Chapter Two: The Gambia

Misneach – An Irish word meaning courage

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Surrounded by songbirds lamenting the waning warmth of summer and with a steaming mug of coffee by my side, I settled down to read Brian Doyle’s The Plover one crisp September morning, not really knowing what to expect. Doyle’s hero Declan O’Donnell, narrating from an erratic and darkly humorous stream of consciousness, chases the endless horizon of the Pacific. The aim of his voyage: to escape civilization and in some ways himself. Yet much like our own lives his journey does not unfold as intended, as a small nation of misfits and eccentrics accompanies him aboard The Plover.

The word misneach resounds throughout the novel like a chorus, serving as Declan’s modus operandi while he struggles to overcome his own weaknesses and loneliness. As my eyes flitted over this word and took in Declan’s interpretation of its meaning — “don’t drown, stay with the ship” — I felt as though I had been turned inside-out.

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During my time as a literature student I spent countless hours chipping novels away to their bare bones. I find myself more critical of contemporary novels as a result, and it is rare that I find a book that grabs me by the soul and commands my greatest attention. Yet Doyle’s The Plover did just that, leaving me utterly captivated. When we unexpectedly stumble upon a novel, a film, or a piece of music that resonates with our circumstances at that time — or seems to understand the most hidden parts of ourselves — it is in these moments that I believe in Fate. The Plover struck me so keenly because with the meandering and maddening voice of Declan, Doyle effectively captures what it feels like to be rudderless. And that is exactly what I was: adrift.

Like a plough horse — whose whole existence is focused on hard work and driving relentlessly for a goal — cannot cope with idle ease, I too was restless and upset without something to work for. I had no goal to strive towards: no job prospects despite my education and enthusiasm, having to defer my graduate school plan as a result, and living each day 3,000 miles away from my closest friends. I began to doubt myself once more, questioning whether the goals I had set for my life were too grand, too fantastic for someone like me.

It was around this time, misneach quietly drifting through my mind like a whisper, that my mother suggested I apply to join the Peace Corps. I recalled a very keen desire to do so in my early teen years, devouring any book I could get my hands on about the volunteer experience. Yet in the wild turn my life had taken during that time — deciding on a whim to move to Scotland for university — I had all but forgotten that serving others had once been a great ambition of mine. A small, fragile shaft of light began to creep out from behind the clouds I had been under. While I have never volunteered before, I began to see the Peace Corps as a way to not only rekindle this love of helping others, but to marry it with my passion for international travel and learning firsthand the intricacies of another culture nurtured during my time in St Andrews. But most importantly, it was the opportunity to have a purpose once more.

So I diligently worked on an application, yet not without trepidation. The doubt that had plagued me throughout the summer — the doubt that told me I was not good enough to live the life I dreamed — lurked over my shoulder as I agonized over my mission statement. Why should such a reputable organization like the Peace Corps accept me: a person with little career experience, a person who only knows how to be a student, and a person who has never done anything as adventurous, daring, and selfless as this in her life?

Once again I was proven wrong. On November 29th, 2016, I received my invitation to serve as a teacher trainer in The Gambia, West Africa beginning in May 2017.

In the beats before opening that letter I felt my little heart steadily slow until I was unsure of whether it was truly beating. Much like my acceptance into St Andrews, I believe this moment will be seared into my memory as a day in which  my life changed irrevocably. Unlike St Andrews, however, I did not feel the same heart-bursting and soul-lifting joy. I ascribed this hesitance to several benign excuses cluttering my thoughts: “I truly wanted to serve in Mongolia and not The Gambia, where even is The Gambia, it is probably too hot in West Africa for a Michigan-born and Scotland-raised girl like me, and do I even have the skills necessary to be an effective teacher trainer in the first place?”

Yet I began to realize how all of this empty postulating and excuse generating was merely done to bury the true issue at hand. The more the rejection emails, the loneliness, and the absence of direction in my life weighed on my heart, the more I regressed into the person I was; the person I vowed I would never be again. In resettling myself into my armchair, surrounded by my books, I had chosen comfort and safety over living a full life: dirt and all. Rather fortuitously, I had fished a Dove chocolate out of the wee bowl atop my mother’s work desk, as I had been wandering the city for the day and had returned for that fateful interview the hour prior. Dove chocolates are known for their cute and uplifting messages written on the underside of the wrapper, silly and meaningless in any other circumstance. The two words scrawled on my wrapper, however, stopped my heart completely.

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With these words in my palm and misneach ringing in my ears, I knew then what I had to do.

In four months I will be off to Washington D.C. for the staging event, then I will board a plane destined for a country I could never have foreseen myself traveling to, much less living in. The next two years will be spent amongst heat and dust; I will most likely be without electricity and running water, and I will be even further out of contact with my friends and family than I have ever been. Am I scared silly? Yes. Do I regret my decision? Not in the slightest; misneach, after all.

The thought of being an enthusiastic and supportive teacher trainer yielding a positive impact on the community in which I am placed serves as a balm for my doubts and fears. However, it is what the Gambian people may offer to teach me regarding their history and their culture that truly excites me about the years to come, and makes up the heart of my motivation to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. To teach and be taught in return: this reciprocal relationship and educational opportunity beyond my books or the university class strikes me as one of the most enriching aspects of the Peace Corps experience, and speaks directly to my curious and passionate soul.

As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Deciding to accept this invitation from the Peace Corps and commit to living a life so unlike any I have ever known will amount to the most courageous thing I have done to date. However, what it is I wish to do with the time I have been given is to learn, to love, and to live meaningfully. So cheers to new adventures and to the beginning of chapter two.

2 thoughts on “Chapter Two: The Gambia

  1. Amazing story Maggie – I wish you the best of course. What great stories will come from this terrific adventure? We will watch here to find out. 😉 Love you!! Aunt Nancy

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