Monthly Archives: November 2012

Closing of Service and Entering Discombobulation, aka Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

I’ve been back in America for almost 3 weeks now. I spent an hour yesterday wandering around CVS. I left empty-handed and fairly dumbfounded. The other night, I spent the equivalent of half a month’s Peace Corps salary on a pair of boots and a winter coat that likewise left me in a state of mild shock. My first week back saw me nursing an epic bout of food poisoning that trumped all the ones I have ever had in Senegal (but not surpassing the barf-fest that was Cambodia 2005).

Still, I didn’t start this post to talk about life post-Peace Corps (yet). Instead, I want to share the Close of Service letter I wrote with another fellow urban agriculture volunteer, David Vaughan, with quotes contributed by Jen Schlaich. I hope it resonates with volunteers old and new, and especially my replacement in Richard Toll, Michael! You can follow his antics in the Peace Corps here:

Michael and I at the Thies Training Center earlier this month

…the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

From This Compost by Walt Whitman

Welcome to two of the most humbling years of your life. The next 27 months will be marked by an endless mix of cultural surprises, agricultural toil and moral circumspection that you will either grow to resent, or learn to embrace and turn into a profoundly soul-enriching experience. How could it not be? You have the benefit of knowing that your lot in Senegal has a 2-year expiration date. Farmers here have to live with the very real repercussions of every farming decision they make for the rest of their lives.

Some of you will experience your family’s heartache of selling an entire truckload of a vegetable crop at the peak of its season for peanuts. Even more of you will encounter problems encouraging people to grow crops during their off-peak seasons to beat the market, and every one of you will see the discipline and hardship that is required to work the land here effectively. Even then, unexpected pest attacks and diseases can decimate months and even years of hard work. Spider mites only turned up in the Senegal landscape a decade ago; the fly that afflicts the beloved mango trees here are likewise a recent Nigerian import. You will see first-hand how gravely a foreign import can quickly upset the local ecological balance, and how that can apply philosophically to your own presence here as a Peace Corps volunteer.

You will at times be exhausted, disappointed, and enraged to the point of wanting to give up. But you will also experience unparalleled joy, friendship, humility, and satisfaction should you embrace this experience as it was meant to be: a “formula for practical idealism” (to borrow some of the words of Sargent Shriver) that extends an unquestioning helping hand of American friendship.

To that end, try to always keep in mind your role as an American role model in whatever you do; lean on friends who will provide positive enforcement in times of hardship; and never give up—be creative and come up with alternatives when facing a roadblock, because Yallah knows you will face many. But just as important as all of this, is to HAVE FUN. We as agriculture volunteers have the privilege of getting our hands dirty on a daily basis. We get to see the fruits of our labor in ways that health volunteers can only dream about. A wise (wo)man once said that people who play in the dirt on a daily basis are on average 5 times happier than everyone else. Perhaps after two years of playing in the Senegalese soil (aka sand) you will find yourself much happier (albeit probably much, much dirtier), than you were before.

So as you toil away in the brilliant Senegalese humidity and heat, a few friendly pieces of advice from people who have been through it all:
1) Bring three shirts to the garden (or field) and a few pairs of shorts. When you sweat through shirt one, hang it up somewhere in the sun and move onto number two, etc. You’ll most likely cycle through them all a few times…
2) Sing to the vegetables. They really do respond. Really.
3) Water fights with Senegalese children are epic.
4) Cafe Touba. All day. Everyday. ‘nough said.

Finally, never forget that you are in a country that numbers in the bottom 25 of the Human Development Index globally, has an average life expectancy of 59 years, and where 51% of the population lives below the national poverty line. But also never forget how lucky you are to be here. If there is one Peace Corps cliché that never fails to live up to its overuse, it is this: you will learn more from those you came to ‘serve’ than you ever expected. Whether you are out in the “bush” of the infamous Bakel or in the gloriously over-crowded city of Dakar, your world view will be changed. You will be changed. The only question is this, taken and slightly modified from Mary Oliver: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious Peace Corps service?”

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

-Thomas Merton