Welcome to my blog! Thoughts, updates, and photos from my 2 years in Peace Corps Guinea.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Slac, post 3

I couldn't bring myself to say anything at first, because it was too hard. But it's been nearly 3 months, so if you read this and you haven't seen my facebook, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. My best Guinean friend, Slac, died on Sept 22, early in the morning. Kidney failure. At the MSF hospital in Conakry that is also an Ebola ward, so I have to wonder if he is a secondary casualty of that terrible event. I miss him terribly, every single day. I was privileged to have known him and to have been able to call him my brother. There are very few people that you meet in this world who are as joyful, honest, and accepting as Slac. I have no idea why he took me under his wing so immediately and so selflessly, but I wouldn't have made it through without him. We talked weekly when I came back. For a full year, which any PCV will tell you is impressive. I still can't believe that I'm never going to hear his laugh over the phone. I still can't believe that when I return to Guinea, maybe with a family of my own, I won't get to meet his family. Instead of laughing with him and drinking tea, I will visit his grave site and remember all the memories we shared. I have no bad memories of Slac. Even in my darkest times, he was my support and a ray of lightness and laughter.

I thought this story was closed. I suffered, I came home, I healed. In the novel version of my Peace Corps, the end comes when I stepped into the counselor's office in Georgia. Happy ending. Protagonist survives, finds tools to be whole and healthy, epilogue about keeping in touch, maybe a scene of her return to her village.

Alas, life isn't a balanced novel. Slac is gone and I'm learning to live with a hole in my heart. I'll leave you with this poem by Victor Hugo, entitled "Demain, dès l'aube."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

As the Anniversaries Pass...

I suppose the anniversaries I mark from my time in Guinea will become fewer the further I get from Guinea. First there was the counting up of months since I had been home, and suddenly it's been 10 months since I came home. Then there were the things I missed--Ramadan, Tabaski, the return to school, the gradual passing of time as my life and the life of the people I left behind return to yet another normal.

I've been home long enough now that the nostalgia is here in full force. I miss a lot of things about Guinea. I miss the people, ma famille guinéenne. I miss knowing I was doing something tough and worthwhile. I miss some of the food, and the beauty and speaking Susu.

There are also a lot of things I haven't been sad to miss. The elections stress, the recent Ebola outbreak, the propositions, the heat, the mosquitos. And honestly, I don't miss the person I became at the end of my service.

It's been 2 years since I was tackled by a fou. It's been 7 since I survived Lemierre's Syndrome, a rare bacterial infection that nearly killed me in high school. It's been 4 years since I was in a terrible fire in France where 1 student died needlessly in an un-sprinklered dorm. Incredibly, all 3 of those events happened in April. It's also been 1 year since I got a terrible sore throat while in Conakry and started suffering from PTSD, although it's only been about 4 months since I realized that that was what I was going through. Most of you probably had no idea, which I guess means I'm really awesome at coping, but it's been a rough year.

I'm a firm proponent of speaking out about mental illnesses, because I don't think there should be any stigma attached to an illness that I had no control over. I also think it's important that future Peace Corps volunteers don't go into their service unprepared for the possible consequences. I was not unaware. I wrote myself a letter before I left that was intended to be read if anything bad happened to me, to remind myself to make it through, that I am strong and resilient and I can survive anything but death. I read it fairly often, especially at the end, when my mental state was a mess. Huge thank you to my G20 folks, who supported me through my breakdowns and insanity. I wanted so much to finish my Peace Corps service that I pushed myself to a rock bottom place. I cried every day. I laughed every day too, so don't get too lost in that idea that I was just a sad sack, but I was a complete emotional roller-coaster, and it wasn't pretty.

So I came home and didn't really help myself until I started working at the Army, and heard a lot about the Army's efforts to use technology to help their veterans suffering from PTSD. And it sounded incredibly familiar. It turns out that you're more likely to get PTSD if you've had more traumas. So I'm getting help and I'm doing much better, and you know what--I am a survivor. It never even occurred to me that I could take a hit and just stay down. It never occurred to me to put my dreams on hold to heal or live a small, safe life. I jumped directly into grad school and work, and it is very rewarding. I hold on to that knowledge, that I keep taking risks in the face of my fears, on days when I wonder if the fou, the fire, and the disease have won.

I'm the sort of person who marks time very concretely. If you know me, you know how significant my Life Day is, the day I got out of the hospital. Tomorrow is a different sort of anniversary, and I'm not really sure how to feel about it. I just know that it's hard not to wonder "what if". What if I hadn't been in Conakry? What if we'd had our meeting inside? How different would I be today? Would I be more whole?

