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 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 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…”

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. 

Second wind

My postmate and I were tired. For the last three hours, we had been walking around the village with two of the girls from our soccer team searching (slightly in vain) for any amount of money that would ease the pain of the cost of transporting fourteen girls to and from our soccer tournament in Parakou that weekend. 

I looked over at Dave. He was slumped in the wooden chair in the room where we sat with my counterpart trying to determine our next course of action. I knew he was hungry and I knew he was dreading having to bike back to his house in the dark.

I was ready to call it. Dave and I had the money between us. It would just be a little harder to eat for the rest of the month. I explained this all to my counterpart in French in front of the two girls, who seemed significantly less tired than me and Dave.

When I got to the part of the story of how Dave and I were planning on paying for the difference between the two of us, the two girls perked up. When I had finished, they starting listing to my counterpart the people who were left in the village that we hadn’t visited yet.

“Madam,” they said to me. “If you’re not tired, we’re not tired.”

I smiled at their resolve to not let me and Dave just solve this problem ourselves: by throwing own our money at it. I was suddenly not tired anymore.

June 12: Runner's log

I don’t run with people. I run with my iPod. And my house keys. And until he took it back from me, my friend’s GPS.  I don’t run with the kids who follow me down the street. I don’t run with the people who yell at me from the side of the road. I don’t run with the men going to the fields who pull up next to me on their motos and want to know about what I’m doing and where I’m going and my phone number.

You could say that I don’t do a lot of things with people. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, really just prefers to be by him or herself than with someone else. I’m one of those types of people who, when at a large, crowded party will sometimes find herself with one other person (the one other person who feels the same way) in some corner of the kitchen talking about how over-stimulated she is at the moment. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, just needs some time alone with her thoughts.

Which, is why, when I started out running today with three other people (two volunteers and a Beninese girl who works with one of the volunteers through GenEq’s scholarship/mentorship program) I didn’t think it would last that long. I fully expected to run away, if you will, after a couple minutes.

Then we started chatting. I don’t really remember what we even talked about. All I remember from those 18 kilometers was that it lasted 18 kilometers and, all of a sudden (well kind of. 18 km is still long), we were left with 5. When those 5 kilometers started to feel like they were going to drag out forever, that was when I finally decided that it was time to leave the others for a while.

What I realized, though, as I was left alone on the road with only Aloe Blacc’s World Cup theme song looping in my ears, was that while I physically alone, I would never be alone on this run. This run, this tour, was about so much more than my ability to run the 23 km between my village and Savalou. It didn’t matter that I had momentarily left everyone else behind. All the volunteers who had organized this run, every volunteer who had run before me and will run after me, every girl who had benefited from our scholarship program, every girl who had realized that she was allowed to want and deserved to want so much more than she has been told she could want and deserve from her society, all these people were running with me.

One of my jobs as the editor of this blog is to update our list of sponsors from our fundraising, which means that I see every individual in the United States that believed that what we do here is worth giving $10 or $50 or $100. A few days ago, I was working on this update when I saw the names that I had been waiting and hoping would appear: the names of my friends and family back home. Seeing those names that I knew on the list in some way clicked with me. I started to figure out that this was bigger than me.

And it was this that I was thinking about in those last minutes of my leg of the tour. What I realized in those last kilometers as each of my footsteps landed on the highway, each slowly but surely taking me closer to my destination, was that I had so many people running right beside me.

I have this student, part 4

Romain never smiles. He rarely talks. He mostly just sleeps, or at least that’s what is appears he’s doing in the back row, leaning against the back chalkboard of my 7th grade class.

He’s the class-appointed person who erases the board, but it’s rare that another boy doesn’t beat him to the task at the end of class. He’s old for the seventh grade, not because he’s retaking the class, but because his parents started him at school late. He’s becoming used to being one of the oldest students in class. That he knows the age difference between him and me and me is significantly less than that between me and my other students is what gives him his gravitas. He’s taken all the stereotypical behaviors of teenaged boys and amplified them through a Beninese speaker: he lies about where he’s going when he leaves class, he never does the activities I put on the board and he doesn’t seem to care about any of it.

Today, in Romain’s class, we were playing a vocabulary review game where I wrote all the words from the last unit on the board and the students had to smack the word I called out with a fly swatter. (We had finished the curriculum weeks ago - I was reaching to find things to do in class.) I had divided the class into boys v. girls. The stakes were high.

I was waving up the students two-by-two to take their turn at the front of the room. Romain was begrudgingly paired with Odette, another older student in the class. 

I called out the word “doctor.” Romain looked around the board for a moment. Then his fly swatter solidly collided with the word. When he pulled back, the plastic was marked with white chalk dust.

The boys erupted in cheers.

And Romain, as he handed the wire handle back to me, smiled.

May 23rd: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 14.07 km

The last three kilometers, all I can think about is water. Drinking Nalgene after Nalgene of it. Pouring it over my head in the shower. Jumping into a pool of it. I didn’t start until too late in the day and the noon sun has zapped most of the water from my body by just halfway through this long run. The next hill I climb, I pretend is a waterfall.

The last two kilometers, my thoughts turn to other beverages: cold Coke, cold Sprite, cold Gatorade. I used to run with a bottle of water. Now, I run with a GPS. I begin to severely question this trade.

The last kilometer, I am swirling the remaining spit in my mouth around, trying to distract myself from how much longer there is until the water severely lacking in my system is replenished.

When I make it home, the first place I head is my kitchen and my water filter, resisting the urge to just stick my head under it and open my mouth like it’s a faucet.

I stop drinking 2.5 liters later.