Monday, March 3, 2014

Integration 2.0

Just FYI this post is a lot of personal reflection. 

Over the weekend, as I was hosting what could potentially be (and is definitely one of) the last VAC/Oueme-Plateau meetings in my house. There was a lot of chat about work. New volunteers talking about current work. Teachers talking about school. Friends talking about aspirations to stay a 3rd year... and some of us talking about our aspirations to get out of here as soon we are given the Close of Service go ahead.

For me, in my second year, I feel acclimated and usually I am pretty happy, often frustrated, but that is all part of the job. As I think most of you know, the last few months have been rough for me on the work front, but I am trying my best and have found that my energy has best been focused on goals 2 and 3 of Peace Corps at this point – and a little less of goal 1. Goal 2 and 3 are cultural exchange, goal 1 is the actual physical work we do.

It is something I hesitate to talk about, because I think that it might be hard for some people to understand why 2 and 3 are both just as important as goal 1, and also that what I am going through right now in my service is something that is completely normal for a PCV.. I just seem to have had it happen much later than it does for most volunteers. Or maybe people just don't talk about it.

That isn't the point of this post... What I want to talk about how incredibly important community integration is in order to be a happy and successful volunteer.

This last month, aside from some small projects, I really feel like I have decided to throw myself and most of my time into what feels like “Integration Period 2.0.”

I don't know if you remember, but I spoke to you about Integration period way back when. Integration period is the 3 months following training, and before we are allowed to start any major projects. The goal of this period is to get acclimated to your community, make friends, and learn how to live on your own BEFORE you become stressed out over work goals. Lately, I have been spending a lot of my time doing the activities that make up our life during this early Peace Corps period. And I am very grateful for it.

I have been sitting with women in the markets and at the local boutiques, exploring both Misserete and Porto Novo, having conversations with my neighbors and my work partners (because even if we aren't doing a big project they are still a big part of my life here).. and it has made me realize a lot of things about my service.

Until recently (and probably for much longer than I would like to admit).. I was feeling really down on my experience and on the work that I have done as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My recent, reaching out to my community has lead me to re-embrace what I am doing here, and to rekindle relationships that truly are the reason that I came here in the first place. By taking a step back, I have reminded myself why I am here. I realize now how much I have blossomed with the help of the cultural understanding and the language proficiency that comes with being a second year volunteer. Sitting and observing in central places (like the market) is not as overwhelming as it was back in 2012, and I am able to understand more, and feel more comfortable. I am able to better understand what I did right and what I did wrong in those early months, and it really is a shame that the early months where we integrate, are also the months where we are depressed and confused and at our highest discomforts of service. (Unfortunately, there is also no way around that – they kind of go hand in hand.) If I understood then, the things that I do now about this country and this culture (and could speak the language the way I do now).. I think that the past year and a half of my life would have been much easier. Which, oddly enough is incredibly relieving to know.

A month ago I was angry over how things have been going for me in this New Year... I can definitely say that I have taken a complete turn. I am thankful that in my second year my work load has seemed to lay off a bit, and I have been given this opportunity to really appreciate what it is that I am getting to experience here in Benin.

And the best part? Once I stopped nagging people about projects, work kind of re-appeared for itself. My Amour et Vie team got the go ahead for a health club, one of my really awesome work partners found me a (super enthusiastic) school garden in a small village that was looking for outside help, I am working with another volunteer to edit and update the PCBenin Cookbook (it gets issued to new volunteers every year), and I am hoping to bring girls to Camp Glow (Girls Leading Our World) in Porto this summer.

So while some the projects that I was pushing and pushing, never came through, and probably never will. I am much happier with this outcome. I am happier now that I don't feel like I am pulling teeth... and there is nothing better than working with people who are actually happy and excited to work with you.


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