Going Native 

My Life With The United States Peace Corps


"You lived in Africa?! That's so cool! How was it?"

You know, I have yet to come up with a proper answer to that question. The response "Africa was, um, good" feels a bit trite. I could think of many one-word adjectives to describe my experience living and working in Tanzania. Frustrating. Beautiful. Dirty. Mango-tastic. Enriching. Lonely.

Powerful. But I'm learning that very few people actually want to know the nitty-gritty of my life overseas. My friends like hearing standard-issue stories about helping poor kids or adventure stories about fighting off household pythons. Beyond that, eyes glaze over. I've gotten the line, "Dude, there's no way I could've done that" more times than I've enjoyed a hot shower since I've returned. I've learned to respond with a boxed phrase about how incredible I found the experience and how lucky I felt to get paid to live somewhere so cool.

I joined the United States Peace Corps in 2006 because I wanted to see the world, I wanted to give back and, maybe more than anything, I didn't want the predictability that I thought would come with a standard 9-to-5 job. As a kid I'd wanted to tromp through the African plains with National Geographic as a photojournalist, and I supposed that joining the Peace Corps would be a convincing placebo.

Since I didn't have much direction after graduation, I felt relatively comfortable allowing my government to send me wherever it chose. After a year-long application process involving more medical procedures than I knew existed, I received a letter informing me I'd be sent to Tanzania. So I bought a hand-crank shortwave radio and an oversized bottle of mosquito repellant, packed my life into two overstuffed suitcases and set off into the unknown.

When I arrived, along with 40 other wide-eyed American volunteers, I spent the first three months living with a Tanzanian host family, practicing Swahili and learning cultural norms. I mastered the arts of bathing in a bucket, peeing in dubious places and washing my laundry by hand. I also learned I hated fried millipedes and couldn't trust when my host sister claimed she was eating peanuts. I grew comfortable with my host family, and we laughed and squabbled and dined and relaxed just like my real family and I did.

After three months, my trainers deemed me ready and they shipped me off to the place I'd call home for the next two years. We loaded my suitcases and training manuals into a Land Rover and drove 10 hours over paved and dirt roads into the scraggly foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. They showed me my new home - a glorified mud hut with cemented-over walls located an hour and a half from the closest volunteer. They dropped me off in my little village, introduced me to my supervising headmaster and drove away.

In time, I grew to embrace and ultimately cherish this independence, but initially I felt incredibly intimidated. Taking a deep breath, I dove into my new community, meeting my neighbors and finding the closest market, post office and bus stand. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Children chased me down the road in flocks, screaming, "Hey white person! Give us money!" I struggled to find the boundary between integrating and maintaining personal space. When school began a month later, I found myself with a ready-made social network and a daily schedule, both of which kept me sane during the transition. I threw myself into teaching and formed strong relationships with my staff and students.

I had taught previously at the University of Iowa, but my former experience didn't really prepare me for teaching in Tanzania. My students often sat two to a chair, brought in the school's water supply in endless buckets and felt the abuse of the country's corporal punishment system. But as an educator, I felt no greater reward than teaching students who understood that an education would truly change their lives. Of course, kids will be kids, and not every child was a model student, but most realized that a high school diploma would enable them to rise above their lot in life and pull their families toward a more stable existence. Beyond teaching math and chemistry, I taught HIV/AIDS awareness and encouraged girls' empowerment. I enjoyed the afterschool activities most of all. The school health club and I wrote and choreographed a sweet rap song for an AIDS awareness competition and, for the first time in my life, people thought I had enviable dance moves.

Now don't get me wrong - even in my happiest moments, I still felt incredible amounts of frustration and loneliness. I learned that a few of my female students were prostituting themselves to pay their school fees. I lost a friend to HIV. I was robbed. I almost quit one day about a year into my contract when I realized that I'd been working myself tirelessly for the last 12 months, but still had 12 to go. But, thanks to international calling cards and an ever-encouraging mother, I stayed.

I finished my contract and returned home in September, but I sincerely miss my life overseas, spending time hanging out with my neighbors or enjoying the country's delightfully slow pace. I miss feeling independent, unimpinged upon by social expectations. I haven't yet merged my time overseas with my life here; I feel like maybe I dreamed up this crazy adventure I had. But I think the more I talk about it, the more I begin to synthesize my life's experiences. So if you're still reading, I'm appreciative.

How was Africa? Well, thanks for asking. Where do you want me to begin?

freestyle@clevescene.com Cynthia Wambsgans grew up in Cleveland and attended Hathaway Brown, Ohio Wesleyan University and the University of Iowa. She is currently traveling the country and working on a book.

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