by Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 1998–00)
The following work was first published at PeaceCorpsWriters.org in January, 2004.
In 2005 it was the winner of the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award.
THE FIRST THING I GAVE GENVIEVE was a pile of my clothes to wash. The shirts and trousers were red with dust from day-long bus rides and bike rides, and from nine weeks of my swirl-and-rinse washing. I gave her my full attention as she showed me how to wash thoroughly, with merciless, strong arms, two basins of water and a small bar of soap. She returned my clothes to their normal color and left them smelling only of wind.
Once I had more than just a mug to eat out of, once I cleaned the lizard poop off my bed and chased the scream-sized flat spiders from behind the kitchen shelves, I gave Genevieve my trust. She maneuvered me down the rutted, dusty path of Daffiama’s Sunday market, around people talking limply in the sun, past men who called to me with exaggerated smiles, and past adolescent girls in satin Church dresses with torn lace who watched me out of quickly guarded eyes. She guided me past table after shaded, rotting-wood table covered with small pyramids of tomatoes, onions, soap, dried fish. She showed me the best okra, and made jokes to escape the toothless old women who pestered me to give them my earrings. When she pulled a bench into the shade so we could share a pot of pito to quench our thirst, I was relieved.
I gave her my curiosity and willingness to try tempane, banku, baobab leaf soup; I let her laugh at the way the soup, green and slimy as a turtle, curled around my fingers and slithered between my knuckles.
I gave her my tomatoes on the verge of spoiling and I gave her my insect-ridden beans — for her pigs, I told her, but I knew she would let them sit in the hot sun to chase the insects away, and that she might eventually eat them. From the town of Wa, I brought treats for her and her children—bread, plantains, oranges. I gave her children handfuls of peanuts and mangoes when I had too many, and I gave Genevieve eggs from my chickens when she got her sore and rotting teeth removed. She said the TZet I prepared according to her instructions was delicious.
My second year in Daffiama I gave her money and she brought me dinner. Every evening she came, whether the cool, moist air swirled on the skin like chiffon or whether it scraped like sandpaper, whether Orion glinted above, or whether a slate-purple rainstorm drowned out the skronks and whistles of the mating frogs in the field next to my house. She came after we spent all day tending thousands of young trees in the nursery, and she came after she had knelt over her children who were feverish with malaria the night before. I hoped I was giving her more than enough money to cover the cost of the food — maybe even enough for her and her children to eat comfortably as well — but she would never let me pay her for her knowledge and effort.
I went away for a night, a week, a month, and I left her the key to my house so she could take care of my cat. I promised her one of the cat’s spring-loaded kittens, but there was an accident, and one kitten lost part of a paw. She would take that one, she insisted, and I knew she was the only person who was kind and nurturing enough to accept a cat that might not be able to catch the mice gnawing on her dried corn. I helped her stand up to the men who wanted to buy her pito on credit but would never repay her, but she resisted when I said I wanted to make her nursery treasurer. I told her I’d pay for training in fabric dying, teaching, anything to help her earn a reliable living, but her confused look begged to know how she would do it, when the children needed her, there was cooking and washing to do and water to carry; she could never take me up on the offer, whether she wanted to or not.
I tried not to give her my impatience. It was her idea to bring the food to me — she never knew exactly when it would be ready — but waiting made me hungry and bored and a little lonely. I chased the thoughts of burritos or pizza or ice cream away before they had a chance to spoil in my brain. When Genevieve bustled in and announced with smiling, crinkly eyes that we were having beans’ leaves soup, I gave her my enthusiasm, privately wondering whether she had forgotten we’d already had beans’ leaves soup three times that week. When I offered thanks, Genevieve chastised me for saying the words before I’d even tasted the soup.
“How do you know you will like it?” Genevieve demanded. “You taste it and see.”
I knelt by the water storage tank and washed my right hand, having learned before that if she didn’t see me do it, she would remind me. Then I took a small corner of the TZet and dipped it into the soup bowl’s green abyss.
“Can you take it?” she asked hopefully.
“It’s good,” I assured her, letting the starchy lump and viscous soup slide down my throat. “I can take it.”
And when I was alone again I did take it. I took it silently and gratefully as I hovered in the candle’s yellow-orange glow
I could not give her a comfortable house with a roof that didn’t blow and leak in storms. I could not give her easy access to clean water, or a courtyard gate to lock out the noisy assholes from the bar who stole her water, leaving her without enough to wash her face in the morning. Still, when the health clinic allowed her to draw good, clear water for me as part of her tree nursery duties, I always encouraged her to take an extra basin home for herself. I could not give her guts that stayed solid under the assault of internal parasites, and I could not repair her gums that twanged when food was too hot or sour or sweet. I could give her respect for never complaining. She didn’t need me to give her dignity.
I gave her my loneliness and she didn’t even notice the burden. Genevieve invited me over to pound fufu at her house, and told me to keep trying, even after I almost brought the wooden pestle down on her hand; she let me grind the nuts for the shea butter, even though I took twice as long as she did. When, each evening, the familiar timbre of her voice arrived at my house behind her flashlight’s dying glow, I wondered if she knew that her few moments of company were just as important as the food she brought me. She carried me along to festivals where her brown eyes grew wider and her claps louder as I stamped my feet in the dust trying to dance, and to her hometown where I met her mother’s brother’s wife’s aunt, who showed me yellowing photo albums and gave me as much pito as I could drink, welcoming me as kin. I gave her the privileges of mother, sister, friend, and counted on her to fill the roles.
After the first kitten died, I gave her another one. I gave her six yards of orange cloth for a new dress. The shedda cloth, hand batiked by my favorite artist in Accra, made my eyes giddy. It made Genevieve’s black skin radiate, and I gave her earrings and a necklace to go with it. I told her she looked like a queen, but I would never tell her that the cloth cost more than three months of her salary.
When I cleaned out my house before I left, I gave her my old foam mattress, my pots and pans, my cheap aluminum silverware whose handles got hot moments after plunging into a boiling pot. I gave her my most comfortable shoes, a pair of Tevas nearly everyone in town coveted. She traveled part way to the airport with me, but eventually we had to say goodbye. We faced each other, and my mind grasped for one last idea, something to give her a way out, a chance to be something more than a village woman in second-hand clothes who wondered each morning what she was going to feed her children. I wanted to give her courage, independence, relevance. Instead, I gave her stationery, stamped and with my address already on it, and when she was boarding the lorry to go back to Daffiama, I gave her money, not knowing what else to do. She thanked me tearfully and mentioned that she needed a towel, like the old ones I had given away to my male employees. If I saw one, she suggested, maybe I could send it. She needed it.
Lisa Kahn Schnell was a Forestry Volunteer in Ghana. At the time of writing this piece was teaching school children about raptor migration at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania, was working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays about her experiences in Ghana, and living in Pennsylvania with her husband and baby daughter.