The following was written on November 16, 2008:
Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Once you’ve read this, the reasons should become clear. Obviously, I am using this blog as basically a substitute for a journal. If, as a result, I end up subjecting you to the random crap that goes on in my head... well, I hope you enjoy some of it.
One of my PCMI cohorts recently referred to Peace Corps life as simply, “the roller coaster” which is a pretty apt description. [Shout out to Abby! Keep up the good work. I know it gets tough, but it sounds like you’ve got some pretty good folks there who support and care about you. I’m sending only my best thoughts to you from Benin!] My particular instantiation of the roller coaster has been pretty active lately, to say the least.
As I think I’ve described previously, I got through the 40th anniversary with flying colors. The video project finally came together and was a huge success. I got a lot of very positive feedback from PCVs, from staff, even from the Regional Director, who insisted on getting a copy before he flew back to DC. It was even broadcast on Beninese state television, courtesy of the good folks at the US Embassy. Now we’re negotiating with PCHQ (some controversy over the copyright on the music I used for the video) about putting it up on YouTube. Ah, my 15 minutes…
Following the anniversary, work started to really pick up. There were a series of public information meetings to promote CAMeC and the work we do to the business and legal communities around the country. The first two were here in Cotonou and in Porto Novo, the capital. We drew large crowds and the exchange was really productive. Everybody was quite happy with the results. Then, my homologue and another staff member took the show on the road in the southern part of the country while I got to attend “life skills” training.
Three days of my life that I’ll never get back.
The program was designed to include PCVs and a host country work partner who would attend together and learn how to teach life skills related to reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. This is great for health volunteers, and maybe even for environment and TEFL volunteers. But for small enterprise volunteers, especially for those working at the level I’m working at, it’s pretty much a waste of time. (And that’s notwithstanding the fact that I could have TAUGHT most of what was presented.) But because this training was funded by a grant, and the grant was dependent on a certain number of people attending, no one was allowed to miss it. And all the while I could have been executing the marketing plan I submitted to CAMeC back in January! So, by the end of the week my enthusiasm for all things Peace Corps was at a low ebb…
Then things really went to shit.
We were supposed to continue the road show in the north of Benin the week after Life Skills. We were leaving on Sunday. Friday morning I got a text message from my homologue saying (I thought) that there was a meeting at MCA at noon. Well this was around 11:00am and I was still in Porto Novo so I couldn’t make it. Later that night (around 9:30) I got another text saying my homologue was unable to get me per diem and could I cover the cost of the trip and then be reimbursed. There was no way I could come up with enough money on such short notice. So after several more exchanges of texts, including one sequence where I told her how upset I was for the short notice and saying I felt disrespected, it was finally decided I would not go on the tour. She left as scheduled on Sunday morning.
One small problem…the initial message wasn’t telling me to go to a meeting, it was telling me to go to MCA for my “frais de mission.” What is that, you might reasonably ask? That’s my per diem. Obviously, I only discovered this after the fact. But thus, everything that happened after the first message was a result of me misinterpreting her messages in light of what I (mistakenly) thought was going on. Needless to say, I felt like a complete asshole…AND I ended up not going on this tour that we’ve been planning for four months.
To quote a line from Bill Murray, “And then...depression set in.” I wrote the following the next day…
Among the cardinal rules in life, right up there with, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” and “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter” are the following: 1) Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry and, 2) Never sit down to write when you’re depressed. Why? For approximately the same reason in both cases; you invariably end up with more than you bargained for. On va voir…
One of the most amazing things about this journey I’ve been on for the last few years has been the absolute certainty that I’ve been on the right path. As I have described [previously], I have carried this sense with me; not like I-have-analyzed-this-thoroughly-and concluded-that, but more as a part of the fiber of my being. No doubts, no hesitation, no detours, u-turns or dead ends. I’ve been living a Yogi Berra-ism, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it,” I have been, and every time it’s been the right one. It has been a source of enormous strength and reassurance for me for going on five years now.
I have lost my way. Like Hansel and Gretel, I look around me only to find that someone has eaten all the bread crumbs. All of the bright positive signals the universe had been so kindly providing have disappeared, replaced by…nothing. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but it really is quite profound. An accumulation of circumstances and events over the course of the last few months has left me bereft. My purpose for being here has been lost. My sense of my place in the world has been displaced. My confidence is in tatters. And the way forward looks very much like the slippery slope into the abyss. I am consumed with a deep and abiding sense of disillusionment which admits very little in the way of hope or optimism. I am, in a word, lost.
The one thing I am still fairly certain of is that quitting is not the answer. There is still work to be done here, even if I may not be the right person to do it. I have a plane ticket to Seattle leaving in a little over a month, which should give me an opportunity to gain some perspective. I need to decide whether to finish my degree program, and if so, why? And either way…then what?
