One year. One year of service. 14 months in country, 1 incredible journey. Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is not nearly as simple as one might think. Survival on some days takes a strength much deeper than you can possibly imagine. One of the biggest struggles for volunteers is the deep loneliness at site. We are often miles away from the nearest volunteer, separated by several provinces from our good friends, and ensconced in a daily routine where we are supposed to create support networks in the village.
In the village, we are constantly surrounded by people, under continual supervision, examined as we undertake even the smallest of tasks. But- there is a sense of knowing people without being known yourself. Folks at site know me superficially, but they don’t know my challenges, internal battles, or my life pre-South Africa.
Though one of the goals of Peace Corps is facilitating cultural exchange, this goal often sanitizes relationships. We are viewed as representatives of an entire country and most questions posed to us relate to American stereotypes: everyone in the U.S. is rich, life must be like Keeping up with the Kardashians, and we all know celebrities. Not exactly my reality.
And so, lacking the anonymity of a big city that enables you to be alone without feeling lonely, the microscopic nature of village life ensures that everyone knows who you are without them ever getting to know you. I long to be known, to be seen, to be heard. I yearn for someone to ask my favorite type of music and recall that I said nope not gospel as I’m Jewish. I would love to be able to have conversations that go beyond the weather, teaching, or food.
But I am not of this society. No matter my level of ability in Setswana or continued presence in the community, I will remain Rea or Elysa in the village, a shadow of myself- one who constantly smiles, has it all together, and probably goes to town too often.
I seek this kinship from other volunteers, friends, and family at home- and as much as I wish to be known for myself in my daily life, I recognize that one day I will miss this persona: this chameleon who easily attaches herself to South African life despite a soul seeking to burst free.