The Last One!

Okay, so I’m leaving Togo today and I really don’t know what to say! But I wanted to give all of you who’ve followed this blog a proper goodbye. So here are some parting thoughts:

First… THANK YOU! The fact that you read and (hopefully) enjoyed this blog really made me happy. A lot of the time I thought that sharing these stories was pointless, but thankfully you guys proved me wrong by reading and responding to them. It means so much to me that you stuck out these two years with me, even though I wasn’t the most coherent or consistent blogger haha. GRAND merci!! :)

Second… In honor of my friends who are just beginning their own Peace Corps adventures – shout out to Alli in Benin, Kiri in Samoa, and John in Ghana – I have consolidated a list of 5 Golden Rules for Being Happy and Sane (and Productive and Successful) in the Peace Corps. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the list also applies to life in general :) )

1. Don’t force yourself to do something you really don’t want to do.
Because being a martyr serves nobody, and it’s simply not worth it.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Because everyone’s process is different: trust yours.
3. Treat yo’self!
Because you deserve it!
4. Take care of one another.
Because none of us is in this thing alone.
5. Always bring along a book.
Because you never know when a meeting will start 3 hours late, or when going to “help in the fields” will turn out not to be such a good idea.

Finally… Here is one of the greetings used ten million times a day in my local language of Moba:

Question: Manu?
Response: Manu kwa.

This roughly translates to:

Question: Is there sweetness?
Response: Only sweetness.

This is the best way I can sum up how I feel about finishing Peace Corps and leaving Togo. After the exhilaration, exhaustion, clarity, confusion, stillness, frustration, excitement, boredom, accomplishment, defeat, joy, dreariness, looooong days and hard goodbyes, there is only sweetness.

At the end of it all, only sweetness remains.

The Corny One

This is going to sound SO corny, but as of late I’ve taken to watching the crops grow. My final days in my village coincide with the annual harvest, so the crops provide a very visual indicator of how close I am to finishing up my Peace Corps service and moving back to America: when the crops go, I go. So these past few weeks I’ve eagerly watched as the fields of rice soak up the rain and the millet starts to bend under the weight of its grain. (Hey, that rhymes!)

In a recent Fresh Air interview, my storytelling idol/perpetual crush Ira Glass quipped, “I hate symbolism.” I tend to as well – especially if it’s sloppy and/or crafted by anyone who is not named Toni Morrison – but I can’t help appreciating the tidy synchronicity of this particular delusion: landscape as metaphor, nature mirroring my personal trajectory as if we’re somehow in conspiracy together. I know it’s silly (and further proof that I have way too much time on my hands), but it’s comforting to scan the fields and see the corn a little fatter, the cotton a little fluffier, and me a little closer to moving on.

The One with the Pee Bucket

NOTE: This story was previously published for the amusement of my Peace Corps peers, so some references may not translate. A pee bucket (or chamber pot if you wanna get all medieval) is exactly what it sounds like: a bucket you pee in at night so you don’t have to venture outside.

Written March 7

Each day bears new lessons for us Peace Corps Volunteers, yet some lessons come at too high a cost. Don’t believe me? Read on, dear Reader, read on.

It was around 14:30 on that fateful day. Groggily shedding the daze of my noontime nap, I noticed that in my hasty dash to an early-morning meeting I had forgot to dump out my pee bucket from the night before. Pee bucket?! You might exclaim in disgust. What kind of filthy good-for-nothing are you? A perfectly imperfect village-dwelling one, thank you very much. And I’m not exactly good for nothing; I generate more than my fair share of embarrassing moments, and that counts for something.

So, the pee bucket needed emptying, and it needed it bad. I grabbed it by the handle and headed outside towards the little mud wall over which I dump stuff – stuff like rotten eggs and greasy black sachets and day-old pâte that my anorexic dog refused to eat. And, of course, the daily contents of my pee bucket, which accumulates not only pee but toothpaste spit, dirty dishwater, and an unlucky cricket or two.

Moving on autopilot, I hoisted up the bucket and, habitually tossed that appetizing stew over the wall with a swift rocking motion I reflexively followed with my eyes, only to see – oh, the horror! – the scrawny figure of a little girl digging through my heap of random wonders.

Time turned to slow motion as I saw the stream inch towards the crown of her head, woefully cognizant of the coming doom yet powerless to stop it. Damn reaction time, never quick enough when you need it to be. So there I stood, cringing as 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Girl: “Eeee!”

Me: “Ah!!!”

Girl (looking up with eyes widened in terror): “—”

Me (grimacing in sympathy): “Ah! Sorry, sorry, that’s dirty water!”