Many people have asked me, especially after I tell them about all this stuff, about all the pain, mental and physical, that I came home with, whether or not I'd do it again. And you know what my answer is?


Yes, I'd do this. I'm not permanently damaged. I had an adventure, and I came back with bruises. I helped some people and had some tough lessons in learning about myself. I saw painful realities and gained an inescapable gratitude. Would I choose a life without Peace Corps? No, never. I made my dreams come true, and my dream was to live without rose colored glasses and still retain my compassion and optimism.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Next Phase: Grad School

I am registered for research credits at UMD. Going back to where I did my undergrad, and I couldn't be happier. I traveled for nearly a month, and no place felt more like home than McKeldin Mall. This all came about in the most sudden way, but now that I'm an RPCV, it's not stressing me out as much that I don't know all the details. It'll come about.

I had some really great travels. I got to see lots and lots of my college friends and even some high school friends in DC/Baltimore. I ate out for restaurant week twice. I hemorrhaged my readjustment allowance on delicious food. Ask me if I regret this after I start paying rent and car payments. Currently, no regrets.

I explored Philly, from fine art to dive bars, from beer gardens to one of the top 5 beer bars in the states. There was beer. I also had a cocktail with Tang. Because, why not? I had a great time in Philly and stayed in the best 4-star hotel ever. Actually Chris and Michelle's apartment, it was sweet. I owe them a fantastic time. You guys rolled out the red carpet!

Then it was on to the hometown, and I thought I was done with my gastronomic adventures, but no! There was Skyline and Graeters and Marion's and Laura's cookies. It was fabulous to "come home" and see where I come from. And yet, I don't see myself living there. But who knows?

Then on to Erie for my niece's birthday. She had a blast at Chuck E. Cheese, and then we had a special night out. I picked her up from school and we went to the mall, where she got to pick out an outfit. We also got matching shiny gold belts, soo anyone with fashion advice on how to wear a children's gold belt, lemme know. Then she got to pick where we went for dessert, and she picked Red Lobster, because she loves to touch the lobsters, even though every time she gets shy. She is awesome and smart and sassy and good God, I love that kid to death. I'm hoping this can be a yearly tradition, even if I don't make it for her birthday every year. Here's Shae in part of her outfit: (not pictured: hoodie, leggings, socks, and sparkly purple belt)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mary No Longer in Guinea


I just heard that at least 3 of my students passed their BAC, meaning they can go to college! I can't tell you how much of a success this feels like. One of my science girls passed--the one who came nearly every afternoon to study physics and English! Sooooooooo happy!

Now then:

I've been home now for nearly a month, and I just haven't been able to bring myself to update this.I'm already feeling much better--I came home with a nasty ear infection and stomach problems, probably from taking too much ibuprofen. My arm is improving, but not "better" yet.

It's been a relief being home. I'd say I'm definitely still in the honeymoon phase, no matter how much US politics/judicial decisions have gotten me down. I haven't been having nightmares, and I haven't run into any fous yet!

I'll try to update more often about my readjustment.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

En route

At the boarding checkpoint for my last flight, the woman in front of me is being questioned in detail about her bags. I walk up to the second agent and he asks where I am coming from. 
Guinea, I reply. And how long was your stay?
Two years. He begins to ask if I am living and working in guinea. 
Not anymore, I say. I'm going home. 
He abruptly closes my passport, smiles, and says have a nice flight. 

I skip down the walkway. I'm going home! 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Coming Home

I've gotten a lot of feedback recently on my "On Homesickness" post from last week, mostly about my use of the word "failute". What I was trying to say is that I am not thriving, not that I'm failing as a volunteer or a teacher. But I do feel that I have failed to feel like myself, a self that I could maintain. I guess it's sort of like running a half-marathon and realizing you can't run the full. I have limits, and I have seen them. And in a lot of ways, that's really good.

The last few months have been fairly dark (and not just because rainy season clouds FINALLY moved in). But in the past week, I've really gained some insight into myself and the sort of person I am. I think I've been waiting for a long time for the incident that "breaks me". Something big that would happen that would make me say "I can't take it, it's over, it's time to go." But it turns out, I kept going through the fou attack, I made it back from the gastro-problems, I fought my way through the school year left-handed after I injured my right, I kept on going after a kid was killed in my site. I kept going. And last week, another volunteers said to me something along the lines of
"You've been through a lot. What makes you think something would break you? You're underestimating your strength."

