Knocking Out Depression in Tanzania

-Mick Zelski, RPCV, 2007-09

In my final year of college, as graduation finally looked like it might be a reality for me, I naturally had to face the looming question of what I was going to do next. What kinds of opportunities were out there for an anthropology major who had experience working on a organic farm? One day while walking through the student union, I noticed a table staffed by a lone woman with information about Peace Corps. Instantly curious, I approached the table and spoke to her. She told me that she was holding an informational session later in the week if I was interested. I certainly was, and thus began the journey that would ultimately lead me to an even bigger journey, one as rewarding as it was challenging. But my first, challenge happened even before I became a volunteer: I had to convince Peace Corps to take me on despite a personal history of depression.

As anyone who has gone through the Peace Corps application process knows, the medical clearance portion of the procedure is notoriously thorough. Having nothing to hide, I disclosed my past and present medical issues, including a diagnosis of depression that I received as a teenager. It was something I had struggled with over the course of my adolescence, seeing doctors and therapists as well as trying a few medications in an attempt to manage my condition. Eventually, in the midst of my college years, I found a psychologist that helped me define my depression, as well as a medical doctor who zeroed in on the root cause. I was prescribed medication that was very effective and things finally started to look up for me. This information was included in my completed medical forms, along with the requisite letter from my therapist and doctor’s signature stating that I was healthy and that they stood behind my decision to apply for Peace Corps service. I thought that would be enough, but it wasn’t.

Soon after I sent in the forms, PC contacted me to let me know they had received them and that a review was in progress. I had been nominated for a position in Africa that was to begin in June of that year; all I needed was medical clearance, then I could get that coveted invitation to serve. Then one day in late March, I received a phone call from an OMS staff member to ask me a few questions. The concern was about my depression and, specifically, what kind of coping strategies I planned to use as a volunteer regarding this issue.

The question caught me off guard. In my mind I had all but conquered my condition and was ready to face the world. When answering the question, I fumbled. I didn’t have any clue how I would react to living in the conditions that PCVs face and came up with nothing. It was suggested to me that I contact local RPCVs as well as attend another informational meeting in my area so that I could ask former volunteers what they did to cope during the hard times. Fearful that I would not get clearance in time for the Africa assignment, I asked if taking more time would ruin my chances. Her rather abrupt response was that assignments are not official until an invitation is sent out, so my spot was not secure to begin with. Annoyed, I thought to myself: Who better to put in a potentially depressing situation than someone who has dealt with depression for years? But she had a point. It is only in the best interest of Peace Corps that they send people who are healthy and will be able to handle a two year assignment in difficult and unfamiliar conditions.

Taking her advice, I asked RPCVs about their experiences and how they got through the rough patches. Unfortunately, I wasn’t told any specific coping strategies. However, what I did get from these conversations was the unerring sense that Peace Corps was perfect for me. Three weeks after the initial phone call, I called PC again to relay what I had learned. In this conversation, I simply laid out how I felt: I still didn’t know how I would react to being on my own in a Third World country, and couldn’t possibly know what to expect once I got there, but that I understood myself enough to be able to handle what comes my way and not let depression affect my service. Furthermore, my desire to be a volunteer had only been strengthened and it meant more to me now than ever. I thought I came off as desperate, but it worked. I was told that it sounded like I really was ready to be a volunteer and that my paperwork would be moved on to the next step, which was giving me an assignment. A week later, I got my invitation to serve, and in June of 2007 I flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to begin my service as a PCV.

Once I was there, I began to fully understand why depression would be an issue. Living in a Third World country can bring you down quickly, or wear on you over time. Being without familiar foods, missing friends and family, struggling with a new language, and isolation all can contribute to feelings of depression. So can hearing the sound of a dog being mistreated, staring extreme poverty in the face, and losing a friend to AIDS-related illness. Additionally, I entered at a very tumultuous time in PC/Tanzania history. Over the course of my service, I estimate 80-90% of the staff that was present when I arrived had left for various reasons, including the Country Director. On top of all this I am gay, which presents an entirely different set of challenges. Having googled “homosexuality in Tanzania” before I left, I found out that it is illegal and carries a heavy prison sentence, up to life in some cases. While I was not surprised to learn this, I began to accept the fact that I would be living in a culture that considers homosexuality immoral and illegal, and not the openly gay lifestyle I was accustomed to. In fact, the lowest time I experienced during my service was due to this very issue.

