Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Power of One Person

If there is one thing you should know about me it is that I have an incredibly strong sense of justice. And though I realize the world is a complicated place, mired in shades of grey, I think it is important to contribute to that world in a positive way and take every chance to make it better.

I saw many difficult things in the Peace Corps. Not on the news or written in articles, but in front of me every day. As a 'cultural agent' I was forced to combat them creatively because my acceptance in the community was delicate. I was an outsider, a woman and I was often told that I simply didn't understand. I didn't understand that domestic violence was expected as an inevitability of marriage, that sexism was an element of a 'properly functioning' society, or that rape was a simple truth of life.

Of course, I could not accept or ignore these things so I fought them carefully. There was purpose in my work, an ability to do something in the world because my position invited change. But it didn't stop there.

I came back and I continued to see the same social wrongs - things international campaigns are started for, but seem to be tacitly ignored at home. America avoided eye contact, but I had become sensitive. I possessed a greater awareness of our own shortcomings and it became terribly frustrating to have my focus and my passions unmet.

With the death of someone like Nelson Mandela, and with so many people acknowledging his influence on the world, I hope he will serve as continued inspiration. I hope he will not be someone spoken of as an anomaly, There are still great injustices in the world and many of them occur right here in America. Sometimes to simply acknowledge them, to look them in the eye and recognize them as they are is enough to start social change and demand a better future.

Of the most valuable lessons I learned in the Peace Corps, I learned the power of one. One person. And that person is you. Because it's not always in someone else's hands to lead. You can inspire, too. And by changing one person, affecting one life, you can create an echo that changes many. You must simply use that beautiful voice and put purpose to that brilliant, human mind.

When we are faced with the death of those who represent the best in us it often shocks us into remembering all of the things we wish we could be. Mandela's death reminded me that it is a possibility for all of us - one that doesn't necessarily involve joining the Peace Corps or becoming an internationally recognized president. As I struggle to find my place again, to combine the two paths of my life, I hope that Nelson Mandela and perhaps (very humbly) I can remind you that we all have this potential. We all carry this light. To use it is a choice, not a fate.

Set light to the night.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Few of My Universal Truths

(Because spending three years in introspection has its perks ...)

1. People deserve to be loved:
And I mean everyone. Whether they're asking for change, serving you drinks or happen to be your closest friend - loving other people brings you closer to loving yourself. (And what's not to love about that?)

2. Love yourself:
Be your own biggest fan. It's not vain, it's learning to spend the rest of your life with someone you truly enjoy. (And truly enjoying the person you'll be spending the rest of your life with.)

3. It's okay to be vulnerable:
In fact, it's pretty brave. Opening yourself up to the world is not something you will likely ever regret. You will not break, I promise; you will learn to bend.

4. Always do the right thing, even if it's the hard thing:
You will never regret doing the right thing. It conveys respect and deference to any number of situations, persons and emotional truths; I only ask that you do it with kindness in your heart.

5. Happiness is a choice (and it's a damn good one).

6. Be honest, always:
Coupled with kindness, love or respect, it is a rare quality and it is refreshing. We have too little of it in our lives and too many expectations as a result. And people will respect you for it because even if you act a fool, you'll have the courage to admit it (and the forethought to apologize).

7. Never, ever, turn down a dance. Ever.

8. Smile often and mean it.

9. Find optimism:
There is an art to finding the silver lining in situations. It takes practice before it becomes habit and it takes effort, but if you can find that sliver of light you can hold onto it in the darkest of times (and one day it might be your saving grace).

10. A good life will make you work for it:
It's like any good catch; you have to work hard to earn and deserve it, to keep it and make it your personal best. Living a good life is just as much your responsibility as it is your circumstance. Own it.

11. Feed your passions:
Take adventures, soul-search, make your existence mean something to someone other than yourself; leap into thin air and learn to love your life.

12. Hug more (it doesn't count unless it's at least ten seconds).

13. Love more:
And do it unconditionally. It heals wounds, it fortifies, it is every question and every answer; if there's one thing Ghana taught me, it is unconditional, unbound love and, with it, forgiveness.

14. Forgive:
The world can be a heavy place when anger and guilt take up their watch on your shoulders. It may take work and it may be painful, but being able to let go of that pain will free up so much space in your heart that you won't know what to do with it.

15. Be kind to yourself:
Psychologically, we only allow other people to treat us as badly as we treat ourselves; the only problem with this is that most of us insult ourselves often. Even if it's something simple, like calling yourself stupid for a small mistake, it is a terrible habit. Make kindness your habit. Say one kind thing into the mirror every day and start to believe it.

16. Laugh often. And laugh from your toes.

17. Cry more (because it's okay to feel).

18. Listen more:
In fact, make it your goal to become a good listener; because only good things can come from being a better partner/friend/child/colleague/person. And if someone is willing to open up to you, you should respect that.

19. Make the people you love a priority:
It's easy to become distracted in a world where an app exists for every possible interaction, question and desire, but an app won't come over after a break up and it won't help you plan a baby shower or dress up with you for a late-night cult-classic at the local movie theater. Appreciate those people, love on those people like every day is their last day and you will learn what it means to live without regret.

20. Say thank you more often:
And don't wait for a national holiday to do it. Find something to be grateful for every day, make that appreciation known, rinse and repeat. Simple.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody,

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Leaving the Peace Corps Behind ...

Re-acclimating to normal life is going to be more difficult than I thought, but not for the reasons you would assume.

I want to start by saying that leaving anything 'behind' is a myth. Experiences shape you, they affect you long after they end, and they usually take up residence without your notice. They will shift opinions, change behaviors, and continue to pepper your vocabulary with their influence. It's evolution in the simplest form.

The way we close our service brings the expectation that once our service has 'closed' it has ended; it is a chapter in a book that is set firmly in the past. We are left with anecdotes, pictures, and the kind of wistful memories shared with other friends struggling to reintegrate. We end up focusing on the separation of experiences, but why do we feel so strange if our experiences are so separate?

