Packing and Processing

This morning I had a fight with my backpack. I’ve told myself I’m only allowed to take one backpack home, nothing else. I found myself wrestling with the damn thing, tugging zippers, forcing the fabric to stretch, just so I could squeeze my favorite basket, which someone bought me at the church auction during my first week in the village, into the bottom. It took half an hour and a lot of muscle and willpower, but I got the basket into the pack, and then I sat on my bed and cried. It was partly a stress dream I had just woken up from, one of several I’ve been having for the past week, it was partly out of frustration that my bedroom looks like it’s exploding and I have less than a week to clean it for the new volunteer, it’s partly that I feel this last week is rushing and time is not my own, and it’s mostly that I’m not prepared for the transition ahead of me.

During this past week I’ve been carrying so much anger inside of me. I confided in a good friend today that I feel so guilty about it, but every little thing truly sets me off. I feel annoyed at the people around me, I have anger towards things that they do and say, and I am angry at myself for feeling this way. She explained to me that these feelings are normal, because for two years we have lived in a culture so vastly different from our own, had to learn a new language, had to hide parts of ourselves (from our knees and shoulders to our emotions and identities), had to fake a smile in uncomfortable situations when what we’re truly wanting is to go home and be treated like a human being while eating some freakin’ ice cream for crying out loud! Now, we see the end in sight (in a mere 6 days!), and we’re beginning to want to return to ourselves, and that disconnect makes us feel strange and confused.

Over the past two years I have let this experience change me, and it hasn’t always changed me for the better. I have hurt people, spent too much time dwelling on my own faults, pushed people away, and at times lost sight of who I am. But I have to believe that I will see how it also changed me for the better once I return home and process the past two years of my life. I have to believe that there’s some good left within me, and that I still possess the ability to love life and the people around me with a fierce passion. That’s the Mikaela I once was, and I was able to drop my angry attitude enough to experience it again tonight.

Someone recently asked what part of Tanzanian culture I will take home with me and the question honestly left me speechless. I did not fall in love with Tanzanian culture, as much as I wanted to. I love the people, but there’s not much about the culture that would make me want to return. I’m not connected to the food, the customs, and especially not the gospel music that plays nonstop on my 6 AM bus at full volume. I decided the answer would best be answered when I have been home for a while, had space to process, and can give the beautiful answer this country, my village, and the Peace Corps experience deserve. But then I got a phone call.

My counterpart and friend, Neema, invited me to dinner tonight. I have a crazy to-do list this week so I wasn’t very excited, but I know this is my last chance to have these beautiful experiences, so I got dressed up and wrapped myself in a kanga and headed out my door. I assumed this was a normal dinner of rice and beans with Neema’s family. When I arrived, waiting for me were three families who I have been close with over the past two years, and others in the room who were just acquaintances. They welcomed me into the room and told me to sit. They explained to me that they had spent all day cooking a meal for me, and that this was a little party (the big village party will be Monday) to say thank you for all that I’ve done for them and the village.

As each person stood up and gave a speech to me about how thankful they are I lived with them and the way in which I’ve touched their lives, I was incredibly humbled. I don’t know if I can ever be so humbled again. My jaw dropped as every single person in the room spoke, even the people who were just acquaintances. I was overwhelmed with love. After the speeches, photos of my time in Mambegu were passed around the room, and memories swapped. Then the meal was served; huge pots of rice, tomato sauces, French fries, pork, and bananas were served. As the guest, they insisted I was served first, and that no one could eat until I took my first bite. We ate, we laughed, I even drank a soda, and all my anger and stress and worries were completely gone. It is laughable even that I have been feeling so stressed. I am overwhelmed with the transition ahead of me, and I am scared and have questions and doubts about what American life will bring, but everything will be okay. And it’s best to just relax and enjoy the love which surrounds me.

So to answer the question, what part of Tanzanian culture will I bring back with me, I say this: I want to bring back the love. In Mambegu, every person matters. Every life is celebrated. People with disabilities are given homes. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds are included to participate in various community groups. Even when someone shows up to a village meeting midday completely drunk, they are quietly escorted out with love and understanding. It is a culture of respect. Tonight, I was made to feel completely special. There was a dinner to celebrate my two short years here. These people are not my family, I was born on the other side of the world and have a completely different background, and truthfully they have done more for me than I have done for them, yet they made me feel as if I will always belong sitting in their house with them, eating rice, and laughing together. I live in a village where as I walk down the road, people stop me to ask when I’m leaving, and tell me to my face that they love me. I live in a village where, when I gave my neighbor pictures from the past two years, she cried (rare in this culture) and told me I’ve been like a daughter to her. I live in a village of love.

