by Abigail Calkins Aguirre (Cameroon 1987–1990)
This essay won the 1992 Moritz Thomsen Award for Best Short Work about the Peace Corps Experience.
FEW RECOGNIZE ME without my trademark Suzuki. Now I have this red Yamaha DT they gave me to replace it. I’m still white, though, or so they keep insisting as I pass by the shouting voices trying to get me to stop to do a favor, chat, or taste the latest in palm wine. I know I have a bike, but how do you say “I’m not a taxi” in the local language? I’m late, I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to help a women’s group plant rows of plantains and pineapple in their community farm. This road could jostle my insides right out of me. My thighs are sore from being abused as non-stop shock absorbers. Yet, nothing beats a forestial commute: a time to take in the bushmeat hanging for sale along the way. Someone must have made the road longer today; all my landmarks keep reappearing. Didn’t I pass that tree already? No, wait, here we go, time to cross the dreaded swamp. Water’s high this morning, but I’m pretty sure I can make it through, feet up in the air, water splashing to the sides, engine roaring and . . . it dies. Shit! Is it possible to kick-start this thing without putting my feet down? I balance momentarily, contemplating the impossible. Reluctantly, I submerge my wonderful, quickly aging leather boots, feeling them flood, soaking my jeans up to my thighs. I dismount and push the bike grudgingly through the water to the other side. I hate this job, I hate this job, I hate this job. The bathers must wonder about the crazy white woman talking to herself. One little girl is crying because my yellow helmet makes me look like a monster. So I take it off. She starts shrieking. White people are ghosts. White people have funny hair and noses. White people who ride motos with helmets have strange markings of dust on their faces. Unable to pacify the kid, I shove on to the village, which is blissfully close. The president of the women’s group is waiting for me. Sloshing over to her, I rip off my gloves and helmet to embrace her. At last, we can get down to business. Drums sound nearby. Uh oh . . . not drums! Not again! Not after this hour and a half drive! Not after crossing the dreaded swamp! The president leads me to a group of dancing women, who each hug me and invite me to join them in celebration of an old man who lies dead on a cot. We dance, and I try to conceal my discomfort in celebrating death, even of an old man. No community farms today, folks, development will have to wait. When the drums finally stop, the group escorts me somewhat officially to the president’s house. They tell me they want to try making soap. This, after all, is the kind of technical know-how a white woman on a red motorcycle should have. Frankly, I don’t have the first clue about soap-making. They unknowingly introduce me to the process: lye, blanched palm oil and three hours of stirring. The women are singing songs, songs about soap, and my heart lifts as I help them stir. Someone brings me corn on the cob and warm beer. I look around: Such strength! These women with wide, open faces and old but colorful scarves wrapped around their hair, gossiping and laughing and occasionally arguing. I love this job, this job is great, I wouldn’t miss this job for the world. You women are wonderful, every one of you: you make your own soap, so what if you won’t work in your community farm? Soap classifies as development, doesn’t it? Thunder rumbles in the distance. It is getting late. I say: “Would it bother you if I leave now; I need to return home,” and they look bothered and tell me that I must stay until the soap is finished. I oblige helplessly, pushing thunder out of my mind. More singing, stirring and bickering, but at last the women pour the thick green soap into the square wooden mold and I take out my camera to capture the triumph. (I will say back home, “And this was the day we made soap!”) The group presents me with a gift: a splendid, singular egg, beautiful and simple. It is an egg that I will eat with joy. That is, if it makes it home intact. That is, if I make it home intact. Speaking my local language thank yous and goodbyes, I return grimly to my red chariot. So we meet again, beast. The swamp provides no challenge this time since my socks and jeans are still damp. My fears rest more with the deep, black mass of clouds to my left. How fast do I have to drive to arrive home before the storm hits? If I go 264 km/hr, I could be in my house in ten minutes. Chickens and children will fly. Cars will flip over behind me, and I will never even hear the fracas. This motor is loud, this yellow padded cage on my head, heavy. Please don’t rain, please don’t rain, please don’t rain. The first drops splash on my nose, followed quickly by a torrential downpour, drenching me almost immediately, a cold and cruel wet seeping beneath my kidney belt, sparing nothing. Wasn’t it supposed to be warm in Africa? Swearing through my chattering teeth, I am forced to continue since there is no house in sight. Why do I do this? Why? I laugh in my ridiculous misery. Finally, I pull into a village where a group of men grill corn on a small fire, and they invite me to warm myself by it until the rain subsides. It helps. I stare out at the storm and the road: all the carefree days I glided past this village on dry dirt and never even appreciated my good fortune. Ten kilometers remain between me and my house. Streams of muddy water flood the road, redefining it. Soon it will look like chocolate frosting. Back to the bike, the helmet, and the last drizzle of rain. Home is just around the next few bends.
[July 1992] Abigail Calkins was a community development Volunteer in Abong-Mbang, Cameroon, where she worked with women’s groups in ten villages. Calkins has a Master of Public Administration/ International Development from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and French from Tufts University.
Calkins currently lives in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where she works as the Resident Advisor for the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF), where she is implementing a home improvement lending program for low-income people and organizing other shelter-related activities along both sides of the US/Mexican border.