The Peace Corps, by nature, forces people out of their comfort zones. It forces relationships to be made and middle ground to be found. We recognize that, despite the many annoyances of culture shock, our expectations (based on a context completely separate from our current experiences) are unfair. We become compassionate and forgive the faults we see because we understand that our job is not to change, but to affect change. It is an important distinction. And so we create relationships, start conversations, and try to empower those within our adopted cultures to make the changes they wish to see.

It is an art and it is incredibly difficult to do. It takes a level of self-awareness that is hard to adopt, but is  necessary when one exists so far out of context; most of the time we do it without thinking.

Having adopted a new form of interpersonal interaction we return to America changed, but we aren't used to this. We aren't used to applying obvious cultural differences to a place we call home. We assume we understand America completely and this perceived comfort zone comes with expectations that no longer apply. We are different; we operate at a different level; we see things from an outside perspective. We observe because, for two years, observation meant the difference between success and failure and, suddenly, we start to see things we didn't recognize before the Peace Corps. It can be incredibly frustrating.

The thought that we 'close' our service, end a chapter and move forward, is a misrepresentation of our experience and the lessons that we worked so hard to apply. It isn't a 'separate' experience, it doesn't exist somewhere outside of us - what we learned about were people; what we did was adapt.

What I've found over the last two weeks is that I notice more; I notice things about people that probably always existed but didn't seem out of the ordinary when it worked within my context. And it seems difficult to fit those people back into my life - people who no longer see the world like I do, who have faults I clearly recognize, who, astonishingly enough, require the lesson I learned in Africa to be applied to them in America. It's disconcerting; it takes patience.

And it's not that America has changed and become more disappointing, but that I've changed and have become more aware. And I have to remind myself that it would be incredibly unfair not to apply the universal understanding and compassion I adopted in the Peace Corps to my life in America, or to idolize Ghana and my experiences when I know, full well, that people everywhere have the exact same potential to impress and disappoint.

I cannot run away from these things, they will exist wherever I go. I can, however, accept that I will always have a unique perspective and that it's okay that America isn't perfect. My Peace Corps experience is not somewhere behind me because it lives at my side. I will notice things now, and some of them will disappoint, but maybe - just maybe - I can begin to apply my experience as a volunteer and affect change where it really matters: in America, in my context.

So, happy hunting, my fellow change agents and remember to keep an open mind.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Haunted Streets

I rarely ran into my past in Ghana. Even Facebook, with its endless possibilities, was avoidable; containable. I could focus. I could assess and improve; I could quantify. And I could do it all with the clarity of a safe distance, which I now understand was a unique opportunity.

I've been home for just over one week and there are so many stories to catch up on, so many faces to see (both the anticipated and the unexpected). Some of them belong to distant paths, ancient things; others walk a faint trail, their paths just emerging. It turns out to be a very large pile to sift through, to organize in my mind, to find a place for in my life - a life I'm only beginning to figure out again.

This is obviously a work in progress, the attempted management of a readjustment they warned me about. Except it's not exactly the kind of culture shock I thought it would be; turns out I can totally handle incredibly high-tech bathrooms, grocery stores (to a degree), and the ability to understand every conversation around me without needing to listen in like a lonely ex-pat creeper. What seems to be the struggle now is re-fitting all of the pieces. Actually, just plain fitting in.

And I guess it sounds silly to admit that my biggest problem is finding room for all of the people interested in catching up, in showing appreciation for the things I've done, even if briefly. I guess it's just the fact that things simultaneously seem to have changed completely and not at all, that in the same week I can go without recognizing a single face to recognizing entirely too many to process. It's apparently no easy feat to step out of your life for three years and walk back in, having had so many unbelievably important, but completely separate experiences. It's a little like waking from a dream.

These are my haunted streets. All ghosts welcome.


Monday, October 21, 2013

My Biggest Fear

Sometimes people disappoint.

They have their reasons, of course. We live in a world shaped by emotional turmoil and uncertainty. It's a reactionary world and it can make us unforgiving, ungrateful, and embittered. It becomes easy to quit people, to build walls around steadily shrinking hearts, and to inflict our pain upon others without discrimination. We forget that people deserve dignity and that kindness isn't a commodity to be bargained for (or an act made with the expectation of return).

Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” In other words, every impatience, every painful infliction from the outside, is a mirror offering us an opportunity.

When I consider this quote, I realize that what he’s talking about is empathy – the ability to relate to the pain we encounter, to its origin. Because if we look deep enough, if we can dig down into that pit of compassion we all carry, we can confront our own souls with honesty.

It isn't always easy. Compassion, empathy and patience are all acts of practice. They take time to master; each must be a conscious choice, not only reserved for those closest to us but applied to the briefest of interactions. Only in this can we learn what it means to love unconditionally, to cure the pain we see in the world - a pain once inflicted upon and by us.

As I left Ghana, left my position as a volunteer trained in cultural understanding and mindfulness, I feared that I would somehow lose that; that, in a world where Twitter, Instagram and the instant gratification of Facebook exists, my compassion would fall short of the life I once knew. I wanted to reflect on my time as a volunteer without idolizing the third world or damning the first. I wanted to change problems I saw through my understanding of them, not my disgust. Because, I thought, if I couldn't use my third world experiences in the first world, 'my' world, than I obviously hadn't spent them well ...

The world I see today is seriously lacking in empathy and patience. And if you’re looking to do some good, take a moment to look into a mirror - whether it be a he or a she, a Christian or a Muslim, recklessly angry or smiling like a child watching bubbles float into the sky – forgive them, forget yourself for a minute, and remember that they might actually need your love more than you know (and that giving your love is never a sign of weakness). 

Make the world more beautiful. Make your experiences count.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

I Believe In You.

When you stop - when you take a moment to admire the view, to feel the texture of the city, to smell the air and the history and the life teeming around you, to hear the buzz, the heartbeat, the electricity within you - you'll suddenly find, once you've grown used to the silence, once you've allowed yourself to slow your pace, to put your phone down and disconnect, to look up at the picture you're so keen to take, that the world is big. The world is so very big.

