Why I Waited a Year To Start Writing

Two Malawian sit together and write in notebooks in a classroom.
By Erica Scribner
May 31, 2018
So why did someone with a degree in writing not immediately start writing about this, the experience of a lifetime, Peace Corps, the Olympics of international volunteering in the US? Doesn’t every writer dream of having something like this to inspire them?

The short answer is I do write. Every day in my journal, give or take. The long answer: Burnout. I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I don’t have electricity at site.

Ok, yes, but.

I think most of us worry that what we have to say isn’t worth sharing. Will I even share this? The jury is still out. But what I will say is that I don’t feel that what I would have written in my first year of service would have held the same meaning that it does now. It takes a certain level of jadedness to honestly write about things without sounding jaded. I think.

The sweet naiveté of a fresh Peace Corps Volunteer probably wouldn’t suite me anyhow. I could write about how I sit on the veranda watching the sunset with a bowl of the latest thing I had whipped up on my mbaula charcoal stove, listening to the village kiddos singing cute children’s songs and owls softly hooting, and it would be great. I have those moments all the time. I have been in Malawi for almost a year and sometimes I take a step and something will suddenly remind me that I am here, I’m doing this. All the things that led me to that point come up in a flash and I think, yes, I am in the right place. I’m actually here. It’s a magnificent feeling that catches me by surprise every time. 

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, certain things in your daily life become normal that you never would have imagined. Goats on a minibus made for fifteen people and seating twenty-five (plus kids and chickens). Not strange. That’s going to the next village over for market day. Waking up at five a.m. so that I have time to feed the cat, wash dishes, and sweep the yard (yes, I said sweep the yard). Normal. And comfortable, I might add. And why shouldn’t it be? Do I need to write about the things that everyone around me is also experiencing as a normal part of life? I certainly never blogged about my daily activities in America: Today I played six consecutive hours of Assassin’s Creed.

When I meet a new group of people I say my greetings, give a little of myself, and then, usually, I hunker down at the edge of the circle and listen. I watch facial expressions, how these people interact with one another. Who tells the best jokes? How does the group maintain conviviality and earnestness? How can I be a complementary part of this without interrupting its flow, add something constructive and worthwhile to a dynamic that has already functioned without me for who knows how long?

So it has been with Malawi. And what I have learned has been priceless. Malawians are nothing if not convivial and earnest. Facial expressions are not the same as what I was accustomed to in America. Amayi never smile for photos. Interpersonal interactions are very different as well. Never before had I encountered a culture that commonly uses third-party people to ask what I would think of as simple and direct questions. Friends rarely hug upon seeing one another for the first time in a while. And who tells the best jokes? The boy who sits front row in my Form Three English class, to hear the room laugh about it. I still don’t know what the joke was.

And how do I fit in? A teacher, a counselor, a librarian, an encyclopedia of useless knowledge, a crazy idea generator, a gardener, an ambassador. The challenge of being a PCV is that you are never just one thing. But I think that’s the way I would have it. I don’t regret taking my time, because that time was spent seeing, doing, being. And now, after a long observation period, maybe I’m ready to be a writer again too.

Volunteer Erica and their counterpart bend over a hole to plant a tree sapling.