!”

Now is the time for the requisite recollection of my experiences. I feel as if I’m preparing in my head answers for those people at home who’ll say “Hey, nice to have you back. How was Africa?” And every time I try to answer, I’m inundated with too many days, too many conversations, too many revelations, too many emotions, too many everything. I don’t know how to start. Rushdie said “To understand a life, you have to swallow the world.” And with Africa, there’s a whole lot of swallowing to do. While a little is delicious, some things don’t taste very good and the rest is too unfamiliar for comfortable digestion.

And will they even care? Do they want to hear more than the expected reply, “Oh it was fine. Thanks for asking. And how are you doing?” And they’ll launch in telling tales of their newly acquired job, house, wife, dog, family, or IMAC. When I went back to America before during my Peace Corps Service, I saw an old friend who told me she wanted to hear everything about my service before I left. I saw her and started recounting the adventures of the “toughest job you’ll ever love.” She didn’t seem to want to know. No questions, no helpful conversation continuers. Then I met another friend, one after another. No one asked. Hey, I was in Africa! The place where you think no one has electricity, running water and everyone runs around naked. Aren’t you even the least bit curious? But after I had time to think about it – and of course, there’s plenty of time here – I realized that they didn’t know how to ask. They didn’t even know where to begin. They have no idea of what life is like here, how to even begin to relate.

I’m relieved in a way. I know so much more now that I don’t remember what I used to know. I swallowed this world already. I don’t flinch getting in an overcrowded matatu and telling the tout where to go, handing over the standard fare not even giving him time to give me the way- over-priced-tourist rate. It’s nothing new to me going to a market and ignoring all the insistent vendors thrusting goods in my face, walking directly to the one I’ve established a relationship with, one where they won’t rip me off too much. I don’t groan when the electricity goes out every now and then, the water stops every now and then, and the public transport system halts every now and then.

I recently visited the Peace Corps Training Center in Naivasha where the newly arrived trainees were starting their service. I could sense their awe of me, the second-year volunteer who’s been living here so long. They can’t even picture where they’ll be in three months, how they’ll do at site and whether they’ll make it. If only they knew how I still fumble about, how I still feel like a child among grown-ups, constantly blundering and learning from them only to make the same mistakes again.

I still yawn without covering my mouth. I still pet my cat. I still can’t get over someone walking up to me and unpermittedly looking through my bag for that pair of scissors they want. I still don’t get most of the things Kenyans say. (Oh, I understand them literally – I can understand every word – I just don’t get what they mean or why they say what they say.)

No, I’m not really a child. I’m more like the teenager who thinks she knows everything but really doesn’t. She realizes this every now and then but immaturely refuses to admit it, wanting to be a grown-up.

Even though I’ve been living here for two years and somewhat understand how things work, I still have Kenyans saying “Welcome to Kenya! Do you need a guide?” One of those papasis (lit. ‘ticks’) – what people call unemployed men and sometimes women who walk the streets accosting any white person they see and try to get money out of them any way they can.

The julies jumping up and down in me are craving the anonymity of America, where you can walk the streets and no one will stare or shout ‘mzungu’ (of course, I don’t hear this but Jesse feels compelled to tell me every now and then). A place where you can stay home without people asking if you’re sick. A place where you can dress however you wish, wear as much jewelry as you like, and buy what you wish. (I don’t dress freely here out of respect for the Kenyans. I don’t wear jewelry out of fear for the thieves. I don’t buy what I want out of consideration for my poor neighbors.)

During my ruminations, I walk to the bathroom looking at the termite dirt trails and homes on my walls, at the lizards chasing the bugs and insects, at the spider webs in each corner, at the ants-as-big-as-the-tip-of-my-index-finger crawling all over my kitchen counter wall cupboard oven sink, and it hits me – I might just actually miss this place. This place with its painted walls (I’ve the pants and shirt to prove it), its sink that gives you an electrical shock every now and then, its toilet with a broken seat and cockroaches-as-big-as-my-index-finger that like to run over it, its torn window screens and crooked window panes, its rotting wood in the front door – is it even qualified as a door anymore? – this place has been my first home with my husband. I look out the window and see the children running barefoot over the garbage pitch. What will they say when I’m gone? Will they think of me? I see the beauty of the land – the baobab trees, the acacia trees, the so-blue sky, the Christmas trees with their startling red flowers, the sisal fields, and the dirt. This land this earth this Africa will just keep on going.

I wonder if I’ll forget the languages I worked so hard to learn – Swahili and KSL (Kenyan Sign Language), how nothing is open at night and really you can’t travel anywhere after the sun sets because it’s not safe, how I liked sitting on the cement step outside of my house and just looking in on the world of KSD, how good passion fruit, the yellow one not the brown or pear-shaped one, tastes.

Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, grew up in Africa. In the beginning of her book, she’s telling a story about a visitor at her house. This man is stuck with her rambling mother who goes through the entire history of the white occupation of Africa. “The guest says nothing, but his smile is bemused. I can tell he’s thinking, Oh my God, they’ll never believe this when I tell them back home. He’s saving this conversation for later. He’s a two-year wonder. People like this never last beyond two malaria seasons, at most. Then he’ll go back to England and say, ‘When I was in Zambia…’ for the rest of his life.”

So I’m a two-year wonder. I’d never last another malaria season here. I’m going back to America where I’ll say “When I was in Kenya…” for the rest of my life. Part of me agrees kabisa. But I could never settle down here. I couldn’t raise my family here. I miss home too much. But part of me resents this neat categorization of us two-year wonders. I swallowed this world. Yes I made some faces when I tasted what was in my mouth. I spit some of it out. But more or less, I swallowed it. Africa’ll always be a part of me. It’s not just a two-year wonder to me.

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