I think our generation suffers from a peculiar affliction, the affliction of too many options; too many things to see, too many places to visit, too many social websites to share on (with too many friends to share with). It makes us indecisive, it makes us nervous. Maybe it makes us think we aren't doing enough, cannot possibly ever catch up or succeed or feel satisfied.We consume, we want more, we move at a pace that won't allow us to feel disappointment or regret, nervousness or failure, sadness, fear, listlessness ...

Rome was the most beautiful place in the world, I loved it. And then I loved Greece, and Santorini became the most beautiful place in the world. Both of these things are true - believing one doesn't negate the other - and even if I must remind myself to be mindful, to be present, to watch the sunset I see in front of me, to taste the food I'm eating, to love the people around me no matter who they are, I am determined to live my life, to love my life. I suppose losing people does that to you - reminds you every day of your luck, of your chance to do something wonderful, something unique, something meaningful in the world.

So what will you do? How will you make today count? What beauty will you see? Because the biggest leap is making the choice to jump; it's the hardest part of the day, the only thing that keeps most of us from living our dreams, from taking risks and being proud to fail, from closing our eyes and trusting the judgment, the instinct, of our own two feet.

Just try it; stop and take a moment too see the beauty around you (because I see it in you).


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Things I'll Miss in Ghana

      1. African exclamations:
The common exclamations of surprise (EY!), dismay (Ohh! Ohohoh!), happiness (Heh heh HEYYYYY!), disappointment (insert clicking noise here), understanding (insert clicking noise here), or agreement (eh-HEH!) are identical everywhere. Which means that I always know the crowd’s mood no matter where I am (or what language I don’t understand).

      2. Eating with my hands. No explanation necessary ...

      3. Random strangers greeting me and immediately asking me to marry them:
Call me crazy, but I’m probably going to miss being immediately popular without any effort. It’s not every day I roll up covered in dirt and find at least three men willing to court me, buy me cattle and marry me immediately …

      4. The love – absolute and enduring love – of taglines.
People in Ghana use them in conversation (Hey, O’broni! It’s nice to be nice!), deck out their cars (No Food for the lazy man), name their stores (God’s time is the best time), name their children (Alex Born-Great), and even tag their taglines (Be Your Best: A Man’s Beer … Be the Best Man). I love it.

      6. Goats.
Particularly grungy city goats that are a little off their hoofed rockers. I love them. I love goat.

      7. Baby Back:
And I’m not talking about junk in the trunk, though having some of that is convenient when you’re trying to attach a nugget to your back with two yards of fabric. Best accessory ever.

       8. F*ck it: Babies.
And the ability to hold, steal and play with them without being on some neighborhood watch list.

      7. Cheap travel:
As inconvenient as a transport system with no schedule can be, it’s a cheap life experience. And what’s not to love about a beat up, rusty old van with no windows and a rope holding its doors together? Exactly: you’re in Africa. Shut up and enjoy the scenery.

      10. Drive-by shopping:
I cannot get over being able to buy whatever I want, anywhere I am, off of someone’s head. It’s ingenious.

      11. Dancing everywhere.  If you know me at all, you know this also needs no explanation.

      12. Being a celebrity.
Sure it can get tiresome being constantly visible, but I’m never lost or alone.

      13. Being able to crash any meeting, party or celebration.
Stumble across a wedding? Here’s a front row seat! Elder’s meeting? Sounds like you guys were looking to hear about family planning! Are you lost? No problem! I'll take you to lunch, first, then we'll find your destination! It's awesome.

      14. Hand washing everything:
I’m not kidding. It’s a great excuse for nice arms and a strong back when there’s no gym in sight.

      15. Carrying things on my head:
It is amazing what some people can carry on their heads. Seriously. I once saw a lady carrying five different sized bowls, filled with charcoal, and stacked into a tower on her head. She just casually walked by. No big deal.

n    16. Clothes piles.
It’s like thrift shopping, but your sifting through piles on the ground. Did I mention I love shopping?

      21. British chocolate everywhere. (British everything everywhere.) 

      22. The amazing sense of fashion:
Ghanaians are impeccable. They know how to keep whites white and clean up like it’s nobody’s business. While I’m stumbling around looking like Raggedy Anne, they constantly look fabulous. 

      23. Making things from other things:
I wish I had a photo album of the amazing recycled toys that children make. Everything is reusable. Ignore the fact that there’s a terrible amount of plastic everywhere and think about the fact that a few old tin cans, a small box and a few nails can make a perfectly sufficient toy car. 

      24. The stars.
The stars in the village were so beautiful they were distracting. I'm definitely going to miss the stars ...

Friday, August 23, 2013

What Ghana Means to Me


Some are learned from study, from the direction and paths of those before us; others are learned by doing, they happen once the books are shelved and feet start moving. What Ghana meant to me is the difference between studying and living. And while my life continues, while my experiences never truly end, I find myself leaving Ghana and starting anew. (If there were ever a time for retrospection, I guess this is it.)

Peace Corps is a tough gig. We join to change the world, to make it a better place, to leave something  behind worthy of remembrance. Once we realize it’s not that easy (or quantifiable), we spend two years chasing lofty, pre-Peace Corps dreams. Nothing is enough, there's always something more to be done, that should be done. It isn't until we're leaving that we realize just how successful we actually were and that maybe we did enough. 

The Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to legitimately change people’s lives. And not in the ‘random acts of kindness’  way, but with purpose and clarity. Whether it be successful projects or personal relationships, the fact that I directly affected positive change in anyone’s life is quite possibly the most amazing, humbling thing I've ever experienced. That kind of responsibility, coupled with that kind of trust, changes a person; it changed me. 

I’m stronger; I learned about sacrifice and hardship. There were days when I wanted to pack it in, settle into a comfortable loneliness and question why I ever became a volunteer in the first place. I found courage. I found adventure and I found pride; in myself, in my intentions, and in the heart I was willing to put into the work I wanted to do. I learned to trust and I learned to forgive when that trust was broken. I learned the difference between empathy and sympathy, the truth behind respecting and loving others as I love myself.

