Monday, November 12, 2012

Wrapping Up

I don't know how I keep missing it, but there's one lesson that Kenya has been trying to teach me since I arrived. I say I've learned it from time to time, but clearly it hasn't been entirely internalized because I keep ignoring it's inevitability. The lesson is this: no matter what you plan for and no matter what you think will happen, things here will never materialize in the way you expect. It may be for better or worse, but it won't be what you anticipate.

This truth has manifested itself in small ways throughout my service. Maybe an event is rescheduled at the last minute due to rain or transportation issues or for the mere sake of convenience. Maybe there is an expectation of how long a church service or staff meeting should last, only to find that it's surpassed that expectation by five hours. And maybe after weeks upon weeks of the kids in class four writing sentences like "the bannana is purble" or "me name is house", they all surprise you on the same day with proper grammar and spelling. Between vehicle breakdowns, cultural differences, small miracles and baffling inconsistencies, things often appear chaotic. I thought I'd gotten used to it, that I hadn't been holding on to plans too tightly. But last week, I was reminded of how I still expect things to go a certain way, and how futile it is. It was a tough reminder.

I had high expectations for my last few weeks in Sipili. I had almost every day booked solid, every space in my calendar was filled. I'd assigned time to reviewing class material with my students, finishing up a few Peace Corps reports and projects, visiting friends to say goodbye, and even taking a trip to see the rainforest in Kakamega that I'd been dying to see. I should have known that as soon as I made so many plans, they'd be turned upside down. And of course that was the case; last Saturday I was called into Nairobi because of a serious security incident in Sipili. It was unexpected and shocking, because I've always felt safer in Sipili than any other place I've lived. It was also heartbreaking to be called away from my work, my home and my students just a few weeks before I was due to leave anyway. I had so many unanswered questions - how will the issue be handled and resolved? How long will I be away? Will I even be back in Sipili, or will Peace Corps send me home? I stayed in Nairobi for about a week, as the security staff visited Sipili to assess the security of Jessica's and my sites, and I tried to be patient. Each day I looked at what I was supposed to be doing in my calendar, and felt guilty that I wasn't there to teach or to fulfill my plans.

The unexpected beauty in it all though, was the grace of my community. I got daily phone calls and text messages from neighbors and coworkers who were worried, who hadn't seen me around and had heard rumors that I'd left. And even if I haven't internalized the lesson of "letting go" and not having expectations, my Kenyan friends have. They weren't worried that I wasn't in class or that I had to cancel plans, they just wanted me to take care of myself and hurry back whenever I could. It was humbling, and I've never felt as close to my community as I did when I was far away from them. When I returned on Saturday after getting the go-ahead from Peace Corps, everyone had something to say. I was stopped on the street, in the shops and the market with cries of "umepotea!" or "you have been lost!". Everyone had heard about the incident, and were quick to offer a "pole" ("sorry") and kind words about being happy for my return. The best reunion was with the kids, though. I'd felt like I had abandoned them, but they were quick to erase my guilt with huge smiles and an excited welcome. I explained why I had left, and that I would be back in class until school closes. It was a great restoration - I've rarely felt as content as I did with all the kids sitting around me, catching each other up on what had happened in our lives during the week when we were apart.

As I sit now and reflect on the unexpected chaos of the past week, I am once again dwarfed by what I have learned by not being in control. Despite a terrible situation, I learned about my community and how I have been surrounded by their care and concern. And even though it was painful, I got a taste of what it will be like to leave my students and coworkers for good. It's hard to accept, but it's a reality I'll have to face in a few short weeks. I'm better off now that I have an idea of what to expect. I am even more thankful for these last few days at my home, because I missed it so terribly when I was away. The moment of stepping off the matatu into Sipili when I returned almost brought tears to my eyes - this place has grown and molded me into someone I am grateful to be. Although the two years here are nearly finished, this place is determined to keep teaching me lessons and challenging me to grow until the very last moment.

I spent all Sunday cleaning my house and packing. In the short time I had been gone, a rat and a snake had moved in. I had to evict both of them, using a broom and a lot of yelling. The packing is strange - I'm trying to fit everything into the same two bags I brought with me. I'll end up with what I started with - an empty house, and two bags packed to the brim. Although now my hair is longer, I'm a lot less idealistic, quite a bit more cynical, more patient, and deeply touched by people who used to be strangers, but who I now consider dear friends.

Now I'm also starting to think about what I'm going back to. My mind is here and there simultaneously, coexisting in my two homes. I've been on craigslist a lot lately looking at apartments in Anchorage, and I finally registered for the MCAT in April. I have a couple weeks of travel throughout the US starting on the 28th, visiting friends and family on both coasts and ending up in Alaska. I'm getting nervous as it approaches, because over the course of two years, the US has become a sort of mythical place, and I honestly have forgotten a lot of what it's like to live there. Maybe you think I'm exaggerating, but I'm dead serious, and I'll say it again: I honestly have forgotten a lot of what it's like to live there. I can't imagine constant power and running water, sidewalks, refrigerators, microwaves, hair dryers, fast food, driving, and snow. I'm excited about it, but I anticipate it will all be quite overwhelming. I'm counting on patience and support from friends, especially when I do really weird things like respond to a question in Kiswahili, use my eyebrows to say yes or my lips to point instead of using words, or say things like "nice time", "hellos" or "slowly by slowly". I also may have a meltdown when I am in the grocery store for the first time - I've heard cautionary tales of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers being rendered immobile in the middle of the aisle by the number of choices of things like cereal or soup. I also might do that annoying thing where I start every sentence with "Well, in Kenya..." or withdraw whenever I miss the things that have become so familiar. It will be an adjustment, but I suppose it's all part of the adventure.

As I enter into this final chapter of my wild experience, I'll do my best to really remember the most important lesson Kenya has offered me. I'm not in charge, and plans are never set in stone. There's always room for the unexpected, and it's better to embrace it than to fight it. It's freeing, if you really think about it.... 

Ok, so I'm going to call it now - this is my final blog entry in Kenya. I'll write one more in a couple months, to reflect on the end of everything, and to chronicle my experience of re-entry into the US. But to all the people who have read what I've written over the past two years, thank you. Thank you for being part of my story, and for making my experiences richer by sharing them with me. Stay in touch, keep following your own adventures and always live life to the fullest.

Asanteni sana!

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