Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mid-Service Crisis

One year down, one to go.  This time in the service is notoriously hard for a lot of volunteers, since we’ve been here for what seems like a long time, but we still have another year to go.  Being in this country can wear on you after a while, and I’ve recently been feeling the “mid-service crisis”.

Some days it’s hard not to feel frustrated with everyday things that I used to have much more patience for.  Unreliable transport, rice and peanuts every day, hauling water, handwashing laundry, never really having privacy, living in a hut that never feels clean, screaming goats and children.  To top it off, it’s hot season now, and I sweat all day and all night long in the oppressive heat.  I can’t sleep in my hut, so I’m now sleeping outside at night.  Some days these things don’t bother me, but other days, it’s hard to get myself into a good mood.  I feel like I’m back to the beginning of my service when I was feeling that rollercoaster of emotions all the time.  It just feels hard to psych myself up for another year sometimes.

That being said, there are a lot of positives to being here as well.  It’s just difficult to escape the frustration that comes with living here for a long period of time.  To distract myself, it’s always fun to have adventures with other volunteers.  Earlier this month, some friends and I did a moonlit bike ride from Saraya to Kedougou on the smooth, paved 60k road.  We started around 10pm and got in just before 2am.  We rode along in different formations under the full moon, passing sleeping villages along the way.  Of course, we stopped for fun activities such as snacks, jumping jacks, and shirts-off-o’clock!  It was a beautiful ride!

Last week I taught my Care Group about germs and the importance of washing their hands with soap.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen my villagers wash their hands with soap.  Before eating a meal, most will dip their right hand in a communal bowl of water to “wash their hand” before eating with it.  During the Care Group, I explained what germs are and that you can’t see them.  The women seemed to understand the types of illnesses germs can cause, and we talked about contaminating other people.  In this culture, we shake hands with other people all day long, so we’re constantly spreading germs around.  To demonstrate to the women that the bowl of water does not wash away all the germs, I squirted some hot sauce on their hands and asked them to dip their hands in the water bowl.  Afterwards, everyone agreed that their hands were not clean and that there was still hot pepper on their hands.  After washing their hands with soap for 30 seconds, they said their hands felt clean.  By the end of the lesson, they all understood the importance of washing their hands with soap.  The frustrating part is that they all said that they are not more likely to buy soap now, because they say it is too expensive.  It’s not a priority for them.  Even though they spend the same amount of money on tea and sugar when they socialize, they still do not see the value of spending money on soap.   Behavior change is hard, and this is one behavior that I don’t know if I will see change during my service.  The positive part is that they are now teaching their mini-groups about hand washing, so knowledge about germs is spreading around the village.  Little by little, hopefully this will make some impact at some point.

I’m hoping this mid-service frustration passes soon.  After being here for a year, I feel like I see more clearly the reality of life here and have a more realistic expectation of what I can do during my service.  You begin Peace Corps thinking you can change the world, and slowly that spectrum shrinks and shrinks.  I don’t want to sound jaded, but I feel that I’ve lost my idealistic notion of what I could do here.  I’ve learned that I can teach people how to do things and that doesn’t necessarily mean they will ever do them.  I know that I can ask every compound where women should give birth, and they’ll tell me all the women give birth at the health post, when in reality they know their family’s women give birth at home.  A baby died last week because the mother never came to the health post for pre-natal visits, the birth, or after the birth, and she and baby were both very ill.  These situations are disheartening and add to my frustration. 

I think there has to be some switch in my thinking where I appreciate the small victories in my village more.  When the little kids faces light up when we do art projects.  When the women in my Care Group teach other women about health.  When the kids in the English club greet me in English.   I’ve got another year to go, and there’s still a lot I can teach and learn.  So I’m halfway through this marathon, waiting for that second wind to kick in, and I know it will.


  1. There is a great line in "Its a Wonderful Life". "George, you've had a wonderful life, just think about all the people you have touched that are better because of you". I suspect it would be the same for you in Nafaji. Change happens one person at a time...

  2. Slowly but surely you're having an impact. Like you said--it's those small victories that add up and give meaning to your work. Keep up the great effort--it will pay off! xoxo