I learned to love myself. I allowed myself to be an inspiration, found the balance between believing in myself and accepting failure without losing that belief. And as I opened my heart I found it easier to accept the people around me. I began to experience the world like a child. I found the root of life and I climbed its tree. I found laughter. I found soul. I experienced an incredible opportunity to live the life I wanted, to experience another culture intimately, to ask questions and discover motivations, to include myself in the conversation and make a tiny, Emma-sized difference in the world. I found a life I could be proud of.

At the close, I'm the kind of happy found in purpose and fulfillment. This means, of course, that I am also forever doomed. It’s like an itch that can’t be scratched - a nagging need for movement and adventure; a need for the satisfaction found out there in the world. I found my passion. I’m flexible and I’m resilient and I love. The Peace Corps taught me to learn; Ghana taught me to be happy.

Who I am today is grateful. I met the most amazing people and earned the privilege to call them friends. I found my voice, I found my vision and I gained much more than I gave. All of these things will always be with me, permanently inked on muscle and tendon and vein, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Ayekoo, Ghana. We've done well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Life Worth Living

I only have three weeks until I'm no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. I'd like to let that sink in for a minute.

(insert minute here)

Understanding, of course, that I'll always 'be' a Peace Corps Volunteer, this realization - captured in one, simple sentence above - carries at least a dozen different emotions; and though I'm not one for abrupt endings, I'm pretty sure a lot of things are about to change abruptly.

My way of coping (read: ignoring) is to obsessively plan the details of my next travels and, like an excited child, I find it hard to sit still for very long. At any given moment I'm prone to random, public outbursts of excitement which include, but aren't limited to, the type of dancing I usually keep to myself and a wistful smile, put on my face by wine sipping, obviously touristy daydreams. It's not that I'm ready to leave Ghana behind, but I'm excited to continue my adventure.

Ghana is the home of over 70 different languages and at least as many different cultural practices and beliefs. While I admit that this became normal for me, I recognize that Ghana offered me over three years of unique daily experiences. It's why, even at its most boring, my time spent here was worth dozens of blogs, 36 paged letters, and a ridiculous amount of photos. With a new adventure at my fingertips (and each jump of my heart bringing it closer to my throat) I think I may have found the secret to a life well lived. A life well-lived is one spent in exploration.

What I think most people don't realize is that a life spent in exploration can be spent anywhere. Being in the Peace Corps simply made the adventures, the diversity, more obvious. I felt obligated to experience the world around me. It was my duty to share those experiences simply because I was having them. It was part gratitude, part curiosity. I appreciated my life here because it was unique and it came from a completely different perspective, but who's to say that needs to stop?

Traveling to Europe is obviously exciting; it's not every day I get to run my hands along terribly dirty, terribly ancient buildings, but (along with all of the other things I managed to find in Ghana) I found that I've rediscovered my curiosity. Too many people forget, as they get older, as the bills pile up, as life gets more complicated, that the world is interactive. It's meant to be enjoyed. As three years slipped past me, I realized that it's not enough to survive each day; we must engage in the world around us, appreciate our capacity for helping and learning and loving, find something exciting about its smallest detail.

Before I moved to Ghana I was in love the idea of traveling, but it was still an idea; I was determined to become a citizen of the world, an active member, an avid explorer, an ever-lover. Somewhere along the way I succeeded. Maybe I'm not a perfect citizen - there are days when I ignore the world, cuddle up with a good book and fall in-love with a fictional universe - but I'm here. I'm here and I'm committed. I've put a ring on it - a metaphorical ring in the form of tiny, plane-shaped carbon footprints that, I hope, will lead me anywhere. Yep, I said it: anywhere.

You see, it doesn't matter where I end up as long as I'm doing something I love and actively exploring what the world has to offer (which happens to be something I love). When I joined the Peace Corps I took a giant leap into a life that offered something new every day. What I realized was that grand gestures weren't necessary; every moment anywhere has something new and exciting to offer.

Shift your focus. Explore and stay curious.
A life well-lived is as simple as that.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What the Peace Corps Taught Me about Myself

The first thing the Peace Corps taught me about myself was that we were strangers, acquaintances really.  My heart and imagination, my resilience and motivations, my capabilities and my limits – everything I thought I knew about myself – were slowly illuminated. Like the moon arching its way across a darkened sky, I changed constantly.

Until I moved to Africa I hadn't spent very much time alone. I’d spent time with myself, of course, but always within the context of a culture I knew and understood - a world I belonged to even when I rebelled against it. In the Peace Corps I became a true outsider, a player to be watched with curiosity, humor and, sometimes, distrust. A distinct line existed between me and Ghana. I was isolated.

There’s nothing quite like trying to be a part of something foreign, trying very hard to understand and adopt it, while existing entirely outside of it. My ability to make friends, something I’d never really struggled with, became a most coveted skill. I was tolerant and respectful, I forgave people for their shortcomings and attempted to understand them. It was my first true application of empathy.

While I struggled to understand cultural differences, some of them tragic and misguided, I became acutely aware of my own shortcomings and my limited understanding of the world. Some days were distracting, but others were blissful and as things became normal and I accepted my post as an outsider, I was struck by moments of clarity and mindfulness.

In this clarity I started to witness myself. I began to live with myself. I watched the slow crawl of growth, the strengthening of skill, a new sense of comfort that stretched its muscles within my mind. I was like a solar light - warmed and energized by my work in the day, humming with creativity and awareness at night. I was happy and it was a beacon, a lighthouse for the darkened nights (and there were some very dark nights).

I spent two years spelunking, traversing and climbing - sometimes blindly - though the landscape of my mind. I hung from cliffs, stared into chasms and found deep caverns - one spilling into the other in an endless exploration of me. I called out to the echoes and found myself lost. I circled the same passageways and realizing they were things I would have to revisit again and again. I began my quest to leave no path un-mapped. Closing my eyes I watched my thoughts dance to the beat of my heart. I followed them to their origin, saw them to their end and like the foreign world around me, sought to understand them because I never truly had.

