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Reconfiguring the puzzle of myself in Uganda

Nancy Wesson in Uganda

When I talk about my Peace Corps experience, people are often surprised to learn I entered at the age of 64. When most of my friends were planning for retirement, I was packing water purifiers, solar chargers, and a French press to sustain my coffee habit in Uganda. I’d shuttered a successful consultancy, leased my house that wouldn’t sell, and taken a leap of faith. I trusted my instincts and the toolbox of skills I’d developed over a lifetime, and hoped they’d serve me well in the Peace Corps.

Entering Peace Corps later in life after multiple careers, kids, and husbands was a life-changing experience. It stripped away at the veneer of ego and a lifetime of boundaries accumulated to navigate loss, business life, divorces, single parenting, and other transitions. The resulting vulnerability allowed both fears and strengths to surface and the gift of a rediscovered self to blossom.

I was asked if being divorced influenced my entry into Peace Corps, and the answer required a dual response. No, because by the time I joined Peace Corps, I’d been married a total of 24 years, but divorced for 15. But also, yes, because marriage to each of these brilliant, technically-minded-but-emotionally-stunted men forced me to take responsibility for my life and fulfillment in ways I likely would not have discovered otherwise. I emerged from the post-divorce dark-night-of-the-soul period as a strong, autonomous woman, willing to embrace change. Those traits certainly contributed to my desire to contribute in a more global context.

In my youth — and youth in general — we all collect data and pieces of ourselves that, ultimately, form a cohesive identity-puzzle. By my fantasized retirement age of 64, you might say I’d become a jumbo-puzzle, having amassed quite a few pieces.

The salient border pieces of my identity — the ones that were easily seen and gave me structure, included being a daughter, sister, student, wife, audiologist, administrator, mother, sailor, intuitive, and energy healer—one who works with the bio-field of a person’s body to heal them, weaver, landlord, UFO-experiencer, divorcee, and single parent. (I told you it was a big puzzle.)

Other pieces of me, the interior ones, were shaped by travel to the Middle and Far East, and experiences like the year I spent cruising the Bahamas with my second husband, living aboard a 29-foot sloop. That year, every storm seemed to know our names. Holding all these puzzle pieces together was a large body of professional work that ranged from diagnostic audiologist and mediator to Feng Shui expert, author, and consultant, with much in between.

My metaphorical puzzle was essentially formed by the time I joined the Peace Corps, and the time away from my familiar life felt like a cat batting the pieces off the table. Ego and any pretense of control were the first pieces to take a hit. Thankfully, the next piece to be jettisoned was the need to constantly reinvent myself in a slightly left-of-field business. Much of my consultancy had to do with bringing spiritual practice into the real world — before it was mainstream and marketable. Selling my skills meant selling me. The Peace Corps offered a boots-on-the-ground opportunity to simply live the work instead of trying to sell it.

After my Peace Corps service, when I returned home, I discovered many of those scattered pieces no longer fit anyway. When I tried to put them back, I found that some of the edges had changed shape, while other pieces were lost forever. Voids had appeared, creating the need for new pieces. Things that had been important to me prior to living in Uganda had lost their relevancy, while those I’d taken for granted had become sacred. I was left wondering how to recreate meaningful work without allowing the gravitational pull of the familiar to trap me. Ultimately, I came to know that fulfillment—my desire to be-of-service, offer compassion and joy as a way of living, and to share what I know— is less about what I do professionally, than the intention and energy I bring to everything I do.

In reconfiguring the puzzle of myself, it was initially hard to pin down what had occurred to create such a massive shift. However, I know much had to do with the deep immersion into a culture where my Western concept of time collided head-on with rain, mud, malaria, lack of utilities, and shifting priorities.

Collisions between time and weather showed up every moment of the rainy season in the form of buses and trucks being incapacitated in the middle of an impassable mud trough that was once a road. There were no tow trucks in the bush. My nongovernmental organization (NGO) was fortunate to have a four-wheel-drive truck named The Daughter of Japan, but even she was no match for rising water or potholes the size of Vermont. Villagers understood these factors, and all life stopped when the rain started. The fact that lightning strikes killed hundreds every year, added another layer of precaution. Only Westerners — myself included — were foolish enough to use an umbrella (aka lightning rod) just to get somewhere on time. Locals understood that being on time was not worth risking their lives.

trucks stuck in mud in Uganda
During the rainy season in Uganda, trucks and buses were often stuck in the middle of muddy troughs that were once roads.

I learned that time had no relevance in a world where life was about relationships. Family needs came first — and family extended to almost anyone, blood-related or not. As a Westerner, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of thinking lateness signaled a lack of interest or respect, but it was almost never the case. Time and its cousin, waiting, precipitated a lot of internal dialog regarding why we — individually and collectively — interpreted lateness as such an offense.

Around the midpoint of my service, I needed to get a document copied, signed, scanned, and emailed so that I could sell a house in the States. The process got caught in the perfect storm of resources, time, and technology. What might have taken five minutes in the States took a full week in Gulu spent mostly waiting until that moment when electricity, computer, printer, ink, and internet all aligned. The ability to be present helped me appreciate these experiences for the gifts they offered: patience, gratitude, and the opportunity to learn a different way of being in the world.

Cultures like ours in America generally do not excel at “being present,” and we spend a lot of time looking outward for the causes of our discontent. Learning to “be,” as opposed to “doing” is a lifelong endeavor for most. In Uganda, it was a coping mechanism for me that had the silver lining of bringing about a greater sense of involvement and awareness.

