Riding the Rollercoaster

It’s no secret that serving as a volunteer isn’t always easy. There are times when I’ve felt amazing about what I’m doing and times when I feel completely demotivated and uninspired. Days when I feel proud of the progress I’ve made integrating into the community, and days when I feel very much alone. Emotionally, the past few months have felt like more of a rollercoaster than I expected.

When I first came to site, I became fast friends with my colleague Filipine (I call her Shipo). I remember my second day here before I had even started work, she showed up at my door and insisted we get to know each other. We started off with small talk but quickly dove into deeper topics like love and relationships. The next weekend, she invited me to a braai at her house with a few of her girlfriends. I so appreciated the effort she put forth to become friends. She became my closest friend here, as well as a mentor. On more than one occasion, she brought me to her village where I met her family and became immersed in true Owambo culture.

At the end of last year, Shipo interviewed for a new position in a town about five hours away and got the job. While I was so happy for her, I was also really down about her leaving. In some ways, she was the reason I felt like I had built a sense of community here and wondered if that feeling of integration would dissipate with her being gone.

She left over the holidays, while I was traveling home to the U.S. and around a few other Southern African countries with friends. In January, I returned to site and fell into a total slump. Not only was I bummed about Shipo leaving, but the post-travel blues hit me hard. I had just spent three incredible weeks with family and friends and now I was back to being alone. On top of that, trainees weren’t starting until February so the centre felt more empty than usual.

It’s funny because I’m a total introvert, and I really enjoy alone time. I’m good at entertaining myself (I think it stems from being an only child), but I just felt lonely. In Namibia, I’m more guarded than usual in making friends, because a lot of people associate being American with being rich. Typical conversation starters include “I want to see America someday” or “you must take me to America with you”. I understand the wonderment of America, but I not too keen on building relationships on the basis of skin color or predispositions about my nationality.

At work, I was feeling demotivated because training was on hold until school actually started back up again. I didn’t feel like I was contributing much to anything; I was in a weird headspace. I was, however, very thankful for the opportunity to travel to Kavango East with media committee just a few weeks after being back at site. I hoped that seeing all of the amazing things volunteers were doing there would help revamp my attitude towards service. And, in some ways it did.

Back at site, my counterpart, Elizabeth, had finally returned from maternity leave. We came up with the idea to hold a team-building day for the staff to kick off the new training year, which we were both excited about. Our goal was to improve communication, trust, and comradery among the staff members with no budget. Elizabeth pulled from previous teambuilding events she’d attended, and I pulled out a few from various “teambuilding for the workplace” websites. I included a lot of strategies from during Pre-Service Training, like debriefing, to help the activities resonate better with the team.

It ended up being an awesome day. I was so proud of how willing my colleagues were to participate. In our feedback, someone wrote, “team building must be there forever!!” It was a small thing, but the workshop really lifted my spirits. I was encouraged and finally looking forward to the year ahead. I felt like we had succeeded in bringing the staff closer together.

That following weekend, I was walking out of the centre for my weekly trip to the grocery store when someone walked up next to me and says “hi”. She asked what I do at the COSDEC. We started talking, she asked if I might have time to help her with entrepreneurship homework, and we exchanged numbers while walking to the store together. Her name is Emilia.

Last week, she came to my office and I helped her with entrepreneurship homework in exchange for a quick Oshiwambo language lesson. Although she speaks Oshikwanyama, and I’m learning Oshindonga, the languages are very similar and I will happily take the opportunity to improve a little. This weekend, Emilia brought me to her church where I met her granny, auntie, and few other family members and friends. We went back to her house (which is so cool because it’s basically a homestead but in the middle of town) where she offered to teach me more Oshiwambo. So, we sat under a tree drinking oshikundu (traditional fermented beverage) and enjoying the Sunday. She even came to back to my place and helped me with laundry – what a gem! I felt like I had gained a new friend.

Additionally, I’ve had a trainer from Swakopmund staying at my house for just over a week now who is co-facilitating a fashion design outreach program at the COSDEC. It turns out that her long-time friends, an Afrikaner couple, live just down the road from me. On Friday, she brought me to their house for dinner where I also met their two kids and the wife’s mother. Their hospitality was amazing and it was so interesting to hear the Grandmother talk about living in Owamboland for nearly 40 years. They even sent me home with steak for my cat. The next night, the whole family showed up at my house with KFC in hand, and we exchanged more stories over dinner. They offered to have me over anytime, to help me find wooden pallets to build new furniture, and have their son fix my bike’s flat tire. I felt so welcomed; like I had gained a new family.

All of this is to say, I’m feeling good again and it’s all thanks to new and improved relationships. Over the last (almost) year, it’s always been the small things that leave me feeling the most grateful. It’s something that I try to keep in mind here, because a lot of times volunteers feel like the big success stories are what makes your service worthwhile. And maybe that’s partially true. But what about all of the little wins? A tighter-knit staff, a new friend, a second (third?) family. These are the things that help us to enjoy the ride, which is just as important.


Sometimes I overthink blog posts, which is why I haven’t posted much. I’ve decided moving forward I’m going to do my best to write honestly and freely, and try to post more about the little things.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Aunt Lynelle says:

    Zoe, I read all of your posts, but this one was especially heartfelt. It’s definitely the little things that make us appreciate the big ones. So glad you’re doing better… you are always in my heart ❤️.


  2. Bob O'Dell says:

    Hi Zoe, I really enjoyed reading your post this morning. It gives a real sense of what you’re doing over there. Keep up the good work. Enjoy everything as much as you can. You’re building some amazing memories. Uncle Bob


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