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A few awkward steps toward a lifelong career

March 1, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Roger Burks  </span>
    Mrs. Nekou — my landlady and matron of the compound where I lived in Amegnran, Togo — and me in 1994. Photo: courtesy of Roger Burks

For 50 years now, there has been a defining moment in most every Peace Corps Volunteer’s time overseas, and it happens near the beginning: you’re left in your village, luggage at your feet, as a car drives off with a squeal of tires that signals the true beginning of your service.

You are suddenly on your own. What you do from there is, truly, all up to you.

For me, that moment came in April 1994 in the small village of Amegnran, Togo. The Peace Corps van dropped me off in front of the tiny cinder block-and-tin roof house where I would be living for the next two years. What came next for me was picking up my bags and walking into the adjacent compound to let my host family know I was there. I had only met them, briefly, once before.

I was a very shy person — I still am — and so those first few steps to my new home were hard ones. I wanted to make a good impression. When I opened the gate to the compound, there were about 40 people inside —men, women and children — cooking lunch, playing games and passing the time with conversation and laughter.

I didn’t want to interrupt this flurry of activity, which I just assumed was some kind of party, and so I stood there and quietly said “Bonjour.” Everybody stopped what they were doing, turned around to face me and then — all of a sudden — cheered. For the next several minutes, I was hugged and kissed and otherwise greeted by dozens of people.

Instant community. Instant family. One moment I was standing on the street and the next I was part of a household. And what they were doing in the compound wasn’t any kind of a party, but the activities and chores of daily life in Amegnran.

So my pace of life slowed down, too. I didn’t have any choice but to unplug; I had no electricity or running water. My commute was by bicycle or on foot to neighboring villages. Most evenings, after dinner I often shared with one of the families in the compound, I’d write by lantern-light or listen to BBC News on the shortwave.

The world went on, and I listened. I heard about the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The Rwandan Genocide. The O.J. Simpson trial. The Oklahoma City bombing. I missed the beginning of the television show Friends and didn’t see “Forrest Gump” for almost two years.

There was another big development when I was living in Amegnran: the Internet. But I didn’t log on until I returned home to Kansas, and it took me quite a while to understand what it was all about.

And so life during Peace Corps doesn't focus on the challenges and stories of the outside world, but instead the daily life, needs and opportunities in a volunteer’s village. It becomes about the importance of every conversation, even quick words exchanged while passing on the road — because that’s how you find your friends and project collaborators.

As an introverted young American out of his country for the first time, that wasn’t always easy. But, just like that initial warm welcome in my village, life in Africa doesn’t wait for an introduction. It envelops you.

During my time in Amegnran, I learned about the value of taking just as long a time as was needed to find out about someone. Letting days become all about seemingly-rambling conversations that led not only to revelations, but solutions. Listening closely to the thoughtful words of neighbors and helping turn those ideas into projects that help entire villages.

How did I end up going from Peace Corps — where I met my wife, Kellie — to Mercy Corps? Honestly, I returned from Togo with an unshakeable, lifelong desire to visit isolated places and listen to the stories of those who live there, away from the headlines. I specifically became interested in Mercy Corps because its philosophy is exactly what I learned during my Peace Corps service: the best ideas can, and should, come from those we serve. All we have to do is listen and be ready to help.

And I eventually figured out the Internet; I first used it in 1996 to create a bare-bones blog about my time in Togo. Now I make my living from writing stories for the Mercy Corps website, but will always believe the best stories start with the most basic technology: pen, paper, a handshake and time to sit down for a long conversation.

Today, I feel like I have the best job in the world — and know that it began with a cloud of red dust and a few awkward steps toward the toughest job I’d ever love.