Girl: “—”

Me: “Come here! You need to wash up!”

And so it was that the tiny ball of terror, perfectly drenched in the goods, crept into my compound without a word and allowed a very panicked American chick to douse her in water and copious quantities of fruity body wash. Mere moments later, she looked up at me with the beady visage of a wet rat and squeaked out an “I’m fine!” with an insistence that could only mean she wanted to escape this scenario and erase it from memory as quickly as possible. In full agreement, I splashed her with one final cup of water and escorted her back to the road. Poor thing was on her way to afternoon classes at the primary school.

30 guilt-ridden minutes later, my racing thoughts were interrupted by rounds of “Excusez” coming from the gate. Poor Thing was back, with a posse. And a spokesperson, apparently, because a taller, ballsier companion pointed at her and deadpanned, “It still smells.”

After more apologies, I darted inside to grab my body wash as well as a Dove bar (of the soap, not chocolate, variety). Forcing them into her frozen arms, I apologized again and gently insisted that she go home and take a proper shower. Her posse, 40 kids strong, seemed content with this resolution and away they went, leaving me with nothing but a heart full of shame and a mind branded with the pitiable image of Poor Thing.

The moral of this story should be clear by now. You may think that you have no impact on your community, but there is at least one thing you can do to make your neighborhood a better place for all – especially those who enjoy finding treasures in your trash. So please, dear Reader, I beg of you: Always, always, look before you toss.

The One for David Rakoff

DISCLAIMER: This is one of those “weird” pieces I warned you about. I wasn’t gonna post it, but then I realized that you’re all adults (really awesome adults!) and you can handle a little weirdness. So here’s another unsent letter to a person I admire. And David Rakoff is certainly one to admire. By some vague yet insistent impulse, I feel compelled to honor him – or his life, memory, legacy, whatever you hold onto when someone dies – and I hope you join me.

Written August 19

Dear David Rakoff,

It feels a bit strange to be writing to you now that you’re dead. And as far as you are – or would be – concerned, when you’re dead you’re dead. No transmutation of form or consciousness, no reincarnation as a housecat or hippopotamus, no return of soul to that from which it came. Your heart stopped beating, your lungs stopped breathing, and, with a brain no longer oxygenated, the neural impulses that constituted “you” fell still. So if you no longer exist, I’m not exactly sure to whom I’m writing. But I’ll write anyway.

I write because you did. As anyone who used to read my blog could intuit from its protracted dearth of posts, I temporarily lost faith in the value of circulating one’s personal reflections on a public platform. Who cared what I had to say? This question surely troubles every writer; it’s only natural to squirm in hesitation each time you lay bare your words with the inherently narcissistic presumption that someone else will, or should, gain something from them. And for that matter, David, why even bother writing with sages like you out there meeting our collective need for words, spinning perfectly finessed blends of memoir, wit, and verbal acuity into the purest literary gold?

I can only assume you grappled with similar self-doubt before publishing an essay or recording a radio piece, so I’d like to thank you for getting over it, for sharing anyway. Your words have meant the world to me, especially during this particular stretch of madness that I will one day recall fondly as “the good ol’ Peace Corps days.” Your words have soothed and innervated and nudged awake dozing corners of my imagination, my humanity. Without even knowing I was alive, you made my life better. You didn’t know this would happen… or did you?

That’s when it clicked for me: you shared your stories not out of narcissism but humility, placing a gallant trust in the inevitability that someone, somewhere, would be grateful you had. You said what you said, without apology or amendment, because that’s what you had to say – and that, you knew, was enough.

Yesterday I found myself in the throws of what some might call a total breakdown but what I prefer to term a “personal growth experience.” Upon denying my earnest – though, I must admit, quite annoying – requests for a visa, a supercilious border guard launched a particularly callous harangue mere inches from my face. “Nobody invited you here,” he spat (literally), among other pleasantries. On a better day I might have mustered the poise to handle such an incident with relative decorum, acknowledging that while he was by no means entitled to spit in my face, nor was I entitled to whine my way into Benin. But my best behavior was nowhere to be seen. Instead I unlatched the gate on a flood of hot tears and expletives withdrawn from my solvent treasury of Inappropriate Emotional Reactions. Sputtering breathless indictments in broken French (“It’s not… not good to treat a woman in this manner; you’re… you’re… mean!”), I plodded away in a huff of shame and desperation, scanning the decrepit roadside for an escape hatch or a portal to an alternate dimension. With no such luck, I had no choice but to withstand the stares and catcalls of curious children and ballsy young men grabbing the popcorn for their preferred genre of entertainment, The Angry White Girl Show:

“Hey, whitey!” one calls over.

