So much of the language of adventuring is couched in the idea of lost and found. Not all who wander are lost. Join Peace Corps to find yourself. Lost in the wild. I’ve been found.
I am guilty as anyone of using these clichés, and part of why we fall back onto them is that they work. This experience is about the losing and the finding, and all that happens along the way.
As my time here wraps up, I’ve started to think about my own lost and found. I’ve gone back to day when I first created this simple page, shamelessly modifying Thoreau’s wish to live deeply and fully. I believe that I have achieved that here, though not in the way that my then-23-year old self envisioned.
I am sitting on my couch, in an African capitol that I have come to consider home. Outside a light rain – perhaps one of my last in this country – falls. I have begun to pack, both physically and spiritually. I have begun to gather up the things I will return with to America. In the process, I am learning just what I have lost, and what I have found, on the journey.
I have lost one angel ring, two scarves, a travel pillow and an assortment of market earrings.
I have found knick-knacks and handicrafts – painted and carved – more baubles and beauty than one household or wardrobe could hold. I have discovered chitenge, the two metres of colorful cloth that wraps everything from women and babies to groceries and charcoal.
I lost, at times, the jaded edge that D.C. life had honed in me. I found myself believing in the possibility of change, and in personal impact. Through one-on-one interactions and trainings with my community, I saw the effect an individual could have.
I have found incredible frustrations with the aid and development complex, which funnels huge amounts to some inefficient projects and cuts funding to some that need it most. I have railed against a bureaucracy that is top-heavy and hard-to-manage, knowing all the while its necessity to so many Zambian’s lives and livelihoods.
And in these core development debates where once I stood my ground, I have lost my ability to see black and white absolutes. I have found grey.
For a time, I lost weight, too too much. Faced with stress and parasites and the hunger of my village, I saw my body morph into something unwelcome, cells made from cheap American supermarket fare surrendering to Africa. I misplaced my concern for such changes for a while.
I then found, in the rebuilding of my mass, a new respect for my body, and a commitment to its health. I have built back on brazier-cooked meals and the baked treats of friends. I am stronger now than I have ever been, a muscle memory of campfires and commitment and camaraderie.
I have gained, and lost, a Zambian family and an orange Garfield of a tomcat. In an isolated village, they were at times friends, annoyances, colleagues and relatives – an entire social web shrunk down to just a few. Leaving Kamayembe, I knew the odds. These people will not reappear in my life. Neither do they have access to the communication tools that would make continued contact possible. I have only the e.e. cummings line to offer them, “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).” I know, in the times I wasn’t sure I would make it through, they carried me.
I have found through Peace Corps, friendships deeper and richer than anyone could ask to be blessed with. Whether we were crossing the width of the African continent together, or just passing the time in someone’s hut, I have never known such a diverse, interesting and loving group of people. I have no doubt that they will play a significant role in all the years of my life, just as they did in the last three.
Equally, I have given up memories with my friends and family at home – missed weddings, deaths and births; yoga classes and parties, coffee dates and voice mails. I know I cannot recover the memories lost and they have pained me with each Facebook post viewed and letter sent. I have found that my friends and family have loved me regardless. They accepted my absence and my whirlwind homecomings with grace. And for this, I am so grateful.
I lost a love, and with it, the barriers that I had constructed around my heart. I have discovered in me an ability to love that I once denied. There are days where my soul can love like Zambian sky – clear and open and wide enough to hold the whole world.
I have found that I am a believer. I have found what I believe in. I do not necessary mean in God. Belief, for me, is an end to itself. I believe in people – individually and as a whole. I found belief in love and silliness and the inevitability of death and taxes. I found I believe in things whole-heartedly, because if we cannot do that, we might as well just give up. I believe in bright colors and movement and the ability to shape your reality. Each morning, I believe that it will be a beautiful day, and on that bet, I have seldom lost.
I have lost the belief that serving in Peace Corps in Africa is the romantic experience that so many think it to be. There are days when you get through the day by counting the days you have left. There are days when you wish one of the men who harass you daily on the street would touch you – just so you could have a chance to hit back and just once, make one of them hurt too.
There are days when you want to lose the images of the children, and the poverty, and sexism, and the inevitability of all that is wrong. Those are the days when you find yourself watching marathons of television shows, wearing short shorts and drinking more than you might have in a month. Those are the days you miss America.
I have found that, despite of all this, you can be happy.
My efforts here will probably not do much to change the net amount of suffering in our world. Some people will always be hungry or oppressed, or racist or cruel. Apart from the coming of the Messiah, universal peace and equality will not be achieved in my life. Once, this made me sad, angry, and resentful. I have found, however, that my happiness is only thing I can guarantee to those who the world has ignored. My needs are met and I am loved. I can be happy. To not do so seems disrespectful. It seems rude. So I strive for happiness, hoping that my joy will infect others, that it will contaminate the world.
I suppose the baggage I’ll bring from Zambia is far different from that which I carried over, 40 odd months ago, back when I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce the name. There is much I have lost. There is even more that I have found.
In the end, I found that it’s not about where you are and it’s not about what you have. It’s about being, and having that be just okay.