Leaving my village for the last time

I left you in my last blog, sitting on my stoop, enjoying a dinner of pasta and staring up at the familiar and yet startling different night sky of the southern hemisphere. I was in a period of transition, engrossed in the beauty, peace, and sense of irreplaceable place that I’d developed in Chisunka. My hut, my community – and that’s what was so important. It was mine, I had integrated, adapted, and adopted an empty, foreign place, and I had created my own home. I built a place of comfort, sanctuary, and learning. My place, my home, my hut, a safe place to ride the roller coaster of emotions that characterize a Peace Corps Zambia service. I don’t know quite how to articulate it. What can four walls and a thatch roof really mean to you? Especially when they’re being eaten away by termites… I mean honestly it feels like it’s always Christmas because there’s a constant soft snow of sawdust. You’d be amazed…

The last few days in my community were hard. There’s no getting around that. It was intensely emotional, and it was trying in so many ways. The first few days as I went around and told people I was leaving, and gave my resignation letter to the Chief and to my Clinic Staff, it was tearful. I bottled it up, tamped it down deep inside, and kept a stoic face. I hid my emotions, and I regret it. I don’t know yet how to express the sense of deep loss and hurt I felt as I completed the last preparations to leave. I faced my friends, and close workmates, I met with and talked to local community members that I’ve come to know and love over the last two years, and I explained to them that I was leaving. I explained that in September, I would be replaced by a new volunteer, and that it was for the best, because they’d be able to learn things I couldn’t teach them. I explained that I was here to lay a foundation, and that those who came next were to build on it, and continue down the long road of development.

I shook hands, hugged, and kissed cheeks. I held children, gave small gifts, then turned, and walked on to the next home, and finally reaching my hut. I sealed myself inside, and I took down my letters from home. I methodically and robotically took down my pictures, fabric door curtains, cleaned and packed away my keepsakes, prepared the last of my foodstuffs, made my bed, swept, and set all of my luggage out against my sitting room wall. As I sat, trying hard to avoid the tempest of emotions and indescribable feelings swirling inside of me, I began to look around, blinded by unshed tears. I realized then, that even though I felt like I was taking so much with me, the Hut still felt like a home, and that helped me immeasurably. Because I knew that I was leaving behind a memory, a sense of place, but that I was also taking one with me.

I have to say I left a fully functional and furnished home behind. I’ll talk about why in a later post, when I talk about what’s coming next, but it made it harder to leave – because it feels like I could just rush back any time, and my home, my place would be waiting for me.

I’ve talked about my community, and about returning to my village in my last post. What I wasn’t able to fully express is the mixture of feelings that surround leaving your home, and especially some of the frustrations. I know most of us have moved at least once in our lives, we’ve packed up all our belongings, did a little extra work, put in some elbow grease to leave the place a little better than before, and stepped out the door. What we don’t talk about is the sense of loss when we leave a part of ourselves behind in that place. I know I felt it. We also don’t often talk about the sense of relief and gladness that we’re leaving, we focus instead on the anxiety of what will come next, ignoring the sense of excitement and hunger for a new adventure. I know I felt those feelings too.

I was helped in feeling that it was time to go by the final few hours in my community – when the attitude changed from goodbyes with loved friends and counterparts/colleagues, to random community members that started to hover and ask rudely what you will leave me. It’s a cultural phenomenon called remembrance – “Give me something so I will remember you.” Although it’s not as offensive in Zambian culture, it still is, and more so for me, because I feel like – I’ve been here for two years, working daily with your community, and so, now you’re insinuating that unless I give you something you won’t remember me? It especially becomes aggravating because it’s from community members who’ve never worked with me, or come to help or shown interest in our community projects. To me, it’s clear racism and misunderstanding – rich white man, you’ve played hard to get and haven’t given us anything like the other aid workers (in terms of money or physical donations), so now is my last chance – give me something, and we’ll call it a cultural norm. Negating the last two years of hard work in sensitizing my role, the time invested in spent fighting dependency syndrome. I don’t feel that it’s culturally acceptable. I feel it’s racist – seeing a white and expecting a handout – especially given that they’ve never worked with me, or been interested in my projects, in some cases because there wasn’t a payout. I won’t pretend that I was kind about my responses. I chilled my tone, and firmly refused, and then began a long lecture about the nature of Peace Corps, and the role of a Volunteer.

First off, I explained multiple times that day, if you’d like to remember me, we should have worked on a project, and you could have remembered me each time you used that knowledge, or resource. Or, if you really want to remember me long term, why can’t we plant a tree? Or carve our names into a brick and set it into the garden wall? But those ideas were ignored, the response was for a monetary/tangible gift – often things we’ve brought from home, but also things we’ve gotten at the thrift store here in Zambia, nothing special that they don’t have regular and easy – cheap access to. The only significance was that it came from the muzungu. I’m not exaggerating, it wasn’t that it was coming from me – it was that it was coming from a white, that’s what irritated me the most. I joked that the community was trying to build a reliquary, asking for my clothes, pots, pans, shoes, phone, watch, rings, earrings, necklace, socks etc. I was nervous they’d start to ask for a finger or a fragment of bone to keep.

I won’t say that it soured my last feelings of my site, but I will acknowledge that it certainly made the transition a little bit easier. Because that cultural divide and the feelings it produced, provided a distraction, and a place to funnel untamed energy – namely lectures about the role of Peace Corps, and the nature of my service, and that no, I would not be giving any of my things or money. Instead I would be remembering the knowledge shared and the impact I was able to make.

I packed my belongings into the back of a friend’s car, shed a couple of quiet tears as I locked up the hut, so it could wait expectantly and excitedly for the next volunteer, and sat down into the passenger seat. We backed out my driveway, and started for the last time on the bumpy, sandy road up and out of the valley to the paved tarmac, and out to Mansa, and then from Mansa I’d be on my way to Samfya to celebrate the Fourth of July and my farewell to Luapula, and then down to Lusaka.





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