Internet Bookmarks, Poverty, and Reintegration from the Peace Corps
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Written by Jonathan Rowe:
It occurred to me last night that, between the phase of my life in Spain, where I took my Close of Service (COS) trip after serving in Uganda and did most of my writing for my blog, and the phase I am currently in, there have been many changes. To anyone outside my life (and not privy to my facebook page), these changes would be evident only in the personal archaeology of my belongings. I bought the Chromebook I am now typing on, for instance, while I was in Granada. When I got it, I deleted the link to my now inaccessible student email and whatever weekly webcomics I thought were funny at some point from my Chrome bookmarks; and by the time I left Spain, my bookmarks consisted of my single bank account, my Gmail, YouTube, How a PCV Puts it Gently (which I still read for catharsis, even after I had left Uganda), a website of free amateur photography, and this blog. Today, the link to this blog is now pushed past the visible portion, buried under links to four new credit card accounts, my insurance company, my Evernote page, my Google Drive, my cable company, the page to make payments on my student loans, and a now-unnecessary portal for sending materials for grad school applications. As per any intro to creative writing course, this provides a better snapshot of the changes in my life than I could sum up in even my best adjectives.
I suppose I am expected to say this is some kind of tragic loss, that my life is worse in a variety of intangible ways. At least, I expect myself to say this. I expect a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) to say this. But where I am in this time and this place — specifically, Old Louisville, where I now live — is the right place, the right time for me to be in. I suppose the strangest part of reintegration has been that it feels like I am not feeling what I am supposed to be feeling. There is no “supposed to,” of course, in how you re-adjust. It’s an understatement to say I’ve been lucky in how things have lined up for me when I got back, but re-adjustment from Peace Corps is supposed to be hard. My fellow RPCVs have gone / are going through it, and I know it’s been hard for many of them. I want to honor whatever their experience has been, which often includes a lot of suffering. In doing so, however, I must honor my own experience.
I have my moments, but as I come upon the one-year mark of finishing my 27 months in Uganda, I think I am done waiting for the other shoe to drop, for all the things they tell you might happen when you get back. I have never broken down crying in the cereal aisle of a Walmart. I have never broken any major American norms out of habit. It feels like second nature to commute to work again, to wear my old clothes, to hang out with old friends. Maybe I did something right in re-adjusting to American life. Maybe I did something wrong in my service. Maybe having phones during service, smart or otherwise, truly makes the world smaller than it would have been in 1963. Maybe the Peace Corps has reintegration so nailed down to a science that it has become totally seamless.
(That one is a joke for my fellow PCVs to laugh at.)
I don’t know. Some combination of these things, certainly, and many others.
If I had to point to a single, persistently unpleasant thing about being back home, it is a sense of guilt — admittedly, quite common in RPCVs. The guilt pops up in ways you’d predict, but the form I want to reflect on here is that I can no longer assuage the guilt of having what I do with the delusion that I have in any way earned it. No amount of hard work could ever possibly cover such a gap between having and not-having. This is a secret only to the American middle class, who have much and work much and therefore feel that these two things have a one-to-one relationship. Beyond being one of those middle-class Americans, it is a delusion that has had a special attraction to me.
My father was a very successful self-made man who came from a life of poverty in western Kentucky. He was the first in his family to go to college, likely the first to buy a new car, and almost certainly the first to buy stocks or bonds. I grew up hearing semi-exotic stories about my father’s childhood on the farm and making the trip over the years to see my grandparents in rural Columbia, KY. Thus, I have always felt a connection to the poor, being only one generation away from poverty. Felt, however, is the keyword. I was not poor. I grew up with a life of privilege. No matter how broke I’ve been or will ever be, its mark is upon me in the things I was able to take for granted, in the education I received, in the games and meals and experiences I look back on with nostalgia, and in the values which made sense to me but which so clashed with my father’s.
It was years before I could put a name to this tension, between what made sense to him, what drove him, and what does so for me. Though I could not always name it, this tension has always led me to an obsessive fascination with poverty. Somewhere around middle school, I no longer related to the friends in or around my neighborhood and began hanging out with people whose lifestyles were different than mine. I wore cheap clothes and shoes and took pride in them, to the puzzlement of my parents. I slummed. I moved into a trailer park when I was 18, still in high school and working in fast food; I later lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods my town had to offer. I again took a strange pride in this, like it had redeeming value for some unnamed guilt. Thus, while there are many lessons to be learned from Peace Corps service — cultural differences and how to reach past them, the benefits of world travel, how to make posho and eat it without a fork — I was most fixated on poverty, a hallmark of the countries Peace Corps works in.
