During my COS conference in Uganda, my group voted on superlatives for each of the volunteers. Like in your high school yearbook, when you voted for “most likely to succeed” or “best smile,” except these superlatives were more along the lines of “most likely to be up in a tree” and “most likely to hunt and cook their own Thanksgiving dinner.” I won two awards: “best Uganglish”* and “most village.”
In Uganda, where the majority of the Volunteers were out in the boonies, “village” became an adjective. As in, “I heard he stopped using toilet paper, that’s so village,” or “instead of getting pizza, she went all village and ordered matooke and beans.” It wasn’t as negative as it was satirical. Everyone understood those moments when you passed the point of rational integration and entered the territory of in-over-your-head assimilation.
I deserved my “most village” title and was proud of it. It represented the growth that I achieved personally and professionally as a Peace Corps Volunteer, growth that would not have been possible in a more familiar or comfortable environment.
My site was isolated. A two-mile walk through a swamp connected my one-room concrete house to a market with food and reliable phone service, and it took another hour on a rickety mutatu for a decent internet connection or to see other volunteers.
My transition to “most village” happened in stages. I spent the first few months learning the ropes of village life—how to live without running water, refrigeration, reliable electricity, washing machines, toilets, or any of the other marvels of modern life. But it turned out that was the easy part. Human beings are infinitely adaptable, and with some creativity and effort we can get used to most any physical situation.
My second stage of transition, I’m not proud to admit, found me escaping my site as much as my stipend would allow. When the novelty of village life wore off, I found myself struggling with the intercultural interactions—those tiny but oh-so-significant tweaks I had to make in my thoughts, actions, fashion choices, words, and expectations in order to be accepted in the village. It was exhausting. Many of these issues are universal, whether you are in small town America or deep village Uganda or muy campo Colombia, gossip is the favorite pastime and the doings of the foreigner is instant fodder. Some were a bit more specific to rural Uganda. I still sometimes feel a rush of risqué excitement when I leave the house and my knees are showing.
But then something magical happened. It became easier. I spent more and more time in my house. My village slowly became my home, and my projects began to take off. Suddenly, I was busy and content and finally settled in to my strange, quiet life. I found projects I could be passionate about, people I loved to work with and activities that kept me happy and healthy. The time I put in during the first year of my service, struggling through the awkwardness and difficulties of village life, paid off a hundredfold in the relationships I cultivated and the projects we seeded together.
I realize now that this transition didn’t happen by accident. It happened because I put the time and effort into being present in my community, and because I finally found support systems within my little village.
It took time, intentionality and creativity to adapt to village life. I learned to change my American expectations of productivity to fit the local context. I learned to be kind to myself, to be honest about my strengths and weaknesses. I learned to be self-reliant both physically and emotionally, and to find happiness in the simplicity of my village life.
Eventually, I reached the point where it took a force of nature to get me out of my village. I would leave to see my friends and re-charge my batteries, but often as not I would turn down social escapist invitations. I had found my place in my little concrete house between two swamps, in a district that even other Ugandans had rarely heard of.
Living in a foreign rural setting requires patience, work, resilience and perseverance in ways that challenge you far more than a more familiar urban environment. And this story is by no means unique to rural Africa. You don’t get much choice in where Peace Corps sends you, but you do get to choose how you react to it.
But that, really, is the beauty of Peace Corps service. You find yourself in strange places that become home, with strangers who become family, finding strange work that becomes your passion. I got the “most village” award not because I stopped using toilet paper (I promise), but because I learned the secret to a successful Peace Corps service: wherever you are, whatever you are doing, find your own happiness.
*Uganglish is the particular brand of English that is used in Uganda—it’s use requires an accent, a lot of ‘mmms’ and a healthy love of weird idioms.