The Peace Corps preaches integration. Integrate into your family, integrate into your school, integrate into your village and community. This not only makes your experience more enjoyable, but it also improves your safety, your mental health, your happiness, your ability to get things done, the list goes on and on.
When I think back to why I wanted to be in the Peace Corps, full integration into the community was one of my top priorities. I wanted to know what it would be like to become fully immersed in a culture and way of life different than the one I was used to. So that’s what I did. I went to every choir practice. I went to the women’s committee meetings. I played bingo 14 times in 6 days. I went to church twice a day every Sunday.
And it was hell. I’m not going to lie. My first six weeks at my permanent site were hell. I moved there a few days before Christmas, after living in a hotel with no water during a Cyclone. The last thing I wanted to do was go to yet another church event, and I did not think that I could physically sit through bingo again. But I did it.
Things changed when we had to’ona’i (the big meal) after church one day. When I was told about it, I was expecting to be one of the people served, since that was my only experience. However, I was in the back helping prepare food, serving it to the people in front and fanning flies away from the food. I was considered a part of the community, and things started going up from there.
I’ve now been here for over a year, and I still am just as involved as I forced myself to be in the beginning. Except now, it is by choice rather than necessity. I still play bingo on a regular basis. I am in the church choir, and at least once or twice a month, they thank me for being a faithful member. I attend Women’s Committee meetings, and I still sit in the front of the fale in a position of honor.
I worked hard to get to this point, and I love it. I love my life here. I love the people, and they love me. I am taken care of by everyone that I come into contact with. They are protective of me in so many ways. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every PCV.
Among the PCVs, I’ve been called the “princess” since almost day 1. In the training village, we called my house “the palace” because it was a big fale for just me, and it has a nice porch where we all used to hang out. When I moved to my permanent site, the princess title continued since my family refused to let me take the bus for the first 2 months –they insisted on driving me everywhere. I’ve long since overcome that obstacle, but the other PCVs continue to say that I am the princess and that I am spoiled.
I agree that I am very well taken care of. But people don’t realize all of the work that I did, and continue to do, to get to this point. I do more chores around my family house than most of the other volunteers. I pull weeds, I sweep the fale, I make the food, I go shopping, I wash the dishes, I do the laundry. And it’s because I do all of these things, because I help out and am a part of this family, that I am treated the way that I am. I know it sounds strange that people call me spoiled when I do so many chores, but it is because I do all the chores that I am taken care of.
I know that each family is different. I am beyond blessed to have the family that I do. My host sister, Mona, is my best friend in the village. We do everything together. The little kids in my house hold my hand and talk my ear off every day. They have taken me everywhere that they go since the very beginning, which is different than many other families. Each village is different. It is quite possible that another volunteer would have a similar situation to mine if they had been placed in my village instead of me.
And so, being as blessed as I am, I start to feel guilty when I hear stories about other people. I feel guilty that I am so involved in my village, and they are not. And the guilt increases when I hear a constant refrain of being the princess, of being spoiled, of having the “perfect life.” It makes me feel that I cannot truly share my experience with anyone because a) my good times are showing off to the rest of the volunteers since their experience is not the same. Or b) they don’t believe that my bad times are bad because they’ve had worse and still think that my life is perfect.
But I have to remind myself that I want this. And not only do I want this, but I worked hard to get it. I put in the time, the long hours, the legs that fell asleep. And not only did I do it in the beginning, but I continue to do it. I did the work to get to this point. I earned the reputation that I have in my village.
I picked up The Alchemist from the PC office, and even though I’ve read it before, I think it’s one of those books that can tell you something different each time you read it. Sometimes the words speak to you, something rings true in your heart and you understand something in a different light. In the introduction, Paulo Coelho talks about four obstacles we face in achieving our personal calling:
“The mere possibility of getting what we want fills the soul of the ordinary person with guilt. We look around at those who have failed to get what they want and feel that we do not deserve what we want either. We forget about all the obstacles we overcame, all the suffering we endured, all the things we had to give up in order to get this far.”
And when I really stop to think about it, who are they to decide what I do? Who are they to make me feel guilty for the things that I’ve done, for the life that I live? Unfortunately, the answer to those questions starts and ends with me. I give them the power. I allow their comments to make me feel guilty for what I have achieved. In theory, I know that I should not care about things they say; what really matters is my personal calling, and whether or not I am following it. Reality, however, is much more difficult. It is a struggle every day, to either hear new comments or to replay old ones in my head.
But then there are days, like today, when I sit around the lunch table with my teachers and they talk about how hard it is going to be when I leave. They made a list of all of the things that I do in the village, and talked about how much they will miss me at church, bingo, women’s committee meetings, school, and choir. They tried to figure out ways for me to stay an extra year in the village. There are days like Sunday, when my pastor thanked me, in front of the entire congregation, for being such an active member of the community. He said, “Becca, it is impolite to think that you are not one of us, and we don’t want to think that. You are a part of us.”
Paulo Coelho continues to say:
“But if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.”
And here’s another great thing about integrating yourself into the community: when you start to lose sight of your own worth, the community reminds you. They love you, support you, comfort you, and take care of you. And whether it’s something small, like children saying good-bye to you on the street, or it’s a conversation at the lunch table telling you to never leave Samoa, the community is there for you. And yes, it took a lot of work. It took a lot of pushing, struggling and overcoming obstacles. But, in the end, it has been more than worth it. It has created a home that I know I can always return to, even years from now. I will be able to come back to Samoa at any time and I will be welcomed back with open arms. That is true integration.