Opinion: Peace Corps volunteer copes with shocking news
The weeks’ writer is Jennifer DaPolito, a Middlebury native who sent this email on Nov. 9 from Tanzania, where she is serving in the Peace Corps.
My dear friends and family,
In the course of 24 hours, I feel like the world as I have known it has changed. Oceans and hours away from my home, I am rattled by what I watched unfold there yesterday. This moment embodies one of the hardest I have experienced in my service. I don’t know where it leaves me as an American living in a rural Tanzanian village. Today I am asked to act as an ambassador to a country that stands on shifted ground. I don’t know where that leaves me in this country.
Even I will concede that most of the time, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer proves trying and unglamorous. We try our best to wake up each day and face a world much harder, much lonelier and much more heartbreaking than the ones we left behind on a seemingly endless calendar of months ago. But yesterday felt different. We all hope to have those Peace Corps brand moments, the ones you scroll past on Instagram or pause to admire on Facebook, and we all strive to live the success stories that they ask us to write about on our Volunteer Reporting Forms.
I try to capture and preserve those meaningful and memorable moments in the words that I send to you every month. But those moments can feel few and far between when time slows and days seem to pass unwillingly into the next. There have been many nights where I have sat in the darkness of my home and wondered how to portray the rawness of my experience without giving too much into the temptation to write about the hardships.
But this moment feels too large and heavy to ignore. To ignore it would be to ignore the pain that this long election period has evoked for so many in the states and beyond. I have spent almost the entirety of my service listening to news analysts and reporters gab about a slowly changing America, an America that I am not proud of. I woke up yesterday to a drama that was leaning into the late hours of the night in America and I watched with shock and horror as the seemingly impossible transpired before my eyes. This overwhelming moment of despair is one that I don’t know how to process. Every circle held together by the unity of hopeful hands feels broken and shattered. I don’t know how to face this new world. I cannot overemphasize the ripple this has made in a small Tanzanian village where people are trying just as hard as we are to make sense of the significance behind a clear message of hate.
It feels hard to muster up enough energy to confidently and convincingly acknowledge that our work as Peace Corps volunteers is now more important than ever to preserve unity in an increasingly divided world. Where do we go from here?
I smirk whenever I walk into the Peace Corps office and see President Obama’s photo hanging just above Vice President Biden’s and our Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet’s. They have always been a sense of comfort and a subtle reminder to take pride in the commitment we have made to serve our country because our time here yields a deep understanding of just how much our country has served us. For many, those photos remind us of the hope we came of age embracing. How will we replace these faces with those of their successors to stare out at our Tanzanian staff?
Today, I am left searching for the audacity of hope that has carried us through the past eight years. I am scared for our county. I am scared for our world. I am scared by how quickly the inspiring promise of a brighter future has faded from that historical moment in 2008. But, I refuse to let this initial shock of fear and hopelessness take hold as I begin to move forward. And so it is to all of you that I ask for your hands as I try and make sense of the confusion and sadness that I feel. In return, I extend my own hand in love and friendship as we walk through this time engaged in collective grief.
This morning, I thought about staying home to sit with my phone and battle a sorely slothful Internet to search for answers, connectivity and optimism in the loyal opinion section of The New York Times. I decided, instead, to dry my tears and walk over to Zabroni’s house to continue working on a perma-garden (a gardening approach that stems from “permaculture,” which aims to diversify crops and increase yields to improve nutrition) project with my four nutrition mamas. Together we mixed manure, charcoal dust and wood ash into dry and depleted soil to replenish the Earth with vital nutrients.
As the morning passed, I became immersed in the work we had taken on as a team. I began to feel the veil of belonging sweep over me again as this immediate community of strong women surrounded me. Some raised their jembes (hoes) above their heads with babies tied to their backs. These women have spent their lives determined to not be defeated by their circumstances. I realized that our next president and the followers who have rallied behind him have never had the opportunity to experience this kind of open acceptance into a sphere that crosses the firmest cultural boundaries. That opening is what I came to Tanzania in search of.
In these last months of my service I feel as if I am truly beginning to outgrow this challenge. A few weeks ago, I watched my nutrition mamas choose leaders for their group in a pivotal moment where I handed the project entirely over to them. They wanted me to participate in the voting process but I wanted them to take full ownership of their work and so I agreed to count the votes. I sat with a piece of paper as they nominated one another to act as chairperson, secretary and treasurer. They cast their votes on folded squares and I announced the winners. Then they chose a name for their group so that they could officially add it to the list of registered groups in Idetero. They agreed on “Walimu Wa Lishe,” “Teachers of Nutrition.” As I began to write, Alafysa yelled out, “Walimu Wa Lishe Bora” — “Teachers of Good Nutrition.” They all nodded.
These devoted women act as keepers to an unrelenting hope that seeks to better the lives of future generations in a part of the world where all odds are stacked against them. They believe in the work that they have set out to accomplish and I have watched them show up over and over again to see it through. We started working on our garden early this morning and I saw my mamas tire as the sun asserted itself overhead. I began to wonder if they were resenting me in my final push to drive this project as far as it could go before I leave. We had planned to start an example plot at Zabroni’s house and then each mama would take what they had learned back to their homes (one in each sub-village) and plant a colorful garden bursting with Vitamin A for all of the village to see. By early afternoon, I wasn’t sure that my mamas felt like their time and energy was worth it. But, as we gathered to call it a day, they thanked me for sharing this knowledge with them and asked me when they could start preparing their own beds. I’m glad I opened the door and stepped out this morning.
Our country does not have an easy path ahead. But what I hold onto today is that fact that it remains a great gift to be an American citizen. I believe in our ability as Americans and as human beings to prevail in the face of hopelessness. Our sorrow stems from a place of love and compassion for one another that we must not lose sight of. I send my love to each and every one of you and hold you close to my heart as we grieve together in this time of daunting uncertainty.