What do the Germans call it? “Sturm und Drang?” Yup. That was about two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve gotten much better…maybe I’m bipolar… Anyway, I sat down with my APCD and explained what had happened and he was incredibly supportive. He tried very hard to get me to believe that “things like this happen all the time.” [He told me a little story that only really makes sense if you know French. It seems a couple of PCVs went to a restaurant and wanted to order bread. But they got the article wrong – instead of “le” they used “la.” So instead of bread they ended up with rabbit! (bread = le pain, rabbit = lapine)] He and I went to speak to my homologue together and she was very understanding. There seem to be no hard feelings and we are back to working well together, thank heavens.
With that resolved I followed some very good advice and went back to the beginning, trying to rediscover why I had embarked on this journey in the first place. One of the things I realized was that my descent into lostedness pretty much coincided with my starting to try to figure out what comes after Peace Corps. But it wasn’t that, per se, that was the problem.
The problem was that all my planning revolved around the idea that it was time to do for me now, instead of for others. As soon as I started caring more about what I could get out of this experience, and how I was going to turn it to my advantage (i.e., “good” job, better paycheck, more credibility or perks or whatever) that’s when the universe turned off the lights. Instead of being concerned with, as I have written before, “Bringing more of the world’s advantages to more of the world’s people” I was trying to see how I could bring more of the world’s advantages to ME! And basically the universe said, “Oh yeah? Fine. If you’re gonna be like that, you’re on your own.” Okay. Message received and understood.
So, in restarting the process of figuring out what comes next I went looking, first and foremost, for ways to continue to serve the greater good while, hopefully, also improving my circumstances and my future prospects. It certainly helped that this also coincided with election night, which dramatically improved my outlook on a host of things, Peace Corps included. (Yeah! I get to come home after my service is over!) Anyway, I’ve found some promising opportunities, several of which I am actively pursuing.
In particular, I have decided to apply for the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship. It’s a two-year program through the Congressional Hunger Center that puts fellows into the field for a year and then at an organizational HQ doing policy work for the second year. If I get it, training starts in mid-July and field work starts in August (in either Uganda or CAPE TOWN!). Yes, that puts the Masters degree on hold. But, since the point of the Masters degree is to be able to actually work in international development, I figure doing that sort of trumps the degree.
But that’s getting well ahead of ourselves at this point. Because, the PC roller coaster has taken another very interesting turn just this past Friday.
By way of background, PC has three work stations around Benin, in three of the larger cities in the north of the country. These are buildings PC provides for volunteers to work, to sleep, to rest over as they are traveling around the country and also to gather in the event of an emergency. They have kitchens, sleeping quarters, TV/VCR/DVD, computers w/ internet access...basically all the comforts of "home" as far as those are available in Benin. Each of these has a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) who manages the workstation, hires and pays the guards and other support staff, provides support for the volunteers in each region, and is generally the go-to guy/gal for PCVs who have problems or concerns or complaints for PC staff. These PCVLs are generally volunteers who extend for a 3rd year to accept a PCVL position.
Now, because the PC bureau is down south in Cotonou, it is considered the "southern workstation." However, it doesn't really function like a workstation for many reasons, not the least of which is that there is no southern PCVL. There are also no sleeping quarters at the bureau, except for those in the Medical Unit for PCVs with legit medical problems. Ditto for TV/VCR and kitchen. PCVs who come to Cotonou generally stay in hotels (or with Cotonou PCVs) and if they are on PC business they should get reimbursed - several weeks after the fact. All of this is managed by PC staff and comes out of the PC budget. Despite that, all PCVs - north and south - pay workstation dues...go figure.
So, for quite some time, southern volunteers have been agitating for a southern PCVL who can provide the same kinds of support for southern PCVs as the three existing PCVLs do for northern volunteers. For a host of reasons, including those differences I outlined above, PC Admin has never authorized a PCVL for the south. However...by the end of this year we are going to be moving into a new Bureau that will include volunteers sleeping quarters, kitchen, work area, lounge, etc. that will be in the same compound but in a separate building from the administrative offices. This area will be accessible to volunteers 24/7, unlike the current bureau which has an 8 o'clock curfew.
By now you're probably way ahead of me, but the upshot is that on an interim basis - sort of a proof of concept - I am going to take on the responsibility of the southern PCVL. Lots of details have yet to worked out - including a formal job description. The idea is that we'll do it for a few months and try to measure whether or not having a southern PCVL actually makes a difference in the level of volunteer support - or in the volunteers' perception of how well they are being supported, which is nearly as important. From there, PC will make a final decision about a permanent PCVL in the south.
What impact will this have on me, my work, my degree program, etc.? I have no idea, but those will be active considerations as we hammer out the details over the next few weeks. This all came out of a "Town Hall" meeting the southern PCVs had on Friday morning with the Country Director and the Admin Officer, so it's all brand new territory. The move is currently scheduled to happen while I'm in Seattle, so it should be up and running by the time I get back. As if the culture shock of coming back here isn't going to be enough all by itself...
How’s that for a loop-de-loop?!?