It just so happened that I was placed in the same region as another gay volunteer. A third year extender, I saw this volunteer as exemplary in almost every way. His language skills were amazing, he was working on multiple projects, and he was about as integrated into his village as one could be. In addition to his stellar work, he was very social. This included having sexual relations with Tanzanian men. Never bringing this to his village, he thought he was being discrete enough. Then without warning people stopped showing up for meetings, projects he worked on were neglected, and things disappeared from his house. Eventually he brought this to the attention of the village officials, who informed him that someone from his village found out about his activities and was spreading the word. Despite more than two years of productive service, his good work and respect for the community did not matter. His village friends could barely look at him, let alone speak to him. He was shunned. Under these circumstances, there was no way he could remain in the village and he was forced to return to the States. The silver lining is that there were people that told him they did not care and that they did not want him to go, but his story is a telling example of how many Tanzanians view homosexuals.

After this incident, which occurred less than a year into my service, I began to change how I felt about being there and my interactions with people from my village. I could not help but think that the friends I had just made and the people I was now beginning to work with would treat me the same if they ever found out about me. Having them in my house was difficult. To bring myself to visit their houses was even more difficult. The fact that I could never be openly gay to a Tanzanian became strikingly clear to me, and my reaction was to withdraw. For about a month, I experienced the lowest time in all of my service. Yet even during this period, seriously weighing leaving against staying in my mind, I found the strength to pull through and remain in Tanzania. There were a few reasons why I was able to stay, even though the temptation to walk away was quite strong at times.

One of the biggest reasons I stayed was the friends I made, both Tanzanian and through Peace Corps. A particular friend in the village stands out among the crowd. He was a joy to be around from the moment I met him and became my best friend. I could be in the worst mood, but after leaving his company my good energy would be restored. As for as PC friends, I simply cannot say enough. They become your extended family almost instantly. We were all in the same boat so I could always look to other volunteers for acceptance and understanding. With them I could be myself completely while otherwise occupying a world in which I had to keep a part of myself hidden. Additionally, I became a member of the Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN), a volunteer-run group that provides confidential peer support and promotes diversity within the PC community, which provided another outlet for me to express myself as well as be appreciated.

At the end of the day though, I had to look inside myself and decide if being there was what I really wanted. I had a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to seeing my service through to the end, and the longer I stayed the more commitments I made to the community I was serving. The thought of leaving without completing my projects would have weighed heavily on me had I left. In one of the conversations I had with RPCVs before I left America, one said something that helped get me through and stays with me to this day. As she was gushing over her memories as a PCV, she mentioned how envious she was of me that I was on the verge of going and she wished that she could go back and do it all again. The thought that I could one day look back so fondly on my service helped me to see beyond what I was feeling in the moment and focus on what I was there to do.

Throughout my service I dealt with depression more than I could have ever expected. I understand why it is a concern, and potential volunteers should realize how much it can and will affect them on a daily basis. Those of us with depression in our past have a higher risk of lapsing into a funk that can make us ineffective as a volunteer. However, a history of depression does not need to be a reason to be excluded from being a Peace Corps Volunteer. We also have the skills and ability to deal with the issue because of our past experiences. Tapping into that self knowledge and staying true to the ideals that made me want to be a PCV in the first place was the key to my success as a volunteer. When all was said and done, I stayed in Tanzania a total of 28 months. Now, as an RPCV, I can look back fondly on my service and be envious of those who are about to embark on their own journey of a lifetime.

Mick Zelski can be contacted at mickzelski@gmail.com.

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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