Day 76: A conversation with a Zimbabwean teenager

“The lights are out,” he says, gesturing to the stoplight at the intersection in front of us. The teenager in question is named Ashley. He and our taxi driver Freddie have just spent the better part of the afternoon as our tour guides of the Vumba Mountains, a range on the eastern side of Zimbabwe, practically on the border with Mozambique.

“They were out yesterday when we were walking around,” we respond. Then, our experience in Benin prompts us to ask a follow-up question: “Does this stoplight ever work?”

Ashley thinks for a second trying to recall either his memories of that particular intersection or the words in English.

“Yes,” he says. “I remember. Maybe when I was like five?”

I still trying to figure out Zimbabwe, but walking through the country, the capital, the other major cities, the small towns that border national parks, all of it, there’s a feeling that at some time, at some point, something was starting, but now, it’s stopped. A reaction that’s strongly in need of a second catalyst. A country that seems frozen in its development, almost all of which was developed in the previous millennium.

This feeling first hit me while I was walking through the streets of Bulawayo, the second largest city. In many ways, walking through the streets of Zimbabwe almost feels like walking through the streets of suburban America. But the suburban America of 1970: the fading paint, the industrial buildings, the notion of the strip mall as the ultimate destination for an area. At some point, it seems that the country decided that it had reached the point where it was going to stop trying, and it remains stuck at that moment.

This isn’t, like much of what I saw in Benin, aid gone wrong. This is development started by Zimbabweans, managed by the Zimbabwean government. Development that now passes the years counting the amount of time it has lain disarrayed and unused.

Driving out to the mountains, we passed block after block of empty industrial buildings. Businesses and enterprises that used to exist but don’t anymore. Later that night we had a conversation with another Zimbabwean, this one much older and much more affected by how the country had passed the previous fifteen years. We were comparing the country to our experience in Benin and told her that there was much more infrastructure here than there.

She tilted her head to the side and interrupted us. “There used to be,” she interjected. “But now.” She shook her head letting the end of the sentence fade into the past of a country that is declining rapidly from what it once was. “But now…”

Days 72-73: Overnight train to Harare

Everyone told us not to take the train.

“It’s not safe,” they said.

“It goes so slow they said.

“It’s not a good kind of crowd,” they said.

But, “it’s so cheap,” we thought.

“It would save us the price of a hostel that night,” we thought.

“We just got off 54 hours of traveling by bus,” we thought.

So we did it anyway.

I boarded the train in the dark. We staked out my sleeper cabin, stored all our bags under my bed and ate cheese and apples and bread while watching out the window at the people walking by on the platform. By the time we got to the ticket station that morning (you can only buy tickets for the day you want to travel on the day you want to travel) there was only one ticket left in a sleeper car, so after dinner we split up, the other to her spot in the economy class.

Fifteen minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, I met my first cabin-mate. She introduced herself; I waved to her seven-month-old son. I met my second cabin-mate five minutes after the train was scheduled was leave. She didn’t talk much. To me, anyway.

The power wasn’t working on the train (which we had heard was usual), so I was rocked to sleep shortly after the train started moving by feeling of the cars swaying on the tracks. I woke up the next morning somewhere between Bulawayo (our starting destination) and Harare. My Zimbabwean geography wasn’t good enough for when my cabin-mated told me where we were that it meant anything to me. I checked on my friend. I looked out the window. I listened to part of an episode of Radiolab. It was just finishing as we pulled into the Harare station.

That was it. No late night visitors trying to get into my cabin. No strangers ducking into the cabin to steal my stuff when I went to the bathroom. No drunken passengers roaming the hallway outside the cabin. The ride was uneventful, but that’s why it worked. It got us from point A to point B and left behind only a minimal amount of fatigue.

Sometimes, it turns out, you can’t listen to what others say. 

Day 41: Giving a sheep a haircut

We had just finished watering the trees at the front of the farm when one of our neighbors in his white pickup truck (a “bakkie” here) pulled into the gravel drive.

Rob, the farmer in question, got out to talk to Riette, one of the owners of the farm who has put up with us for these past weeks. When they were finished, he mentioned that he had to get back to his farm because they were shearing the sheep that day, and when he had left, the ram was still waiting for his haircut.

And so, in a continuation of my suburban-girl-working-on-a-farm education, I ended up in the back of the bakkie, bouncing along to Rob’s farm where, after brief introductions and brief instructions, I was handed a pair of clippers and told that I could go for it. One of the farmhands asked me if I had ever sheared a sheep before.

