At our most recent Peace Corps Conference (dubbed COS: Close of Service) we met for three days to reflect on our service for the last two years, to have open discussions about both the successes and complications of development work, to begin the process of leaving the government, and to gain understanding on re-entering and adjusting to life back in the United States. The very last session we had is apparently something all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do at the end of their service – a guided visualization.
Led by a Peace Corps staff member who has an innate ability to communicate well with anybody and has been in Peace Corps posts in various countries, he told us to “get comfortable” as we would be trying to cover a couple years of memories and emotions in just a few minutes.
I chose to move to the front of the large room and lie face down, my eyes buried between my two crossed arms. I closed my eyes. The lights dimmed and he put on a beautiful instrumental track of a piano star from England. It was immediately stirring; even before he started the visualization I knew I would be emotional. The music played for a few moments and my heart started to slow and I become more in tune with the moment.
In a soft yet steady voice, he told us to think back before our arrival in Rwanda in 2011.
Think about the moment you decided you wanted to do the Peace Corps.
You start the application.
Where were you? Who was the first person you told about starting the application process?
How did you feel?
You complete the interview and soon you have moved further in the process to become a volunteer. Maybe you question this path you have chosen for yourself. Maybe you think you are irrational. But for whatever reason, you continue to stick with it.
Months later, you get that notorious blue envelope with your official invitation to serve in the assigned country. What did you think as you opened it up? Who was with you?
You are invited to serve in Rwanda. Rwanda. What did you think?
He stops for a bit and lets us go through all of those feelings, times, and places. It feels very real – I remember it all clearly and so well. And me being me, I start to cry. I cry out of both happiness and sadness; as I think back to the seeds rooted in this experience, I can feel just how badly I wanted this to work and how deeply I longed for this dream. How so many small things fell into place so that my journey would take me to Rwanda. How long ago all of this was.
You say goodbye to people you love. You say your farewell to America. Where do you visit before you leave? What do people tell you as you prepare to go? What went through your mind when you crossed the security point in the airport and you were alone, headed for something you really couldn’t envision?
You leave. You go to the staging process in Philadelphia. You are in a room with a group of people signed up for the exact thing you are to do: teach in Rwanda. Who did you talk to? What was the mood of the group? What did you do your first night together?
You arrive in-country. What did the weather feel like? What is the first thing you see outside of the airport?
It is the first morning after sleeping in the house of your host family. What do you hear in the morning? What do you smell?
After a long training, you move to your site permanently . You are new.
Who is the first person to befriend you? Is anyone waiting for you at your house?
What does your job feel like?
You do something extraordinary in your community. What was it? Who helped you?
At some point you travel with some Peace Corps friends. Where do you go? You see something together you will never forget – what is it?
Now it’s time to prepare to leave.
Who do you want to say goodbye to? Why is it so hard? Who will you hug? Who do you want to stay in touch with? What do you tell them? What do they tell you? What is the thing you will remember about your home for two years in your village?
You touch ground in your hometown or the place you are coming home to. People are waiting for you. People are cheering for you at the airport. You are home. Some you haven’t seen for a very long time.
Who is there? What is it like to be home again? What runs through your mind?
How will you talk about Rwanda? What will you say about your experience? What do you want them to know about your country?
All of this lasts around 25 minutes or so. He asks these questions slowly, with pauses in between so that we can go through this visualization little by little. By the end, I have cried so many tears that bags have formed under my eyes. I wasn’t the only one; all 20 of us were moved very deeply. My heart is bursting with a lot of things, but the biggest is gratitude. To so many people. Thinking back and reflecting made it so clear: these last 2 years have been the most difficult in my young life, but completely the most rewarding and the most life-changing. I’m 24 and I feel like I have had the experience of a life time.
My heart also hurt after that visualization because on a very fundamental, spiritual level, I knew my time was coming to an end and the idea of a third year extension that I had quite seriously considered was not the path I should take. I wanted it so badly and so I put my trust in God to make the best decision and in looking for an open door here, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition in the way I was hoping for. It was very close. In fact, a day prior to this visualization, I was all but ready to sign papers and take a job. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to.
