Bear witness. Peace Corps is often a series of moments, a series of experiences or events that you are simply a part of. It’s this incredible opportunity to uproot yourself from one narrative to the next. You are plopped into the middle of a story that has been going on for the entirety of our own lives and beyond. We don’t begin a book, change the plot line, or influence all of the movements that we secretly or publicly wished for when we signed up for this whole “journey”. We are literally imported, into another story and the thing we do more often than anything else as Peace Corps Volunteers is bear witness.
I’ve witnessed the birth of a newborn child (multiple times), the pain of the mother, the struggle of the delivery, the work of the midwife, and finally the cry of the infant. I’ve witnessed the moment of determination in an athlete’s eye and the devastation of a loss that rode on the coattails of shattered expectations and dreams. I’ve witnessed the consequences of alcohol abuse, violence, and absent parents. I’ve witnessed the wails of family members who lost their loved ones suddenly or too soon and the comforts and strengths of a community that rose together in solidarity and support. I’ve witnessed the aftermaths of suicide of all types, completed and attempted, in recovery or in decline, in the moment and reminiscent, young and old. I’ve witnessed corrupt powers, twisted money schemes, and disadvantaged students. I’ve witnessed the death of a toddler and the wails of a mother hollow and empty. I’ve witnessed the triumph of graduates who overcame unbelievable obstacles to shake the hand of their Head Master and hold their head high in front of guardians or parents. I’ve witnessed women take pride in their femininity and men take ownership in their privilege. I’ve witnessed youth and leaders log on to the internet, the cyber world at their fingertips for the first time. I’ve witnessed the safety in children playing together, their laughs splitting the quiet air and their feet thundering on the soft sand as they race past my house. I’ve witnessed birthdays, holidays, celebrations, farewells, welcomes, new lives beginning and old lives ending. As I've moved out of my village and into the capital for work, I've witnessed my own farewell from my village, my hanoquata (home in Warau) as well. I've witnessed the waving hands, and straining necks of my villagers, all of us just wanting the last glimpse of each other as my speedboat round the corner for the final time. Bear witness.
As you watch, you are blessed with the opportunity to see and you are afflicted in the responsibility to feel. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you have very little you can change, you have even less that you should, but you have every chance to see. You cannot control what happens to the people that you have grown to love and adore, no matter if they grow up in a culture that offers the world and the “American dream” or if they grow up in the “forgotten interior” and are on the losing side of a widening gap in health care and education. You cannot change the story, you cannot change the moment, you cannot change the feeling. Bear witness.
So what do you do when you see and cannot change? What do you do when you feel and cannot stop? What do you do when you love, but are at a loss? You simply, exist. Exist with deep intentionality and foundation. You pray, you let go of control, and trust in God in the face of righteous anger or heart shattering sadness. You listen and watch, even when you want to shut off your ears and pretend you never saw. You hug and cry, you clap and cry, you work hard and lose hope, you relax and gain insight. You ask about the narrative that came before you with curiosity and you stubbornly believe in the hopeful story that could be written after you. Bear witness.
When life happens around us, this is what I have grown to value: the beauty in the ability to see even when it’s uncomfortable and doesn’t make sense, when it’s inconvenient, upsetting, unsettling, and inspiring. When it’s all you can do - choose to bear witness.