I arrived late because of class and was immediately herded to a young woman who has been considered for Ethiopia to serve as an education volunteer. My first thought was "oh boy". My next thought was how do I talk about my experience without scaring this poor girl. The answer was: tell the truth.
There are some things about being a Peace Corps volunteer that are pretty universal. The hilarity that comes from being a foreigner trying to integrate into a different community or incessantly talking about bowel movements. The sadness that comes when someone you know back home is suffering or a grandparent has passed away. The loneliness, the awkwardness, and the humility are all parts of being a volunteer.
All of these things I shared with this young woman but I knew the hardest part was coming. A large part of my experience was overcoming the obstacles of being a woman and dealing with the verbal sexual harassment I encountered on a daily basis. I could have glossed over this part of my experience but then I'd be lying about the impact it had on my service and my life.
Now that I have been back in America and have had time to reflect and feel the difference this has had on my life, I can say very confidently that I would do it again. In a heart beat, I would do every hour of it again. I say this because I know what it feels like to have struggled and felt that pain everyday and come out of it better than I was than when I left for Ethiopia two and a half years ago.
I told this young woman about the fear I felt walking out of my house everyday. How I had to take many deep breaths before I opened that door and how some days I would give up and succumb to the crippling anxiety. Those days I stayed home and watched movies and fell deeper and deeper into despair. I was letting the forces outside of my control dictate my day and what I was trying to achieve with my community.
I went through a series of stages. At first, I tried humor. Making jokes with my friends and ignoring the harrassment. After enduring this behavior for months I became angry. I would scream and try to shame the men. I said unkind things and generalized Ethiopian men and the culture. They would laugh and I would insult the whole country. (Rational, right?) Then I plateaued. Numb to the pain and despair. That's when the depression creeped in. That's when I stayed home. A lot. Finally, I sought help. I utilized one of the many resources available to us as volunteers: counseling. The counselor helped me realize that most of my troubles were out of my control but that I could control my reaction. I needed pull strength from deep down. I didn't even know if I had this strength. But I had to try. That's when I knew how important that moment would be for the rest of my life.
I had to take my time. My own time. It was a roller coaster. Up and down days. Up and down weeks. But in that confusion, anger, and optimism I realized I wasn't alone. My fellow female volunteers were going through the same struggles. My students were born into that life. These women shared their experience with me and that gave me strength. I am grateful to my heroes who stayed positive and strong and to Sarah, Bright, Jerry, and Haymanot (our students at Camp GLOW) who taught me that hope and determination were the answers all along. Without these amazing women I could not have persevered.
My time with the Peace Corps is not summed up into this one aspect of my service. This was just the hardest part of it. My time was also filled with laughter, adventure, love, and friendship. Peace Corps was the hardest thing I have ever done but it was the hardest parts that made me better. In conclusion, my message to those out there questioning joining the Peace Corps is the same one I told that young woman: Do it. Duh.