Reflections on AfrikaBurn, Peace Corps service, and life

Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. We had our COS conference last week. Three weeks ago, I was galavanting in the Karoo desert during the experience that is AfrikaBurn. Last month marked eight years since my mother died after a long illness.

As I’ve been reflecting, some things became clearer to me. These are five recurring themes that I’ve learned from burns, service, and life.

Embrace impermanence

There’s a saying that there is no time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. While it’s true that no moment lasts forever, it’s also true that life and all the things in it (including AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps) are mere moments. Admitting to ourselves that nothing is permanent (including us) allows us to fully engage in the now. Now is all we have. Why not love now? Forgive now. Embrace now. AfrikaBurn is seven days in a desert. Peace Corps is more than two years in an foreign community. While those moments won’t last, the memories do.

For the first time since I’ve started going to burns, I was ready to depart from the burn last month. AfrikaBurn was still magical. And it still left me high on life and the awesomeness of humanity. But while the high might be long lasting, it isn’t permanent. The need for a constant, permanent high is addiction.

Don’t try to recreate experiences

I remember discussing my first year at Burning Man with a friend of mine. He was excited as I recounted fond memories. I remember him expressing his desire to recreate my Burning Man experience for himself. When I was doing research on Peace Corps before I joined, I saw many volunteers doing amazing work. I arrived in Swaziland, and thought of replicating the work being done by the previous group. It makes sense. They are successful. I want to be successful. I need to do what they’re doing. I believe that the experience we have is heavily influenced by many factors including where we are in life at that time. The factors that made my first year at Burning Man so amazing might not be present in your life at this time. And that’s okay. I believe inspiration and aspirations are powerful, but they don’t have to dictate our path and experience. You are the creator of your own experience. Which leads me to…

It’s all made up

Everything that we see, hear, do and experience is all made up. JFK made up the Peace Corps. Larry Harvey made up Burning Man. Al Gore made up the internet. When wild imaginations are left in childhood, we try to create a better today instead innovating an exciting tomorrow. Life, like AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps, encourages experimentation and innovation. There’s even a camp at Burning Man called, “It’s All Made Up”. Shouts to the IAMU crew. Again, it’s up to us to create and co-create this thing called life.

Sit face to face with people

We live in a world with many things competing for our attention. Partially because of that, sensationalism abounds. We end up with strong opinions of people we’ve never met and know very little about. Real life people become the nameless, faceless “them” or “they”. This changes when we sit with someone, formerly known as strange(r), and experience their humaness through interactions. Suddenly, Burners aren’t a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in a desert and Swazis (and by extension, Africans) aren’t a bunch of unintelligent, poor people living in mud huts. When we meet face to face, there is often some common ground. We get to deconstruct the single story bestowed on those who want to share their own stories. Even without common language, interests, and/or ideologies, we’re all humans sharing this planet.

Community Interaction

One of the principles of Burning Man culture is “participation”. To me, a large part of that participation is done through interacting with the space and the people in it. Through interaction, we co-create the life experience. In Peace Corps, I’ve found that magic happens when I am a participant in my community. Interacting with the community promotes growth and gets things done. Interaction also promotes relationships and seeing people as more than simple mediums if transaction.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Does Any of This Matter? 

Peace Corps service is often shrouded in mystery. This is true for family and friends of the PCV, as well as the PCV. The question often gets asked what do PCVs do. The answer to that differs from post to post, and amongst volunteers serving in the same post. 

Peace Corps boasts three goals. 

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Before my service, I thought of Peace Corps mainly in terms of goal one. I thought about the tangible work. I thought about the data driven outcomes and evidence-based practices. While all of those things are extremely important, they are not of sole importance. In the 18 months that I’ve called Swaziland home, I have known many volunteers who struggled with the idea of “not doing enough”. At times, I have wrestled with the question of whether or not I’m doing meaningful work. In ten years, will it matter that I taught that Life Skills class? In seven years, will it matter that I co-facilitated that permagarden workshop? That’s the Goal One lens of Peace Corps. 

Some time ago, I was perusing Reddit when I was reminded of something salient. Not only does Peace Corps have more than one goal, Peace Corps service is as much about diplomacy as it is capacity building. It’s important to build community spaces. It’s important to build the community’s capacity for effective and sustainable change. It’s also important to build and foster friendships. It’s also important to show America as more than the often told single story of rich white people living lives of great abundance. 

There are times when the presence of a PCV leads to valuable conversations about America and the world. This is not to suggest that PCVs or America have “figured it out”. I don’t believe that we have; however, I believe that magic happens when diverse voices, ideas and perspectives get to sit at the proverbial table and speak freely. The metrics don’t exactly capture that. Similarly, they don’t capture the newfound excitement of the Form 4 student who tells me that he’s looking forward to my class tomorrow. They don’t capture the conversation with the young lady who expressed her excitement that her community gets to host a Black volunteer. 

On the other side of that diplomacy coin is (hopefully) the eradication of the single story that (insert host country/region/continent here) is only one thing. Previously obscure places become more than names on maps. With personal stories and experiences, Africa becomes more than a singular, monocultural place made of brown and bush. 

As I start to wrap things up here in Swaziland, I’ve pondered more on what it means to have had a successful service. My reflection has shifted my focus from making monuments to making memories. I haven’t built or renovated any structures in my community. However, I have taken my students on a world tour (including my home in DC) using Google Maps Street View. That probably won’t be in any annual report, but seeing the faces of my students as we explored the streets of Abuja, Paris, and Cairo makes up for any lack of metrics. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Seasoned with Experience

​Last week, I was fortunate to co-facilitate a session during PST for G15. It was the second session I’ve co-facilitated for the new group. Shortly after the session, I came to the realization that I’m now a part of the seasoned group of volunteers in Peace Corps Swaziland. I’m a part of the group of volunteers with a year of experience. At times, training staff will ask volunteers to assist with sessions for trainees. 

To date, I have co-facilitated a session on Diversity and Inclusion, and another session on Being Black in Swaziland. Feedback has been generally positive. The above photo was taken by Karlene. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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