November 12, 2011
There was a day two weeks ago when the wind in Saint-Louis switched directions mid-step. In a matter of hours, the Atlantic breeze was overcome by a barrage of red dust and purple clouds rushing from the east. When winter comes to the northern hemisphere, this easterly wind barrels across the north of the African continent, whipping the dunes skyward until large swaths of the Sahara are airborne and the desert covers the sun as it covers the earth. Swells of this great shadow are carried hundreds of miles out to sea and can be seen from space. This is the Harmattan.
When the Harmattan arrived in Saint-Louis two weeks ago, the clammy, oppressive heat that follows the rainy season evaporated and the weather turned cool with speed normally only afforded by climate control. This abrupt shift in the weather signaled the arrival of cold season in Senegal and, for me, carried with it a quiet but firm reminder my time in the Peace Corps is rapidly coming to a close.
When I sat down to count the weeks I have left, I was genuinely surprised by the little time I had left. It’s not that I had been so consumed with surviving the heat, I hadn’t bothered to examine a calendar—I knew what day it was—but I hadn’t really been looking ahead. So long as the days were muggy and slow, I was able to skate through the haze of an Indian summer pretending it was still July.
To be totally honest, even before this first cold day in November, the reality of leaving had crept into my mind from time to time, always sending me cartwheeling in gusts of panic. Should I leave as planned in February or should I extend my stay six more months? I thought so seriously about staying I started writing the email to change the official date of my close of service. I thought so seriously about leaving I started applying for jobs and emailed a couple people in Seattle about renting a room. In trying to force a decision, every other day I would reach a new altitude of certainty in my choice between these two alternating futures: to go or not to go.
In the end, I’ve decided to leave in February as planned. There are lots of reasons why this is the logical choice, but more important than logic I can feel it’s time to go.
Paradoxically, all this mental turbulence carried me backwards too, to my first weeks of training in Niger. I was so overwhelmed by the journey ahead that a single day seemed to last years; I thought the close of my service would never come and remember feeling absolutely overcome with envy upon meeting volunteers who were only weeks away from finishing their service. I ached to be them. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit (though I did think seriously about going home several times over the past thirty months), but I was sure finishing two years as a Peace Corps volunteer would be a moment so saturated with a deep sense of joy and accomplishment, I couldn’t help but salivate over it.
But as my departure approaches I find I don’t feel that way at all now. Once again, (as with departing for the Peace Corps and during the evacuation from Niger) I feel like I’m losing all the relationships and landscape that underpin my life. And my triumphant finish? Any triumph I feel is too heavily diluted with anxiety and nostalgia to notice. Though I was warned many times returning to the States can be the most challenging part of a volunteer’s service, I was still surprised at my feelings, especially when lain along side my expectations from training.
So I thought about it, and here’s what I think happened: The moment I got off that plane in Niamey, I was swept all across the Sahel like a grain of sand at the mercy of the Harmattan. While I was consumed with the agony and ecstasy of this adventure, a subtle truth took root in my life: At some point, I stopped climbing the metaphorical mountain of my Peace Corps service and started living on it. West Africa stopped being the thing I was doing and became what I am. I live here. West Africa feels like my home, yet I still feel the pull of my family and life in Seattle. So it is from this seed of truth that my confusion now blooms. I belong in two places, and a thousand places; or (perhaps) we, the voyagers, belong no place and are left suspended like bridges between the islands of human existence that we once called our homes.
 I learned recently the Greek roots of the word nostalgia can be translated as “pain from an old wound. I think that’s lovely.