Life of a Peace Corps in Zambia

Jordan Blekking, right, poses with his friend and Peace Corps colleague, Ryan Brink, before a bike trip this summer. Brink left Zambia and returned to the United States in September
Jordan Blekking, right, poses with his friend and Peace Corps colleague, Ryan Brink, before a bike trip this summer. Brink left Zambia and returned to the United States in September

The turnover rate in Peace Corps is incredible. About every six months “old” volunteers — those who have served and completed their two years — are going home to the U.S. and replaced by fresh- faced, energetic and, at times, naive Americans.

These incoming groups are called intakes. My intake arrived in country in February 2012 and since then, but four of our original 34 have stayed.

This is impressive because Peace Corps’ high turnover isn’t only limited to people coming and going due to their two-year service period ending. People go home for all kinds of reasons: issues at home, issues here in Zambia, medical problems, better opportunities arise and the list goes on.

Just as a variety of reasons cause people to apply and accept avolunteer placement in Peace Corps, a variety of reasons cause people to leave or terminate their two-year term early.

After arriving in country and going through a three-month training period, a new intake is seemingly scattered in the wind, as each individual is sent to his or her site, somewhere in rural Zambia. There they take on another bureaucratic title: generation.

This essentially means their placement in context of whether they were the first, second, third or lower volunteer.

At my site, I’m the third volunteer in the site’s history, which means I’m the “third generation,” and I’ll also be the last (Peace Corps rarely sends more than three consecutive volunteers – six years worth – to one site).

I imagine this all seems a bit silly if you’re not a volunteer yourself — and you would be right.

None of it really matters to someone not in Peace Corps, but to us all these intakes, generations, and so on represent our friends, colleagues, occasional rival and the like.

All of these comings and goings of volunteers mean that Peace Corps Zambia is continually changing and evolving.

The group that came to Zambia six months before me has just left, which makes my intake now the veteran, or most senior, volunteers. That’s a strange feeling when just one year ago I was the “newbie” (a term I absolutely hate).

As the intakes cycle back home, it becomes harder to come to terms with.

The first group that left during my service didn’t matter to me. I didn’t know them very well, so I had no meaningful relationships with them.

The second group’s departure was strange — this was the first group that I had started to know well and, suddenly, they were gone.

But, the third group’s leaving was the saddest of all — those were some of my closest friends in all of Peace Corps. I had known them for more than a year and a half at that point and then they too were gone. And the fourth group leaving will be my own.

When those older than me left it was a mixed bag of emotions. Part of me wanted them to stay on because they were my friends and, at times, they even acted as mentors.

Another part of me was so happy for them because they were going home where their friends and family live. Who doesn’t want that? I was torn then and I still am.

It also reminded me that there is life after Peace Corps and whether I’m ready or not, it is coming and probably sooner than I’m ready for.

What that will be like I have no idea. It’s actually kind of scary and overwhelming to think about.

Now that they’re gone I hope we’ll keep in touch and they’ll let me know how life after Peace Corps is. Will it be a smooth transition? Or will I apply to the Peace Corps again, while demanding, “I have to go back!”

No matter what, I’m the elder statesman now and the big Peace Corps wheel keeps on turning.

People are constantly coming and going, which is great because there are always fresh ideas, energy, and faces.

But when those who leave were your friends, it takes some adjusting before things settle back to normal.