I shook my head. “Never.”

So much of the past two and a half years of my life have consisted of me doing things that I never thought I would do in my life. But, after 24 and a half years, I’m starting to figure out that’s what life’s all about. Sometimes, the things that mean the most are the things that you never thought you would be doing. 

Day 59: Dam jumping

I stood on the edge of the limestone cliff trying to convince myself to jump. I wiggled my toes on the uneven ledge and cautiously leaned forward to try to see the water below me.

We had paddled out in kayaks to this rock island in the middle of man-made dam near the farm we were staying with the intention of paddling and toasting to our last week in South Africa with cider on the water. That morning, when I learned the water in the dam around this island that juts out in the middle a good number of strokes from the shore was deep enough to safely jump into, I added this to my list of things to do that afternoon.

Like many things, though, the visualization of me sailing through the air and gracefully landing in the water below is much easier before I was standing on the edge of the rock face looking at the jagged rocks that seem to lean out from the side of the island waiting to catch me before I make it to the water.

When I was little, I was ace at talking myself out of doing things that I was scared of doing. I was that Girl Scout who climbed to the top of the 40-foot repel tower, only to climb back down later after seeing what the view looked like from up there. Only after years of missed rock climbs and ziplines and rollercoasters did I learn how to push myself into doing those things of which I was scared. It took years for me to stop allowing my fears dictate what I did and didn’t do. (Also because no one was ever able to legally literally push me into these activities.)

I still get scared. I was scared when I moved to college. I was scared when I boarded a plane to Benin. And I was scared while I was standing on top of that rock island in the middle of the dam.

But then, I jumped. 

Day 21: I remember what I loved about Africa

We were sitting in the rental car in Opuwo waiting for Pascal to come back from looking for the Namibian Peace Corps volunteer we were supposed to be meeting. It was a dirt road, with massive piles of dirt in front of and behind us. So, of course, (as happens in most countries where toys and educational games and intellectual stimulation aren’t really an option for kids, they find something that amuses them and go with it) there was a group of ragtag Namibian kids spending their afternoon climbing all over these piles of dirt.

I paused only for a moment before jumping out of the car and chasing after them, the sound of their giggles and yells surrounding me. 

Day 28: Border crossing

There’s something about crossing the border between Namibia and South Africa at 4 a.m. when there are no other lights besides the one street lamp outside the office where we officially leave Namibia and the only other people are the people who are also on this Intercape bus and the lady who’s stamping my passport says nothing and looks like she also just woke up from what she intended to be her full night’s sleep and the headlights of the bus that reveal little about the landscape around us as we enter South Africa that makes the whole thing feel like we’re sneaking in the country. 

Day 40: Library

We’re sitting in the corner with our backs resting against the white-painted bookshelves. Eleven-year-old Bernice, who comes every Tuesday for an hour and a half with a group of school kids to the library on the farm where I’m currently working, and I have been reading a story about a bear named Rupert who finds a magical cave. We’ve taken a break for her to ask me all the questions she can think of about my life:

Where do you come from?

How old are you?

Where are you staying?

Why are you here?

Do you like games?

I reply that I don’t have a husband when she asks me his name.

“Ok, then. What’s your boyfriend’s name?” she asks.

I tell her I don’t have a boyfriend. I turn the question around on her. “Do you have a boyfriend? Is he your boyfriend?” I ask, pointing to one of the boys who is playing chess a few feet away from us.

She shakes her head emphatically. “No. Boys are ugly.” 

Day 17: Meat!

The past six years, I’ve casually called myself a vegetarian. (While always hoping to be able to sneak a piece of bacon off the plate. One of the worst days was the discovery of a bacon bar at my cousin’s wedding. And the first time I went home after I stopped eating meat and my mom already had the bratwursts thawed and ready for the grill. I was, perhaps, one of the worst vegetarians ever.)

I stopped eating meat because one day in college, I just didn’t have the desire to eat any more eat. I watched Food Inc., and I read Michael Pollan, and then, I really didn’t have the desire to eat any more meat.

I kept it up when I came to Benin. There, it was easy. There really was no meat to eat. (except for the occasional can of Skyline chili).

Then I came to Namibia. Where there is a lot of meat to eat: oryx and zebra and kudu and the ambiguous “game.” Three times a day and sometimes in between meals. We told a campsite owner once that we weren’t planning on building a brai that night. He was baffled.