Living in Uganda also forced a lot of unconventional solutions — fixing a broken toilet valve with dental floss, using the filthiest laundry rinse water to flush that same toilet or to mop the floor. After all, in Uganda — where a quarter of the population lacks access to even a basic water supply — water was a treasure not to be wasted. It could “be finished” the next moment and not return for weeks. Every drop was sacred.

Another factor that contributed to the psychological shift had to do with the relationships I formed, but not in the casual way one might expect. For example, Geoffrey, my counterpart, and I had built a strong relationship founded on deep trust and mutual respect. The relationship was forged by the intense work we did together during our first year. The strength of our friendship’s foundation saved me when I accidentally sent a work-related email attachment that could have easily destroyed our relationship and gotten one or both of us fired, or worse.

When I realized my mistake, I told Geoffrey, though tears, what had happened. I apologized and offered to call the director to explain the circumstances. I even offered to resign. Geoffrey listened quietly and calmly. He had read the attachment and, as far as he was concerned, my document and the manner in which I’d described the events was simply evidence of my fairness and total commitment to improving the program.

I was aghast — had not expected this generosity, this gentleness, and was so filled with gratitude and respect for this man that I could hardly speak. This humble man, so generous in his praise, had recognized it for what it was — a terrible mistake. In that moment, I learned more about forgiveness and gratitude than I had learned during decades of spiritual practice.

At the opposite end of the continuum is "The Story of the Broken Digit” and the theater-of-the-absurd that erupted when the only way to remove a constricting ring from my broken middle-finger turned out to be an overzealous metal worker wielding a 12-inch rotary saw. (The only ring cutter in Uganda was in Kampala, a three day trip away.) My sons and a girlfriend had come to visit and, on our first day of safari, the girlfriend accidentally slammed the car door on my hand. Ironically, it was the middle finger that was broken and placed in a splint, causing me to unintentionally give an obscene gesture to everyone we passed.

Peace Corps’ medical officials said getting the metal worker to remove my ring under medical supervision should be safe. The reality was a jolly, rotund, Italian man with a 5 o’clock shadow. His button down shirt was stretched to its limit across his belly and held in place by a single button. There was an air about him that indicated a questionable relationship with personal hygiene, but his eyes twinkled and his grin was mischievous. “The Blade Master” — my new name for him — explained that he’d removed rings from “other body parts” with the same rusty, chipped blade. I’m sure I heard several men faint behind me.

He swaggered toward me holding the enormous saw high overhead like the torch on the Statue of Liberty. Cords with bare wires dangled ominously as he approached. In the exam room, a surreal atmosphere unfolded as he grabbed my hand and turned on the saw. He chuckled as he said, “If anything goes wrong, we are in the right place — the hospital.”

As panic escalated, my sons intervened, commanding him to “step away from the saw.” After much cajoling, The Blade Master — crestfallen — agreed to find some diagonal pliers and removed the ring with one strong squeeze. When it was time to attempt to reset the bones, a carnival mood developed as excellent doctors asked, as they injected pain killers, to be friended on Facebook. There were hugs and handshakes, and pictures posted between shots and X-rays. It was “Saturday Night Live” in real time. In the Peace Corps, one finds comic relief and strength in the most bizarre circumstances.

Nancy Wesson at the hospital
Nancy Wesson broke a finger on her hand during Peace Corps service and had it removed by a man she calls "The Blade Master."

Although my bones could not be rearranged, those experiences did rearrange the puzzle-pieces of my life. They also offered a new context in which to use my skills in ways that I couldn’t have in the U.S. I’d wanted to offer my skills more organically and, as it happened, I used every skill in my toolbox: organizational development, firefighting, grief counseling, writing, marketing — everything.

Who would ever have imagined I would use my brief training as a firefighter to teach my Ugandan compound-mates to use dirt to smother a brush fire in our shared yard. It happened in the middle of the night when I woke up, choking on smoke, to find the backyard ablaze and my Ugandan neighbors standing in their boxer shorts, hemming and hawing. They announced, “water is finished,”— the Ugandan expression for “no water”—as flames tickled the lower tree limbs. After some fairly hysterical language-misunderstandings when I asked if I could borrow their hoe, I finally conveyed that I needed a garden hoe, and used the tool to dig up dirt and smother the flames. We all survived to tell the tale.

Sadly, my experience in grief counseling was needed when one of our group was killed and two others injured by a hit-and-run drunk driver. These stories and others are just part of the larger gestalt that changed the lens through which I view life. That, in turn, resulted in a radically altered view of both my past and my emerging future.

I knew reentry to life in the U.S. would be a challenge, but I did not expect to fall headfirst into the wilderness of my psyche as well, to do battle with the monsters lurking there. Thankfully, the rawness of Peace Corps service prepared me to feel emotions I’d avoided all my life, and I was ready. As it turned out, most of the “monsters” (a fear of impending doom, not being enough, catastrophizing minor events) were imposters. I wouldn’t have known that had I not faced down threats — real and perceived — and learned to thrive in a culture that had encountered real monsters: Ebola; the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, his Lord’s Resistance Army and unfathomable abuses they perpetrated like requiring kidnapped children to identify their parents’ dismembered bodies before they were then forced to become child soldiers or “wives” for Kony’s men. The courage with which these children walked through life continues to astound me and give perspective to my own “monsters.”

Regardless of their stage in life, every returned Peace Corps Volunteer I know has expressed the feeling that they received more from the experience than they gave. Living in a new culture distills life into its most sacred parts and emboldens life upon return. And, while Peace Corps service has a discreet starting point, the experience itself never truly ends. It continues to inform life far into the future — if you let it.