The views expressed herein are mine and not those of the Peace Corps.



Useful Acronyms

PC Peace Corps
ICT Information & Communications Technology
PCT Peace Corps Trainee (pre-swearing-in)
PCV Peace Corps Volunteer (post-swearing-in)
PST Pre-Service Training
CBT Community-Based Training

Nipo tu.

“That car’s windshield looks like a Jackson Pollock painting made entirely of mud,” I said to Bret towards the beginning of our second day of travel, as we bumped along the pot-holed dirt road towards Makete. “That does not bode well for our trip.”

“I think you’ll really enjoy the mud patch before Tandala,” he replied. “On the way out we had to push the minibus up the mountain.” And he was right: that part of the road was truly a sight to see, loose, churned-up mud all the way up the mountain. It wasn’t far from the spot where the bus went off the road, killing three people and heralding the end of bus service until the end of the rainy season.

The trip wasn’t bad, though, despite that mud. It helped that it hadn’t rained in a day or two, so the mud was better than it could have been. It helped that we were in a minibus instead of a big bus, and that the worst mud patch was downhill for us rather than up. We got to site in a little under six hours, counting an hour of waiting in Tandala while people were dropped off and others got on. Once the rains start in earnest, though, I think that if we want to leave we’ll have to take the other road, towards Mbeya instead of Njombe.

I arrived home exhausted, slightly sick, to find one very skinny cat who was delighted to see me. His brother was MIA; I was afraid to ask my friend who was taking care of them where he was, afraid that he got sick and died. So the one cat and I unpacked (he being as involved as possible, shoving his face into my hand and mewing plaintively) and then sat in bed as I worked on the book I’d been reading since Dar. I felt strange, out of place. Stuck between two worlds. As great as the visit home was, I didn’t quite belong there any more–things proceeded without me, friends changed in ways I hadn’t predicted, everything seemed a little off. But I don’t belong here, either, and that’s never been clearer to me. Probably I just need to re-adjust, need to be less exhausted, but as I sit staring at my book but not seeing it, I want to be somewhere else, but I don’t know where that is. Neither place seems right.

The closest to home I got, actually, was the weekend my family spent at the beach house. There, nothing had changed, and I could convince myself that things were as they always were. In our house there were subtle differences: new glasses in the cupboard, a new painting on the wall, a new sink in the bathroom. The sorts of things you only notice when you’ve been away from a wholly familiar environment for a little too long.

The next day I go to school in the morning, set up the new power strips I bought in Dar, peer out the window at the students cutting grass, hoeing flower bets, hauling water. Then I walk into town to visit friends, make myself seen. “Where’s my gift from America?” people I barely know ask when I tell them where I’ve been. “Haven’t got one, sorry!” I reply with a smile to soften the blow. They don’t really expect anything, necessarily, but seem to figure that it never hurts to ask.

Even as I resume my normal routine, chatting with friends, I’m still haunted by this feeling that I don’t belong here. “I missed you!” one friend tells me, and I reply in kind even though she barely crossed my mind while I was home. From America, this whole country seemed like a strange dream, something I’d just woken up from. Something that changed me so subtly that I felt the same, even as the differences wore at me like a stone in my shoe. Arriving home from the airport late at night, I strode into the kitchen, grabbed a glass from the cabinet without thinking, and filled it with tapwater. It was only as I started to gulp it down that I did a double-take and almost spit out the water before remembering that no, in America the tapwater’s safe to drink. When I take a bus up to Philly I half-expect to see vendors out the window selling eggs, fruit, cell talk time, but the windows are sealed shut. Tanzania peers around the corners, always in my peripheral vision but never there when I try to look at it head-on, as elusive as a reflection in my glasses.

And despite all that, I don’t feel changed. I expected to come home from Africa a dramatically different person, but it turns out that I’m the same, that my Africa-self and my America-self are neatly partitioned. I have no urge to speak Swahili with black people (as I’d half-feared I would), and despite those corner-of-the-eye glimpses and the nagging sense that something’s different, I feel like the same person. I cut off a foot of my hair, but that doesn’t change me. I have my left ear pierced, something that for years I thought I’d never do, but I’m still the same.

But now I’m back here and, looking back, I can see clearly what I didn’t see in America: I’m trapped in between. Between the girl who can sit on a bus for three hours and not talk and not miss it and the one who reflexively starts a conversation with the Tanzanian sitting next to her. Between our kitchen in Arlington, full of light and family, and my kitchen here, full of nothing but me.


Comment from Norax
Time February 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm

This is a beautiful post—you really convey the feeling you’re experiencing. I’m sorry it’s such an unpleasant one!

I remember coming home from my first semester of college and my parents had gotten a new, extremely floral couch, and it was very unnerving, so I think I get what it’s like to come back to your house and find it slightly changed.

Comment from Mair
Time February 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Hi dear – what an evocative post. I have so been there … there is a disjointed aspect to time and place. A sense of multiple dimensions co-existing and oneself stuck somewhere between. But it fades away, if I remember.

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