What Success Means to Me

By: Dan Stevenson

As I write this, it has been 11 months and 3 days since I drove up to my little white-plastered mudbrick house for the first time. It was late evening that day, around 6pm, and my counterpart helped me unload all my possessions in Cameroon into the house, and then drove away. My things didn’t take long to unload; everything I owned on that cool dry-season evening was a mattress, some blankets, two suitcases, my metal trunk, a stove, a gas bottle, six metal plates and a single large spoon. I spent that first lonely night on the verge of tears, failing to connect my gas bottle to my stove so I could cook my Easy Mac (for those who don’t know, the hose tightens to the left, not the right), and then lying on my mattress on my empty floor and listening to drunk strangers yell in the night for a long, long time before I could finally get to sleep.

Today, I’m sitting in my comfortable armchair in the corner of my parlor. My armchair matches my little sofa; they’re both made of a strong, well-varnished light brown wood. It took me a lot of trial and error to find an honest, talented carpenter to make them. On the walls of my parlor I can see my country bag, tattered and worn from long days at death celebrations and weddings. My calabash hangs next to it; looking at it reminds me of the first time I was invited to bring it to my neighbor’s family meeting, invited as a full member of the group and not just a visitor. My machete hangs on the wall and my rain boots sit underneath it, both still dirty from our last day out in the field. I see jars of mushroom mycelium on the ground underneath my sofa, waiting for my upcoming training and next to them a full bucket of water, ready to fill up my water filter. Pictures of friends and family are taped to my walls, a Wisconsin Badgers flag hangs in the corner, and African masks and sculptures I find beautiful are set up throughout the house.

This place feels warm and peaceful to me. It feels safe. It feels like home.

This home, my home, represents success in Peace Corps for me. I like the work I’m doing in my community, I like it a lot, but I don’t really know if it will be “successful” long term. Success for me, personally, means something different. It means this home I’ve built up around myself; not just this physical structure, but also this whole village. It’s a village of former strangers I’ve come to know and love. I’ve congratulated them on the birth of their children and mourned with them when tragedy comes into their lives, as it does here all too often. I’ve sweated beside them in the field and laughed along with them in their homes. Success is a village full of people who have truly become part of my life, for however short a time.

These objects I see in my home are another part of that success. Each thing represents something new, some kind of small triumph; systems I’ve come up with through trial and many errors to survive here in this crazy place, to feed myself, and clean my house, and keep myself safe and healthy. They represent a new experience, a lesson learned, a memory I know I will keep with me forever.

This house has come a long way since that first dark night here, and so have I. There’s a long way still to go in Peace Corps, but for me, looking around, this has been a very successful year.

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