“Shut the &%$@ up, you %*#^ing @$$holes!” I seethe in reply.

They laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Well #^@&, I think to myself, inviting back the tears, they won.

Of course they did; I’d lost the moment I arrived in this country with this gender and this skin. I’d tried and tried… and tried and tried. But here I was, a disintegrating heap of hurt, and what bothered me more than these men was who I’d become in their presence: a vindictive, infantile, quivering harpy, the definitive opposite of peace. With mounting shame, I listed all the ways I needed to be better, kinder, calmer; to be the version of myself who could meet invectives with equanimity. See the bigger picture. Be peace.

Then came your words, David, recalling themselves from whichever hallowed brain lobe retains content from This American Life:

“I no longer have that feeling, although I remember it very well, that if I just buckled down to the great work at hand – lived more authentically, stopped procrastinating, cut out sugar – then my Best Self was just there, right around the corner… Yeah, no, I’m done with all that.”

Huh, I thought, symbolically erasing each and every item from my How to Be Better list, I’m done with all that.

And that felt better. Like peace. Or peace’s vindictive, infantile, quivering harpy of a sidekick who curses and cries and lashes out, then begrudgingly accepts that this is what is.

Thank you for divorcing your Best Self and being yourself. Thank you for being done with all that. And thank you for saying so, for laying bare your words so that I might hear them, that they might one day bring me a little peace at a West African border crossing that brought out my worst.

The Volunteery One

Getting people to work without pay is tricky business anywhere, but especially so in a place like Togo. We had it coming, having engineered the modern development industry into a lovely little Frankenstein powered by the revelation that the surest way to get a poor person (or any person) to do a community service is to pay them to do it. We like to pat ourselves on the back, viewing this as an improvement over the old-school system in which rich countries would simply swoop in and do the community service for the poor. Now we can empower them to do it themselves – hooray! And do it they will, so long as there’s a nice per diem or salary involved. Unfortunately this monetization of volunteerism has backfired in a serious way, rendering it needlessly difficult to convince people that they’re even capable of getting together in their spare time to, say, plant some trees or teach adolescents about safe sex – forget willing to do so.

And so we have it that a recurring theme in the daily life of any Peace Corps volunteer is persuasion: trying to cajole people into helping their community out of the goodness of their hearts or the feeble promise that someday down the line they’ll reap the fruits of their labors. This is not fun. It’s like – insert your preferred figure of speech here – pulling teeth or herding cats or tiptoeing on eggshells with the dullest tool in the shed or whatever. Our [nonmonetary] powers of persuasion are modest at best; we grow used to cancelled meetings and modest turnouts. It’s all in a day’s work.

Upon moving to my village, I pledged to never initiate a project on my own; if I’m gonna have to rally the troops for boot camp when the troops would rather be getting drunk on the corner, I wanna be doing it on behalf of someone else’s vision for a better community. Because my vision for a better community? Well, that would be so irrelevant and untenable that I scarcely bother thinking about it. For a while this sense of resignation felt like apathy – hell, sometimes it still feels like apathy. But mostly I try to consider it an appropriate response to the imperfect terrain of community development.

Still, it sucks to walk home from a failed meeting or botched event, mission not accomplished. During such a walk of shame this morning (apparently the middle school students and parents weren’t jazzed about watching my youth leadership group perform a skit about reforestation), my friend Awa and I got to talking about the nature of volunteerism. She is prone to interpreting things through a troubling racial binary (“You whites know how to work!” “We blacks can’t do anything right!” and so on) so I was trying, for the umpteenth time, to bring to light the universality of our predicament. Some people want to serve their community, some don’t, and you can’t force anyone to volunteer, it being an intrinsically voluntary act and all. It’s something we have to remind ourselves over and over again: fighting the good fight can be a lonely pursuit.

Awa turns to me with the expression of someone who has just taken a swig of sour milk and says, “Il y a les bêtes partout, eh?”

There are idiots everywhere, huh?

Yep. There are.

Fortunately for our idiot-filled world, there are also superstars everywhere. I am SO lucky to have encountered many of them during my two years in Togo, people with vision and heart and the kind of determination that all but guarantees success. I cannot even begin to tell you how humbling and inspiring it is to witness such greatness in Togo, a country that does pretty much everything possible to inhibit greatness. This, above all else, gives me hope.

The One Starring Oprah!

