Volunteers’ Days: Stories from 11 Countries

These 11 short essays — funny, touching, insightful — unique glimpses into the overseas experiences that in many ways shaped the lives and careers of these talented writers. Now that everyone has plenty of time to stay inside and sit in front of their computers I thought I would republish them so you might read them again, or for the first time. Read what RPCVs writers have to say from Guyana, Mongolia, Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, Malawi, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Zaire, and Eastern Caribbean.n — JCoyne, ed.

Telling Time

Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 1996–98)

For two years I lived in a country with no seasons. We measured time by other means than falling leaves or snow, new buds on trees. There was a fresh breeze in the air, the ash of burned sugar cane floating in the window. There were times to go to work, times to stay home, an election, an eclipse; all of these differentiated the rising and setting of the same hot sun, and the appearance of a glowing moon and full set of stars. Rain would break the swelter like the fever of a child dissolves into sweat, and the whole city would breathe differently that day. Then the sun would come again and dry what had fallen, and could not last.

I came to this country with the expectation of seasons, and before I had woken to a blinding sun on Christmas, I imagined my yard littered with leaves, a chill in the air. It was here, in this place of 12-hour days and 12-hour nights, of weather and no seasons that I learned to tell time. Telling time is like telling a story: the truth, the time, depend on the teller and the audience. In Guyana, people will ask you, “Now is what time?” or, “Today is what day?” because they know the constants in life. There will always be “now” and “today,” while the names we give them, 3:15 or August 8th, are only names, and names that change.

My watch broke in my first few months; I had calendars, but the holidays changed with the moon. Without the time tellers I depended on, I realized, for the first time, that I was on my own. My days and schedules shifted under the weight of unplanned, unused time, and I discovered that when time had no name, it became a broad expanse of life. Eventually, I learned to measure differently, to find my own names for seasons, without words or numbers. The poet Ted Hughes has written of this experience:

I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass,
That I never used, so still possess.

I did not use this time either, I discovered it, and in so doing, reminded myself of what I had so easily and quickly forgotten in a well-measured life. More importantly, I learned to answer the Guyanese questions that had confused me initially. I could say that now is when is the frogs sing, and now is when the rain falls. Now is the howl of monkeys, the smell of curry stewing, the taste of mango pulled from a tree. And today, today is our understanding of being, our sense of ourselves as alive. It is without season or name, sun or rain, it is how we can live wherever we are and grow and grow and grow.

Cold Mornings

Matt Heller (Mongolia 1995–97)

Our family always lived where we needed a snow shovel. I remember one snowstorm in particular when I was nine. My best friend, Bobby Frost, and I shoveled our entire driveway ourselves, which is no small feat for nine year-olds.

When we were done, my father was waiting in the kitchen to reward us with grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and a silver dollar for the work we had done. Dipping my grilled cheese into the steaming tomato soup (in my opinion, truly the best way to eat the two together), I am sure I was oblivious to how lucky I was; how Norman Rockwell-beautiful shoveling a driveway can be.

Because I grew up in New England, winter was always my favorite season. It meant ice hockey, snow days off from school, and sledding until dinner was ready. Winter meant scratchy wool hats, scarves that always choked me, jackets that made me look like a mini-sumo wrestler, snow pants that made peeing an ordeal, and moon boots. My moon boots were my favorite. I may even have worn them to bed a few times, afraid someone would take them from me while I slept. I loved winter as much as I loved those moon boots.

I still love winter, but to say I enjoy it as I did when I was nine years old would be a lie. I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia for eighteen months now and I live in a ger, a tent with a small wood stove in the center. It is strong and practical, the perfect domicile for a nomadic herder living on the Asian steppe. It packs up in about half an hour. I, however, am not a herder, but an English teacher in a small secondary school in rural Mongolia. Ger life is not easy. It makes twenty year-olds look thirty-five. It makes your soul hard.