What I found was an incredible capacity for love - the largeness of my heart and the rate of its (continued) growth is still very hard to explain, harder still to measure. I developed a sense of empathy that surprises me, reminds me of myself when I am liable to forget. I realized my own resilience, though it took the death of a friend to realize just how resilient I’d become. For a time I seemed to fall very far, invisible and lost among the ruins of my grief. Though the pain is still strong, I know this land and I have managed to find solid ground again.

I am constantly reminded that my creativity, my ability to adapt and my willingness to learn - brought on the backs of ants and diligently carved from my own determination - allow me to do anything. My efforts, my optimism and my absolute stubbornness will lead me there eventually.

The title of this blog is actually quite wrong. It would be more accurate to tell you that the Peace Corps introduced me to myself and I can finally say that I am beginning to know her. She changes and shifts beneath my hands and feet, but I am no longer afraid to explore. I guess you could call the Peace Corps the most difficult trust fall to accomplish; I didn't end up catching anyone but myself.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

30 Things That Would Be Totally Creepy in America, but are Completely Acceptable in the Peace Corps

1. Ringtones:
Yes, my ringtone is a child’s laughter. No, I do not have children – what's your problem?

2.  Bad carpentry:
I regularly walk into my kitchen to find every cabinet and drawer hanging open. Calm down, it's not Sixth Sense, it's just that nothing in my house was built at a ninety-degree angle.

3. Giving candy to random children:
It's honestly the only way to get them to leave. I regret nothing.

4. Taking selfies with random children:
No, I don't know this child; yes, I just gave him candy. NEW PROFILE PICTURE!!!

5. Carrying a large wooden penis and several condoms, just in case: 

6. Children at the windows:
Oh, no - the children found us. Quickly, everyone hide! Shhhhhh ...

7. People knocking at the door:
And following up with a peep at the window.

8. That one dude calling ten times in a row from three different phone numbers:
Ignore my phone call, will you? I'll show you.

9. The number of white people who can and will be randomly directed to your door:
Oh, hello, person – they must think we know each other … well, come in for some tea, at least.

10. Latrines:
Do you need an explanation?

11. Remote locations: 
Just walked through the bush, alone, for fifteen minutes. Yeah, keep going. My house is down that abandoned stretch of road just to your left.

12. Discussing disgusting bodily functions: 
At the dinner table. At any table, really.

13. Hanging out in the dark:
Sorry, man ... I guess I forgot to buy candles at the market today.

15. That one bank teller calling for a random chat:
You didn't mean to give me your number? But you wrote it - right there - on the deposit slip where it requires a phone number (awkward pause) I'm confused.

16. A marriage proposal within thirty seconds of introduction:
Names? Who needs names with a love this strong?

17. When a stranger asks how you ‘maintain’ yourself:
 What they mean to ask is how often you have sex.

18. Stealing babies:
Oh my. He is just adorable! Let me just take him over here and play with him for four hours.

19. Spiders:
Oh, I almost forgot! Meet my new roommate! I named him Chester … he’s kind of anti-social, but I like him. 

20. Hearing something scurry across the ceiling:
Well, well, well. Sounds like SOMEONE's been having babies up there!

21. Owning a dozen cats:
Look, I'm not going to sit here and justify my loneliness to you.

22. Gnawing on bones, eyeballs, or any other choice organs of an animal:
I have to get my calcium somewhere. *gnaw gnaw gnaw*

23. Adult-sized bunk beds:
It's like going to band camp with mosquito nets at 35 years old!

24. Constant physical contact:
Oh hello, friend. I haven't been in contact with another American for at least three weeks. So, basically, I plan on spending the next 24 hours physically attached to you. No, I'm not going to wait for your permission. You smell delicious ...

25. Murdering tonight's dinner:
I’m not talking about guns, either. I’m talking about killing that chicken with your own rusted kitchen knife. LIKE A BOSS.

26. Posting pictures 
of boils and/or any other puss-filled, disgusting infection on the internet:
Why else do you think I have a Facebook account? Look! I named him Hubert!

27. Staring hungrily at other people's packages:
What ... what is it, precious?!?!

28. Stalking the receiver of said package to wherever they plan on opening it:
Oh, hey. I spotted you from across the room. And I'm just going to stand here, awkwardly, until I witness every item pulled out of that box.

29. Bucket bathing together:
You know what sounds romantic right now? Squatting over a bucket of water with you. Oh yeah. 

30. My current relationship with food:
Oh, wait. Thanks to Pinterest, that's completely normal now.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Peace Corps Experience in Stats:

Name: Emmaline Repp
Age: 26
Landed: June 4, 2010
Swore-in: August 12, 2010
Close of Service: August 30, 2013

Years: 3.06
Days: 1119
Days spent in America: 55
Days left of service: 79
Birthdays: 3
Leap Years: 1
Apocalypses: 3
Subsequent volunteer groups: 8

Waterfalls: 4
Beaches: 5
Sacred Places: 6
Monasteries: 1
Monkey Sanctuaries: 2
Temporary baby-animal home take-overs: 4
Baby animals: 16
Actual pets: 4

Pounds gained (2010-2011): 16
Pounds lost (2011-2013): 9

Sites: 2
Market Days: 244
Regions visited: 10
Visitors: 3

Houses: 3
Evacuations: 1
Days spent in exile: 49
Languages: 3
Adopted mamas: 3
Goats killed: 1
Crops grown: 0

All Vol Conferences: 3
Prom crowns: 1/3 (we were all winners that night)
Talent shows: 4

Pictures posted: 47,129
Blogs: 76
Grants: 8
Websites: 1
Youtube videos: 2

Boils: 0
Parasites: 2
Malaria: 1
Highest fever: 104 F
Number of (Mefloquine) night terrors that woke my entire household: 2
Number of (Mefloquine) night terrors it took for them to ignore my night terrors: 3

Pen Pals: 1
Letters written: 60-70
Average letter length: 30 pages

Boyfriends: 2
Friends gained: lost count
Friends lost: 1
Lessons learned: innumerable
Regrets: 0

June 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Peace Corps Taught Me About Friendship

I'm not really sure how to begin. I want to talk about friendship - the special kind we seem to find in the Peace Corps; about the bounds and limits of the human heart; about loss and the kind of grief that accompanies only the greatest of love, but where do I begin?

