On Being Deserving of Applause

Reflecting on the end of my Peace Corps Service


Coming to the end of your Peace Corps service is not unlike stepping onto a tightrope suspended over a pit of fire. Think of the tightrope as the clean, straight line you need to walk in order to sanely complete your service. All of your projects are in order, you’ve figured out who is getting what in your house, you’ve got your life back home all ready to receive you, and you’ve talked to all of your friends about your pending departure. The ‘pit of fire’ over which you precariously tiptoe is a seething, churning, contradictory mess of emotions ready to gobble you up as soon as you slip. If you are like me you are not walking but koala bear crawling under that tightrope, constantly being licked by the flames and hanging, it seems, as though by a single fingernail at some points.

So, what makes this period so emotional? Why can’t we just wrap up and be done? Besides the mental stress of preparing to move, there is the issue of leaving Burkina Faso behind and reflecting on your service as a whole. What have I really done in my time here? Washington could tell you in a story of numbers. Washington knows, for example, that I taught 40 girls how to start and maintain a garden. They know I have run a dozen sex Ed classes for probably up to 500 kids during my time here. They know that I have spoken to close to 400 mothers about the risks of malaria and they know that I have instructed approximately 100 young women on how to make tofu brochettes. Does that mean I contributed to the development of Burkina Faso? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are other numbers too, numbers that tell of my many failed attempts to carry out some great idea or how many times I accidently offended someone. There are numbers that might describe my false assumptions on coming here or how many times I changed someone’s mind about America (for better or worse). There’s a (small) number for how many words I know in Jula, and also one for how many times I broke down and cried at the prospect of leaving my house. But as lovely and clean as that all sounds to a bureaucrat’s ears, why is it so easy to fall off the tightrope at the end of your service? Why does it get so messy?

Obviously, numbers don’t really tell the whole story, and that’s why I kept this blog. So that, years later, I can understand why I suddenly got so emotional watching Rosine play with the soccer ball I tossed to her the other day, or why I got choked up when Christine crawled into my lap yesterday afternoon. The posts I’ve recorded about my time here serve to provide context for why I couldn’t handle myself last week when my counterpart smiled at me proudly, and why I became unreasonably appreciative when one of my girls went out of her way to greet me before Christmas. Numbers be damned, the weight of humanity in Burkina Faso is completely unquantifiable, and these connections are what my service has really been about. In two years I’ve taken on and given more love than I thought I was capable of and at the end of one’s service those beautiful little moments catch you completely off guard. They knock you off the tightrope.

Below: Moments in the last few months that made me so emotional that I 'fell off my tightrope' 

Sometimes, impatience gets you too. All the things you learned to deal with suddenly become unbearable knowing that you only have a little longer before your water, electricity, food and Wi-Fi comes on demand. Suddenly the fact that you can’t charge your computer is an injustice so great it must be contemplated from your bed for the rest of your day. The fact that your neighbor comments on your weight gain results in an angry tirade to your fellow volunteer about all of the faults of Burkinabe culture. The fact that your bucket bath is cold again means you indignantly decide not to wash your feet. Little punches that can make you stagger too.

It’s okay to wallow a little when you fall into the pit of fire. Everyone does it, and in some ways it’s necessary. It serves to remind you that your quantifiable work here is messy and tangled with human connections and that that’s kind of what makes it beautiful. So soldier on, my dear almost-Return-Peace-Corps-Volunteers. Whether you are doing backflips or kola-bearing like me, what matters is that, here at the end of your service, you still stepped bravely onto that tightrope and sought to give everyone a deserving finale. For that alone you deserve applause.