July 28, 2007
The Myth of Sisyphus
I haven't written for awhile. I have an excuse, but it's going to take some explaining about Peace Corps Volunteers in Namibia. Most volunteers go through a very specific set of stages regardless of individual personal beliefs, previous experience, educational background, etc. They are as follows:
Stage 1: Fear (also known as the "Second-Guessing" Stage)
In this, the second-briefest of stages, we find our Volunteer waving stoically goodbye to her tearful family and boarding a plane to a Big American City where she is introduced to the Swiss-army-knife carrying, dried-fruit eating, zip-off-pants wearing hippy freaks she will be spending the next two years of her life working alongside. Our Volunteer makes valiant attempts at jocularity and extroversion, but finds herself losing sleep over seemingly unimportant things, like her new roommate's matching set of red luggage, the observation that everyone but her seems to own a pair of Birkenstocks, and the nagging feeling that she has been using her fake laugh a tad too frequently and people have started to notice.
Stage 2: Panic
The beginning of this stage coincides exactly with the lift-off of the next plane, and we find our Volunteer trapped on a semi-direct flight to South Africa, stopping only in Dar Es Salaam to fuel up, where no one is allowed to alight. What has our Volunteer gotten herself into? What was she thinking, putting so much ocean between herself and everything familiar, only to disappear into a country she could not locate on a map two months ago? Is all this bumping turbulence, or what? What IS that slimy yellow thing on the dinner tray? Is her seatmate asleep, or has she, in fact, died? She isn't moving. And so it goes. Hours and hours later, the thoughts will culminate with a final observation before our Volunteer's mind goes completely numb: as the plane soars above Namibia and approaches the airport, she gazes out of the window at all that vast, orangey nothing and wonders, Where is. anything?
Stage 3: Exhaustion/Euphoria
Strange how these sensations are so often coupled, but there
you go. Exhaustion is a side-effect of all that sleep lost to
fear and panic, and euphoria is one name for the drunk
feeling experienced by exhausted people forced to attend long
sessions in scorching, African heat, in
Stage 4: Bloating
The absolute briefest stage. Typically it begins immediately
after a volunteer is officially sworn-in and lasts for the
duration of the
Stage 5: The Bipolar Months
For an education volunteer, this stage of up-up-ups and low-down-lows stretches across the whole of the first school term. A typical morning in this stage might proceed thus:
- Monday, 7am: Our Volunteer is ecstatic, it's a new day, a new chance to teach a group of smiling learners how to diagram a simple sentence, to convey the joy of distinguishing between the various and magnificent parts of speech, to be the passionate, intuitive, and creative teacher she was always meant to be, to really *reach* young minds who may never have been reached before, all those little sweethearts, those cherubs!
- Monday, 7:01am: Our Volunteer is deflated, demoralized, depressed, and frankly on the verge of running to the bathroom and locking herself in to have a good long cry. The kids are horrible, they're clawing each others eyes out over a pencil, they're screaming at each other in Khoekhoe, they can't read, they can't write, they're eating the paper out of their exercise books, and that one with the big head just ate the chalk.
Stage 6: Trudging
This stage begins promptly upon returning to site after the
first school holiday. Our Volunteer has met with her fellow
volunteers and found a kind of dull satisfaction in learning
that everyone else is having the exact same problems. She
starts the second term knowing, for instance, that absolutely
nothing will go as planned, and just knowing this takes the
edge off. She knows, for instance, that she will spend four
solid weeks teaching little Jimmy that 1+1 is 2, only to have
him write his own name in the answer blank for the same
question on the test; that on Monday, inexplicably, half the
desks and chairs in her classroom will have disappeared
despite the doors and windows having been locked all weekend,
but that around Thursday they will inexplicably reappear;
that no matter how many times she explains the
She knows, she knows, she knows!
And because she knows all this, and because the year will,
at some point, end, and a new clean-slate year begin, she can
trudge. And she
One day a group of young boys calls out to her on the bridge
and she hesitates, expecting them to ask for money. Instead,
she turns to find
One day Erna Haarlons beats insistently on her door until
she opens it, expecting to be asked for food, only to have
her hand grabbed and
One day she hears the grinding of an old bakkie engine
outside and then a knock on her door, and she opens it to
find Mr. Glaser standing
The Volunteer sits stiffly in the bakkie's cab; she believes she has already passed judgment on this man. But the garden stretches improbably green and lush for an acre in the middle of the dry scrub brush, and she is touched in spite of herself at his eagerness to take her through every inch of it. He is impossibly gentle when he touches the new fruit of a young mango tree, the wide leaves of a melon vine. She is only beginning to learn herself. How can she be so arrogant as to believe she understands this country, or the history that shapes its people?
She spends the day picking tomatoes off the vine with Mr. Glaser's wife and her sister, so pregnant her breasts and belly strain against the buttons of her dress. The women teach her to click off the words for soil, for sky and for rain. At the end of the day they send her home with more pumpkins, tomatoes, and butternut squash than she could possibly eat. She is overwhelmed.
She is wrong, she has been so wrong, she will be wrong
Stage 7: Invincible
The Invincible stage begins with the beginning of the second year. Our Volunteer knows now that she can add a solid ten days to the official start date of anything in order to calculate the actual start date, so it is with a relaxed attitude that she arrives at school on the first day two hours late, but still an hour earlier than anyone else. It's all good. She has a list of projects to start and she starts on them because what's the point of waiting? If nothing else, she has learned how to pass the time. When the children finally do show up, she knows their faces and most of their names, and nothing is frightening anymore. She is somehow efficient with her projects, her teaching, and her extracurricular activities, and she no longer feels needlessly guilty about trivial things like eating and going to town. After all, how else is she to stay sane?
In the words of a fellow volunteer, "I blinked sometime in February and three months passed." The invincible stage extends into the second school term with a characteristic surge of productivity, but as we all know and [Newton?] demonstrated, what goes up, must come down.
Stage 8: Crotchety
No one is certain precisely what factors contribute to the beginning of the Crotchety stage. Experts have hypothesized that something as mundane as a volunteer misplacing a set of house keys, losing electricity when she is trying to boil water for coffee, or finding that a bird has gotten trapped inside her classroom overnight and has succeeded in crapping with an abundance not usually seen unless a flock of migratory birds has just passed overhead, can be responsible for the snapping of the single nerve fiber responsible for transition into Crotchety. Symptoms of this phase include a dull apathy toward all things work-related, a propensity for baking chocolate cakes and eating them, alone, in one sitting, a very short temper for her neighbor's children's hobby of throwing things at her front door accompanied by their ceaseless crying, and a constant drone of worry in the Volunteer's head about the fact that this whole thing will come to an end soon and she must figure out what the heck she will do when she goes back to America.
To combat these feelings, our Volunteer might engage in such
irrational behaviors as getting up at 5 am on a Saturday to
hang her laundry
And now we have arrived at my excuse for not writing.
I'm crotchety. And I've been too embarrassed at
myself to write anything at all. Luckily, I hear this stage
is short-lived; next time I write I'll be able to explain
the final stage, but right now, quite frankly, I'm
feeling pretty apathetic about the whole thing.
(NOTE: The contents of these e-mails are mine personally and do not reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of any institution or individual mentioned, including the U.S. Government, U.S. Peace Corps, the Government of Namibia, or its citizens. - Irene Harvley-Felder)