So I’ve been home for awhile now, and I’m finally settling into my new/old life enough to wrap my head around and write about the process of leaving Benin. I started writing a post before my departure but my head was so full of raw emotions and things to do before I left that I couldn’t get anything onto paper. Then I tried many times since I’ve been back, even wrote most of a post and then in a feat of technological prowess, somehow didn’t save it. So here we are, more than a month after my arrival in the states, finally tackling the issues of saying goodbye and hello in a post that perhaps few will read but is still worth posting just for the closure of writing it.
The process of leaving my host community was quite painful, to be truthful. I realized that it was time to go, but necessity does not equate with ease. The hardest part was telling the people close to me. Because they all knew I planned to stay another year, each time I broke the news, I felt that I was stabbing a knife into our friendship and saw in their eyes the feeling of betrayal. I suppose it was always going to be like that; we always knew that it was temporary, but the unexpectedness of the separation made it difficult.
There are a lot of stories floating around the Peace Corps community about the different ways volunteers say goodbye when it’s time to leave. Some make a big deal of it; others don’t tell anybody and just up and leave one day; still others leave quietly, telling those who are important, and later peripheral acquaintances are left asking “whatever happened to that volunteer?” For me, it was easy to figure out that I wanted throw a big going away party. I chose this so that I could say goodbye to everyone in general and no one would feel left out, and because I wanted to erase any bad feelings and memories that had accumulated for me and/or the community in the last months and to leave on a good note.
The party was held two days before I was scheduled to move out and was in most regards a success. A lot of people turned out for the celebration, and even more bought the fabric I had chosen for the occasion (pictured below), which is also a show of support. I like the idea that now that I’ve gone, people will still be wearing their outfits made from this fabric and they will be reminded of me, as I am reminded of them by so many things.
As may not be surprising to those who have thrown large parties before, there was a significant amount of stress associated with the party, and in the end I personally didn’t enjoy a lot of it, but I’ve heard that the guests faired better. The politics of getting food made, coordinating performances by the church group and also vodun dancers (two groups who don’t really see eye-to-eye or really have much contact), serving/controlling the food, and seating the guests is hardly worth going into, but suffice it to say that these were no small tasks and created a lot of stress for an already-stressed me. Then there were the smaller but equally difficult logistical issues such as moving upwards of fifty heavy wooden benches/tables across the schoolyard before the party and back again after the party (so thankful that a team of my female students showed up to help me with this task and refused to leave until it was finished), dealing with beverages that were stored in plastic bottles that exploded everywhere due to the bumpy ride they had endured to get to the village, finding water to wash hands, etc that presented themselves somewhat unexpectedly au cours de route. But in the end, I guess I accomplished the goal of saying goodbye to the community that had become so important to me, and at least I know that everyone knew I was leaving.
(Here’s a picture of the dancing part of the party)
After the party, the actual departure was pretty anticlimactic. I spent the next day packing up all my things, separating out the Peace Corps-issued items that needed to be returned, the few things I wanted to pack up for America, and giving many others away because it didn’t seem worth it to bring them back. The process of packing and cleaning was a big one, and I was a little despondent about doing it when a young albino friend of mine stopped by to say goodbye. I gave her the sunscreen I had leftover and wished her luck, etc, and when I ran out of things to say, I told her it had been lovely to see her but I needed to get back to packing. She nodded and seemed about to leave, and then said, “Well, can I help?” And so she helped me do a few tasks, such as washing dishes and sweeping, and though I tried to send her home after a little bit, she stayed and helped until everything was packed and the house was clean (about 10PM). It was quite touching. And her presence influenced some of my other young friends to come help me as well, so the task became a lot more manageable. It was really quite remarkable how much stuff I accumulated in such a small house in such a short time…
The next morning, I said goodbye to my concession family and my homologue/supervisor, the latter of whom showed up mostly for appearances, I think, and loaded all of the things that were coming with me or going back to PC into my friend’s truck, which I had rented for the occasion. Then I climbed in the back (something I’ve always wanted to do), the truck started up, and I waved goodbye as we rolled away down the road that was so familiar.
Getting all my luggage to the PC headquarters from the nearby town of Glazoue was somewhat more difficult; I argued with many taxi drivers about pricing for the extra luggage (which included a mattress and a bike) and when I finally found a taxi with a reasonable price, the other passengers and I sat in or around the taxi for hours on end with the driver promising that we were “about to leave.” I’m used to that kind of stuff, of course, but emotions and tension were running high for me at this point (especially because in a tragic twist of fate, my cat disappeared the night of my going away party. I had grown really attached to him and wanted to bring him home eventually–the plan was for him to live with a friend for awhile and then come to the states later, so it really upset me when he just never came back before I left. I even asked my concession family to keep an eye out for him in case he came back after I left, telling them to send him to my friend’s place, but when I called several times afterwards, they said they never saw him again. So sad.), and I came very, very close to completely losing my cool–I just couldn’t deal with the not-leaving taxi. Sometimes life is just like that, especially in Benin, I feel–you put up with so many little things that annoy you, or dig into your patience, or offend you, and you manage to turn the other cheek or laugh about it, but then eventually you get to this point where you are just at the end of your rope and something that would otherwise be totally run of the mill will send you over the edge. (This is why you should take vacations before you get to this point. Lesson learned.) As the taxi finally rolled out of the city I had become so fond of, tears were welling up in my eyes behind my sunglasses.
