They tell us from the beginning that the hardest part of Peace Corps service is leaving, and I can now confirm that this is indeed true. Both ways. Leaving America to spend two years far away from everything I knew and loved back in June of 2012 was absolutely terrifying, but leaving Benin last month after having allowed myself to sink roots and grow attached was even harder.
I’m happy to be back – make no mistake. This is still the original home base, and I’ve missed my friends and family tremendously, but that doesn’t make it any easier to close the Peace Corps chapter. I recall once, before accepting my invitation to go to Benin, reflecting on the “sacrifices” I felt I’d have to make to be a volunteer – sacrifices being what I would walk away from in America: better-paying job opportunities, the comforts and conveniences of first world living, the closeness of family, etc. What I’ve come to realize is that the sacrifices I actually made had less to do with what I left in America and more to do with what I invested in Benin. Because I got to have America back. But now there’s a piece of my heart in Benin that I’ll never be able to take back.
I’m anxious to readjust and to move on with the next stage of my life. At the same time, I don’t want to stow away the past two years like a book I’ve finished reading and can put back on the shelf. I don’t want to distill this experience down to a pithy collection of fond memories and interesting stories because the place is still real, and the people are still there. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but it’s the only way I know how to put it right now. When I think about Benin, I want to remember the nuances of daily life as much as the special events and happenings. I want to remember the typical interactions I had with the people I saw everyday as much as the uncommon encounters I had from time to time.
And here’s why. Of all the things I’ve come to see more clearly in the past two years, one of the most important has got to be this: ordinary details matter. Peace Corps is a development organization, and development is a pretty broad term, but I guarantee that at least 99% of the time, it doesn’t happen in broad, sweeping actions. Development is in the details. You don’t suddenly bring food security to an entire village by giving a public presentation on the different food groups. You don’t save the environment by inviting everyone in your neighborhood to plant trees with you. You find local leaders – a charismatic chief, an exemplary student, a forward-thinking mother – and you build relationships with them. You ask what their obstacles are (because they know better than you do). You ask them what the best approaches might be to overcoming these obstacles (because again, they know better than you do). And then you give what you’re able to give – your time, your energy, your access to funding, your moral support. This is how Peace Corps works. We have these grand objectives, but at the end of the day, an effective volunteer is someone without their own agenda. It’s someone who’s willing to get to know the little details of where they are living and who they are living with, so they can actually work in the community from a position of understanding.
I’m excited to begin sharing in person about my time in Benin, but I hope I don’t make the mistake of leading you (or myself) to believe that what I did was to swoop down on some impoverished place and save the day with extraordinary acts of kindness. Because this is what I really did: I showed up. I studied French and gardening and a few other things. Then I moved to a village named Koko. I lived in a dark house. I spent way more time in that dark house than most people around me would have thought healthy. I cooked strange meals my neighbors didn’t recognize. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of letters. Sometimes I walked around in the middle of the day when all the sane people were hiding in the shade, and I got really sunburned. I earned a “stipend” that was more than what most people in the area were earning for a “salary” – if they had one at all. I did some things I’m proud of and some things I’m not proud of. Sometimes I worked hard and sometimes I didn’t. I made really good friends in my community. I perplexed them, amused them, and probably annoyed them… but I tried to love them, too. And if the amount of love they showed me in return could be any indication of my success, then I think I did ok.