Tuesday, September 23, 2014
First Several Months in the Peace Corps as a Slightly Older Volunteer
I’m under 50, but, I’ve gone through divorce, raised kids, been in the work force over 20 years, and put myself through college. Not only have I brought two bags of luggage weighing under 100lbs for two years of service, but heavier baggage from the life I’ve left behind. Taking a plunge into serving in a third world country as the oldest woman of my intake, I was aware I may be facing a challenge the others in my intake will not face—isolation due to age gap.
Since arriving in Zambia seven months ago I’ve met the people I would spend three months with during pre-service training. Out of 27 there was a small handful of others in their early to mid-30s. Everyone else in their 20’s, just like my oldest son. I had a choice: do I put on the mother ‘hat’ and make sure they understand I’m older, fool them into thinking in control of my life and I’ll be a rock for them?
I came in just like they did: unsure, nervous, little scared leaving everything behind. I didn’t know any of these people before I left except for a few brief conversations on Facebook. So how could I continue carrying on with my role as a guiding force as I had done many years before? Well, I decided that I am going to do this Peace Corps thing as a person with no age attached to me. Like I mentioned before, my entire adult life has been as a mother; albeit, not always responsible, made many mistakes, and carrying some guilt; so here I am…on my own for the first time as an adult…with a bunch of awesome people just out of college.
Shedding my age, but hanging onto the knowledge I’ve gained over the years, helped me through. I formed great friendships with some of my intake. Others stayed more or less acquaintances, but we all respect each other and we will always be there to support each other during our service and maybe beyond. Something I learned from a few Volunteers: they were excited to get to know me. There were also a few who acknowledged admiration of my determination to make my dream reality becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.
My intake group was full of interesting and intelligent adults. That’s how I saw them. I would even feel I wasn’t as smart as some of them. A little humbling, but I moved through it. I remember learning from my own kids over the years. I’m not a know-it-all and never want to be. So I made sure I was open to others’ ideas. There was also a lot of humor; some of it I thought absurd, such as, another Volunteer blew up a condom on his head until it popped. I look back on it now and laugh.
I struggled through the language and found those few who I would sneak into a corner with and discuss how we felt being the ‘slow’ ones in our language groups. It was nice having that support. I needed it more than anything. There were times when I thought I wasn’t going to make it through because of the difficulty I had. But I continued and I’m glad I didn’t give up.
I loved living with my host family during training. I had read in a forum of 50 and over adult Volunteers discussing being ‘older’ and disliking being told when they will eat, what they will eat, and when they will take a bath. I looked at this situation as: wow, I’m being taken care of and I like this. I took full advantage of the structure set by my family. I did choose to continue washing my own laundry even though I did a terrible job at it.
I left two children behind: one nineteen and the other 27. My 27 year old is settled with a career in teaching and doing well. My younger son is in a different situation. I tried guiding him in a certain direction before I left, but he got derailed a few times while my being in Africa. We communicate through Facebook and texts. I have been long-distance parenting and somehow it seems to be working. As long as I’m there for him, we are both ok.
I made a pact with myself once I left the United States to serve: I will not allow anyone influence the way I conduct myself while living two years in Africa. That means no romantic ties back home. I am free, like I said, for the first time in my adult life and looking forward to the person who is waiting to arise from within. Having limited support from home is quite a challenge, though.
When I entered community entry I found myself having difficulty transitioning to the isolation of being sole Volunteer for several kilometers. I felt like I lost my identity. No one was there to confirm who I was.
Living thousands of miles from home in a country with different culture including food, language, dress, norms, and mores, no one really knew me and no one really understood what I was going through; except other Volunteers. The Volunteers in my intake I was close with lived in other provinces, so I felt around my own province for new support.
I immediately got support from other Volunteers. I had my first visitor to my site; I visited another Volunteer for a few days. This turned things around for me. I learned that others were having similar struggles and I got ideas how to handle certain situations. I started to learn how to live on my own in my community.
Community entry was tough. My strength within has grown immensely during those three months.
Post Community Entry
I made it through community entry and am now creating work for myself to help my village with food security. I have been making new contacts with NGOs, friends nearby who are villagers and missionaries and I’m continuously meeting fascinating people. I still face struggles, but I seem to be able to deal with them better. One of the things is having a strong support system from other Volunteers. The Volunteers in my province are my family; my family here in Zambia, Africa…in the middle of nowhere.
The point I’m getting at is when older Volunteers enter the Peace Corps, letting go of past roles, such as in a career, or as a parent; being open to other people’s ideas and not being judgmental is key to forming friendships with others. For me, the friendships I’ve formed with other Peace Corps Volunteers have made my Peace Corps experience bearable during the toughest times.
Peace Corps life is not perfect, but really, what is? Even in the States there are struggles. As an older Volunteer, I am finding more room for growth. I let go of my ego and am building a new one. I like the person I am becoming. I like me. Age is only a number; doesn’t mean anything, unless you want it to.