And so closed a huge chapter of my life.
The actual close-of-service (COS) formalities at Peace Corps were pretty straightforward, especially since at the time that I left, all the other volunteers from my training class were already gone, so there was only one of me instead of a group of 10 volunteers trying to get signatures on everything. Basically it was a lot of documentation of one’s service, evaluation of one’s health and awarding of applicable vouchers for healthcare in the States and medications to cleanse the system of several of the parasites it may have picked up during service, then interviews with several administrative officials about ‘how it was’ and suggestions one would give for improvement. Then the confirmation that ⅓ of one’s readjustment allowance had already been deposited into one’s American bank account, and the assurance that the remaining ⅔ would be there soon, formalities relating to either the flight that PC booked or the arrangements that one made in place of that. Then I was wished good luck, told to keep in touch, and given a pin to commemorate my service. I pinned it on my bag I walked out of “the bureau” for the last time.
And now I am back. Perhaps much of why this post has been so long in coming is that I don’t know how to talk about this very relevant topic of transitioning back here. It is a thing of layers, it seems. There is, of course, the first layer of ecstasy at seeing long-missed family and friends (this is the best part), amazement at the wonders of the developed world, indulgence in the most-missed material things (for me this is hot showers, smoothies, and Chinese food/anything from Noodles), and kind of a feeling of relief of the everyday life being just so much easier–the beds softer, the water cleaner, etc. It’s certainly much more convenient to have the bathroom inside, just steps from my room, and to flip a switch to illuminate an entire room instead of stumbling around to find my flashlight, and it’s mind-blowing to be able to buy literally anything I want in the huge stores minutes from my parents’ place.
Then there is a second layer of missing what was. I miss the people that used to be in my life, the places I loved to go, the food I enjoyed eating. I think about the toddler that lived next door to me and realize that he has already forgotten me. I was there when he was born, I held him throughout his infancy, I watched him start to crawl and then walk and talk, and now I will be no more than someone who he hears his family talk about and sees in pictures. That child was one of the highlights of my life and now he’s gone. Poof.
I miss the simplicity of the life I lived in Benin. Having so few options for food, entertainment, and shopping got old sometimes, but it was also nice. In many ways, I feel (and to some degree, have always felt) somewhat overwhelmed by the excess of things available here. It becomes oppressive for me–so many things to choose from in the supermarket, so many entertainment options screaming at you that you are missing out if you don’t partake, so much technology that is shinier and louder and more expensive all the time. So many things we don’t need but we become convinced that we do. A simpler life really suited me. Perhaps most of all, though, I miss the sense of purpose that I felt in Benin. Though I encountered my share of frustrations and roadblocks, the feeling that my presence and work made a difference, if only in the smallest of ways, is a hard one to get used to losing.
And the third layer is probably the deepest and hardest to get past. For me, this is the feeling of being lost. The place I’ve left is gone, but the place I’ve come back to (called “home”) is not the same. The people are not the same, my place in the world is also not the same. When I left, I was a recent graduate, still viewed as practically a kid, and now suddenly my 25th birthday approaches and people call me “ma’am” and it seems that what I do next will define my entrance to the ‘real world.’ After living on my own for so long, it’s hard to be back in my parents’ houses, and it seems that I don’t belong there anymore, even though they have been wonderful about it so far. Obviously, because I was not planning on being here this soon, I don’t have the plans that other volunteers did for their re-integration, such as grad school admittances or a job lined up or even a geographical target in mind for setting up the next chapter of life, which certainly aggravates this feeling of being lost. I expected to have another year to figure all of these things out. But I generally do find that things happen for a reason, so I am trying to figure out what the reason is behind this change of plans. I suspect that said reason is deeper than the universe wanting to give me unlimited hot showers. At least I sure hope so.
At any rate, I leave you with a few of my happiest memories from Benin, in no particular order:
1) Vaccination trips into the rural villages. There is a photo floating around somewhere in rural Benin of me and my vaccinating partner on his motorcycle. I have the vaccine cooler slung over my shoulder and my helmet perched on my knee, and he is in the middle of making a joke to the person who is taking the photo, a friend we had bumped into on the road who happened to have his camera with him. We’re surrounded by tall reeds which had been slapping against my calves as we cruised down the small dirt road towards the village, and the sky is clear with only a few clouds above. The way I remember that photo embodies happiness for me.
2) Sitting around with the zemidjans on the back of someone’s parked motorcycle and eating corn porridge while chatting in halting Fon, watching the activity of the night market, and checking out the stars and/or moon.
3) Traipsing around the market and Glazoue in general with my nearby volunteer friends, buying the essentials for the week, experimental belly beads, or a treat like cookies to be shared while drinking beer or whiskey cola at one of our favorite hang-out spots.