I really thought about that. And I realized she was right. There wasn't anything forseeable that could happen that would straight-up break me. I didn't need to stay here to prove to myself that I was strong enough to meet the challenge I set for myself when I accepted my assignment in Guinea.

I also realized I was challenging myself for the sake of the challenge. I'm in pain from an arm injury/malady going on 6 months. And I've been dealing with anxiety on a level that's not normal for over a year. I've been hyper-aware of anyone approaching me, I've tensed up every time a truck has passed me. For over a year. And I still managed to be a hella awesome volunteer in the meantime.

But now it's time to take care of myself. Time to figure out why my right arm is in a world of pain. Time to remove myself from walking 2 feet from carelessly-driven, poorly maintained trucks hundreds of times a week. It's two months early, but I'm coming home. I expect to be back in the US by June 26, although, like anything in this life, it's not for sure.

I am sad to be leaving my Guinean friends and family and the PCV family I love so much, but I feel really good about this decision. I came to this decision from a place of strength, not because I was broken.

See you soon, USA!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Not What I Expected

When I started Peace Corps, I was told repeatedly to leave all expectations behind. And in small ways, I think I did a good job of that  for the things that I encountered during Pre-Service training. Bucket showers? Huge cockroaches and spiders? Terrible food? Sexism? I knew it was coming but I didn’t know how, and I adapted. But the unexpected parts of my Peace Corps service haven’t been small things. They’ve been pretty big.
I didn’t expect that I’d be tackled by a crazy man while inside a walled, razor-wired compound, or that I’d still be reeling from the effects of that trauma more than a year later. I didn’t expect to spend 6 weeks in America miserably sick to my stomach. I didn’t expect to have to become ambidextrous because of a repeated stress injury that took me out of site for nearly 3 weeks. And I really, truly, didn’t expect to see parts of a child strewn across the road I live on after a tragic truck-pedestrian accident in late May.
I made myself a promise when I joined Peace Corps that if I felt like something had happened to me that would give me permanent damage, I would come home. Otherwise, I told myself, I would persevere. Honestly, I think I’ve broken that promise to myself at this point, and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. When I come home, I’ll have to see doctors about the wrist problems that have plagued me for two years without explanation, and I’ll have to deal with the anxiety and perhaps even PTSD of my attack. I’d like to think that both of these aren’t truly permanent, but aren’t those the sort of things that I had given my permission to come home for? Sometimes, especially recently, I ask myself: what is the straw that could break this camels back?
 Today, I thought it was the death of this child. I don’t even know him, but he was walking home from school, minding his own business on the shoulder of the road (our sidewalk) when a truck came along and I quote “totally destroyed his head.” This is my absolute greatest fear, and I have on occasion been laughed at for jumping across the drainage ditch as a truck barrels past. I live in a country with no regulation. Do their brakes work? Could their steering column snap? It all seems possible, especially to someone who as experienced the “impossible” twice in my life. Why yes, when I fall sick, I prefer it to be a rare disease with only 200 cases in the preceding century. Why yes, when I’m assaulted, it would be within a guarded, walled compound. It’s become very hard for me to identify what real risks are as opposed to fantastical imaginings that would never happen.
But I’m still here. And I think I’m going to make it to my COS date in August (barring completely unpredictable political issues). I think I’ve stayed because for every bit I’ve been “damaged” from this experience, I have also grown. For every moment that it feels like misery is out to get me, I remind myself that my friends and neighbors live in this crazy, uncertain place, for their whole lives. While they are upset and angry about the death of a child, they are not distraught in the same way I am. I have learned that sensitivity is a privilege. That I have so rarely experienced loss is an underestimated privilege, one which I have done nothing to deserve.
Never before in my life have I seen the stark difference between youth and adulthood as I do here. And frankly, I think I fall too often in the youth category. I have felt naïve and protected at times. I have wanted to joke around and befriend my peers—but then I would lose their respect as my students. I am starting to recognize that I must soon take on my burdens of duty and responsibility, although in Peace Corps, with no dependents, it is easy to feel free and young, at least sometimes. But other times, when I am dealing with the mayor or teaching adults older than myself how to be entrepreneurs, I am reminded that I am no longer a child. When I go back to America, it will be time to be a “real person”. And I hope that that “real person” will be stronger, and more determined, and more mature, because of the unexpected events that have unfurled during my Peace Corps service.