Like most fixations, it is not entirely productive. There is so much more to Uganda and the rest of East Africa than poverty, and for too long it has been the fixation of the West on this part of the world. It is in many ways better and in many ways worse than the West portrays it to be. I feel compelled to list here some of the beautiful parts of Uganda: its people are incredibly generous, incredibly welcoming, incredibly resilient, and they are able to simply enjoy each other’s company more than I think most Americans are capable of enjoying with each other. The land itself is unspeakably beautiful, wondrously lush through its foggy peaks and mountains, equally beautiful in its green and golden deserts to the north, and home to more vegetation and wildlife than I have ever seen in one place outside a conservation. (I’d venture to say I will never taste better pineapple, mangos or jackfruit than I did there.) I take a moment to mention the virtues of Uganda because I worry that I contribute to stereotypes by talking about poverty there. In painting a picture of Uganda, however, poverty is an unavoidable reality of it. When I asked Ugandans what their biggest concerns for Uganda were, poverty was usually first on the list, possibly contending with corruption.
America is different, not just in the amount of poverty we have and the ways in which it manifests, but in our relationship to it. We are all simultaneously temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and yet very few of us want to identify with the rich. We maintain the mythos of America as a self-made nation, separating ourselves from our collective parent of Great Britain and carving out our own wealth from an untamed and uninhabited wilderness. Like some freshman desperate to assert independence through whatever editing of the truth is necessary to fit the narrative, it totally wasn’t inhabited and we totally developed it on our own. I guess, as a consequence, we love our stories of self-made men, the Chris Gardners and Muhammad Alis and Bob Dylans of the world (though, if you know the score on that one, even Bob Dylan wasn’t Bob Dylan.) In American society, the independently wealthy man is the ideal man, to whom trust fund kids are compared with derision and whom every underachieving student believes he secretly holds the potential to become. We refuse to identify with the rich even as we seek to come closer to them. As we become more aware as a society, I believe it also serves to silence our guilt if we can tell ourselves, “I’ve worked hard every day of my life, I deserve everything I have, and if you talk to me about inequality you just want hate or a handout.”
Perhaps my father was in more of a position to say he worked for what he has. I suppose this is the greatest shadow that I walk under. Truly though, the lesson I learned in Peace Corps, the lesson I could only learn through separating myself from the bizarre American mythos we are surrounded by, the lesson I didn’t even know I was trying to learn, is that none of us, rich or poor, deserve what we have. There is no good reason I am sitting in a cafe drinking tea and writing a blog on a laptop, nor that I know how to. There is no good reason I grew up in a country where I do not regularly have to bribe police officers just to move along a road, and thus am outraged at being asked. There is no good reason I have access to proper dental care, even when it empties my bank account when my best and brightest student at Buloba Primary Teachers’ College could no longer eat solid foods because all his teeth except 10 had been removed. I do not mean to further exploit his poverty by extolling the virtues of living in a developed nation, even though that is exactly what I am doing. I just mean to show what is perhaps obvious to anyone who is not a middle-class American and does not walk under the shadow of a self-made man: poverty is an ugly, soul-crushing abomination, and while I would not want to give up what I have, I am worse for the whole situation, no matter which side of the rich-poor dialectic I fall on.
I will totally acknowledge the selfishness in this, in a way that Volunteers are especially sensitive to, in that my service was really about me, not the people I signed up to serve. Like some sort of psychological or spiritual swindler, I have made off with the perfect con: I get to pretend that I sacrificed something while knowing that I was deeply lucky to do what I did. It is, perhaps, too perfect: I must live with regularly questioning if I did all I could while I was there, what that even means, and with the feeling that I may have further exploited an already profoundly exploited people for my own gain — not a material gain, but a gain nonetheless. I hope my friends I left in Uganda would forgive me the con if they knew — if they do not already know — that I got far more from them than I could ever give. Their friendship, their lessons, their country, gave more than I could have given them.
Jonathan Rowe is an RPCV (Uganda, Education Sector, 2014-2017) currently living and working as a phone counselor in Louisville, KY. Before returning home, he traveled through Spain for three months and sporadically writes about it on his blog, Nature and Nurture. He writes even more sporadically about psychology, philosophy, politics and pop culture, things he studied before joining the Peace Corps. Not sporadically at all, he checks his email every day at firstname.lastname@example.org.