Wednesday, August 02, 2006

an unsent letter

While moving, it is inevitable that one will unearth old letters. I sought this one out among my boxes. It is probably the last letter I wrote during my Peace Corps service. I never sent it, not because it’s too personal, but because I talked with the addressee about these things at other times.

I’ve lived in this apartment in Ithaca for three years now. That’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I left high school 11 years ago. The next longest time I’ve lived in the same place was two years in a hut. So while the story of this letter may better parallel my time next spring when I’ll be preparing to come back to the States again, I feel the same challenges of uprooting now as I did then.


26 May 2002

It really is almost over now. I COS in just over three weeks (COS means “close of service”, but here it’s been turned into a verb.) I’m done teaching, done grading, and have only to turn in grades. The laboratory isn’t completely put together yet, but it’s organized and we’re just waiting to get bookshelves built this week to take everything out and make sure it all works. More than anything nowadays, I’m saying goodbye.

This morning, for example, I asked to say a few words to the congregation. (It’s Trinity Sunday today.) Actually, I had asked last week to do it this week, and when I arrived and the catechist wasn’t there, I thought I would have to wait. Apparently he left a note to the celebrant, because during the announcements he called on me. So I went up and rather nervously read out what I had written. I of course thanked them for the welcome they had given me. I also responded to something they have said to me frequently—that is, being the first (or at least a rare case) among all the ex-patriots [sic—I know how to spell this word now] to come through Kérouané, to present myself to the Christian community as a fellow believer. I said that, in fact, it is I who should thank God for the presence of a community where I could worship with fellow believers. For me, church is neither an obligation nor a duty, but a joy, and moreover I need the presence of God. (At least some things haven’t changed in two years.) Then I said what God had added to the gift of His presence at church: the chance to know the people and the cultures of those who attend there. Christians are more often than not from the forest, and here in this Maninka/Konianké dominated area, I would have had little opportunity to know of Kissi, Toma, or Kpelle traditions. I closed by talking to the youth, several of whom are my students. I said that God has given them great responsibility, but also a special place in His heart. I read 1 Timothy 4:12, saying that it is a passage often given to youth in our country.

Sery, the father of the family with whom I live, says it hurts him to hear how soon I’m leaving. I only have in fact at most two weeks here before COS, and after COS I’m coming back for a week. Then, toward the beginning of July, I’ll leave the country to travel a bit before meeting my parents in Spain. (I won’t be able to send this letter to you until I’m in Conakry for COS, so I’ll probably be out of Guinea by the time you read it.)

Annie is leaving the country after me, but leaving Kérouané before. She’s traveling right now, in the Fouta and then to Conakry to pick up a visiting friend. She should be back mid-week with her friend, and we’ll be together for a few days. I think the last time I’ll see her this side of the Atlantic is on June 8, at a party in Kankan. I hadn’t realized how little time we had left as sitemates until the day before she left for this trip. That night we took a couple of hours and talked about what we’ve observed and learned, and to thank each other for support and friendship throughout our service. I know I wrote last year that I didn’t feel particularly close to Annie; now I do. We’re extraordinarily different people, yet we’ve come to appreciate who we both are, and to realize that we even represent different American subcultures. I told her she is one of the oddest people I’ve ever known, and she reciprocated. :-)

How much has changed? How much have I changed? I’ve long said that people don’t, in fact, change; rather that they become more or less themselves. So am I more or less myself now? Two years in Africa has certainly touched me more than three weeks in Martinique or a week in France. If I haven’t changed, I think some of my values and views on international affairs have. I have seen more of the inequality in the world, and I have seen more of the causes that keep it in place. I know a bit about how complex the issue of, say, education is, and I have a greater respect for those whose goal is to make it universally available. Personally, I have become more self-motivated, self-confident, and self-aware. I know the value of clear expectations and good presentation, because I have seen what those things can accomplish. Conversely, I have a greater appreciation for the value of honesty, because I have seen what falsity can erode and destroy. I suppose it is inevitable for such changes to occur during such a service, and it is often said that the greatest benefit Peace Corps gives is not to the people served, but to the Volunteers who serve.

Back to my first question: how much has changed? I can say at least this: in a corner of a library, in a school in a corner of West Africa, there are now boxes holding wonders to enliven a student’s imagination. But such wonders have always lay around them and have gone unused and unnoticed because they aren’t taught to observe properly. I hope the same fate doesn’t come to the so-called laboratory. After that, there are a handful of students, perhaps four or five, who have gained confidence in themselves, and perhaps enjoyed discovering a few things along the way. It’s small, but it’s a start. That’s all a Volunteer can do: make starts.

There’s a group of African children who sing an English folk song (in a very African manner) and dance around to it. There are scattered residents of Kérouané who can say they’ve seen the mountains of the moon and the Hunter drawn in the sky. There are ladies in the market who have had an American client, for a time. There is a father who has seen corners of the world that truly few Americans have seen. Things have changed. Some things are eternal, but other things change, and those that change never seem to do so fast enough.

And I have little idea of what’s changed at home (for, here at the end, the States are becoming “home” again). I expect that it’s changed more than I expect. It would have done so anyway, even without the events of the last year. [I meant Sept. 11.]

We will have things to talk about when I return, will we not? I promise next time we are together not to run around trying to catch all the sights and sounds. With the universe to be found in a grain of sand, I will want to again know the wondrous variety to be found in you. I have just reread the letter you sent me from November―March. I hate that my time here makes you feel that our friendship has weakened. Then again, perhaps it is a bit true. I still forbid you to make yourself difficult to find before I come back.

You wrote that your plans haven’t changed. I, too, have a direction [graduate school], though its location is undetermined, and I do not know if the direction itself will remain unchanged. Wherever I am, even here, you are close in my thoughts and heart.


I never signed the letter. I think I could never quite figure out how to close it.

It’s good to remember that I’ve been through leaving before. That I've dealt with the changes in relationships that come with time apart, even though they may be painful. That I left somewhere feeling I’d made a difference. I suspect if I were to carefully consider my time here in Ithaca so far, I would find I had some small influences, and those would make it easier to leave to do something else.

Some of you may find the above letter interesting as a summary of my time in Africa. For me, its present purpose is to help me reflect on times of transition so that I feel better prepared to go to Marseille.

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