This past Friday marked one year since I first set foot in Uganda, one year of being in the Peace Corps. I'm proud of reaching this milestone, and of the 27 phenomenal PCVs I trained with who made it this far with me. It's been a crazy year, full of high highs, low lows, discovery, adaptation, and adventure. I could not ask for a richer or grittier experience.
The "toughest job you'll ever love" cliché that Peace Corps Washington delights in stuffing down our throats has of course turned out to be an accurate description of what being a Volunteer is like (hey, clichés are clichés for a reason). I've made some great friends and had some outstanding times, but cakewalk, this job is not. I've had to adapt to a simpler lifestyle that does not include running water, modern appliances, convenient transportation, reliable electricity, or access to a variety of foods, music, or consumer goods. I've accepted the fact that I will often be hot and sweaty and that there's no A/C or iced drink to cool me down. I've gotten exotic illnesses like dysentery and malaria, and will probably be able to check a few more off the Oregon Trail list before I get out of here. I've dealt with isolation and loneliness, and suffered debilitating psychological side effects from a malaria prophylaxis (thankfully I switched to a different malaria medicine in August, which fixed things almost immediately). I've experienced firsthand what rampant corruption, disfunctional democracy, hateful tribalism, and utterly inept educational systems can do to a society. I've banged my head against the wall in anger and frustration with the shitty, illogical ways Ugandans do things. And I've struggled to become a competent teacher in spite of having unmanageably large classes, students who barely speak English, no textbooks, and not a whole lot of teacher training myself. But far from defeating me, these challenges have made me stronger, more versatile, and more determined to succeed in initiating social progress.
Sometimes the hardening of my character has come at the cost of human empathy. Abject poverty is so omnipresent here that you become desensitized to it after a while. When a barefoot Karamojong child comes up to me on the street in her tattered clothing, asking for money, I feel nothing. My thought process supresses the emotional and makes a beeline for the rational: Why should I help this particular kid when there are thousands more just like her? That's probably her mom sitting there across the street, whoring her out for muzungu pity-money. Giving her some coins is not sustainable. Handouts generate foreign aid dependency.
For the most part, though, the changes I've noticed in myself have been overwhelmingly positive. I feel more confident and independent. I am more self-motivated, inclined to work on projects or refine my teaching skills, not because somebody is telling me to, but because I want to. I am more pragmatic because I have a better understanding of my limitations and factors that are within my control. And I am more patriotic because of the perspectives I've gained from serving here. America has its fair share of problems, for sure, but at least it has a working multiparty democracy, rule of law, accountability, truly free and quality public education, sanitary and accessible medical care, an innovative spirit, cutting-edge technology, effective social welfare programs, advanced industries, developed markets, and the strength that comes from a population diverse in ethnic background, aspirations, and thought. [Fuck yeah!]
After being in Africa for a year, I miss America. I really really do. But that's a good thing because it means I appreciate my home, and in ways I wouldn't have appreciated it had I not come here. Perhaps that's what I'm supposed to take away from this whole experience. And perhaps "the toughest job you'll ever love" is really about channelling that appreciation into positive conversations about the U.S. with locals, and into projects that sprout American ideas in host country soil.