I write this in the context of April 28, 2013. It's the day we lost one of our shining stars and the day I lost a very dear friend. The shock I feel, the grief of such sudden absence, is something I struggle to explain. I imagine my sadness will fade in time, but for now I hold it close because it reminds me of her. She was one of the best people I've ever met and our friendship was genuine. I feel lucky to have known her. She strengthened and lifted and brightened me; she made me a better person. 

She was rare, too, because anyone who knew and met her, however briefly, felt the same as I did. She always gave her undivided attention, reminded people of their importance. We felt loved in her presence and we danced in her light. And while her passing is mired in absolute sorrow, she reminded us - once again - of our strength; that the family we've found in the Peace Corps is a special one. 

Friendship in the Peace Corps is a funny thing; we depend on each other in a way that isn't easy to explain. Our bonds are immediate and stronger than steel; the stress of sudden culture shock, of loneliness and homesickness, of the happiness and satisfaction that comes with living an adventure and fulfilling a purpose makes relationships (and the appreciation of them) necessary. The distance we feel - from our families and our homes and our norms - fortifies our love; everything is that much more important, time moves that much slower, milestones are that much greater because every second of every day calls into question our motivations. It has to be worth it, we have to make the best of it, and somewhere along the way we realize that the pettiness of every day life is just the white noise to a beautiful symphony.

Of course, we forget sometimes; we're human, after all. And as the forest grows - ever expanding into a canopy that seems too high to reach - we lose sight of our tree. Yet we continue to motivate each other. We spend two years striking a balance between being a safety net and needing one; we see the absolute best and worst in each other, the absolute best and worst in ourselves; and at the close, we realize that what we've shared is truly unique. It's an experience that will, at times, put us at odds with the world; an experience that will put life into perspective; and the only people who will truly understand, who will see exactly what we see, are the volunteers we've met. They speak the same secret language, stand on the same deserted island, stare out at the same wide ocean with the same wide eyes. And they understand because they watched us grow. 

If we'd forgotten, Danni helped us remember. And as hard as it was, I'm grateful. I don't know what I would do without my Peace Corps family; just knowing that I wasn't alone - that I'm not alone - is enough to strengthen me. We hold each other and guide each other and we do it all with Danni's strength. Her memory, her love, her motivation reflected in us; living there in the space she made in our hearts, in the place we made for her.

The only way I can explain the immensity of my grief is to explain the fierceness forged in just two years of service: a family you can't choose, but want to; an intimate understanding of the soul and its capabilities; an immense pride for rarity and imperfection; an embrace that carries with it a hello and a goodbye, love and recognition, and the acknowledgement of brother, sister, and self.

With yet another group closing their service, yet another round of goodbyes to be said (mine included), it's hard for me to express the pride I feel in the friendships I've gained here, in the family I've made for myself. It's precious and it's rare and I'm lucky to have it. And if I make and keep one promise it's that I will never, ever forget.

We miss you, baby girl.
Thank you.


Friday, April 26, 2013

What Ghana Taught Me About Giving

If there’s one thing I've noticed over the years, it’s that Ghanaians have a wonderful knack for giving.

Usually it's simple: someone’s time or help, their opinion about the culture or their advice; and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these times will be. There are days when no one seems to want to give an inch and, just as quickly, everyone seems to be giving something (and giving it freely). I've often been completely surprised, knocked off of my guard by someone’s kindness. Usually this happens on the worst of days and exactly when I need it; a reminder that, in the heat and exhaustion, I can continue - one foot in front of the other - because the world is good.

There’s no end to the kinds of things I've received: American coins, sea shells, drawings of trees and real, delicious popsicles;  people have paid for my travel, taken me (completely out of their way) to the location I'm so unfamiliar with, fed me and carried my bags; there are always kind words and smiles, curiosity and conversation, and an over-abundance of marriage proposals. Though I attribute some of this to my 'visitor' status, Ghana is of a communal mentality; centered in traditionalism, family homes, and village life Ghanaians take care of each other because their well-being is dependent upon one another.  (What’s to say that tomorrow they won’t need help, in turn?)

As a rule, giving is only satisfying when it’s wholehearted and honest, completely void of expectation. Generally, there's no reason for kindness other than the kindness, itself. And, though it seems such a simple thing, it tends to fill the biggest holes, heal the largest wounds, and is quickly contagious. After three years, much of it spent dependent on the kindness of others, I've come to understand that life is about giving. Whether it be the heart, kindness, creativity, or capital, the world is meant to be shared. Too many adventures and stories would cease to exist, too many simple fulfillments would go unnoticed, if no one opened their hearts and minds; if no one gave an inch.

And, really, there's a simple reason philanthropists are happy: they help make other people happy. While it’s strange to think of myself as a philanthropist, I guess that’s what I've become (though most of what I give seems meager); a smile here, a hug there, my undivided attention and compassion. The best reward I've received isn't payment or recognition, either; it's a smile, returned. The shy kind of smile that lets me know I've made someone feel special for a moment, and that's all the reward I need.

As Ghana is more ‘Westernized’ and cities get bigger, this will undoubtedly change. It’s an unfortunate reality  I've begun to witness; as people modernize they become autonomous (maybe this is why Ghanaian hospitality is so pleasantly surprising). In the modern world we cling to our pennies, covet our time, and pine over our privacy; we grow farther and farther apart, orbiting each other like satellites, attempting to find solace in social media outlets and iPhone applications that connect us to some form of community. 

The longer I’m in Ghana, the more I realize that giving is exactly why I came here; it became my philosophy, a philosophy I think many of us need. I can honestly say that there’s nothing more satisfying than giving a kindness, no matter how small; a smile, the taxi fare, the simple acknowledgement that a stranger is important and recognized and loved. In all of this I've found that I, too, am recognized, often receive more than I give, and am happiest in the simple happiness of others. It's kind of fantastic.