This is what I will take home. I want to love people this way. I want to celebrate my friends’ and family members’ transitions in life, their successes, and tell them often that they are loved. I want be so full of love from this experience that I can never forget how to truly love, appreciate, and celebrate those in our life on a daily basis. So often I think Americans are missing this. We get wrapped up in our own lives and our own worries that we forget to build up those around us. I think this is the greatest lesson the people of Mambegu have taught me.

After dinner, 8 people walked me home, a 30 minute walk, under the stars and the crescent moon. They asked me some questions about the U.S., we talked about the next volunteer and what he might be like, and they asked me to just build a house here and live with them. How blessed am I, to know that no matter what happens in my life, I’ll always have a home to return to?

I doubt I’ll be having stress dreams tonight, and I won’t be letting myself walk around in anger tomorrow. Instead, I choose to spend the next few days loving those around me, because they have given me nothing less. Ninawashukuru sana wamambegu


Coming Home

This is my house!

After six weeks of travel, I climbed onto my village bus “Masia” with my huge backpack and two duffels in tow. As I climbed down the aisle, carefully navigating the huge sacks of corn, rice, and ugali flour that lay on the floor, I heard someone yell “Mikaela, umerudi!” (You have returned!). All of the anxiety I had been feeling about returning back to my village, about feeling alone, and the anticipation of loneliness and isolation I would feel, dissipated. I was caught off guard by my feelings of happiness and relief. After weeks of living out of bags, experiencing 30+ hours of bus time, and sharing hostel showers, I was finally going back to my own house. I was coming home.

I have officially been at my site for over a year, and I have under a year left of Peace Corps. That’s a weird feeling. All of a sudden, I have a deadline for my projects. I have to get them up and running. It’s now sinking in that, whereas before everything was new and I would experience it again, everything I experience for the next year will be the last time. One more sunflower harvest, one more corn harvest, one more dry season, one more rainy season, one more chance to watch the entire village turn into a quaint oxen-powered farming community, one more school year, etc. But this second year has brought a new and incredible feeling of home that I never expected to have here.

IMG_5127Exactly a year ago in my journal, I listed all of the things I missed about my home in the U.S. I remember writing the entry, sitting alone in my courtyard, the sun shining down, and tears pouring out of my eyes. Home couldn’t have felt more far away. I wrote that I missed “clean running water, showers, stoves and ovens, dish washers, washing machines, and most of all reliable electricity…” but it didn’t stop there. “I miss dressing however I want, the feeling of carpet under my feet, sleeping without a mosquito net and not worrying about strange bugs, lizards, rats, and bats…I especially miss my family and friends…I miss the gym…”  Somewhere along the way, I stopped focusing on what I missed so much about home, and I focused on building my life here in Mambegu. It was then that I realized how much I have here, and reevaluated everything I once thought was a necessity in my life. That’s when happiness came.

My first night back in my village after six weeks of travel, I slept soundly in my own bed with my cat curled up beside me. When I woke up, I was overwhelmed with happiness. The following day, I walked through my village, past all of the brick houses, surrounded by corn, smoke curling out of the fires where people were cooking. People seemed genuinely happy to see me, and that was an incredible feeling. One mama, who is a member of the HIV group I work with, stopped her work in the cornfield and came out to hug me, which is usually unheard of in this culture. As I continued down the winding dirt paths, lined with sisal, sunflowers, and grazing goats, people invited me into their homes and said they were afraid I left. I sat and helped one woman who is about to give birth write a list of possible names for her baby. I was gifted a lot of corn from another woman as a welcome home.

IMG_5040Sometimes I get really stressed out that I’m not doing enough projects, or that I’m not making enough effort to get them going. Any volunteer here knows how hard it can be to get a project started, let alone finished. Things come up, meetings get cancelled, and people show up three hours late or not at all. A great friend recently reminded me that a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is simply living here, in this community, talking with people, learning about them, and sharing my own culture with them. It is enough to be friends with the people in this wonderful community. It is a success to call this home, and to truly feel that it is my home. Coming home is enough.

Pictured Above: A year ago I moved into my house and it had nothing in it: no furniture, not even a stove. Now it is totally my own space!

Of course coming home also means snuggling with this adorable little lady!