Remembering Why I’m Here

I almost didn’t sign it. I read through the Peace Corps oath, almost laughing at the military-like language of “defending the U.S. constitution” and then stopped smiling almost as soon as I’d started. I was not in a smiling mood. I haven’t slept much in the past two days. For what should be an exciting time—the time when I become a real Peace Corps Volunteer and all the festivities that surround that moment—this week has been surprisingly horrible.

First there was the issue of my sister. We’d chatted about her visiting for Christmas and I’d casually asked a few of the training staff if that would be allowed. I knew that we are supposed to spend the first three months in our village, focusing on integration but I thought that as long as I was in my village having a visitor one week before the three months were over shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve never spent Christmas without my family and I was dreading the thought of celebrating without at least one family member. None of the training staff, including the Country Director, told me that her visiting violated any of the rules although they told me I needed final confirmation from my supervisor.

While I was waiting for a final confirmation, my sister found a cheap flight and went ahead and booked it. Then all hell broke lose. My supervisor told me it was against the rules and that he didn’t have the power to do anything about it. I went to the Country Director, the same woman who only a week earlier had bent one of the rules to allow another one of the trainees to go home for her sister’s wedding during the three month immersion period, but she said the same thing.

I made every argument I could—my sister speaks French, this would give me even more of an incentive to integrate in order to show her around, Christmas is a really important holiday for my family etc. My sister kept texting me every time she thought of a new reason and I kept an ongoing list of arguments in my head but none of the Peace Corps staff listened. Instead they just kept referring to “the rule;” an argument that made me only too aware of why many people complain that the Peace Corps is too bureaucratic.

Adding onto the stress was the fact that I had somehow become in charge of getting thank-you presents for all the Peace Corps staff and ended up having to individually approach people to help get the cards done and to beg them to pay me back.

Lastly, because its Niger, no stressful situation would be complete without some gastric problems. I’m not exactly sure what I have but whatever it is has kept me going to the bathroom with fluids coming out of both ends.

All this is to say that when it was time to sign the Peace Corps oath, I wasn’t exactly in the best of moods. So I didn’t. I left the oath on the table and went for a walk in the village. It was exactly what I needed: children calling my name, women gossiping at the pump before placing huge buckets of water on top of their heads, a young boy sitting under a tree scratching letters of the alphabet into the dirt for his four young siblings. I remembered why I had come. I didn’t come to be part of the Peace Corps bureaucracy or to be perfectly healthy all the time; I came for them. I came to understand Nigerien culture, to help them better understand mine, to make new Nigerien friends and, at the end of the day, to feel like I was doing my part to make this world a better place. That’s what I signed up for.