Yellow seems to be my color these days. On my left wrist, two filthy yellow bands. The thin strip of fabric from “Our Lady of Salvation” Cathedral in Rio De Janeiro was in a bundle of small gifts I received from my friend Kevin before I left home. Each of the three knots I have tied in it represent a wish. When it breaks, they will have come true. So far, it’s been on for eight months. The other is the nylon string I took off my Peace Corps Issue Rape Whistle (which I thought myself unlikely to use) and a small silver ring given to remind me that I am part of a circle – a family – no matter how far away I am. On my right wrist is the triple wrapped length of yellow nylon twine that our evacuation and Interruption-of-Service coordinator from DC used as a closing ceremony. Eileen was sent by Peace Corps Washington to assist partially because she was a volunteer evacuated from Thailand when she was around this age. We passed the length of twine around our circle. We each wrapped it once around our right wrist and then we gave it a tug. We cut for one another and tied for one another. To show we are connected, wherever we go; to keep us safe until we get home. And now, at my feet, lie my packed bags, a string of yellow yarn on each. Before we left staging in Philly, I helped hand out the yarn. The idea was to mark our bags, make them immediately apparent as our own. Given that its just yarn, it has far exceeded my expectations in terms of durability.
Were I still a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would be in violation of policy; you can’t return to your site if it’s been closed, particularly if it’s in Upper Rift. It’s my house, even though I only had it because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, which I now am not. I guess that makes it some kind of de-militarized zone now.
If you end up with Interruption-of-Service (IS) Peace Corps sends a car to your house and they ship home one hundred pounds of personal items. All you have to do is remember everything that is in your house, each desired item’s exact location and a fairly precise estimate of its weight, since anything over a hundred pounds gets left behind. Do you want your books or your hiking boots? Your sketchpad or your journals? That jar of peanut butter or the oranges you imagined would be pleasantly ripe when you returned from Christmas but have now created their own ecosystem in the plastic bag they are sitting in on the kitchen table? (Given the smell coming out of the bag, I would take the peanut butter if I was you) Then it’s a simple matter of hoping that the security situation improves to the point that Peace Corps feels it is appropriate to send that oh-so-conspicuous white Land Rover up to your briefly adopted home.
Remember before service where Peace Corps kept telling you to get personal item insurance? Too late.
What I have been thinking about is this: there were 30 of us in Dar and another 20 or so here in Kenya, all removed from our sites without warning and given a ticket home without a chance to go back. Let’s be generous. Let’s say that only 40 of those people want things picked up from their site. Each pickup crew consists of a staff member from the office and one of our drivers. There are less than ten drivers. The sites that have been closed are all in Western, Nyanza and Rift; provinces that fill out the larger western end of Kenya. My site is one of the closer ones, midway between Kisumu and Nairobi. Traveling here from Nairobi today took me almost nine hours. Imagine trips twice that length. Now imagine doing that 40 times. Did I mention that you can only send drivers who are the appropriate ethnicity for the area where the volunteer’s house is located? Are you beginning to see why I am here? Why I have a little less than complete faith that Peace Corps will ever get up here to find that my stuff is already gone? Who pays the rent for a volunteer who is no longer working for their organization? Who pays the power bill? Who watches the house to prevent break-ins? Exactly.
So I came. And now, I’m sitting in the dark of the sitting room, staring down at yet another tiny strip of yellow hanging off each of my packed bags.
I got this couch the weekend before we left for Christmas. I can count the number of times I have sat on it on my ten fingers. To my left is a massive stack of books and notebooks, manuals and steno pads. On the cushions next to me a pile of clothes that didn’t make the cut.
Kip-Rotich, perhaps my most consistent companion here at site, came by earlier when he saw the light on for the first time in a month and a half. I like him. He’s a good kid. Smart, good humored, caring, enthusiastic. So I told him to pick some stuff that I was leaving behind. I gave him my radio, a box of pencils, blank notebooks, a map of Kenya, one of my Kiswah dictionaries. And before he left I asked him to keep the things that I gave him to himself until I was gone tomorrow. In my mind, I was thinking of the physical violence that resulted at Whitney and Brad’s site in Taveta last week when they simply laid out all the extra stuff on the lawn and told people to take what they wanted. Evidently, it is good that he took the dictionary, since he clearly didn’t understand the words I used to phrase my request that he not advertise that I was giving things away.
I don’t blame him particularly. I remember being his age; how it felt to get cool new things in a sudden surprising way. Needing to show someone. Forgetting the obvious followup question: “Where did you get that?” All the same, if he did understand my request and couldn’t help himself, he certainly didn’t struggle for very long. This time there are three kids at the door, mouths hanging open at the pile of books, unused computer cables, and half finished crosswords. Dennis, from next door, is actually drooling a little. I stop them at the door, suddenly very aware of just what I have done by being generous with Kip-Rotich. The sight of Dennis’ parents and two more adults from the next house over appearing behind the boys, quickly downgrading from a rapid jog to a casual saunter, reinforces my growing sense of dread. My, they seem cheery for 8:45 on a Wednesday night.
