25 February 2013

peace corps week: grow your peace corps family tree

Yesterday, February 24th, officially kicked off Peace Corps Week. Utilizing a different theme on each day of the week, the intention is to share specific aspects of what Peace Corps Volunteers do when they serve overseas. The week culminates on Peace Corps Day, March 1st, when President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order to officially establish the Peace Corps in 1961. Fifty-two years later, the agency continues to be "one of the greatest success stories in U.S. international development." While the main facilitators of Peace Corps Week tend to be Returned Volunteers hosting an event in their community, I figured I would take the opportunity to use the themes as guides for my writing. You can read more about Peace Corps Week on the official Peace Corps website, but you can also follow along with me this week as I touch on select themes and relate parts of my experience I might otherwise overlook.

Yesterday's theme, "Grow Your Peace Corps Family Tree," hits on an area that I often find challenging to convey to friends and family back home. From the very beginning, family is a key word in Peace Corps vernacular. During training, a Volunteer's first three month's in country, which is undoubtedly the time when this new place is at its most strange and unusual, are spent with a host family. We, the Peace Corps Volunteers, are welcomed into a local family's home with open arms and open hearts. Mutual strangers at first, barely able to verbally express ourselves to one another, we spend nearly every free moment with one another, sharing meals, photos, and living quarters. By the time our ten weeks together has come to a close, an immutable bond has been formed. Host family children become brothers and sisters, and the Volunteer becomes another son or daughter.

One would only have needed to witness a recent scene in Bekoji to understand just how deep these new family ties can run. Sitting down to an early evening dinner of roasted meat, and in mid-conversation with a group of Ethiopians from Addis, I spotted the familiar, glowing face of my host mother, Elsa, peering in from the road. I shot up out of my seat so fast I nearly flipped the table, skidded dangerously close to a complete spill on the dust-covered concrete, and sprung out onto the street. The scene of our embrace was similar to what I imagine it will look like when I see my own mother for the first time since I took off from D.C. last June. Naturally, her first question was why I had not visited recently - I am, after all, only 33km down the road - and why I had not called during the recent Ethiopian holidays. I really need to work on being a better son.

My host family at our home in Sagure
This sense of family extends beyond training and into our everyday life as PCVs at site. For the most part, PCVs live on a compound with several Ethiopians and, typically, a landlord and their family. At first, this idea did not appeal to me. I thought it would lead to an uncomfortably low level of privacy and attention, leaving me feeling invaded when I need that feeling the least. My six months in Bekoji have been anything but that. In fact, my compound and the people who reside herein have been one of the greatest sources of sanctuary and comfort when the going gets roughest. I often enjoy coffee, bread, and meals with my landlord and his family, and I have very much come to look forward to these experiences. Just the other day, I came home from a long set of classroom observations at the school, feeling completely exhausted and wanting nothing more than to plop down on my bed and call it a day. As I was heading toward my door, one of my landlord's sons and someone I regularly refer to as my "compound brother" (which, I suppose, you could put into literal mathematical terms and come up with something quite profound) called me to come and join the rest of the family for bread and coffee; an invitation I might have resented six months ago that now sounded like a far better option than my bed. Three cups of buna, a few fresh chunks of dabbo, and some great conversation later, I was far more rejuvenated than I would have been than if I would have mustered an hour-or-so of shut-eye.

My landlord and "compound father," Abdella
My "compound brother," Babel, and the family dairy cow, Tractor

Familial concord even extends into the relationships between Peace Corps Volunteers. It is often said that, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we are each others' best resource. Truer words have rarely been uttered in my 8+ months in Ethiopia. When I'm having a rough day or want to share some incredibly, unbelievably amazing thing that just happened, my Peace Corps friends are the first ones I call. These people are not only those with whom you can most easily communicate in intelligible English, they also understand your situation better than anyone else ever will. As compassionate as I consider my many friends and family back home to be, and as much faith as I have in their ability to empathize with my struggles and triumphs, the truth is that they simply cannot put themselves in my hiking boots (nor can they fully appreciate funny Peace Corps blogs and music videos like my PC friends), and really, I can't expect them to. My fellow PCVs are not like brothers and sisters - they are brothers and sisters.

Sagure Ducks fly together

With my Arsi sistas, Laura and Lisa (a.k.a. "The Triangle") in the Bekoji forest


  1. You rock, Son! Happy Peace Corps Week!

  2. Thanks for the reminder about the importance of the many definitions and permutations of family.