First night at site
I was reading this compilation of short stories and essays written by previous Peace Corps Volunteers before I left for Africa. I remember reading about a girl who ran after the Peace Corps van her first day at site shrieking, “I’m not ready yet!” Oh God, I thought. Poor thing.
At this point I couldn’t relate more.
Yes, there are some volunteers that have been itching to get to site. Some have been at home since the first day they set dusty feet in their new village. During the last two weeks of training, I went on a personal conquest to find volunteers who felt the same why I did: panic about being dropped off at site. I did fairly well. The closer time got, the more willing volunteers became to talk about what was before us. “The truth is,” Kimmie keeps telling me, “these next few months are going to suck. They are going to be terrible. But there is a reason why everyone isn’t joining the Peace Corps. It’s really hard.” Few people are able to remind me that I am here for a purpose quite like Kimmie. “Just think of the person you are going to be in two years. You have to experience this first.”
I arrived at site by 10am with the TSO (Tamale sub office) driver and a mattress. I carry as many of my bags as I can - Mohammed follows with a pink mattress on head. We shove it through my yellow door and quickly realize it is far larger than my bed frame. I have no water, no desk or shelf, no door to my porch/kitchen, a mattress sprawled on a bed frame and a whole lot of stuff with nowhere to go. “Well, are you going to cry?” Alhaji asks. I shake my head and blink. He really asked me if I was going to sweep. But crying was more plausible if you ask me. Um. Well. No. I can’t even look in my room right now. I have to go…
I walk over to the clinic, swallowing tears. I know the midwife isn’t crazy about me, but at least she speaks English. The name of the game for this week is getting through it. Make the time go by and try to spend that time with actual people. When I arrive at the clinic there are 5 nurses there, most new to me. I introduce myself and sit and stare at them, as they say to each other in Dagbani, “Jeez, is she just going to come in here and stare at us all day? Gosh.” I found Sister Beema, the midwife, who seemed more excited to see me than I thought she would be. “Why are you here before Christmas?” she asks. Because I was really hoping to spend the holidays with people I don’t know, maybe even somewhere where they don’t celebrate Christmas. Somewhere really hot too. I shook my head and blinked. Because of the election, they want us to stay at our sites. Are you a Christian? “Yes I am, I’ll be celebrating in Tamale.” Somehow, knowing that this quiet woman shared my faith became overwhelmingly comforting.
Suddenly everyone was on their feet. Two men came in speaking in loud English. Must be important men if they aren’t going to stoop low enough to speak the local language. I still don’t know exactly who he is, but when I introduced myself he tells me he was the Guinea Worm big man. The biggest Guinea Worm man there is. Oh, great to meet you, I’m working with the Carter Center.
“The Carter Center works for me,” he bellows, tilts his head and tries to burn me with his eyes. Well, guess that means I work for you, heh heh.
Out of nowhere, an American camera crew comes out of the bushes. I don’t know who they were filming for and I tried to sneak away several times. I almost made it, until they needed a group shot. “Hey, Mariah. Come!” the big man ordered. “You are part of this health team.” Straight to the heart big man. Maybe he does have a soul.
I manage to eventually sneak away with my counterpart, who I am pretty happy to see. The man is growing on me. Time to do something about the living situation. Abukari and Alhaji ask me how I am going to sleep on the slumped over mattress. “I don’t know. How do you suppose I sleep?” I think a little bit of insanity crept into my eyes, that or tears. Either way I think they finally realized the extent of the stress I was going through. Before I knew what hit, Abukari was frantically sweeping my room, Alhadji was sudsing up my water barrel and some stranger pulled a spare desk out of Alhaji’s room and into the courtyard to dust off. Now we’re getting somewhere. As Abukari spent the next half hour tirelessly filling up my water barrel by himself, I decided it was time to get my things in order. First things first, I put up the string of Christmas lights my dad sent me (thanks daddy, that meant so much to me). Now what? I filled my mug with sangria. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right? For the next few hours I scrubbed my pastel window panels and walls. Futile, its harmattan, but I was desperate to keep busy. Then I took over the latrine. There were fist sized spiders and lizard droppings everywhere. I shrieked, destroyed a spider web, shrieked destroyed another spider web and ran. The day was not even half way over. This is going to be a long two years.
Hannah calls me, my closest neighbor. “This was too good to text.” Oh yea, what happened? “Some woman comes over with a big moving bag, and I’m thinking, this must be another chicken. She asks if I want to buy it and opens up the bag. It’s a deer! I asked what she thought I needed a deer for, and she’s like, you will feed it and it will grow. Ha! I almost bought it too! Imagine! A pet deer!” Hannah is one of those volunteers who was born to be at site. That’s really funny Hannah. “How are you doing?” Well, I didn’t cry until 3. I hardly left my room today, is that okay? “Yea. That’s perfectly fine. I stayed in my room a lot too.”
It’s only 5. I suddenly remember that Cynthia made me a small envelope filled with little notes, labeled with different dates to be opened throughout the next two years. She was the hardest to leave. We have spent these last three months laughing and crying and gossiping, grappling with our roles as volunteers, talking about home and how much it hurts to be here sometimes. Some people are placed in your life - they are not there coincidentally. Ama Cynthia is one of them.
First note, first day @ site: “Afiya. It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names. Love, Ama”
That day will come. In some small, small ways, it already has.