But, like in South Africa, Namibian meals are more about the preparation than the actual eating. Hours spent building a fire and drinking wine and having conversations while the food cooks. What’s on the brai doesn’t matter as much as the people who are around it.

So, I’ve started eating meat again. Because it’s (usually) fresh and (usually) local. Because it’s part of the cultural experience. Because oryx steak is good.

I think I kept up my vegetarianism for so long because I had gotten used to it. And  maybe a little because I didn’t want to have to deal with the comments about me eating meat again. Then, one night, as I was being poured another glass of red wine and handed a plate of food that had just come off the fire, I decided that nothing other people would say would make this steak less delicious. 

Day 22: Morning in Opuwo

The first time it happened, we were at a supermarket. I was standing in the checkout line with the Swiss couple who, in one of those moments that comes from a hostel’s atmosphere of camaraderie and adventuring, had adopted us for the previous two weeks. Behind us was a girl of about ten who was holding a loaf of bread and ten one-Namibian-dollar coins. Exactly the amount that she needed. When the girl laid her money on the counter, Pascal, our dad, casually slipped the cashier a N$10 bill and slid the coins back into the girl’s hands.

The second time was outside this supermarket. As we were climbing into the rental car, a man in a dirty black windbreaker and old jeans that did not look like they were doing anything against the cold wind asked Pascal for money for “watching” the car while we had been inside. When we opened the trunk, he immediately focused on the empty five-liter plastic bottle we had in the back. He asked if he could have it, and Pascal handed it over.

A Namibian volunteer called it “compassion fatigue,” this feeling of after two years of people constantly (and I don’t say that as a cliché or a literal meaning, but in almost all my interactions with Beninese people this would happen) asking me for things or asking me how to get to America or taking things out of my house. I, looking at these same two Namibians in Epupa, was over it. I was over the begging and the swarming and the constant badgering.

I looked at Pascal and Tabitha the rest of day and tried to think what they were thinking. Tried to find the same source in myself where they found their generosity and their compassion. Tried to find the person in me again that would have also paid for that girl’s bread and happily handed over the water bottle to the man.

Day 9: Reintegration issues

You ask the man at the Air Emirates desk who is booking your hotel if you have a private bathroom.

Someone points out when you use curse words in public conversation.

You keep starting conversations with strangers and never ask their names, forgetting that introductions are usually appropriate at the beginning. Not after you’ve already asked them if they want to travel with you.

You switch to speaking in French so people don’t understand what you’re saying.

All your stories start with the phrase, “Well, in Benin…”

Day 7: I don’t understand Dubai.

When my Emirates flight to Dubai had 10-inch tv screens in the back of each seat and free bloody Marys until I landed, I should have known that Dubai was going to be different.

I took the long way to Namibia. Three months ago when we were first booking tickets, my friend and I realized that there was no easy way to get to Windhoek, Namibia from Cotonou, Benin. It was just as difficult, but significantly cheaper to fly out of Accra, which set us on a booking adventure that eventually left us with a 22-hour layover in Dubai.

We had planned to act like tourists throughout most of the day. We booked our tickets to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa before we left Benin and spent most of the day before our 6 p.m. reservation riding around on one of those bright red hop-on-hop-off tour buses of the city. We mostly stayed hopped on because there’s one word that accurately described the heat of Dubai: oppressive.

That’s the first thing you notice about the city. It’s hard not to when it slaps you in the face whenever you walk outside. As we walked out of the airport, my glasses completely fogged when we passed from air-conditioned terminal to non-climate-controlled taxi stand. I didn’t have a thermometer in Benin, so I can’t tell you if Dubai is the hottest place I’ve ever been, but never in Benin did it seem that the heat was physically grabbing me by the shoulders whenever I walked outside.

This heat, though, makes sense. Dubai is the in the middle of the desert. Temperatures are supposed to reach 113 degrees. It’s supposed to only rain 150 mm a year. It’s not supposed to be the place where there’s a mall with an indoor ski slope.

During our tour, one of the facts that we caught was that each year Dubai uses over one million liters of water to water its plants, to pump through its fountains and, I would guess, rehydrate the thousands of tourists that flow through the city. I didn’t understand why this number would be something of which to be proud. This is the desert. One million gallons of water don’t exist here.