Last year, to celebrate my one-year anniversary in Togo, I treated myself to (guilty pleasure alert) a subscription to O Magazine. This was the best decision ever because not only does it deliver me fresh reading material, but it provides fodder for the village youth that like to come hang out in my front courtyard when they’re bored. So one afternoon I was out reading some old copies of O with Awa and Afia, two of my favorite girls in the neighborhood.

“Who’s the woman in all the pictures?” Awa asks.

“She’s the richest woman in America!” Afia responds. I had told her that once, hoping to frame Oprah as the powerhouse she is.

They pause and consider Oprah’s picture for a long moment. Then, Awa ventures:

“She’s white, right?”

I sigh. “Look at her! Does she look white to you?”

They give me blank stares. “Uh… yes?”

“No, she’s black.”

They still can’t believe me. “Black like this?” Afia says, pointing to the skin on her forearm.

“Yes. Like that.”

“Where is she from?”

“America.”

“No, where was she born?”

Another sigh. “America.” I flip to a page with Oprah’s baby picture on it (leave it to Oprah to print her own baby picture in her magazine). “This is her when she was a baby, in America. That is a black baby.”

The next question comes from Awa: “Does she know that Africa exists?”

“Yes.”

“What about Togo?”

“Uh… that’s debatable.”

“What about Nadjoundi?”

“No.”

“We need to write her a letter and tell her that there is a village called Nadjoundi in a country called Togo, and black people live there. Then maybe she’ll give us some of her money.” (This is such an awesome plan that I’m totally making sure they do this… stay tuned.)

Anyway, this is not the first time that I’ve had to clarify someone’s race for a Togolese person, even when it seems obvious (to me at least). Fascinating, right?

I’ve never been too keen on academic research (sorry, Dr. Wheatley) but I think someone else out there needs to turn this into a study. The basic premise would be to show assorted photographs to people from Africa and see how often they could correctly identify race. The photographs would depict people of varied races in varied settings (on a high fashion runway, working in a factory, etc.), and the study participants could be stratified by multiple characteristics (level of income, education, access to media, urban/rural residency, etc.). My hypothesis is that some people in rural Africa (like my dear friends Awa and Afia) discern race not from skin color but by indicators of wealth. Oprah, for instance, displays many indicators of wealth: expensive clothes and jewelry, American nationality, and the fact that she appears on the cover of her own magazine every month. This is how they could see a picture of her, see the unambiguous color of her skin, and still deduce that she is a white woman. Or that’s my theory at least – get on this, academia, wouldn’t this be such an interesting study?

The One Where I Don’t Stop

Hi everyone! Hope all is well stateside. Sorry that I’ve all but abandoned this here blog… In my defense, I did write a couple posts this year, but I deemed them too weird for public consumption and decided to spare you the trial of reading them. You’re welcome. But yeah, I’m still alive, still in Togo, preparing to finally wrap up my stint in the Peace Corps next month (!). Hopefully I’ll have some poignant last words for you by then (don’t hold your breath), but in the meantime, enjoy this little gem :)

I was walking home from a funeral last Sunday when my friend Kannante called out to me from across the road. “Heidi! Heidi!”

“Yeah, hi. What’s up?”

“We need your help with something! It’s important!” He waves me over to his posse, a group of young guys a few shots of moonshine deep.

I sigh and walk over. “Yes?”

“We have a question concerning hip hop,” he begins, completely earnest. With that single phrase, my day went from average to awesome. This is gonna be good. “Is it a style of dress or a type of music?”

The group looks to me with pleading eyes, awaiting my answer as though I’m some sort of OG oracle, a priestess of the ancient order of Grandmaster Flash.

“Well, it’s both,” I reply, trying to be an impartial ambassador of hip hop culture. “But the music came first. And the dance.”

Pandemonium breaks out. “See, the music was first!” yells another boy, claiming victory in some kind of tacit chicken-or-egg bet.

“The music is the primary focus,” I add, editorializing a bit. “The style of dress wouldn’t really be prominent without the music.”

They swarm me with a slew of follow-up questions. Kannante in particular would like to know if he were to launch his own hip hop clothing line, would people be able to tell from looking at an outfit that he was the designer?

“Maybe…” This is above my paygrade. I consider telling them to please direct all further questions about brand management to Shawn Carter or Sean Combs.

Another friend is waiting up for me, so I politely excuse myself from the debate. “Thank you so much, Heidi!” they say, each enthusiastically shaking my hand.

This has to be one of my prouder moments as a human being. Never would I have expected for a group of young black men to deem me the definitive authority on all matters hip hop. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream I never knew I had… but honestly? It kinda felt like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream I never knew I had.

Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.