There are three different versions of this post- it’s really been on the back of my mind how to sum up a full year in country. That’s right, despite feeling like forever and no time at all, we arrived in Benin one year ago from September 17th. This presented a pretty good time to reflect on the last year and what I want moving forward. But it also clashed with my last busy rush of the summer so let’s start with an update!
The last bit of the summer was spent with lots of PCVs. First, the diversity committee gave a final session during the new cohort’s PST (pre-service training). We had really productive discussions around how to be a guest in this country and be respectful and ethical on social media. The following week was spent in Cotonou for our cohort’s MST (mid-service training). We spent the week reflecting on our first year of service, planning for the upcoming year, and checking in with staff. My friends and I spent one last weekend in the city before heading back to site. Since I’ve been out of Dogbo so much this summer, I’m planning on spending the next two-ish months without leaving too much, save for small weekend trips to visit friends. Now that I’m back I’ve been tidying up my house from the summer’s mess, trying to figure out what self-care means, and getting some projects set up. We’re currently planning an event for the International Day of Rural Women on October 15th, getting my English club started up for a 2nd year, revisiting some old project ideas and finding new ones. I’m also planning a party to celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, make Puerto Rican food, and give a presentation on Latinx culture in the US, as part of Peace Corps’ 2nd goal of sharing American culture with our host country. I’m too hype about this idea and so is everyone here.
On How I Feel
I feel good. Not amazing, but I feel at ease. The one year mark has really made me question if I’ve had any impact here, if I’m a good volunteer, and what I could improve on. Like many volunteers, I’m constantly haunted by the ghost of the “good volunteer:” universally loved by their village, fluent in the local language, with sustainable, successful projects out the wazoo. But living in a big town with lots of yovos passing through, it’s impossible for everyone to know who I am. And I find that I have a lot of insecurities when it comes to starting larger projects because I’m constantly scared of failure. Now that I understand how things work here and I’ve found some really great work partners, I’m hoping to kick this insecurity and take on some more ambitious work.
When it comes to measuring myself, I definitely rely on comparisons to other volunteers far too much. I’m trying to ground myself now, to change my mentality and only focus on how I feel here without trying to size myself up. And when I consider it like that, I still feel good. I have people in Dogbo that I would trust with my life. I still feel open: to conversations and to cracking jokes and telling people that “my name is Carly not yovo”. I don’t think I’ve lost my patience too much and when I do, I know that’s a day to take for myself. One thing that’s been consistent throughout my service is that Dogbo feels like it was chosen for me and I feel extremely well-placed; coming back from a trip always feels like coming back to home base.
On The Challenges
When I was getting ready to come to Benin, I was gearing up for the most challenging thing I would ever do in my life. I remember feeling overwhelmed my first night at my host family’s house during training. I expected that adapting to village life, relating to people, and relying on many languages that aren’t my own would prove Peace Corps to indeed be “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” And appropriately enough, expectations rarely play out in Peace Corps. Instead the most challenging things here crept up on me over time. I had a really enjoyable first few months at site and then one day I realized I wasn’t eating. And then I realized I was getting out of bed later and later. I couldn’t muster the motivation to boil water to put in my filter for drinking water. I refer to this period of time as my “big slump” and in trying to pinpoint what caused it I realized how much I rely on the people closest to me. At this time the volunteers who live nearby were on vacation, a family emergency took Maman Véronique out of Dogbo for 2 weeks, and my lack of motivation meant I wasn’t having lessons with my language tutor. And so maybe the greatest challenge of being here has been self-reliance. I depend on my support system for my emotional wellbeing, like I would think most people do. But that lack of physical presence really threw me, and I wasn’t able to fill in that gap for myself. In this way I feel like Peace Corps is growing me into something of an adult. If I have a problem, it’s on me to fix it… and still show up to work. If I can’t fix it myself, it’s on me to communicate that problem and ask for help.
Isolation is a problem I knew I would have but like everything else, the experience of it was much different than anticipated. At the beginning, I’d get check-in messages from my friends, people were quick to answer the phone, and I generally felt connected to life back home. That’s another weird thing about Peace Corps: even though we’re building our lives here for 2 years, we’re also maintaining our lives back home. As my friends got busier with work and grad school and life in general, keeping up communication became harder. It’s forced me to be honest about my feelings, communicate effectively when we’re losing touch, and not overthink reasons why we might not talk in a while. This being said, I have profound gratitude for my support system back home. My mom always picks up the phone, I live for updates on hungover Sunday mornings on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and quick messages from someone saying they were thinking of me will make my day. A 5-hour time difference can make things seem a little lonely, but I’m very aware that I have a huge team behind me and for that I’m massively thankful.
On The Next Year
I’m trying to spend the next 2 months really diving into my work here, being present and active in Dogbo, because once December hits- baby, I’m home. I’ll be back home from early December into Early January and have a long checklist of people to see, things to do and, bien sûr, food to eat. This will be the first time leaving the country in 15 months and man, is it well overdue. As soon as I get back, it will be time to celebrate 10 Janvier, the annual Voodoo celebration, in the beach town of Grand Popo. After that, my mom comes to visit for Maman Véronique and I’s annual birthday party, and take a tour of Benin. Then in March there’s a chance I may be maxing out the rest of my vacation days… this is why I’m really trying to put in a lot of work leading up to December.
This is a job, right? Yes. And now that I have one year in Benin under my belt, I feel well established and ready to strategize for the rest of my service. I’ll be picking up my English club again now that school has started, I’m interested in doing small business and entrepreneurship trainings, and starting a local summer camp in my region now that there are more volunteers here.
I also want to put more of an emphasis on taking care of myself. I’m resolving to keep my house clean, have consistently clean clothes, and start cooking more regularly and more nutritiously (but please still send the mac&cheese boxes, it’s all about balance). I’m adding more exercise to my routine: I went on my first run here and it was really hard, even if it was short. But I had a few moments where I felt really into it and surprisingly, I can see myself keeping up with it. Even with more than a year left it feels like time is slipping away. And so while I want to be intentional and present in Dogbo, I want to see the rest of Benin, too, and what other volunteers’ sites are like. So if year one was practice, year two is application in this crazy, fascinating, wonderful country we call home.