Reflections on responsibility

Juneau resident shares community library project she worked on while in West Africa

Posted: Sunday, January 10, 2010

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series.

Writing this article, I am stricken by the ways in which my life has changed over the last year. As some of you may remember, I spent 2 ½ years living in Wamfie, Ghana, working as a Peace Corps volunteer. During that time, I occasionally wrote short pieces for the Juneau Empire about my time and work in Ghana.

However, when I wrote those articles, I wrote them in longhand and was often hurried to finish before the sun went down and enveloped me in darkness for the rest of the night. My train of thought was interrupted by mangoes falling loudly onto my tin roof, or by stray goats strolling nonchalantly through my hut leaving behind pungent pellets (curses!) that had to be cleaned.

Today, I am clicking out this article by laptop, writing from the comforts of my Portland, Ore., apartment, where I have lived this last year. There are no goats interrupting my train of thought, just rattling shopping carts outside my window, a hissing steam heater and the occasional siren. While I am excited to be back in the United States, it has taken me almost a year to realize more fully just how much my life - and my priorities - have changed.

Arriving in Wamfie, and stepping into a life half a world away, was the most terrifying thing I have done to date. More terrifying than adjusting to a new way of life? The idea that I was expected to somehow transform the lives of my neighbors. Confirming this fear?

Soon after my arrival, I was summoned to a meeting with several of the village elders, where I was repeatedly asked, "Sister, where is the plan?"

I remember slowly realizing, through a haze of exhaustion and sweat, that these men expected me to deliver some form of a development plan, something along the lines of a 12-step program, if you will, that would eliminate the poverty around me and lead to prosperity for all.

I can't remember now exactly how that meeting ended. At the time I was far too overwhelmed by the crushing weight of such heavy expectations to process coherent memories. I do remember feeling panic stricken by the knowledge that there was no plan, or rather that I was the plan. And I remember feeling terrified that I would disappoint people who had utmost faith in my abilities to transform their realities. And that terror subsisted for the duration of my time as a volunteer. I often felt seized by an immobilizing panic that I held the hopes and dreams of an entire village in utterly incapable hands.

One year later, I still feel seized by that panic, only I now recognize it as a natural feeling of responsibility that will never fade. That meeting in Wamfie was the start of a process that all of us, hopefully, go through - and is part of stepping into the role of a global citizen.

Learning to care passionately about the well being of people half a world away is the beginning of learning to be part of a larger global community. My feelings of obligation and responsibility are feelings from which I no longer expect to be absolved.

Part of owning up to that responsibility has involved spending a lot of time reflecting on the contributions I made to Wamfie while a volunteer and questioning whether those contributions merited two years of my life. Would my time have been better spent elsewhere?

In particular, I worried a lot about a community library project I started, wondering if it would continue on despite my absence, and questioning if it would ever become the type of establishment I hoped it would become.

And then, two weeks before Christmas, I received an e-mail from the volunteer now living in Wamfie informing me that not only was the library complete, but that 20,000 books and two computers had been donated to the project.

That e-mail has been, by far, my best Christmas gift this season. It allows me to begin believing that, contrary to my feelings at the time, I may have been a worthy plan after all. (Or at least in lieu of an actual "12-step plan to prosperity" I was a worthy substitute.)

Given the library's success, and given the contributions of many individuals within the Juneau community, I would like to share the process of its conception, development and construction in a short series of articles. I hope that the story of Wamfie's library will be as inspiring to all of you as it has been to me, and that it will illuminate the multitude of ways in which our hands are capable of great things.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at

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