Fifteen years ago yesterday I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique. Wow time sure flies! I still feel honored to have been a member of the very first group of volunteers ever to serve in the Peace Corps in Mozambique. We were affectionately referred to by the American staff as “the weed pullers.” We certainly had our jobs cut out for us as no one really knew what we were there to do! I am proud to say we paved the way for a successful Peace Corps program that is now in its 15th year and has grown to include two groups of Peace Corps Volunteers each year serving in the areas of education, teacher training and public health.
I have been thinking a lot about that day since I was reminded of the anniversary yesterday by a Peace Corps colleague/friend on Facebook. I remember parts of it so vividly like the tan tank dress I wore, the sweltering heat, and the large group of Mozambicans who were there to witness our ceremony. Throughout our pre-service training we lived as a group at a teacher training college in suburban Matola on the outskirts of the Mozambican capitol Maputo. Typically Peace Corps Volunteers are housed with host families during the pre-service training, but as our program was new there were some logistical challenges in securing host families. So our small group of 23 volunteers lived in dormitory conditions with a central cafeteria and shared bathrooms. Needless to say the close living quarters helped us to get to know each other fairly quickly.
At times the three months of training seemed to drag on. We were anxious and excited to get to our permanent sites. However, as our swearing in ceremony neared I am sure I wasn’t alone in feeling twinges of nervousness for the changes ahead.
Our swearing in ceremony was big news and was even televised in Mozambique. The Peace Corps Director at that time, Mark Gearan, was visiting Mozambique and attended our ceremony. We each wore a sash fashioned out of traditional Mozambican capulanas, sarong-like wraps worn by the women. The sashes named the province where we would be serving as volunteers.
My soon-to-be site mate was chosen to give a speech in Portuguese at the ceremony. I do not consider myself a With my lack of confidence I’ve never been a fan of public speaking, so I was happy that she would be addressing the large audience. Except moments before we were set to take our seats my friend got a bout of cold feet. I have not thought about this since it happened, but today it reminds me that despite having very low confidence in myself I have often risen to challenges that take me clear out of my comfort zone. With little time to think I agreed to take my friend’s place and read the speech.
I can still remember how shaky I felt as I approached the podium. My voice quivered initially, but I settled into reading the words on the paper, even looked out at the audience a few times, and got through it the best I could. I have no doubt my friend would have done a much better job, but I was proud of myself for getting up there!
At the close of the ceremony we raised our right hands and recited the oath that would create a unique bond between this group of 23 people who three months earlier had all just met for the first time. I am sad to say that as we parted ways and ventured to our permanent sites instead of embracing the friendships offered by my Peace Corps colleagues I pushed people away and turned others off with my snarky unpredictable moods. Despite integrating into my community, making friends, meeting my husband, losing some weight, quitting smoking, learning to enjoy vegetables, and being the happiest I had been in a very ling time I continued to keep the wall of contempt and bitterness up just enough to provide my signature first line of defense against anything I deemed to be a criticism or negative judgment against me. In essence I left Mozambique with the same defensive attitude I came in with.
My site mate posted a photo on Facebook yesterday which was actually taken two years later at our close of service. The photo caused me to instantly well up with tears.
I was drawn to one certain person in the photo immediately, ME! There I was leaning awkwardly on the outskirts of the photo which was a group shot of all of us as we prepared to finish our 2 year Peace Corps service. Everyone else in the photo is in close proximity of each other. In my attempt to “hide” myself and get lost on the edge of the photo I have actually done the opposite and drawn all attention to myself. I look out of place like a stranger and I appear uncomfortable. In fact I know that’s how I felt at the time. I was always self-conscious about my body and judging by the way I was standing I’m sure that moment was no different. I look at my fellow volunteers and see a closeness, a camaraderie and a genuine sense of kinship. Why after two years of such an amazing experience did I still feel so self-conscious, so out of place?
Peace Corps was life altering in so many ways. Some of those changes continue to manifest in me for the better. My wall has been almost entirely demolished. I like to think I’ve grown up a bit since those days. I’ve reconnected with most of my Peace Corps group on Facebook and some in person. I’m grateful to have a second chance. The reality is that most probably had no idea what I was internalizing and feeling. Eventually the experience I had in Mozambique, the people I met namely my site mate and my husband and the mistakes and missteps I made along the way have made me a better person.