From the beginning, I knew if I did a 3rd year in Rwanda it would have to be what I called “very compelling”. I miss my family and friends and so another year so far from home had to warrant an irrefutable opportunity attached to it. But more than the job, it had to be the right situation in my life, with all things in place so that I could truly feel content and happy as I transitioned to something different. I would have loved to stay in Ruramira (my village) but I knew I didn’t want to formally teach another year, ruling out a site extension. Last month, I met with a director of an organization associated with Nike that acts as a “catalyst organization” to develop ideas for girls empowerment in Rwanda. However, an open job was not made clear and it served much more like an information interview where I was able to pick her brain about girls’ development but not really be offered a formal position within the organization. Not sure where to go next, I briefly considered extending as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader). I could work internally within Peace Corps, helping other volunteers, making site visits, and partnering with an NGO to gain some professional experience. I would even have access to drive a car! The drawbacks? Living in Kigali and not working as much in the field on a daily basis. Those were two pretty big strikes and praying to God for a sign I pursued yet another job posting sent via the Peace Corps. It was a job that looked like THE ONE.
It was a job based in the district where I already live now (called Kayonza), with a renowned organization, and operating under what is called the Women’s and Girls Initiative. I would work as a program intern, supervising girls’ clubs that were created to reach and help out-of-school girls. I would help improve their cooperatives (both artisan and agriculture), teach life skills, help develop the programming of the clubs, and work within the organization to do things like monitoring and evaluation. Rooted in field work with Rwandan girls, I could barely contain myself. IT’S PERFECT.
I made contact with the point person and had two “interviews”. The first one was initiated by a representative from Nike – she wanted to partner with this organization and wanted to see if I could serve as a link between the two, teaching their curriculum within this other initiative.
That particular interview (if you could call it that) was terrible, to be honest. It was filled with development oriented jargon, acronyms, and policy driven lingo. While these things are certainly interesting, I just sat there with my mouth wide open: my best friends are young Rwandan women, y’all. Do you want to hear a bit of what I have experienced with them? I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve been working directly in the field for these past two years, have deep relationships with girls in my club, and these development workers seemed disinterested, at best. It was really disheartening. For nearly 3 hours I was talked at and I was not very happy about it. Two days later after some soul-searching, I sat down for a second interview. It went much better. It was with the leader of this initiative and her country director and they let me have free reign with what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to say. I told my Peace Corps story. I bragged on my girls and we actually discussed the job at hand. I walked away much more at peace. And a bit sad – in a lot of ways I wanted this job. But I knew I couldn’t take it. It would be forcing an opportunity to work in my life when really, it should fit much more naturally.
It came down to the fact that they want someone to start working NOW and I’m not really ready to give up my time in my community. Also, they want all lessons taught in Kinyarwanda – 100%. Yeah, I can speak the language, as I have lived in the village for all of this time. But, in GLOW for example, I have girls who can translate and work between the two languages not remaining confined to only one. I appreciate and commend this organization for connecting with out of school girls, but at this point in my professional experience, I don’t feel qualified enough to deliver exactly what they are looking for. Truth be told, a Rwandan woman should really be offered that job.
And in this long, back and forth process, I was able to admit to myself how fearful I am of saying goodbye. But I can’t fight the reality of the situation anymore. I have to be strong, ready to feel that, and to trust in God to get all of us through it. Admitting this fear to myself made the choice much easier. In December, I will come home.
I sat on Divine’s bed yesterday and told her this story and my final decision. Telling Divine – more than any paper work, facebook status, or declaration – represented the finality of this decision. I told her slowly and carefully. And my heart broke all over again as I watched her process my words. She cried, sobbed, and it was my first time to see her so vulnerable and heart broken. I waited patiently as she grieved. The amazing thing is how understanding she was. She agreed, based on the opportunities at hand, that I had made the correct decision. The hard one, but the right one. I told her how much she means to me and that I am committed to helping her achieve a good future. I am going to support her final three years in secondary school and I will come back and visit her in Rwanda. My story and connection to this place has just begun, I think. I will call her as much as I can and I hope one day she can visit America. I’m a woman of my word and I will do everything I can to ensure she has a good life. There are things we are all meant to do in our own lives and this is one of them for me.
She told me between cries that losing me would be like losing a sister. She said that I was a miracle in her life.
I tried to convey amidst my own tears that all of these sentiments were the same for me. “It’s the start of our friendship, not the end,” I insisted. And I really do believe that. I know what distance can do to relationships, but it works both ways. Sometimes they fail because of distance, other times they remain. If for nothing else, because they were meant to be.
What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.