Mongolians are very proud of their history and traditions. Once, while sitting on the train going from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to my own town, Bor-Undur, a Mongolian pointed to his arm and said, “In here is the blood of Genghis Khan. Beware.” Really, there is no argument to that statement. I responded, “Yes, older brother (a respectful title addressed to elders), your country is beautiful. Mongolians are lucky people.”

Unfortunately, many Mongolians are big vodka drinkers, and this very drunk herder was on his way home from selling cashmere wool and meat in the city. He had been successful in his business, and celebrating now he wanted to teach me the custom of taking the traditional three shots of vodka that new acquaintances must drink. His shots were too big for me, and I only wanted to taste the vodka, not help him finish the bottle. That’s when Genghis’ blood came into the conversation. I drank the three shots. Herders are tough people. They don’t wear moon boots.

Maybe if I had been born here and lived in a ger all my life I would be tough too. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. I can trace no lineage to the man who was once the world’s most powerful ruler, but I am blessed. I am blessed with the gift of a Peace Corps/Mongolia standard issue sleeping bag rated to -30 degrees. When combined with another sleeping bag of my own and some wool blankets, I am completely protected from the cold that invades my ger every night when the fire goes out.
When it’s time to wake up and start my day, the first thing I do is build a fire. In the quiet darkness of morning, huddling next to my stove and sipping hot coffee, I listen to the Voice of America on my shortwave radio and remind myself who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing. I’m a young Volunteer spending eight hours a day with Mongolians, building a greenhouse with the other teachers in my school so there will be more vegetables in our town. Along with many other things, I’m learning how they live. In the steppe there is very little snow, only biting wind and dust. It gets as cold as -50 degrees, not counting the wind chill factor. If I leave leftover tea in a mug, it will freeze solid by morning. I’ve broken three mugs that way. When it is this cold I sometimes ask myself, “How valuable is the contribution I’m making? And is it really worth being this cold?”

For eighteen months now I’ve been waking up and thinking, yes, it is. I love working with Mongolians, but the time of day I look forward to most is building my morning fire. It is my time of epiphany. As I feel the warmth that my own hands created, a fire that pushes back the cold and the dark, replacing them with warmth and light, I know I will live another day. Such an experience defines what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We all build fires in one way or another, and the warmth we create is as good as eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on a winter day when you’re only nine years old. Being a Volunteer in Mongolia and having the opportunity to live in a ger may mean enduring very cold mornings, but it’s worth more than all the silver dollars in the world.

The Last Ride

Elise Annunziata (Senegal 1996–99)

I had said so often that leaving my Senegalese village, Keur Madiabel, would the most difficult part of my three-year Peace Corps service. Every time a farewell scene crept into my mind, I banished it quickly and vowed to think about it later. But, before I accepted the reality of my departure, “later” was looming over my head and it was time to drive — for the last time — from my village to the regional capital, with a fraction of my original possessions thrown into the backseat of a Peace Corps vehicle.

Most of the afternoon on my last day in Keur Madiabel, I spent talking with my adoptive family, Ousmane Thiam, his wife Mame Diediou and their children. Ousmane and I sat outside on two broken wooden-back lawn chairs while he fiddled with the wire antenna of a hand-held radio with speakers that I had given him. We talked about the kids’ education, how I could wire money to him through Western Union (when, God-willing, I got a job and had some money) and the project I wanted to pursue — to publish the poetry and prose of an extraordinary villager, collaborator and friend of mine who had recently died from an unidentified illness.

Mame and I talked while she was ironing, again mostly about the children and which of them was destined for education beyond the 6th grade. Incredibly, I found myself agreeing with her statement that only three of their six children would likely be encouraged in school; I urged her to push the youngest — Kiné, Mbaye and Elise, my 1-1/2 year old namesake. In an another attempt to stress the importance of girls’ education, I also mentioned that I thought the eldest girl, Ndeye Astou, was a very good student — although I suspected the Ndeye’s destiny as the oldest daughter could be to stay in the village and help in the household until she married. Culture prevails, and I’d grown to accept that, although it rarely stopped me from expressing my opinion to my Senegalese friends. I now wonder if anything I’d said or demonstrated, albeit with a certain American optimism and illusion, will have a significant impact on this family or on the teachers and students from eight rural villages with which I had worked.

At the end of my conversation with Mame, she said “Elise is your daughter too, and she belongs to you even if you can’t take her with you to America.” I was stunned to hear those words aloud, even though the “giving” of children to other family members was not uncommon. To me, it was an immeasurable demonstration of love, friendship and acceptance of me as a member of their Senegalese family. It was then that I felt the haze of our cultural differences, which I had fumbled in and out of for three years, was transgressed by our common work, love and humanity.

That evening, Ousmane talked with me for a long time before and after dinner about how he felt I was like a member of the family. He said that when he decided to name his youngest daughter after me, he did so not because he thought I would give them things or that I would bring her to America. It was, he said, because he knew I was human, as they were human, and none of us differentiated between our conditions or ourselves. I ask now, why does the idea that there is nothing more or less human about a white or a black, or an affluent or an illiterate, or a Catholic or a Muslim, or an African or an American seem like an unshakable truth? That last night, sitting in the dark with Ousmane and Mame, I felt truly united in humanity when he said we were “comme des parents” (like family). He thanked me again and told me not to worry about leaving them; we had already formed unbreakable bonds, even if it took me 2 or 5 or 20 years to come back to Senegal.
The children seemed particularly somber, yet still went about his or her tasks. After Ousmane’s speech, Mbaye, the precocious three-year old brother of Elise, kept asking me where I was going, and I felt like he was doing so with an incredible insistence for truth. He knew I was GOING and I couldn’t bring myself to answer him with any reassuring measure in my voice.

After dinner we all sat down to watch “Mari Mar” on television and Ndeye was squeezed next to me on the corner of my chair, as usual. I didn’t follow the show and kept thinking about the fact that I would probably never again be a part of this scene — this comfortable family setting: sitting with a group of African children and adults who considered me something between a sister and an aunt, all crowded around a 12-inch black and white television run off a 12v car battery to watch a cheesy Mexican soap opera dubbed in French. Finally, I went home to my compound around 12:30am and went directly to sleep. I still hadn’t accepted that I was really leaving the next morning.

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. — a certain rarity for me, and immediately started to load my truck. Ousmane had sent his older son and nephew to help me. When I left the house where I had lodged for years, I thought it would be fairly easy to say goodbye to my landlords and their family, to which I was not nearly as close as the Thiam’s. But, right at the end, I chocked up so unexpectedly that I hurried the rest of the handshakes and good-byes and jumped in my truck.

When I arrived at Ousmane’s I went inside the house to greet everyone before we started unloading the belongings that I was going to leave behind with the family — my wooden double bed frame, sponge mattress, metal tuna fish can footlocker, double-sized Peach Corps-issued mosquito net, buckets, clothes, pencils, scraps of material and all kinds of small treasures that the kids would find ingenious uses for. Mame hardly looked at me and went into the kitchen.

The event that sticks most in my mind from that day is breakfast. Mame brought me into her and Ousmane’s bedroom and set down a meal of duck, fried potatoes and onion sauce that was left over from our dinner the night before. Elise came in and sat down on her little wooden stool and we ate together. Actually, all I did was pick at the bread. Once I looked at Elise, I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall into a pit; I couldn’t eat and I just kept crying into my bandana. Though she ate, the 1/1-2 year old watched me and between bites she tentatively called my name, “Khady?” She knew too, I think. When Mame took the breakfast bowl away she didn’t even comment on how little I had eaten.

The rest of the family joined us in the bedroom and we made small talk. Thankfully, Ousmane was there to get me going. He said I shouldn’t linger nor have any ceremony; it was simply time to leave. The children were suddenly quiet. Mame went on arranging the plastic bowls on top of the dresser, keeping her face turned away from me. Ousmane asked me if I had a piece of cloth. All I had was my wet bandana, but he found small strips from another scrap of blue tie-dyed material I had given them. He told me to tie a thin piece of cloth around the wrists of both Mbaye and Elise. I did it, but didn’t need to ask why.

It was the moment to leave. I could barely touch any of them or say anything. Hugging seemed too dramatic and if I had done that, I would have broken the cultural code of restrained, repressed emotion — something I had promised myself I would not do in public. Instead I shook Mame’s hand and looked at her beautiful Diola face for an instant until we both looked down. I touched each child’s face, kissed Ndeye on the head and turned to leave the room. Mame stayed inside with all of the children except Elise, who I was carrying, and Ousmane walked with me to the truck. I met Mame’s sister at the door and shook her hand. She surprised me with a sob and her abrupt retreat back into the room. Finally at the entrance of the compound I quickly shoved Elise back to her father before she had the chance to cling to me as she often did when I left her. I thanked Ousmane and shook his extended left hand — the hand used to wish someone well on a journey and a gesture promising that we would see each other again someday.

As I drove slowly out of the village, I looked, for the last time, at the ancient mahogany trees that lined both sides of the tar road, the sandy fields that were being prepared for the growing season, the electric power lines there were still not connected and the sparse, sublime horizon that had been stripped of almost all green. On the way out, I picked up a villager who wanted a ride to Kaolack, the regional capital where I had packing and writing my close-of-service report to finish. Once past the village limit, I couldn’t hold back any longer. My passenger looked embarrassedly away from my unstoppable flow of tears, and the only I words I spoke for 35km were to ask him to put on his seat belt.

Development Is Down This Road

Abigail Calkins Aguirre (Cameroon 1987–90)

         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.

Water

Rachel Schneller (Mali 1996–98)

When a woman carries water on her head, you see her neck bend outward behind her like a crossbow. Ten liters of water weighs twenty-two pounds, a fifth of a woman’s body weight, and I’ve seen women carry at least twenty liters in aluminum pots large enough to hold a television set.

To get the water from the cement floor surrounding the outdoor hand pump to the top of your head, you need help from the other women. You and another woman grab the pot’s edges and lift it straight up between you. When you get it to head height, you duck underneath the pot and place it on the wad of rolled up cloth you always wear there when fetching water. This is the cushion between your skull and the metal pot full of water. Then your friend lets go. Spend a few seconds finding your balance. Then with one hand steadying the load, turn around and start your way home. It might be a twenty-minute walk through mud huts and donkey manure. All of this is done without words.

It is an action repeated so many times during the day that even though I have never carried water on my head, I know exactly how it is done.

Do not worry that no one will be at the pump to help you. The pump is the only source of clean drinking water for the village of three thousand people. Your family, your husband and children rely on the water on your head. Maybe ten people will drink the water you carry. Pump water, everyone knows, is clean. Drinking well water will make you sick. People here die every month from diarrhea and dehydration.

The pump is also where you hear gossip of the women from the other side of the village. Your trip to the pump may be your only excuse for going outside of your family’s Muslim home alone.

When a woman finds her balance under forty pounds of water, I see her eyes roll to their corners in concentration. Her head makes the small movements of the hands of someone driving a car: constant correction. The biggest challenge is to turn all the way around from the pump in order to go home again. It is a small portion of the ocean, and it swirls and lurches on her head with long movements.

It looks painful and complicated and horrible for the posture and unhealthy for the vertebrae, but I wish I could do it. I have lived in this West African village for two years, but cannot even balance something solid, like a mango, on my head, let alone an object filled with liquid. When I lug my ten-liter plastic jug of water to my house by hand, it is only a hundred meters, but the container is heavy and unwieldy. Changing the jug from one hand to the other helps, but it is a change necessary every twenty meters. Handles do not balance. On your head, the water is symmetrical like the star on top of a Christmas tree. Because my life has never depended on it, I have never learned to balance.

The Things I Gave Her

Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 1998–00)

The first thing I gave Genevieve 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.

The Barber of Mozambique

By Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)

I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”

The Lion in the Gardens of the Guenet Hotel

By John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)

In the final days of our in-country Peace Corps training in Ethiopia, we had a celebration dinner at the Guenet Hotel in the Populari section of the capital Addis Ababa.

The Guenet Hotel, even in 1962, was one of the older hotels in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t in the center of town, but south of Smuts Street and down the hill from Mexico Square, several miles from where we were housed in the dormitories of Haile Selassie I University. While out of the way, this small, two story rambling hotel, nevertheless, had a two-lane, American-style bowling alley, tennis courts, and a most surprising of all, a real lion in its lush, tropical gardens.

At that time in the Empire no Ethiopian was allowed to keep a lion, the symbol of His Imperial Majesty’s dynasty. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, whose full title was Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, had a private collection of animals, including the Imperial lions, antelopes and monkeys, as well as cheetahs, all at Jubilee Palace, his royal residence.

There was also a small government lion park near the main campus of Haile Selassie I University at Sidist Kilo, a quarter mile below the American Embassy. This park had about twenty full-grown lions in a large circular cage and sometimes late at night we would hear them roaring in the distance.

Occasionally, and rarely, a wild lion would wander down from the nearby Mt. Entoto looking for food and be spotted by townspeople and that would create headlines and eye-witness accounts in the next day’s morning paper.

So, seeing a lion up close and personal in the heart of Africa was something special for a group of young American new to Africa.

Over 275 Peace Corps Volunteer teachers had arrived in Addis Ababa in September of 1962 at the end of the African Highland long rains. We were the first Peace Corps Volunteers to Ethiopia and in our final days in Addis Ababa, before being dispatched to our teaching assignments throughout the Empire, we had a farewell dinner at the Guenet Hotel. It was the first time any of us had been to the Populari section of the city or seen the lovely gardens of this hotel or their caged lion.

Well, actually it was a caged lion and a large German shepherd dog.

As I recall when I first saw the lion the German shepherd was stretched out comfortably between its paws and both were calmly gazing out through the bars of the small cage at the lot of us. The dog, of course, came and went through the narrow bars but we were told by the hotel staff that he always spend the night sleeping inside the cage, curled up with the lion.

I had been assigned to teach at the Commercial Secondary School in Addis Ababa and in the early fall of that year was living in the Populari section of the city, near the Guenet Hotel.

The Peace Corps had issued bicycles to whoever needed them to get to school and I had gotten into the routine of riding back and forth to classes and also of stopping off at the hotel for a coke or coffee after school to correct my students English homework while sitting in the gardens of the Guenet surrounded by thick bougainvillaea bushes, wild roses and carnations, and gnarled cedars draped with streamer-like with leaves. It was here that I came to know the lion and the German shepherd, who often slipped out through the bars to beg food from me while the male lion stood at attention against the bars of the cage silently watching the transaction. There were quite an odd couple.

On one of my mid-day rides home for lunch, when I was pell-melling down a steep hill of the city, an American pulled his car up along side and singled me to stop.

He turned out to be a TWA pilot employed by Ethiopian Airlines and he invited me, and several others Volunteers, to a “home cooked” dinner that weekend. It was his way of welcoming the new Peace Corps Volunteers to the Empire.

Trans World Air Lines had managed Ethiopian Airlines since 1946 and by the time we reached the Empire in ’62 over a third of the trained pilots were Ethiopians. The management by TWA of the Ethiopian Airlines is one of the great early success stories of private development in Africa.

The American pilot who invited me to dinner had been in-country for several years and when I mentioned the Guenet and the lion in the garden he asked me if I knew the story of how the lion had gotten to the hotel.

It seems the first American TWA director in Ethiopia had raised the lion from a small cub in the garden of his home’s compound along with the family’s dog. The lion was such a household pet that everyone who visited the house treated it as such.

But there was the time the CEO of TWA worldwide came to Ethiopia to meet the Emperor and visit his overseas operation. He arrived at dawn in Addis Ababa on an overnight flight from Europe and immediately taken a morning nap at the director’s home.

Late that afternoon, rested, the CEO was sitting with a half dozen American pilots who had stopped by for a drink and to visit with their boss from America. They were all sitting in the livingroom of the house with the French doors open to the garden watching the African sunset and enjoying the first cool breezes of evening.

Sometime towards dusk, the lion, who had been asleep in the sunny terrace beyond the French doors, woke up and ambled passed the open door, gazed in at the assembled group, and then ambled off.

No one commented about the lion, as all the pilots knew about the animal. However, the visiting CEO had no idea the full main lion was a household pet and sat petrified at the sight of the African beast, loose and yards away from him.

Terrified, he didn’t say anything until the next morning when he confessed to his host what he thought he had seen, thinking it must have been a frightening fantasy caused by his fear of being in Africa.

In time, the American manager’s tour was finished and he and his family decided to give the lion to the nearby hotel as the tame animal could not be returned to the wild. The German shepherd, however, would go home to America with the family.

In the weeks before their departure from Addis, the lion was successfully transferred to the gardens of the Guenet Hotel, but when the family realized the German shepherd was so lonely and unhappy with the lose of his companion they decided to leave the dog, give it to the Guenet where both animals could live peacefully in the small cage in the hotel gardens. And it was there that we found them when we arrived in Addis Ababa.

I left Ethiopia in the mid-sixties and did not return again until the early ‘70s. While I had a short list of old friends in Addis that I wanted to see, high on my list also were the lion and the German shepherd in the gardens of the Guenet.

A day or so after arriving in Addis, I took a taxi to the hotel which had thankfully not changed much in the years I had been away and walked into the garden to find the cage.

The cage was where I remembered it. However, the door was wide open and the lion was gone. Sitting alone in the middle of the empty concrete floor was the old German shepherd.

I walked inside to the front desk of the hotel and asked about the lion and was told the animal had passed away only months before. In fact, it was such a news event a story had been written about his death in the Ethiopian Herald, the English newspaper in the country. The staff found a copy of the article that detailed the demise of the lion and I sat down in the lobby of the old hotel and read the account.

Several months early when the lion was suffering from an infected tooth doctors from the Pasteur Institute of Ethiopia decided to drug the animal so the tooth could be extracted. Unfortunately the dart of drugs was too much for the old animal and it died before it could be saved.

The hotel had not yet decided what to do about the lion cage for the dog still lived there, spending his days waiting for his lifelong companion to return.

I gave the article back to the receptionist, thank him for the information, and then I went out into the garden and walked through the open gate and inside the cage. I knelt down beside the German shepherd and petted the old dog one last final time, then I left Addis Ababa and Africa.

I have never been back.

To Peel Potatoes

John P. Deever (Ukraine 1993–95)

“Life’s too short to peel potatoes,” a woman in my local supermarket announced, as she put a box of instant mashed potatoes into her cart. When I overheard her I nearly shrieked.

After recently returning from my Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, I tend to get defensive about the potato in all its forms: sliced, scalloped, diced, chopped, grated, or julienned; then boiled, browned, french-fried, slow-fried, hand-mashed, baked or twice-baked – with an indulgent dollop of butter or sour cream, yes thank you.

A large portion of my time in Ukraine was spent preparing what was, in the winter, nearly the only vegetable available. Minutes and hours added up to a string of days handling potatoes. I sized up the biggest, healthiest spuds in the market and bought bucketsful; I hauled them home over icy sidewalks.

Winter evenings — when it got dark at four p.m. — I scrubbed my potatoes thoroughly under the icy tap (we had no hot water) until my hands were numb. Though I like the rough, sour peel and prefer potatoes skin-on, Chernobyl radiation lingered in the local soil; we were advised to strip off the skins. So I peeled and peeled, pulling the dull knife towards my thumb as Svetlana Adamovna had taught me, and brown-flecked stripe after stripe dropped off to reveal a golden tuber beneath. Finally I sliced them with a “plop” into boiling water or a hot frying pan. My potatoes, my kartopli, sizzled and cooked through, warming up my tiny kitchen in the dormitory until the windows clouded over with steam.

Very often my Ukrainian friends and I peeled and cooked potatoes together, either in my kitchen or in Tanya’s or Misha’s or Luda’s, all the while laughing and talking and learning from each other. We kept our hands busy (we had to, to eat) and that made sitting and communicating easier, less formal, and never awkward. Preparing potatoes became for me both a happy prelude to nourishment and, when shared with others, an interactive ritual giving wider scope and breadth to my life.
But how could I explain that feeling to the Instant Woman? I wanted to say, “On the contrary, life’s too short for Instant Anything.”

Now back home, I’m pressed by all the Instant Things To Do. In Ukraine, accomplishing two simple objectives in one day — like successfully phoning Kiev from the post office and then finding a store with milk —satisfied me pretty well. I taught my classes, worked on other projects, and tried to stay happy and healthy along the way.

Now it takes an hour of fast driving to get to work, as opposed to 12 minutes of leisurely walking in Ukraine. I spend hours fiddling with my computer to send Instant E-mail. Talking to three people at once during a phone call is efficient — not an accident of Soviet technology. With so much time saving, I ought to have hours and hours to peel potatoes. Somehow I don’t.

What I wish I’d said to the woman in the supermarket is this: “Life’s too short to be shortened by speeding it up.”
But I wasn’t able to formulate that thought so quickly. Instead I went to the frozen food section and stared at Budget Gourmet microwave dinners for a while, eventually coming to the sad, heavy realization that the Szechuan Chicken looked delicious.

I Had A Hero

Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87)

In one hand he carried a spear, in the other a crude machete. On his head was a kind of coonskin cap with a bushy tail hanging down in back. Around his neck was a string supporting a leather charm to ward off bad bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.

My name is Ilunga,” he said, extending his hand.

My name is Michael,” I said, shaking it.

We smiled at each other another moment before Ilunga got around to telling me he had heard my job was to teach people how to raise fish. It sounded like something worth trying, he said, and he wondered if I would come by his village to help him look for a pond site. I said I would and took down directions to his house.

The next day the two of us set off into the bush, hunting for a place to raise fish.

Machetes in hand, we stomped and stumbled and hacked our way through the savanna grass for two hours before finding an acceptable site along a stream about a twenty-minute walk from Ilunga’s village. Together, we paced off a pond and staked a water canal running between it and a point farther up the stream. Then, with a shovel I sold him on credit against his next corn harvest, Ilunga began a two-month journey through dark caverns of physical pain and overexertion. He began digging.

There is no easy way to dig a fish pond with a shovel. You just have to do it. You have to place the tip to the ground, push the shovel in with your foot, pull up a load of dirt, and then throw the load twenty or thirty feet to the pond’s edge. Then you have to do it again — tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. After you do this about 50,000 times, you have an average-sized, ten-by-fifteen-meter pond.

But Ilunga, being a chief and all, wasn’t content with an average-sized pond. He wanted one almost twice that size. He wanted a pond fifteen by twenty meters. I told him he was crazy, as we measured it out. I repeated the point with added conviction after watching him use his bare foot to drive the thin shovel blade into the ground.

For me, it was painful visiting Ilunga each week. I’d come to check on the pond’s progress and find Ilunga grunting and shoveling and pitching dirt the same way I had left him the week before. I winced each time his foot pushed the shovel into the ground. I calculated that to finish the pond he would have to move a total of 4,000 cubic feet of dirt. Guilt gnawed at me. This was no joke. He really was going to kill himself.

One week I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Give me the shovel,” I told him.

“Oh no, Michael,” he said. “This work is too much for you.”

“Give it to me,” I repeated, a bit indignantly. “Take a rest.”

He shrugged and handed me the shovel. I began digging. Okay, I thought, tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. I did it again. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought. Stroke after stroke, I kept going. About twenty minutes later, though, it got hot. I paused to take off my shirt. Ilunga, thinking I was quitting, jumped up and reached for the shovel.

“No, no,” I said. “I’m still digging. Sit down.”

He shrugged again and said that since I was apparently serious about digging, he was going to go check on one of his fields.
Shirtless, alone, I carried on. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. An hour passed. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up . . . throw . . . throw the . . . dammit, throw the dirt. My arms were signaling that they didn’t like tossing dirt over such a great distance. It hurts, they said. Stop making us do it. But I couldn’t stop. I had been digging a paltry hour and a half. I was determined to go on, to help Ilunga. How could I expect villagers to do work I was incapable of doing myself?