I felt this anomaly most of the day. Few things in Dubai seem that they should be there. This is a city that drips in consumerism and extravagance, but few of the people who work at Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta and Cartier can afford the lifestyles that they sell everyday. Every train of the 75 km metro system is air conditioned, despite the reality of what it feels like when you step outside. This by no means is a phenomenon seen only in Dubai, but the gentrification of nowhere else I’ve scene has been on such an extreme level in such an extreme competition with nature.

I can write about this seemingly defiant place that demands to be what it wants, not what nature intended it to be all I want, but this would be a different post if Dubai was at least doing it successfully. If the city had somehow used all the money that is being handed around these malls and hotels and tourist attractions to help the people who were here before the TGI Fridays, Starbucks and Pottery Barn Kids moved in, maybe this place would make more sense to me. But it’s not and it doesn’t. And that’s what I really kept thinking about during those 22 hours in Dubai: how this entire city seems to be on an endless prescription of retail therapy instead of taking a moment and thinking about the consequences to which its actions are leading. 

Days 1 & 2: Ghana kicks our (collective) ass

We entered Ghana naively thinking that our two years living and working in a west African country would have adequately prepared us for visiting another west African country. (In our defense, both of us had already visited Togo. And Togo really is just an extension of Benin. Despite the fact that everything is cheaper, everything runs the same way.) We were unprepared for Ghana.

We were unprepared for the utter lack of organization at the border. All traffic laws and common courtesies were forgotten. There were cars driving down the wrong side of the street, motos weaving in between the semis and taxis and men almost constantly sticking their heads in the window of our car asking us if we wanted to buy Ghanian sims or change money or have him carry our bags across the border. 

We were unprepared for Ghanaian English. After two years in a French-speaking country, I was looking forward to people being able to understand me. Turns out, my accent is just as troubling here as it was next door.

We were unprepared for our egos to be our downfall. The next morning, we wandered around the town of Hohoe looking for coffee. There were no cafeterias like the ones where we had spent the last two years drinking coffee to be found. We walked to the taxi station to try to find someone who would drive us to the mountain that we wanted to visit that day. We had been told to look for motos (what we had taken around Benin the last two years) to drive us there. There were none to be found.

What our problem was wasn’t that we were unprepared. It was that we had been prepared for Ghana to be just like Benin. And when it wasn’t, we were ill-equipped to handle it. We wanted (or needed) to believe that we could handle any situation after the past two years of our lives. And we were unprepared when things didn’t go exactly as we had planned.

That morning, we were eventually saved by a pair of German doctors who were in Ghana to volunteer at a clinic in the south after I swallowed my touristic pride and asked for help. Soon, I was being shown maps and being explained where I could find the path that would lead us to the top of the mountain and being offered accompaniment on our way there. They had known better. 

The token "reflection on the past two years of my life" post

What can I say about my service? I did it. I saw a lot of things I would have never seen otherwise. I ate food I would have never eaten otherwise. I communicated in a language that my parents don’t understand. I did some things I’m proud of. I met sides of me I didn’t know existed beforehand. I never said some things that I wish I had.

What will I miss the most? The people I met here, both Beninese and American. Ask what I’m the most proud of or what was the most defining aspect of my service or any variant of those questions and the answers will always be the people I met here and the relationships I formed here. I can tell you honestly that what kept me in this country for two years were the people whom I had the fortune to surround myself with: my best village friends who always knew how to cheer me up with a game of foosball; my volunteer friends are some the best people with whom you’ll ever have the chance to share a beer; my students, who while weren’t always the easiest, I still wish them more than they ever imagined they were allowed to want out of life. The thing that scares me the most right now is the idea of having to live a life without the family that I’ve found here.


What’s next? I can’t really tell you. The planner in me is suppressing the urge to freak out about it constantly. The 24-year-old in me is slowly starting to learn that sometimes you can’t plan life. For the next three months, I’ll be traveling with a friend (another volunteer who arrived and left Benin with me) around southern Africa. I have this scheme in my head that I’ll keep writing about it and people will keep caring enough to read about it. After that, my plans involve being near the people who are important to me. If I’ve learned anything these two years it’s that my life is incomplete without the people who I let in it. 

Eight hundred and six days ago, I left the United States because I wanted an experience. I wanted to do something with my life that seemed like it would be greater than me. Fourteen days ago I turned in a piece of paper that officially finished my service. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t reflective. I didn’t even particularly feel the need to have a celebratory beer. Why? Because I know now that some experiences are never really finished.

Leaving, part 2

I woke up today feeling terrible. I can’t focus on Pillars of the Earth while I drink my coffee. I feel like I have the anxiety to run from the friend’s house where I stayed last night back to the workstation. I keep making lists of things that I need to do. Over and over again, the same list. And keep asking myself the same questions to which I still haven’t come up with the answers: When should I turn in my helmet? What should I eat for my last meal? How am I ever going to carry around this 37-pound backpack for the next three months?

I thought I was over the fact that I’m leaving Benin tomorrow. My subconscious is telling me different. 

Left behind

I’ve lived my whole life believing that it was better to be the person who was leaving than the person who was being left behind. I believed that if you were the one who was leaving, you were the one in control of the situation. You were the one who was going after bigger and better things. You were the one who was moving on.

But now, I’ve somehow ended up in the situation where I’m the one that’s still here. I’m watching as my friends one by one leave this country and travel back to the United States. I see their pictures of US food on Facebook. I see the status updates from their parents who are overwhelmingly thankful for them to be back. I see pictures of people who lived in Benin back in the US together. And I’m jealous.

I’m still here. And I’ll still be here for another week before my end-of-service trip starts. And I’m thankful for the chance for that trip. And I’m excited for this trip to begin. But until then, this end-of-service-but-not-yet-out-of-the-country limbo in which I’ve found myself is, frankly, starting to become unbearable.

I officially ended my Peace Corps service today (much like when I graduated college, the piece of paper that completed my service seemed so entirely anticlimactic) but the truth is, my Peace Corps service ended two weeks ago when I started saying goodbye to the people that defined my time here. To end my service without the people that got me through the past two years seems unfair. To end my service with a week in our office in air conditioning, getting up at 11 a.m. to drink coffee, fill out forms and watch Entourage is so unlike what the past two years of my life have been like, it’s almost a joke.

I can’t tell you, though, how to make it better. I don’t know that there is a way to end this part of my life that could effectively summarize what the past two years have meant. How many times can you say that you just ended the two most formative years of your life before it becomes redundant?

And so, I’m here. I’m freezing in air conditioning, updating my resume, watching YouTube. I cleaned out my house and filled out all the paperwork. I’m waiting to leave this country behind.

Boys club

I was surrounded by men. My postmate and I were at a bar waiting for the Germany-Ghana games to start and the room was full of twenty-something Beninese men, male students from my classes and the older patrons of the community. They were of all different ages, but, as my postmate was the first to notice, I was the only there who was female.

I started wondering why soccer didn’t interest any of the other women in the village. Girls soccer teams are few and far between (and usually Peace Corps organized) but that didn’t mean women couldn’t also be interested in the sport.

Then I realized where all the mothers and sisters were: they were at home making dinner for all the husbands and brothers who were here with me watching the game.

I knew there are different expectations for girls and boys here, but something about how, already as children, males are given so much more freedom in the choice of what they can do with their time. I had chores and was expected to help around the house, but so did my older brother. Never would I have been told to give up the chance to do something that interested me because I had to stay home and make my brother’s dinner.

What I realized in that bar was not that no other women of the village were interested in soccer, but that they had never been given the opportunity to be interested in soccer. 

The five stages

Last weekend, my postmate and I brought our girls soccer team to the first (volunteer-organized) girls soccer tournament in Parakou. Our girls had to play three games: two on Sunday and one on Monday and we ended the tournament with a 1-2 record. Dave and I didn’t care. We just wanted the girls to have fun. The girls, though, did care.

At the end of our last match that we lost 2-1, I had fourteen girls in tears. And I had one girl in particular who didn’t stop crying until she was hyperventilating and had to be talked down by the volunteer who had been our nurse all weekend.

I have never seen more tears in this country than I saw that weekend. Not just amongst my team, but, for every team, every match appeared to be a life or death situation.

The Beninese people, and even my girls who are only teenagers, are accustomed to sorrow. Benin is not an easy country in which to survive. However, the loss of a soccer tournament is not a sorrow to which these girls were accustomed.

I played soccer for 15 years. Every other weekend I was losing matches. I learned how to shake it off and prepare for the next match. These matches, though, these matches were the only three matched my girls had every played. There was not another weekend for them to play better at next time. This was it for them.

A loss at a match was so much bigger than just a lost match. After their third game, my girls also had to deal with the loss and end of a program that they would most likely not ever have a chance in which to participate again.