Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shades of Gray

This will be my last blog from Togo. I've spent nearly 18 months here, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer and now I'm ready to go home.  All of my life, I've been a pretty black or white person.  It's either right or wrong, black or white.  No in between and no exceptions.  Eighteen months of being pushed out of my comfort zone have taught me about the shades of gray.  This choice, to leave early, is not right or wrong, nor black or white.  It is gray.

My family was slow to understand this choice.  To quit, that is.  Because the daughter they knew a year and a half a go had never quit anything in her life.  That same girl had never taken a leap quite this big either.  Extreme choices call for extreme measures, or something like that.  I wanted to find out if this was the life I wanted (living/working internationally) and I chose Peace Corps to launch that dream.  If you're going to go, I remember thinking, go big. But being here, so far from the world I know, I realized how much my friends and family mean- and it's those people, not where you are or even the work you're doing that makes life special.

In the months leading up to this heavy decision to go home, I wanted someone to blame: Togo, the Peace Corps-something to explain my discomfort, struggle, and inability to adapt to, make peace with, and find contentment with my life here.  But then I realized, that's not fair. It's no one's fault.  This was a choice I made.  It was my choice to take on this challenge.  Neither Togo nor the Peace Corps asked me to sign up and live here, one of the poorest countries in the world.  So how could I expect anyone to take the blame for the things that irk me about this place? Add that lesson in casting blame to the long list I've gained from this experience.  You see, it's through these struggles, challenges that I've learned and grown so much. Let me explain.

I've learned to live with less (eating cabbage and lentils for dinner) and that'a given me a new respect for nice things.  I've learned that things change; time, circumstances, life changes things.  I've learned to be more okay with the unknown and allowing my goals to shift.  I've learned that a lot of life is a shade of gray.  Before, I dreamt of living all over the world, 'raising my kids in a hut in Africa,' I once said.  Before I really realized how wonderful running water and climate control are.  More than that, how much joy being near the people I love brings me.

Last week, a couple farmers from a neighboring village visited to say goodbye, thank me for my work with them, and buy me a Coke (yes, I drink regular Coke here).  Mario, one of the most motivated people I've met in Togo, asked me as we were nearly through with our sodas, "Aicha, in your time here have you thought about the differences between Togo and chez toi (your house)?"  Wow. What a question.  It was all I could do to not exclaim, "YES! How could I NOT think about the differences?" I suppressed the list I would have liked to ramble off for him and instead collected a more respectful response.

Yes, I said, there are differences.  I explained how the biggest difference for me was the challenging climate.  I've never realized how much more productive one can be when you're not constantly hot, sweaty, and dirty.  Secondly, the Togolese are much more of a community oriented society.  Yes, there is poverty, but poverty is relative (I've learned), and no one here truly goes without. You don't see homeless kids or shelters full of families.  Sure there are beggars and the mentally ill here who wander around, but for the most part, everyone helps everyone out. 

Interestingly enough, I've noticed a lot of Togolese I've met have great hope for a better life, but many are either unwilling to work for it (expecting someone to just give it to them) or that don't believe they could be a part of the solutions to the long list of issues facing Togo. I've realized just how determined and somewhat stubborn Americans are in getting what they want, what they believe is right.  Finally, I told Mario, there is just more in the States.  From big things like a developed infrastructure, transportation and education system with more chances to succeed, to smaller things like dinner options.  "But," I said, "don't forget that also means there are more problems too; drugs, violence, obesity, broken families."

It's fair to say that this experience has been mostly a struggle sprinkled with a few good moments.  And, I realized that most people will probably say this is how life is in general.  It took living in Togo for me to understand this lesson in life. The difference is the lack of comforts to come home to after a tough day; no bubble bath, no best friend to talk about the day over a plate of brownies. Small luxeries and special people I never appreciated so much.  I came to Togo for three reasons: to have an adventure, experience a non '9-5 desk job,' and learn if international development work was what I wanted for a career.  Check, check, check.  I had my 'ah-ha' moment in Togo; realizing the possibility of combining my passion for health and fitness with a new discovered interest in teaching. 

While the small victories, the happy moments were not balancing out with the boredom and lonliness that filled most days, I can say I'm glad I did it.  I needed to know if there was more out there.  And while I've learned about life's shades of gray, especially towards development work, I wouldn't say I've become apathetic. I still believe in fighting for the underserved and poor, but I've gained a new understanding of the importance of motivation and the desire for change that must exist if development is going to work. Indeed, there are lots of different ways of life in this world; something I was desiring to experience. What I didn't know was how living in one so foreign would make me appreciate the one I'm coming home to.

Friends here have asked what I'll miss about Togo. I'll miss being disconnected from constant news and Internet.  I'll miss cherishing the cool relief and gratitude brought by the rare rainstorm, and collecting its fresh water.  I'll miss fufu and peanut sauce.  More than anything, I'll miss the special people that I had the chance to get know. Both Togolese and PCVs.  Those sweet souls that got me through so much here, who encouraged and shaped me on this adventure, who helped me discover the shades of gray.


  1. beautiful...I'm praying for your heart as you leave one journey and go to the next journey. Praying that God will be real to you through all of it and will comfort you when your heart aches and will bring you great joy when your heart skips a beat for the simple joys He has given you.

  2. Taylor! How well-written and wise. You are an excellent representative for Peace Corps and Togo; I'm proud to have served with you. Thanks for taking the risk, embracing the gray, and giving the gift of your authentic self -- so many people have benefitted from your spirit and fire.

    xoxo Heidi

  3. Welcoming you back with open arms! Wish I could be there to ease your send-off, like you did mine... gimme a shout sometime, maybe I can help with the readjusting bit. Beautiful post. Safe travels!

  4. We will be eternally proud of you Taylor Schaa. All my love, mom

  5. Taylor,
    I so enjoyed following your blog over the last months. What a life changing experience; adding a unique lens with which to make choices(both great an small) from this point on! jerita

  6. Wow, I really like this post Taylor. When are you going to get started on that book?

  7. Hey Taylor! I really like your post, it's so honest...and you definitely articulate the frustrations of living this life very well. I hope you're doing well and inspiring people with your hard work and enthusiasm that we'll be missing here ;)

    -- Caitlin

  8. Taylor, I love reading this post now, almost four years later. I was reminded of it in a conversation with a friend yesterday so I will pass it on to her.

    Thank you for this strong, beautifully articulated message.