So, go on … give in and give a little. Ten bucks says you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Little Malaria

April 25th is World Malaria Day and, while for some it is a problem of the past, countries all over the world are still affected by it every day. The most vulnerable are children - every 60 seconds brings about the Malaria-related death of child - and though it may be easily prevented and treated, Malaria is one of four major causes of death in Ghana.

Ironically enough, I'd caught Malaria in the med-unit, at our Home Office, underneath a mosquito net (I'd apparently been sharing it with a very smart mosquito). Looking back, I should have recognized the signs: cyclical symptoms, joint pain, a very high fever, but my anti-Malarial medication suppressed the symptoms and I was too excited about coming home. As I shivered violently in my airplane seat and managed the splitting pain behind my eyes, I thought I might have caught a cold from one of the ninety children I hugged goodbye as I left the village behind. It was persistent though, whatever it was, and as that first week went by I started to wonder if something was seriously wrong with me.

In addition to an ebbing fever - peaking at 104 degrees - I'd developed a shortness of breath that left me gasping for air, a sharp, light-sensitive pain behind my eyes, joint and muscle aches from the base of my neck to my knees, and a complete lack of appetite. At one point a friend witnessed my lips turn blue, but I barely noticed as I struggled to keep my head from splitting in half. I was clearly in rough shape. The catalyst came when my mum, leaving me fully-dressed and relatively well for an errand  down the road, returned to find me face down in the basement. I'd fallen asleep face down because it made my head stop hurting; I was fully dressed because it took all of my energy to crawl down there; I crawled down there because it was the only place that seemed cool enough for comfort. My Malaria logic was sound, but it still felt like I was dying.

And it turns out I was. After talking to a medical officer who, listening to me struggle between breath and speech, told me to get to a hospital immediately, I found out that I'd contracted the deadliest type of Malaria (the most common form in West Africa). I'd been living with the parasite for over two weeks and it had done its work patiently.

The treatment was simple enough - we flushed my system with the strongest anti-malarial we could find and I was interviewed by the Center for Disease Control. For about a week I was zombie-like and listless. It was like waking up from the worst hangover I'd ever had, but no one around me understood what it was.

627,000 people died from Malaria in 2012, alone; most of them were children. Many people, if not all, are perfectly capable of preventing Malaria, but lack the education or the motivation to change their behavior. When people are sick in Ghana it's often referred to as 'a little Malaria.' As if Malaria is an innocent, passing infection instead of something that can swiftly carry away a life. Additionally, people get and treat Malaria multiple times, which only leads them to believe that it isn't something to be feared or prevented. Educating them is key.

Many organizations all over the world are taking a stand against Malaria and while Malaria may not  directly affect you, now you know someone's story. The good news is that you can save someone's life today. To learn more about Malaria and how you can help organizations take lifesaving actions, click on the links below. Because Malaria doesn't always have to end in tragedy:


Be sure to check out Stomp Out Malaria at www.stompoutmalaria.org for more Peace Corps stories in the fight to end Malaria.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Nature of a Volunteer: An Introspection

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so bear with me ...

Being a volunteer seems easy; we do the work we love, we explore the world, and we get to control our projects, our involvement, and what kind of volunteer we want to be. We have relative freedom and on paper, in concise sentences, it all sounds rather inspiring – a dream come true.

And, yet, being a volunteer is the most challenging thing many of us will ever do. “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”  This overused phrase is our catch-all, our mantra; we see it everywhere (and many of us hate it). When we can’t find the words to explain what we do, we employ it. When things get hard, we are reminded of it by Peace Corps staff. The nature of the job is unpredictable and unpredictable is tough.

Peace Corps is an experience so unique it can’t be compared, not even with other Peace Corps experiences; expectations are useless. Unfortunately, existing in an environment without precedent, without pattern or explanation, affects us, changes us in minute ways - ways that don’t exist outside of this experience, ways that challenge self-perception and beg for explanation.

The nature of a volunteer is contradictory. It breeds competitiveness and flexibility (both fueled by the wish to be a good volunteer ... whatever that means); site-guilt and exploration (an often painful struggle between staying at site as much as possible and leaving site as much as possible, usually to maintain sanity); compassion and an ironic lack of empathy (which, at times, manifests itself in the form of unfortunate and misguided bigotry). Watching the jump from trainee to volunteer is a curious thing – we feverishly track psychological charts (which I took great pleasure in burning) and attempt to navigate this winding, adapting emotional environment unlike anything we've ever encountered (see: http://little-emmaline.blogspot.com/2010/09/crazy-ghana-me.html).

For many of us the Peace Corps is its own purpose; upon arriving, and lacking direction, we can become apathetic and contradictory – ever grateful for the experience, but as quick to judge, tire, and anger as we are to laugh, love, and enjoy. Sometimes it's easier to join in on nitpicking and ethnocentrism; we start to make unfair assumptions, lean on less-than-desirable coping mechanisms. Some days it takes everything we have to be kind, patient and gracious; we stumble, we lash out, we punish. We forget that, as well as being kind, patient, and gracious in our interactions, we must be kind, patient, and gracious with ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, every day doesn't need to be an adventure; nothing needs to be justified - we are already here. The only thing that matters is making every day worth it, which is entirely up to us.

Some of us will end up thinking our host country owes us something, that we are sacrificing something better to be here (ignoring that we choose to stay, that our experiences, however short-lived, will be worth it). Some of us will find it difficult to interact with people, walking a line of ethnocentrism; expecting some form of special treatment and consideration without intending to give any. Some days it will escape us entirely that everyone has a story, everyone has a reason, and everyone deserves a little dignity. There will be times when everything that compelled us and inspired us will be lost to us. There will always be bad days.

This is why the job is so tough: mentally, it’s exhausting; in terms of activity, it’s sporadic; physically, it’s full of surprises and anomalies. All of these things will, at some point, cause us to forget laughter; we will forget to go easy on a world that is trying very hard to interact with us (even as we try very hard to interact back). The worst of us will make unhappy choices and grow unappreciative (even as they plan to highlight, italicize and bold this experience at the top of their resumes).

