Emily Spiegel (Ethiopia 2012-14) In Huff Post, The Blog
Peace Corps Volunteer, Dangila, Ethiopia
The Peace Corps: The First Year
Posted: 10/09/2013 2:59 pm
When I joined the Peace Corps one year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined my life to be anything like it is today. In my mind, Peace Corps Ethiopia would be a risky but rewarding adventure, with a lack of electricity and running water, and an abundance of rats. Although some of that may be a bigger part of my life than I care to admit, it is what I did not expect that truly defines my service thus far.
I did not expect freezing cold summers with rain so loud it hurts. I can’t say I anticipated my most prized possession to become a bucket and favorite pastime to be drinking tiny cups of freshly brewed coffee. I never thought I would be a local celebrity or that I would have good enough aim to poop in a hole. Never in my wildest dreams would I have had enough guts to fight a creepy old man, using a dictionary as my weapon. I did not expect my best friends to be teenage boys and women over the age of sixty. But most profoundly, I never really thought I would ever become comfortable in a culture so vastly different than my own, for it’s one year in and I feel as if I never needed a refrigerator, hot-shower, or string-cheese.
I remember once assuming that a “bucket-bath” required me to literally sit inside a tiny plastic bucket. Today, it’s a no-brainer. One year ago, I cringed at the taste of Ethiopia’s staple food, injera, but now I find myself craving it. I go through my daily routine without questioning the difficult process in which I am forced to do things. It no longer bothers me, but neither does the boy who comes to my English Club with no shoes or the twelve year-old girl who raises three siblings and walks two hours to attend school. Why do things that once gave me the chills no longer even faze me? Is this the price you pay for feeling comfortable?
I tell myself that I have become used to the society in which I am living. I tell myself that such things are normalized because I see them everyday. But even more than that, I have come to really know many boys with no shoes and girls who are left to raise their parents’ children. Their poverty does not define them, but rather their smiles, contagious spirits, and the joy that they bring to my everyday work.
But what happens when all of a sudden, the magic day comes and I pack my bags and leave Dangila, Ethiopia? Will I still feel this way? My Peace Corps service will be over but does that mean I accept it, walk away to my American fairy tale, and never look back? In every way possible, this experience has exceeded my expectations. I have genuinely obtained an understanding and respect for a culture I once knew nothing about. I have immersed myself within other peoples’ reality, but did I forget that it would never be permanently mine?
In a conversation with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, we talked about achieving a balance between reclaiming our American habits and identities upon our return, and simultaneously preserving our experiences from Ethiopia. Is there a way to incorporate one into the other? We harp on the concept of sustainability, hoping that the projects we do are long lasting for our communities, yet we never talk about how this experience can be sustainable for ourselves. Right now, I do not know how to achieve this. But what I do know is that finding the answer is equally, if not more important than the work I do itself.
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Emily has said so much in such a beautiful way about what the PCV experience should be all about. I am inspired that after all these years PCVs are still having the kinds of experiences I had as a PCV over 40 years ago. Thanks, Emily, for taking the time and making the effort to communicate to us in such a gifted manner your reflections on your first year as a PCV in Ethiopia.
“…the experience can be sustainable for ourselves.” Perhaps this is America’s “exceptionalism,” we are immersed in diverse cultures from birth and know how to incorporate different “realities” into our “American” being.
Questions are always more important than answers…
EMILY FOR PRESIDENT!
The New York Times Sunday Travel section had an article by a tourist hiking in Ethiopia. Contrast his sterile travelogue with the beauty of Emily’s observations.
Copy and paste this link to see the comparison: