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The white coffee cup makes a delicate clatter against its saucer as the waitress sets it on the table before me. The noise jerks me from my reverie, in an instant withdrawing my brain 10,000 miles from my sauna-like village to my body’s present location: Paris. Rue de St German. Sidewalk café. I glance up distractedly and thank the waitress, “Asante tena, dadangu.” It’s typical for me now, if often embarrassing, to slip into Swahili when I’m distracted.

She stares at me for a loaded moment, as if wondering how long she has to tolerate my presence before the nice men in white coats catch up to me and haul me back to the asylum. Then, without another word, she flounces back into the restaurant, leaving me with my coffee and my half-filled Moleskine notebook.

———–

Reverse culture shock, or re-entry shock, describes the feelings of frustration and rootlessness when returning from abroad. One can feel like a foreigner again, as though you’re totally alone in your experiences, and they’re beyond understanding from the people around you. It can result from an idealization of the “primary culture,” or from the stark contrast between the host and home cultures. In the case of RPCVs, all of this is compounded by the sense of loss that accompanies departure: we miss our friends, our villages, our projects. Who knows when – or if – we’ll ever be back? Reverse culture shock is not generally as widely discussed as initial type, and understandably so; you spent over two decades in your home culture, what’s so weird about coming back? It’s not like when you arrive in a foreign country and have to cope with new food, new language, new manners and customs, new people, new bacteria attacking your every bodily process and appendage. (Sorry, PCVs – and RPCVs – like to trade war stories about overseas illness. Ask me about my parasites someday.) But for many people, it’s very, very real.

In my travels, I’ve found re-entry stress to generally be more intense than the initial culture shock. I’m not yet back to America, not yet surrounded by my friends and peers from before, so I’m sure I have lots left to discover. But the contrast between the “developing world,” where I lived for two years, and the “developed” world, where I’ve been traveling these past few weeks, is stark. Everything is gaudy and loud and unfamiliar. Everything is mind-bogglingly expensive. Everything is a little too clean, a little too sterile, a little too easy. Unfamiliar food is great – I’m loving trying new things – but why does the dining experience have to be so formal all the time? Why is everyone always in a hurry?

It’s odd.

(For an unexpectedly gripping [but good-natured] blog post about trying to find something to eat in an airport after a year in Peace Corps Kenya, click here.)

I remember the first time I lived in Africa, after doing a brief summer internship in HIV testing outreach in Tanzania, I came back to live in DC. I’d only been gone a few months, but I felt out of place. My parents took me to an upmarket steakhouse to celebrate. The slab of meat on my plate, marbled with fat and grilled to perfection, was enough to give a serving of desperately-needed protein to every resident of the orphanage-cum-hospice I’d been teamed with. I asked for a glass of water. The waiter brought out a large, chilled bottle of Evian, cracked the seal, and poured it into a stem glass. I found myself irrationally angry with him – why was he trying to sell me a $7 BOTTLE of WATER? Clean water access had been an issue in my part of TZ, too. America’s greatness is evident in its infrastructure – we had perfectly safe water from pipes any time we wanted, why couldn’t he bring me that? I sent away the bottle and got a glass of warm tapwater with a side of judgment. He didn’t get it. He couldn’t get it.

I wasn’t very much fun that evening, I think.

I’m not saying it isn’t wonderful to come home. It is. Nor am I saying it’s more than I can process of handle, certainly. Nor, for the record, do I want to sound like a self-righteous hipster jerk who has Seen So Much and is sooooo much deeper than the folks around me. But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s an adjustment. One that is rarely acknowledged, nor understood, by the people we’re coming home to.

———-

I’m standing in a grocery. My toothpaste has been gone for a week, and you can only get so much mileage out of snatching the tiny convenience pouches of the stuff off of sleeper trains. I won’t lie and say I never had access to these sorts of places in Kenya – three hours on public transport and I could be in Mombasa, home to not one but three Nakumatts, which is the Kenyan equivalent of Wal-Mart. Piped muzak, buzzing fluorescent lights, and infinite shelves of shampoo. But for most of my friends, coworkers, and pupils, a trip to the shop meant something like this:


The “corner store” where I bought all my basics: milk, vegetables, washing soap, etc.


Here, Western consumer behavior is such a banal thing, that it’s nothing to fill a cart full of lotions, potions, and processed foods. It’s a twice-weekly exercise. We get frustrated when they don’t have our specific brand of conditioner, forgetting that there are seventy other choices on the shelf that are more-or-less the same thing.

“How can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need? I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach?”
— Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

—————

Life in Kenya is neither easier nor more difficult than life anywhere else, at least in my view. I don’t want to romanticize it as a simple, carefree existence of spiritual love and maize planting. Nor do I want to paint a bleak portrait of it as The Land of Rape And Lions (I know how not to write about Africa.) It's infinitely more complex than that.

In Kenya, I had a steady paycheck and no regular bills. However, I had to deal with physical hardship plus the emotional toll of working (mostly) with a population that had such desperate needs, a new language, and a culture where I often didn't share the values. (Politically/theologically speaking.)

In America, I will most likely never have to worry about having no access to water or getting caught up in a typhoid epidemic, but I'll be buried under the deluge of the mundane: paying the internet cable bill, deadlines that are actually deadlines, the hectic pace of everything, the fact that my neighbors generally don't know who I am or particularly care. The problems are of a totally different caliber – and adjusting to the sheer pettiness of so much of it will be a jolt to the system, I don’t doubt. Even now, I scroll through Facebook, and find myself going “PFFF. #FirstWorldProblems.” after every fifth status update. It makes me feel jaded and snarky, and I don’t like feeling that way.

So where does that leave us? Is the solution to embrace that tone to life, measuring my success on the square footage of my house and the version of my iPhone? Become the cynical wanderer trope who spoils everyone else’s fun? Or take a more balanced approach – the most difficult of all – and translate my experiences into awareness, humility, and simple gratitudes?

I suppose that, an invisible but poignant alteration in thinking, is as much a goal of this kind of experience as anything.

(I don’t have an iPhone.)

(YET.)

————–

Ka-thungKa-thungKa-thung

The hollow tapping noise wheedles into my consciousness, poking holes in the hood of sleep draped over my mind. Fire Gospel church, Guardianship service, I think to myself as I try to doze back off. My particularly devout friend Ruth attends that place, and from 10:30 at night until 2:30 in the morning, they sing and chant and call down Glory. Sometimes – times of great joy, or great need – they’ll continue all night and creep home just in time to light the charcoal jikos for breakfast.

But it’s not the drums of Fire Gospel making the noise. As I jolt awake, my eyes focus, and it takes me a few seconds to remember where I am: my hotel room, Paris, France. The measured clunking is the wheezing of the outdated A/C unit gasping as it cools the air. Twilight is creeping over the city. Between the excess sun and the walking exertions of the day, I’d fallen asleep for an hour or so on the threadbare red coverlet of my hotel bed; now, it’s time to head back out. I sling my bag over my shoulder, stuff my hands down into my pockets, and step out into the evening, in search of something delicious. THAT’S never difficult, here in Paris – unless you consider the difficulty of choosing. The night is young and full of promise.

(And crepes. Mostly full of crepes.)

Somewhere, ten thousand miles away, it’s already full dark. Ruth and her sisters are lightning kerosene lanterns, sweeping the stage, readying the pulpit. Men are filing into the sagging tin building, taking their places on rough hewn benches. There is no electricity, no water, but the place is full of the spirit. The Holy Ghost will guide their rhythms. They will drum all night.

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Counterclockwise: Malarone, a daily suppressant of the plasmodium (malaria-causing parasites) hiding in my liver. Bilhicide, a five-enormous-tablets-at-once drug to kill any bilharzia (egg-laying snails) that may be lurking in my spinal column – which is almost as unpleasant for me as for the snails, if the volunteer legends are true. Ciproflaxin, for bacterial guests making themselves overwelcome. Penaquinine, a potent anti-malarial to be taken once I’m out of malaria zones for good to slaughter those that escaped the Malarone. Albendazole, to shut down the ongoing intestinal worm party in my gut. Guess Peace Corps isn’t really over, regardless of what my paperwork says, until I flush my village out of my system for good. All balanced on the brim of my Peace Corps 50th Anniversary cap, with my official RPCV:Kenya service pin in the center.

So yeah. That happened.

I’m not a Peace Corps volunteer anymore, but a “Returned” Peace Corps volunteer (RPCV.) I join an alumnae network over 200,000 strong, including such great folks as , Pulitzer prize-winning journalists Josh Friedman and Leon Dash, Newbery Award-winning author Mildred Taylor, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Lucasfilms president Gordon Radley, NBC host Chris Matthews, and former US Senator Chris Dodd.

I put “Returned” in big useless “scare quotes” because of course, I am technically no such thing – I am still traveling. I have a dozen or so countries standing between me and home (wherever “home” is) and intend to blog about it as often as I can. If you’ve been enjoying my writing so far – and there are a lot of you out there, I am perpetually humbled and flattered to say – please do stick around until the ride comes to a full stop in September. The content will probably be less about personal experiences of PC and deep cultural issues (although those are just there in the archive for you!) but more travelogue, picture-heavy, disaster-narrowly-averted-but-adventure-victoriously-achieved type stuff. (Did I mention my autobiography will probably be called, “‘It’s Ok, We Don’t Need The Guide’ and Other Great Ideas?”) Shark diving, lion stalking, geothermal lagoons, and a midnight train from Istanbul await me over the next 40-odd days.

I couldn’t be more excited.

I’m not into fashion. I don’t follow “rag trade” gossip. I have a somewhat fantastic collection of shoes in America, but if I rammed it all down the choo [pit latrine] tomorrow, I could probably replace everything from Target for less than $150 total. I lack both the sartorial acumen that would prevent me from wearing a black skirt with a navy sweater and the couture fashionista panache that would allow me to pull it off anyway. I can’t pose worth a damn. I don’t even particularly like being photographed.

But I *do* love bold East African fabrics, and as I strove to be both comfortable and culturally appropriate, I managed to accumulate a wardrobe full of awesome. So much, in fact, it’s been tricky to figure out what can come home with me.

After I finish Peace Corps, I’m taking a rather lengthy trip on my way back to the States – roughly 7 weeks and 14 countries’ worth – so my packing is necessarily limited. I’ll have a backpack with me, and so far my inclusion list for that is “toothbrush, comb, Kindle, five days of clean clothes, passports.” A PC friend who’s returning much earlier than I generously offered to carry a bag of sentimental stuff and gifts for me, but even with a whole wheelie-duffel at my disposal, it made for some difficult choices. For all my shrewd toughness, I’m a little more sentimental than I ought to be sometimes. Even if I *don’t* form an emotional attachment to every kanga I throw on over pajama bottoms so I’m decent enough to walk half a kilometer to the duka and buy cooking oil, or every kikoi wound hastily around my hips so I can step out of the house to toss kitchen scraps to my neighbor’s free-roaming ducks … oi. There are flowing long gowns with bright patterns in the Swahili style, snug mermaid skirts and fluffy-sleeved blouses based on Giriama patterns, and at least 5 “fusion” outfits in which my fundi [tailor] and I worked together to take a garment from a Target catalog (or similar American source) and make it appropriate for Kenya. I feel ridiculous in some of them, even now, but each is infused with memories.

The dress below is one of the last things my fundi, Dama, sewed for me. (I’ve already inflicted my “sense” of “style” on my fine Facebook friends, so I may as well post it here now.) I like it so much that I didn’t pack it up in my “Send Home” bag, but am instead bringing it with me on my adventure across the world. The skirt is a modest “midi length” (high calf) and the scandal of bare shoulders/back created by the halter design can be readily neutralized by any item from my embarrassingly large collection of scarves/shawls/wraps. Earrings: brass spirals. Shoes: black braided leather. Necklace: Many strands of tiny beads. In other words … all traditional accessories. The fabric of the dress is from Mombasa, and the style, well … the internet. But I get cultural integration points for the rest, maybe?



I will wear this – and the other stuff – in America, and give approximately zero rats’ asses about the stares I’ll get (I already get intensely stared at all day every day for merely Existing While White, so what’s the difference?) I like them. I’ll never be the most fashionable, Vogue Magazine-pinup-ish lady on the block. But at least this time, I will have an interesting excuse.

A few weeks ago, I assisted with the antenatal care visit for a teenager. This is her third pregnancy, but I was assured it was all above board, because she married the father — a man more than twice her age, a “friend of the family.”

A week before that, my neighbors lost their ten-year-old to malaria. They had a mosquito net from a government clinic, but it was outside the house, keeping the goats off their sukuma plants. The funeral music played nonstop for days, keeping the whole neighborhood awake and aware.

When I went to do a check-in with one of my schools, I couldn’t speak with the students – they were in an exam – but I was able to poke my head into one of the classrooms. I noticed several boys who always sat together were missing. They might have all, serendipitously, been sick on the same day, during an exam. Or, they might have entered into the same shadow world that consumes a striking number of youths: that of the “beach boys,” who roam the sandy shores peddling everything from overpriced souvenirs to illegal drugs and sexual favors to foreign tourists. It’s seen as easy money and requires no formal schooling, so it wasn’t uncommon for a student to confess laughingly that he wanted to join this profession – as one of these students once had. Boys as young as 13 could end up muling heroin or becoming the pleasure toys of older European women. Virtually every school in the district loses children this way each year. My co-facilitator could provide no answers. I had no proof, but a sinking heart full of experience and suspicion.

A 14 year old girl collapsed about ten feet from my workspace at the clinic. She was 38 weeks pregnant and here for an antenatal exam. From the violent seizures that racked her body for the better part of five minutes, our nurse-in-charge suspected preeclampsia. Our facility is filled with compassionate, dedicated staff, but it is pretty much only equipped to deal with vaginal births and runny noses. Clinic workers were afraid even to move her in her condition, so there was little to do for the girl but put a blanket under her head and wait for her to regain consciousness. Or … you know. Not.

Also, this happened.

I’m not telling you these things because I want to ruin your day. I’m telling you because my job is hard. Not “pounding railroad ties” hard or “cardiovascular surgeon” hard, but emotionally taxing nonetheless. So is yours! Perhaps. Probably? We live in a world that is simultaneously infinitely beautiful and infinitely dark. Peace Corps, and experiences like it, have a way of rubbing your nose firmly against both. It should come as no surprise, then, that as I rush to finish packing up my house, I have discovered that the following are the sorts of items most likely to result in a Mortal Kombat-style brawl between two or more volunteers:

– Books with “sex” in the title (Middlesex, “Emergency Sex, Sex at Dawn)

– Sudoku puzzle collections

– Similarly: anything edited by Will Shortz (crosswords, etc)

– The collected works of Chelsea Handler

– Nail polish

– Insanely campy novels by that master of slapstick police procedurals, Janet Evanovich (why NOT bring your sassy grandmother to a drug stakeout?)

– Back issues of “People” and “Vogue”

– Anything trashy, light-hearted, undignified, and/or escapist

Now, I’m not saying that PCVs (or development folks in general) are shallow, or stupid, or anything other than deeply committed, thoughtful adventurers seeking to make a change in some small corner of the world. Far from it. Many of us are awesome. Nor do I want to make it seem as though we corner the market on Our Lives Are Difficult. We certainly do not; just ask the people in the stories I used to open this entry. But even when you’re fully submersed in the kind of incredibly moving experiences we deal with on a near-daily basis, you sometimes have to look a little harder to find the lightness of things. A sense of humor (often irreverent, sometimes dark) is vitally important, of course, but so too can be the ability to escape the world’s harshest realities for 200 well-thumbed pages. So when I say, for example, that I just finished a novel that made 50 Shades of Gray look like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, it should come as no shock to me that eleven people immediately ask me a) what’s it called and b) is it available on Kindle?

And after two years, I suppose it doesn’t. (Shock me, that is. That book totally comes on Kindle.)

So supporters at home, don’t be surprised if your keenly intellectual volunteer develops a sudden taste for grocery store mystery novels. They don’t have a parasite eating away their smart, and this affliction is probably temporary. Their brains will probably not turn to uji [local porridge]. I can say with hopeful optimism enormous scientific certainty they will leave their copies of “Us! Weekly” in the Peace Corps resource room for the rest of us to read before they return to American soil. (I sometimes suspect that my own brain has turned to uji and while I’m fairly certain this has nothing to do with crap novels – rather less certain it has nothing to do with reading supermodel Janice Dickinson’s autobiography in roughly two sittings – and I have every intention of whipping myself back into academic shape before I arrive at grad school and discover my only bastion of usefulness is sitting in the library making paperclip jewelry. Picture a Rocky-stle montage! But with empirical lit review instead of punching. Still, don’t worry, this will not happen to you or your beloved volunteer! Probably.)

To new volunteers, don’t put so much pressure on yourselves to be “on” all the time; you’re allowed to have moments where you’re not thinking Very Deep Thoughts About Sustainability ™. It doesn’t make you ungrateful or less-than. Not every positive experience is life-changingly blog-worthy, and not every bad day is a profound lesson in gratitude. An occasional guilty pleasure – be it “Vogue” magazine, a cocktail at a beach bar, or eating Flaming Hot Cheetos for dinner – will go an enormously long way towards keeping you sane, focused, and productive.

And for those volunteers who are currently serving, or preparing to leave …

Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton wore the same outfit. Not on the same day, but still. OMG. RIGHT?! Kate wore it better. LIKE ALWAYS.


(FFS we aren’t even all looking in the same direction.)



Khadija, Rehema, and I tried to take a picture together during tea break. Khadija looks fine, I’ve got a case of the crazy eyes going on, and Rehema, well, I don’t even know what she’s doing. I’d count down from three and someone would lean out of the shot to reach for a cookie or we’d all descend into inexplicable giggles and be captured with our eyes squinting shut, our mouths open in laughter. Out of at least ten attempts, this is the best we got (all three of us are in the frame with our eyes open! yay!) before the camera was wrested away from us and everyone else got a turn snapping shots of something – teacups, patients, someone’s henna, a super close-up of the photographer’s nostrils.

It was eleven kinds of ridiculous.

But a good day, all told.


“We laugh and laugh, and nothing can ever be sad, no one can be lost, or dead, or far away: right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection, or steal the joy of this perfect moment.”

― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife


When I get back to the United States, I’m going to forgo my original intentions of pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology and instead enter show business. Or, rather, ~!~!~!SHOW BUSINESS!~!~!~. You see, I’ve come up with the idea for a game show that’s sure to be a hit:

When a Peace Corps volunteer prepares to move, all his or her clothes have to be washed, hung on the line, THEN sorted into “keep” and “leave” piles. I do mean everything: the long-sleeve pajama bottoms that have been mashed into the back of the clothes cupboard, the hoodie that hasn’t been touched since arriving in the tropics. For the purposes of our game show, we will haphazardly toss all of the clothes belonging to an individual PCV into a laundry basket, then get distracted and forget about them for a week or so. Then, on live television, the basket of clothes will be presented to the game show contestant. He or she is to reach into the pockets blindly, and whatever lies inside constitutes his or her winnings.

And I shall call the show, “Five Bucks or a Camel Spider.”


vs



The best ideas really do come from lived experience, wouldn’t you agree?

I’ve mentioned jiggers before in the context of discussing the struggles of compassionate sustainability and previous outreach activities I’ve participated in, but I’ve never gone into too much detail. They’ve been a rather important part of my work, so I think it’s time to rectify that.

“Jigger” is the local name for the chigoe flea, a tropical parasite found in sandy soil. They feast on warm mammalian blood to survive, so the way they usually come into contact with humans is by burrowing into whichever body part is touching the ground most – usually feet and legs, sometimes hands, sometimes even the backs of legs, lower buttocks, groin, or genitals. Once they’re settled in there, they lay eggs, hatching MORE chigoe fleas, which emerge briefly to mate then find a nice place to settle down and nest – often, in the same body into which they were born. You start with one, slowly gaining more and more over days and weeks until you have a full infestation. Left untreated, they can cause infection, weeping ulcers, disfigured limbs, gangrene, amputation, or death. No … I’m serious. An itchy little flea can kill you, especially if you’re young or immune-compromised (like folks who are HIV-positive.)

______
The results of untreated infestation. Click each to enlarge [I made it extra-small for the folks who REALLY didn’t want to look]. Left image: Advanced jigger infestation. Note the cracking skin (especially around the nailbeds) giving the toes a “cauliflower-like” appearance, swelling, skin discoloration, and ulceration on the tops of the feet as well as on the instep and lower shins. Right image: Ulcerated infestation point, causing skin necrosis and secondary infection.



Basic hygiene will prevent most of them: wear shoes, preferably closed-toed. Wash your feet and legs with soap and something for scrubbing (a brush, a washcloth, etc) at least once a day. I scrub my legs and feet with a nail brush splashed with soap or tea tree oil every time I come in the house, and in two years, I’ve never had one, despite wearing sandals almost exclusively. Sometimes, however, you simply draw the short straw and end up with one despite your best efforts. For those that can’t be prevented, the treatment is fairly simple.

Historically, once you discover a full-grown jigger (appearing as an itchy black dot or raised mound with a black dot in the middle), you’d wash the foot, dig it out with a needle or scalpel, and dump hydrogen peroxide over the whole mess. This was effective, but without follow-up care (keeping the wound clean and covered, etc) it could result in a deadly infection. The way we treat them now is much less invasive:

First, wash the feet.



Disinfect the wounds caused by jiggers with a dilute iodine solution, followed by a drenching of hydrogen peroxide.




Soak the feet in a potassium permanganate solution to kill the eggs.



Cover the feet in a layer of Vaseline to protect the treated skin from getting injured while it re-moisturizes itself and to smother any surviving jiggers that may still be lurking. (After they die, your body will expel them naturally over a few days, like a shallow splinter.)



A nearby school and my facility decided to work together on this pervasive and potentially dangerous issue. On the day these photographs were taken, teachers in each class checked their students’ hands and feet, then sent the children with infections to our no-cost Jigger Intensive Clinic (or, as I called it, Jiggerpalooza.) Several teachers came along to chaperone and provide some basic assistance.


Purity, our stern secretary, kept us all in line, while also tracking how many patients we saw during the special clinic. She is in fifth grade and wants to become a doctor when she grows up.



If you’re thinking “Huh, those uniforms look familiar …” then you are correct! These students are from one of the schools where I teach health class. In fact, the health class I started there has – totally without my prodding – been doing jigger education and outreach to encourage students to seek treatment. That faint light you see isn’t dawn creeping over the horizon, but the ten-zillion megawatts I’m generating today as I glow with pride. A teacher is only as useful as her students, and with these kids, I think I did pretty well.


Peace Corps Kenya has a tradition – which we stole from Peace Corps Thailand, who probably stole it from Peace Corps Someplace who stole it from Peace Corps Some Other Place – of the Ribbon-Binding Ceremony at our close-of-service conference. All of us who remain from our training class (we were 36, are now 26) come together in a circle and are bound together with a single length of ribbon. We stand together as the Letter of Thanks from senior staff is read and various words of gratitude are said (also, while our PPD bubbles are read by the Peace Corps Medical Officer, because our arms are already extended out and PCVs are nothing if not practical.) Then, our program supervisor come around and cut the ribbon, which must be knotted by another PCV. We will unknot it ourselves at a later date – but ONLY when we reach whichever place we consider to be home. The superstition is that it will give us luck along the way; the reality is that it will remind us where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

That’s a tricky question for someone like me, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

This year’s ceremony was performed by our Kenyan training director, who in his own words is uniquely qualified because, “[His] grandmother was a village rain bringer and [his] grandfather was the village shaman, so it’s legit.” (Tongue firmly inserted in cheek, of course.) I haven’t so much as re-adjusted the knot on mine since, and in the four weeks since COS conference it has already begun to fade and fray. I don’t know how much longer I’ll need to leave it on. We’ll see.

My supervisor is slightly scared of it, and has taken to telling people it’s a warding charm from a witchdoctor (mganga) against the non-witchdoctor witches (wachawi). Yes, witchdoctery and witchcraft are TOTALLY DIFFERENT THINGS. One earns the practitioner a wary sort of reverence, the other earns the practitioner a flaming tire hula-hoop. Point being: some of my friends are viewing me with a new co-mingling of awe and caution. To them, it’s representative of powerful good magic and full integration into the more clandestine elements of Giriama culture. To me, it’s a daily reminder that time is almost up on my Peace Corps experience.

34 days.

A new school term is well under way – and I have not been an active participant, at least not to the degree I once was. It’s all part of my transition plan, plotted long ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find myself feeling a bit wistful as I walk past the schoolyards of the places I used to teach. (Wistful at age twenty-four. God, I AM a spittle-inducingly insufferable one, am I not?) I’ve never identified myself as a “kid person”: my friend, a mother of two, once dropped her youngest in my lap and hustled off somewhere, and I literally had to call a friend of mine who babysits often and say, “SHIT, WHAT DO I DO!?!?!” Nonetheless, I did grow very fond of my pupils. Most of them, anyway.

Already, I think often of my students. I wonder how they’re doing. If they’re applying what they learned, or indeed, if they learned anything at all. I’ve touched on some of the trials, triumphs, and charmingly hilarious moments of what I have done, and even now, there’s an element of “Holy Jeezums – I did *that*?” Despite not being a kid person and having no real desire to be a teacher, working in classrooms has been one of the most rewarding parts of my Peace Corps experience. I’m going to miss the students who graduated in December, as well as those who, for whatever reason (here’s one) are unable to return next term.

In Peace Corps, there are a lot of days you collapse into bed thinking “WHAT EXACTLY did I do today to justify my expense to the American taxpayer? My greatest accomplishments were courageously consuming an overripe mango after dropping it in the sand, and explaining to my neighbor’s husband that no, not all American women in ‘this place California’ look like Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. How in the hell did he get a pirated DVD copy of The Girls Next Door anyway??” And then you get eaten by a centipede the size of a pool noodle and it stops mattering anymore. No, wait. That’s not it … OH RIGHT! AND THEN you remember your greatest little victories. They aren’t all “building a library out of recycled bottles”-big, but can be small and personal and infinitely moving. At least, that’s how I feel about this one …

A few terms ago, I taught a shy young woman in one of my Life Skills classes. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Pendo. Her grades were never exceptional, but she was polite and quiet, so I appreciated her presence. One day, as part of a larger lesson about defining how we want to be treated by others, I gave the kids a “fun” assignment: I asked them to make a list of ten things they liked about themselves. Everyone got a clean sheet of white printer paper (a rare luxury) and a handful of markers to work with, leading to noise and excitement levels more appropriate for an Oprah’s Favorite Things special than an announcement of classwork. Once the kerfuffle died down slightly, I circulated through the class, cooing over peoples’ decorated pages and complimenting them on their skills. The lists were diverse, but each was interesting. Some wrote traits, like “I am honest” or “I am a nice girl.” Others described talents, such as “I am good at herding the animals” and “I always help to care for my baby sister.” One adorably wheedled for extra points by writing, “I AM THE BEST AT LIKING OUR TEACHER MADAM MEGAN.” But when I got to Pendo, I saw her page was mostly blank. She’d drawn some colorful flowers around the border and made a neat list of numbers 1-10, but only one had anything written by it. Number one simply read, “My sister sings good.”

At first I thought it might be a language issue. In classrooms, I’m required to teach predominantly in English, although a number of my students have difficulty with it. I knelt beside her seat and carefully re-explained the assignment in Swahili. She steadfastly avoided my gaze. With prompting, she told me quietly that she simply wasn’t that good at things. She couldn’t think of anything to list.

(Heart: **BREAKS**.)

I gently told her that simply wasn’t true. I reiterated how much of a joy it was to have her in class, how I’d liked her previous assignments, how she was never late or disruptive, how neat her handwriting on all her homework was. We then talked about her life: what did she like? Who were her friends? How did she spend the weekends?

After about ten minutes, I had to attend to the other students – some of the boys were using my inattention to sow havoc in the opposite corner of the room. At the end of the class, everyone who wanted to was permitted to share, while those who felt shy were not pressured. Everyone got a round of applause, and I dismissed the class. While the other students raucously stampeded out into the yard, Pendo stopped to show me her list. It now had ten full items, including “I am good in school” and “I am good at saying my prayers.” She was proud of it, and promised me she would hang it near her sleeping mat so she could look at it each day, morning and evening.

As she crossed the threshold into the light of the schoolyard, I realized it was the first time I’d seen her smile since I started teaching.

It’s not a grand victory. It probably won’t change Pendo’s life or get her through school. It’s not something I’m going to win a pedagogical award for, or have a Lifetime movie made about. It’s not even something I did myself so much as what I inspired a student to do on her own. Personally, it’s more humbling than empowering. But it’s one of my favorite moments, and one I conjure often on melancholy days.

In his seminal work The Prophet, Khalil Gibran has this to tell us about the role of the educator:

“Then said a teacher, ‘Speak to us of teaching.’
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom,
but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space,
but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure,
but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man
lends not its wings to another man.”

The other day I was walking through a cornfield, minding my own business, when the following occurred.

Random guy I kind of recognize: Sister Mapenzi! Come here! Come here! [“Mapenzi” is one of my village names.]

Me: Err … Jambo! Habari za leo!

RG: Nzuri nzuri. It is said you will be leaving us soon.

Me: It’s true.

RG: Everyone will be very sad to see you go. You have brought so much love and education to our community.

Me: I will be very sad to go, too. I will miss Kenya very much.

RG: I am the pastor of a small congregation in [sub-village]. Can you join us this Sunday for our prayers?

Me: I would be honored.

RG: Good good. We begin at 10 in the morning, but if you could
arrive early it would be a blessing.

Me: Oh, ok. Sure.

RG: And bring 15 bags of cement.

Me: Wait, wha …?

RG: And blocks. We need those large coral blocks for building. Not so many. One truckload.

Me: I’m sorry, I —

RG: And money. We only need only ten or twenty thousand shillings.

Me: I’m really sorry, sir, I do not have —

RG: If you cannot arrange the cement and the blocks very fast, just the money would be ok. But without those things we need at least thirty thousand shillings.

Me: I’m sorry, sir. I have no supplies, and I am a volunteer, I make very little money. I cannot bring these things.

::awkward silence::

RG: If you need another week, you can come to our worship Sunday but next. You can have another week to collect that money.

Me: I don’t have it. I can’t collect any money by then. I can attend your service, but I can’t bring money or blocks or cement.

RG: Hmmm … then take two weeks. Talk to your mzungu friend. There is lady with black hair, I think she is Italian. [Actually, she’s another PCV who lives nearby.] I have seen her walking by your house. I am certain she has much money. It is said by everyone. Take two weeks and ask her to collect that money, then come to our service and build us a church.

Me: She doesn’t have money, either.

RG: It is all ok. Just bring the money. Just bring it. I know it is there.

::longer awkward silence::

Me: I don’t think I can come to your service if I must bring money and materials.

RG: ::prolonged, blank stare.:: Nice day. ::Walks away briskly.::

Sigh. Two years, and there are still a handful of folks who haven’t gotten the “I don’t have infinite money and stuff to give away, and even if I were a genie and did, I wouldn’t because HOLY @&!# DONOR DEPENDENCY AAAAUGH” memo.

Can’t win ’em all.

44 days.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly