Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Letting Go of The Identity

This ego of mine is a breath
Defiantly held for a time
Yet one exhale to its death
Meaningless, in design

I write this after not updating my blog for over a year.

I want to write to you about why it's okay and necessary to let go of the past, and that it is not the same as forgetting.

Three years ago, I took a journey to Kenya and embarked on a life that felt meaningful and present. On July 24th, 2014, I returned.

What they don't tell you about joining the Peace Corps is that re-adjustment is often harder than adjustment to site.

It wasn't about the amenities of clean tap water (Nairobi had that), nor ubiquitous smartphone use (I'm editing this on an I-Phone right now). I was born in this culture, after all, and two whole years did little to change America.

No, the element that changed was myself.

I can't sing enough praises to Godrick Mwachofi
I spent twenty four months doing work that completed my need to be of service. I had access to health data for an entire county and was respected by people who made policy. I was free riding on a motorcycle down the dirt roads of a valley aiding my Public Health Officer in giving out polio vaccinations (he gave them, I just did tallying). Key word though, was.

You come back and look into the mirror day by day. The weight you lost will return (even if you do avoid fast food), the weathered hands from gripping a machete and hoe will become soft again from typing on a keyboard. The scar you received under your left eye from where a Nairobi fly burst into acid, the one that burned so much your skin peeled for weeks, well that will fade too.

Eventually the problems you escaped when leaving will hit you with interest, forcing you to come to terms with the fact that the R in Returned Peace Corps Volunteer is the most factual part of who you are now.

Speaking a local language (sorry, foreign and uncommon) doesn't facilitate the ease of your life. Experience in HIV mitigation isn't necessarily an applicable skill.  Yes they are noteworthy, but they aren't as relevant. I'm not even sure I'm knowledgeable enough to tell about all the blank stares I get from federal employers when I mention non-competitive eligibility (US AID will add to your tenure track though).

And it can be overwhelming, knowing that the experiences and pride you felt aren't acknowledged here. And there should be no shame of being proud, you should and must be proud. But there's a difference between holding onto a beautiful snapshot that can be liked a thousand times and a reality that won't wait. Images are static, we are not.

Because, if so much of my identity came from my work as a PCV, how does that hold up when my work is no longer there?

Consciously, you know you are here, moving on with your life, but subconsciously, there is that danger that you are comparing your worth to who you were in the past. But the years move on and realistically, that moment in time will be farther and farther.
I had seriously the co-workers
I had an amazing experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with an amazing medical and community health staff. Indeed, Third Goal is still a factor and I understand the importance of talking about my experiences, but the hard truth is that
1. I won't be back in that capacity
2. Holding onto that nostalgia can affect my performance as a functional adult on an emotional level.
Not everything important is a story
3. I don't want to be a walking anecdote.

So more than a year since being evacuated from Kenya, I'm letting go of the identity, but not the place. After all, it's the community of Peace Corps Staff, Sagalla Health Center, and friends I made,who motivated me to study Humanitarian Policy. Because of our time abroad, so many of us go back rather than stay back, and therein lies the difference.


Whether you have experienced periods of trauma or happiness, it is no disservice to pursue change. It's okay to let go. For my RPCVs who struggled as well, remember that while Peace Corps was such a period of growth, it's because you were the main factor. You can do it again. All you have to do is what you did at staging, being willing to take the next step.

I look forward to using this blog again, I want to create something new and meaningful once more.

With love,
Tanim Awwal
Columbia SIPA 2014-Present


2 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I have struggled sometimes mainly due to the fact that, my efforts as a teacher for the Deaf in Kenya and as a student interpreter here in the US, a lot of my personal experiences with regards to the Deaf community revolve around my Peace Corps days. I am constantly walking a tight rope of "is the comment applicable? Are they sick of me talking about Kenya?" I don't want to always be "That one lady that always talks about Kenya." On the other hand... Letting go means letting go of my identity as a teacher as well as a volunteer. It's slow going.

    Jenn Black

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