The things that stay with you

New friends had recently moved into a downtown Sioux Falls apartment and wanted to celebrate all of the big changes in their lives – new locations, new careers, new everything. I wanted to welcome them and create a lovely evening, so I invited a hand full of friends for mixed drinks before dancing at a local bar. It was an incredible June night and Phillips Avenue buzzed below us. We laughed and told stories, although the group was mixed and new connections were being made. Eventually someone started to draw lines on how each person came to be there that night and I was at the center. 

“Oh, Heather knows everyone,” my friend giggled from the futon with four-people wide.

I smiled widely. There is a lot I can’t do in this world, but I have always been good at bringing people together. 

Although infused with gin, I let his words cut me deep. Had I only been able to be the social butterfly because the park was so small? Would this skill be irrelevant in a larger setting?

A few weeks ago, our office hosted a training with all of our recruiters, including those based on campuses. One is Kate, who served in Lesotho with me, COSing when I was just six months into my service.  One served in Ethiopia and we know at least four people in common. Then there is Lebo. 

While looking through the list of the campus recruiters, Lebo’s name stuck out to me, so I researched her. From Minnesota, served in Bolivia and Peru. Nothing stood out, but that name. That name. Lebo is short for Lebohang, which in Sesotho means to be thankful and is a very common name, for both Basotho men and women. There is a chance the name could have come from somewhere else, but I had a strong feeling that Lebo had a connection to Lesotho.

At dinner on the first night of training, in the Chicago bar, Lebo approached Kate and I, as we catching up after two years, and said, “I want to ask you about Lesotho.”

Before she could say anything else, I blurted, “Your name!”

She then told us that her parents used to be teachers in Morija, a large village that was fairly close to wear I lived, and that she was born in Lesotho. The odds, we all three laughed.

Lebo continued to tell us a bit more about her life, about being evacuated from Bolivia and transferring to Peru. 

“It was so hard,” she said. 

Something about those words triggers a memory. Suddenly, I remember: I’ve met this girl before. 

Shortly after my own evacuation from Niger, I contacted the nearest RPCV group, in Minnesota. They offered to set me up with any resources I need to ease the transition and I mentioned that I was evacuated so it would be really nice to speak with someone who had also been evacuated. They found a woman, with a strange name, living in Zambia was willing to Skype we me. The two of us set up a Skype date and we chatted for an hour so. She told me about her own evacuation and then finishing her service in another country. I hung up not feeling much better but realizing I couldn’t give up on Peace Corps just yet. 

 

“Well, you know everyone when you’ve never left South Dakota, that will happen,” said one of the hosts. He had traveled extensively and found home in foreign places – a life I craved to live – and now he was throwing it in my face. 

This RPCV had served in Bolivia and then Peru. 

It was Lebo. 

And three months later, I would receive my invitation to serve in Lesotho, the country Lebo had been born in. After a full service, some city hopping, Lebo and I would meet again, this time working as representatives of Peace Corps. 

The next day I told this story to my boss and she, like myself and Lebo when we discovered the connection, was dumbfounded.

“You know what I realized about you?” she said. “You know everyone. You are so well connected through Peace Corps.”

She had a point. Since I started, I am constantly coming across names I recognize. The Lesotho volunteer nominated for a Peace Corps blog competition. The picture of the man I met months ago in Pierre, who is now serving, that I see daily. The names of friends who pop up on lists of RPCVs and alums of certain schools. Having served with two sets of volunteer groups, my connections are wider than a typical volunteer and in my current position I am able to bring them together and share stories to better our organization. But there is more to it. 

Since coming back to the U.S. I’ve struggled greatly with who I am and my purpose. I’ve fallen back into old habits that I broke in Lesotho and that running, yogi, writing woman that I was each day only makes appearances in this awkward transitional period. My life feels divided between before Lesotho and Lesotho yet I don’t know what the after should be or what it actually is. 

Those first few months in Lesotho were difficult as I tried to maneuver myself in a foreign place but once I started to find pieces of my true self – dancing to make kids laugh or dedicating myself to projects – I found that who I was in America and who I was in Lesotho are not different people: they are me. It takes some pain and time to figure that out, but the core of who I am is a person doesn’t change with location. 

I share this not to boast how many people I know or how well-connected I am but to remind myself that bringing people together is one the many things that makes me me, and that doesn’t change no matter what else in my life does. As I stumble to love the person I am today, I must not forget that the things I once loved about myself are still with me. Maybe they need some room to shine, but they are there and they will always be there. 

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