I guess the secret (to my own continued satisfaction, at least), isn't in some grand experience that was perfect in every way. It’s in forgiving the experience for what it can be – challenging, exhausting, and permanent. We accept the good things, the amazing life-changing possibilities, as soon as we apply, but every coin has two sides. Refusing to acknowledge this strips the experience of its reality, refuses to consider, observe and appreciate life in its many forms (however absurd they may be). There is no perfect placement; a great site will only be as great as a volunteer's reaction to it (we must take at least that much responsibility). We can’t please everyone and we won’t; it won't always be easy; we will be noticed; we are different ... but didn't we always know these things?

All of this changes us indelibly, it is a fact of which we are constantly reminded; but I believe we have a choice in the direction of those changes. Life isn't perfect; what is Peace Corps, if not just another form of life? We made a leap, we took a chance (and it's true that many of us put everything on the line), but that's exactly what makes it worth it: we've been given the opportunity to do something most people aren't doing - the challenge is not wasting the experience while it’s here. 


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Our African Sun

I close my eyes and feel the unbelievable heat; we're going no more than forty miles an hour and the desert sun, riding on a tide of the wind, rolls in from a broken window; I'm sitting in the undesirable seat. Climbing up the steps, forty pairs of eyes met mine, that single seat staring at me from the back of the bus. My mouth widened to a grin and I clumsily stepped over passengers, seat by seat, nodding, offering small acknowledgements: “Hi, hello, good morning, how is everyone, sorry for the inconvenience, excuse me, thank you …”  Finally, settled into my seat, a seemingly detachable and well-worn cushion, I looked up to find a gaping hole in the floral paneling above. Such misfortune could only come from African speed bumps and longer necks; I thank my mother for smaller genes and the engine rattles to life; I relax into the charm of my Bolga bus. It feels good to come home.

Familiar landscape greets wandering eyes – red dirt, tan grass cracked and worn from sun; barren and beautiful, leafless trees stretch out from the ground like lightning, they are limbs emerging from slumber. It's been six months, but feels as though no time has passed. The same townships, the same monuments, the same colorful houses with roofs of thatch and tin; square walls, round walls, mud and brick and dung. The same sun, moving through skies of lingering Harmattan sand, will soon be perfect for sunset trysts with naked eye - a muted orb painted colors of fire, isolated and hanging as if from string, framed in unchanging grey until it sinks beneath the flat horizon. Those same sands, sometimes floating, sometimes whipping, through the windows of our bus quickly dry my skin and knot my hair, flurried greetings that form instant wrinkles where my smile dances again and again.

Even for a weekend, returning home somehow feels refreshing, rejuvenating; a lightness descends. I’m amazed to find I am heavy enough to touch the ground; I fully expect to leave the earth and meet clouds above. Distance and time heal, release tension and resolve shadow like a light in the dark. I am truly happy, completely unburdened despite recent tribulations; I want to laugh and dance and hug everyone in sight. Maybe they won't remember me, maybe they won’t care, but that doesn't matter – I’m home; I remember; I care.

It’s easy to forget how important these moments become. There was always something to smile about at the end of the day; triumphant returns solidify old truths. Heat isn't unbearable because it makes the breeze sweeter; children are simply children, not enemies – curiosities are  reasonable, my bright skin baking under the light of our great African sun. I forgot the moon could get so bright, making flash lights unnecessary; I forgot the sky could be clean enough that thousands of lights are visible from millions of miles and years away. I am never millions of miles or years away and my return is triumphant; I feel free.

I am home.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Resiliency

The Peace Corps, among other things, is an exercise in resiliency.

Let’s look at the word – resilient: able to recover quickly from setbacks; able to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched or squashed. Normally, when we think of resiliency we think of children. Children bounce. They heal easily and they remain unafraid, trusting the world always. This allows them the ability to grow, to enjoy, to explore the world continually. With age, some of them will lose this ability. In its place will grow fear and caution, a hardness against a life that won’t always be kind or loving or easy.

In the Peace Corps, we like words like flexible and adaptable - life rarely occurs as we imagine it. This fact reveals itself constantly, less shy and concealed in a third-world country. We are told to lower our expectations, to prepare ourselves for the lack of and sudden (sometimes sad, sometimes surprising) occurrence of many things. Our only saving grace, a fervent friend and lover in any number of difficult situations, is our resiliency. Better yet, our optimism - our penchant for seeking out and finding, no matter how faint or distant, that sliver of light existing behind every dark cloud. It puts the smile on our faces. Despite homesickness and isolation, despite learning setbacks and obstacles, despite the unforeseen and unsettling, we quickly learn that the ability to bend, stretch and spring back is a priority, a daily exercise and something that mustn't be taken for granted.

I've always been resilient - perpetual sunshine - but I have to say my ability to adapt (not only in response to situations but as a trait) has been refined in Ghana. And though it can be applied to many things, it’s had a principle affect on my ability to laugh – to find amusement in even the most inappropriate of situations. All of this keeps me grounded, keeps me positive. It means that random, stationary objects and any number of creatures are supplied with an often hysterical (I admit, it's subjective) running dialogue in my head, but it also means that I don’t take myself too seriously.

All of the stuff in my apartment, excluding my photographs and letters, is just stuff. My job, assuming its specific detail or location changes, is still my job – it still makes me happy. The people who make my life harder, who attempt to derail my day, are just people – they aren't prime movers, they neither create my satisfaction, nor should they ever effect the love I have for the world. They have their own pain, their own battles - perhaps their resilience was also lost long ago. My shouldering of their burdens helps no one, bends me to the ground to the point of breaking, closes my eyes and ears to the world, distracts me from my purpose.

I know these blogs grow increasingly obscure, less a reflection of my immediate surroundings and more a continued introspection, but I hope that you understand that we’re in this together. I hope you find in them some part of yourself. I hope we can make this journey together, learn to accept our flaws in order to revel in them. I hope that you enjoy observing my journey; that it moves you, bends you, presses you tightly and springs you back out into that big, beautiful world.

Resiliency – you will find it in light and shadow, in water and wind, in the earth beneath your feet and the muscle beneath your skin. It is literally all around you, look inside and you'll find it within you.