Sweat gathered on my forehead and streamed down my face as I continued, shoveling and shoveling. About thirty minutes passed and things started to get really ugly. My body buckled with fatigue. My back and shoulders joined my arms in screaming for an end to hostilities. I was no longer able to throw the dirt. Instead, I carried each load twenty feet and ignobly spooned it onto the dike. I was glad Ilunga wasn’t around to see this. It was embarrassing. And then I looked at my hands. Both palms had become blistered. One was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, my hands finally refused to grip the shovel. It fell to the ground. My back then refused to bend down to allow my arms the chance to refuse to pick it up. After just two hours of digging, I was incapable of doing any more. With a stiff, unnatural walk, I went over to the dike. Ilunga had just returned, and I collapsed next to him.

“I think I’ll stop now,” I managed, unable to hide my piteous state. “Take over if you want.”

He did. He stood up, grabbed the shovel and began working — smoothly, confidently, a man inured to hard work. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. Lying on my side, exhausted, I watched Ilunga. Then I looked hard at the spot where I had been digging. I had done nothing. The pond was essentially unchanged. I had moved perhaps thirty cubic feet of dirt. That meant 3,970 cubic feet for Ilunga.

Day after day, four or five hours each day, he kept going. He worked like a bull and never complained. Not once. Not when he hit a patch of gravel-size rocks that required a pickaxe and extra sweat. Not when, at the enormous pond’s center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. And not when he became ill.

Several weeks later, Ilunga drove his shovel into the earth and threw its load one last time. I never thought it would happen, but there it was: Ilunga’s pond, huge, fifteen by twenty meters, and completely finished. Using my motorcycle and two ten-liter carrying bidons, I transported stocking fish from another project post twenty miles to the south. When the last of the 300 tilapia fingerlings had entered the new pond, I turned to Ilunga and shook his hand over and over again.

Ilunga had done it. He had taken my advice and accomplished a considerable thing. And on that day when we finally stocked the pond, I knew that no man would ever command more respect from me than one who, to better feed his children, moves 4,000 cubic feet of dirt with a shovel.

I had a hero.

The Mending Fields

By Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76)

I was assigned to the Island of Saint Kit in the West Indies. Once on an inter-island plane, I sat across the aisle from one of my new colleagues, an unfriendly, overserious young woman. She was twenty-four, twenty-five . . . we were all twenty-four, twenty-five. I didn’t know her much or like her. As the plane banked over the island, she pressed against the window, staring down at the landscape. I couldn’t see much of her face, just enough really to recognize an expression of pain. Below us spread an endless manicured lawn, bright green and lush of sugarcane, the island’s main source of income. Each field planted carefully to control erosion. Until that year, Saint Kit’s precious volcanic soil had been bleeding into the sea; somehow they had resolved the problem. The crop was now being tilled in harmony with the roll and tuck of the land and the island had taken a step to reclaiming its future. The woman peered out her window until the island was lost on the blue horizon. And then she turned forward in her seat and wept until she had soaked the front of her blouse. “Good Lord,” I thought, “what’s with her?” I found out later from another Volunteer: Two years ago, having just arrived on the island, she had been assaulted as she walked to her home. Not content to rape her, a pair of men had beaten her so severely she was sent back to the States to be hospitalized. Recovering, she had made the choice to return. She believed she could be of use on Saint Kit so she went back to coordinate the team responsible for improving the way sugarcane was cultivated. The day I flew with her was the first time she had taken a look at her handiwork from the illuminating vantage of the air. The cane fields were beautiful, perfect: they were a triumph, they were courage, and they were love.

 

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  • These are so interesting they approach thrilling. A newspaper could copy one a day and I bet it would encourage a circulation rise in the way decades ago TALES OF THE CITY daily kept people reading the paper — the SF Examiner (when it was a real paper). This is more that journalism, it is literature.

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