My plan was to give everything to my neighbor Alice, the nurse at the dispensary. She is a single mother, who has raised/is raising four kids. Her daughter is at university, her first son at secondary, and still around the house she has two more in Primary. Alice cares about me. Not about what I can do for her, not about the novelty of my skin color or accent. She has never asked me for a thing and if she ever did, I would want to give it. She is kind and hard working and has been generous of spirit, knowledge and time. I want Alice to have first dibs. I want her to get a break for once.
At this point, what I have actually done is made Alice the focal point of a community angry to be left out of free stuff from the mzungu. It’s not giving or not giving the stuff away that bothers me, it’s the idea that they are going to cause problems for her because they are angry with me and my choice. If I hadn’t started with Kip-Rotich, she could quietly absorb things without a great deal of attention. Now I have seven people of varying height and age peering avariciously over my shoulder into my slowly deflating home. I send them away. I tell them I am packing and we will sort it out in the morning. I will leave things outside the door. I will do anything. Please just go away.
Alice comes by later and is characteristically herself. She tells me not to worry. She will take care of it. It’s no problem. She will explain it. Alice reduces my stress level, she doesn’t exacerbate it. This is why I want her to get first dibs.
I hadn’t considered coming back to site before Rachel suggested it over the weekend. I had locked this place off in my mind. There was no coming back to it. So to have any sense of closure feels surprising. All the same, the closure I’ve found is remarkably unsentimental, remarkably unremarkable from the daily life that I lived here before the election. The people to whom I have explained my departure express sympathy, but there was more interest, more deep feeling when I had to explain cutting my forehead on a nail stuck in my choo door. That day, everyone wanted to hear about my problems.
The mad dash for free stuff, the total divorce from any thoughts of the propriety of taking things that my circumstances are forcing me to leave behind - the mob looting a corpse - doesn’t seem particularly crude to me. I can see phrasing it that way, portraying my struggle and sadness with leaving (which we are aware is minor) and the harsh inconsiderate carnival like atmosphere that ‘Mzungu Giveaway’ cultivated in a matter of minutes as hurtful. But it’s not really.
My frustration is mainly logistical. I knew that this reaction would occur. I simply let myself slide into doing something I had specifically planned to avoid. I guess, I am mainly concerned for my friend.
It’s so hard to separate the symptoms and the illness. Why do I only have one person here who I really want to give to? Did I want to be done because I didn’t integrate, or did I not integrate because whatever this experience is, it wasn’t for me? In Tanzania, our regional head health officer, Dr. Patty, told me that people put all their focus on the two years. That Peace Corps comes out of their brains more like a prison term than what it could be. Peace Corps is as long as you need it to be to get what you need to get. My presence here and the experience others have had of my presence can’t have made the world or me worse off. There’s nothing magical about exactly two years. When you go home is when you go home and says nothing about your success or failure unless you choose to define it in such narrow and empty terms. (If she lived here, I would also give Dr. Patty first dibs. And I would have her bake me more of those chocolate chip cookies.)
I have had a number of Déjà vu moments in the past week or so. Like right now. My laptop on the low table in front of the couch. The dark room and light cast diagonly across the floor from the open kitchen door. It’s a sense of remembering a moment before I experience it as happening now. I had the same sensation handing Anne Haviland my finished Description of Service in that stifling conference room at Peace Corps Tanzania.
In some sense, the feeling that I dreamed this before now – that it was a moment that had to come – is reassuring. Whether I didn’t work hard enough at this, or whether it could have turned out differently is of little consequence. The present is too strong a force to worry too much about the things that might have been. It has turned out this way. It is enough to say that things happened as they did. That I acted as myself. That I did the things I thought were right when I thought they were that way. I would like to think that I would never ask more than that of another person.
I spent a year preparing to come here. A job that bored me, a job I hated, a job that dulled my brain; simply treading water as I waited for departure. I traveled for weeks to say goodbye to this scattered network of important people. If there was one thing that I expected above everything else, it was to be gone for longer than this. And yet, I’m very happy with where this time has left me. Which, in the most dynamic and basic sense, is nothing more than somewhere different. I came because I knew that I would end up different, but I couldn’t stop myself from imagining the end as that same person.
Baclav Havel said that hope is not the conviction that things will turn out right, but the certainty that, however they turn out, they make sense. For me, that’s just another way of saying: wherever I end up, no matter how confusing or unlike my imagined end, its being able to figure out how I got there that matters most. Our sense of progress, satisfaction, growth comes from looking back and seeing things fall gestalt-like into place. Besides, if we always ended up where we imagined, I would be at Clown College. Which is something I may look into again in the coming months.