When do Peace Corps Volunteers know that they really belong? When does that moment come that we look back and say: “Wow, I was just one of the kids.” Over the years, I have asked Volunteers this question, and I’ve heard in their answers that surprise and wonderment of suddenly seeing themselves absorbed into others’ lives.
Anna had been in the Dominican Republic for about a year when she went back to the States for a couple of weeks. When she said good-bye before leaving, she knew that she loved her host mom and her mom’s friends and they her, but often the women’s conversations grew quiet or ceased when Anna walked toward the gossip bench where they sat. Even her host mom became more reserved.
When Anna returned to her village, as she got off the bus her host mom ran outside and gave her a monstrous embrace. In Spanish she said: “I missed you so much while you were gone.” She then immediately continued, “… guess what Rachel is doing, and her husband doesn’t even know…. And Sonya, she stopped seeing her boyfriend….” And the stories, the intimacies continued for another half hour. Anna knew she was really now home, and for the first time.
Twelve Volunteers in Peru became in-country Crisis Corps Volunteers in order to leave their high-mountain towns to volunteer with CARE on the Central Coast, the site of the devastating Peru earthquake of 2007. Those Volunteers I talked with noted with pride that their villages gave those elaborate send-offs: “…you are serving the Central Coast for all of us. Our villages can be counted as helping those so less fortunate through your commitment.” Their earthquake reconstruction work reflected the honor they felt.
One Volunteer mentioned that she had returned to her own host community for a couple of days, arriving in early evening, just as the dances began. The women were circling as they danced, using complicated steps learned through generations of practice, while the men played personally crafted instruments. The Volunteer walked toward the festivities, standing, she said, respectively on the edge, clapping. As soon as she was spotted, two women left the circle and ran toward her, grabbed her hands, pushed her into the circle, saying “you must be dancing with us, you are us.”
One of my own moments of recognition that I “belonged” was around a lunch table with the Zinelabedine family, whom I ate with every day during my time as a Volunteer in Tunisia. One day, Mahmoud excitedly told me that Suad and her parents were preparing a very special meal for me later that week. Each day over lunch, the family would mention how wonderful this meal would be, saying it was a dish rarely served because it was so difficult to cook, and they felt proud to do this for me in honor of my being part of their family.
On the scheduled day, I arrived a few minutes early and knocked more aggressively than usual on their door. Mahmoud’s “Tafuthal” (a local Tunisian greeting) seemed unusually gracious and then Suad greeted me at the top of the stairs. The children and grandparents were already seated. After our usual beginnings, with everyone looking at me, Suad stood up, went to the kitchen, and proudly brought out the meal they and I had anticipated for so long: a cow’s head, perfectly formed, complete, and cut in half. In that first glance at the head with its eyeball ready for devouring, as they all stared at me silently, I knew that I couldn’t eat it.
I sat looking at everyone. I smiled, hesitantly. I sat still. I was caught between wanting to be gracious and wanting to be sick. So much silence, stillness, growing heaviness. I wanted desperately to disappear. They had planned for and prepared this treat for so long.
No matter what I had been taught about being appropriate, I wasn’t going to eat this head. I finally groped for the local Arabic words I had not yet learned. A jumble of bad Arabic and French finally poured out of me: “I’m sure it is delicious…I know how hard you worked to prepare it….I know you want me to take the first bite…. I wish I could take the first bite…but I can’t…my brain won’t let me… my stomach won’t let me… I’m so sorry.” I continued to blubber my sentences. I must have looked pathetic, for they all started laughing.
Finally, Suad came to my rescue. Smiling gently, she spoke in Arabic, “It’s OK that you can’t eat it. We will enjoy it for you.” Then she walked me into the kitchen, handed me a pan and ingredients and with her watching, I made a meal of beef chunks, olive oil, ground red pepper and grass-like leaves. I returned to the table, sopped it up with spongy Tunisian bread and loved every mouthful. I was still part of their family. Moments like these come when we don’t expect them, but they reframe what follows, what our experiences become. For over 40 years, I have gone back to that moment in my mind, tried to reconstruct Suad’s face and smile, the genuineness of her words. That moment taught me about acceptance, simply done. Can I accept… as easily? It is the surprise, the way the body and eyes say “you are part of us,” that drives these moments deep into our mind. And giving these moments of acceptance back to others, wherever, and whenever, is part of how each of us brings the experience back home; Peace Corps’ Third Goal.
Jody K. Olsen, PhD, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and serves on NAFSA’s Board of Directors. From January-August 2009, she served as acting director of the Peace Corps, having been appointed as deputy director by President George W. Bush in 2002. Olsen started in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Tunisia from 1966-1968. You can read more stories about the Peace Corps and this year’s 50th celebration on Connecting Our World.