I apologize for my absence. My writing comes in waves. I feed on inspiration, and this past month has been my hardest yet. Nevertheless I think it is important to share my experiences and my observations. Generally, it is my nature to reflect on the positives and ignore the harder aspects of Peace Corps. This has also gotten me into trouble: I believe I have been the target of some anger on behalf of some of our newer volunteers. By exaggerating the good and ignoring the hardships, I might have misrepresented life here. Oops.
But that is over. I’m in a funk. I have been hardened, broken.
It’s been a rough month. So many things have happened that have removed the cloud of blissful ignorance I created.
I floated around Bonga, ignoring the immense poverty around me. Going home and returning helped remind me of this. Increased inflation (40% annually) has lead to a desperation in the air. People are more aggressive. People are hungry.
Harassment is unavoidable in Peace Corps. It is a staple of our existence. Often it takes the form of begging. All day. Every day. We hate being sought after by panhandlers and children. You become desensitized to the children who come up to you with puppy dog eyes. They bring their hand to their mouth, imitating the act of eating. Then they show you one finger. Just one dollar. Just one.
What does it mean that this really annoys me? Sometimes, it makes me angry. I try not to make eye contact and want them to just leave me alone. I assume they just want money for candy and this helps me justify my lack of empathy.
But, the other day I was walking home from our local high school. A kid about my age caught up with me. I could tell he was a good kid. He asked me for money but it was different. He was my age, educated. He seemed to be embarrassed about asking me for money. I realized that he was hungry. He needed money for food.
I had a sales job before I came here. It was soul sucking and miserable. I could have been a good salesman, but my heart wasn’t in it. Asking people for money for something they don’t’ want – knowing that they hate you for asking. My ego couldn’t handle it. I didn’t last a month. But he was sacrificing his ego for dinner. It really hurt me to hear him. He didn’t want to ask but kept insisting.
Please, please just give me some food or bread. I can’t I thought. If I give it to him, the whole town will expect me to do the same for them tomorrow. At least, that’s what I think. I gave him an orange and a half loaf of bread. Was it to clear my conscience? Was it his tone that made me feel for him? Why did he get something when others haven’t? I’m not sure, but I believe it was his disposition. Or perhaps his desperation. Nevertheless, those kinds of moments are tough to shake.
I had another day at Chiri Hospital, following a hike through the forest. I toured the Malnutrition ward with two of the doctors, Jackie and Kari. On the way to the room, we pass the emergency room. Three kids suffering from tuberculosis are to my immediate right. One of them will definitely make it. The other two look very sick, unable to move, they are staring up at the ceiling. The mothers give me that same look – maybe he can help? Look at my baby! Help us.
The middle beds are empty. The third and last row has two individuals. One is suffering from an unknown ailment. He is sleeping. The other has a huge bandage on his head. Machete fight. He was almost scalped and will be lucky to survive the day.
We pass into a small room. Like the other room, it smells like a combination of sweat, hair, and diapers. It’s hot in this small room. Too much anxiety has coated these walls.
There are two children with their families. Both with stories that would turn a statue of a man into a 12 year old girl at a Justin Beiber funeral.
One child’s story is a success story. He came into the clinic two weeks ago. At age two, he weighed 12 pounds. Apparently he couldn’t move his arms or his legs, the result of severe malnutrition. His mother was dead I believe, and he was being cared for by his father and cousin.
But this baby had recovered. He also had more personality than every other child I’ve seen combined. His smile was bigger than his eyes, a hell of an accomplishment. He loved the camera, and attention. He loved boobs. He loved smiling. Yeah, he was a kid after my own heart. His head dwarfed the rest of his body. His legs stood out like withering branches on an old tree, like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. A stiff wind could knock him over. His knees were wrinkled and could not support the rest of his body. But he was going to survive.
Next to him sat a newly admitted child. His face was swollen, his eyes swollen shut. This was the result of extreme malnutrition. He was in the right place, but he was in dire condition. I really hope he survives.
All the while I’ve been preoccupied with planning a safari and gaining weight to look better. When all around me kids are starving, hungry, and dying.
Then came the robbery. A kid on my compound is mentally disabled. His name is Geramo and he is a wonderful kid with a lot of spirit. I really have a soft spot for him. He always runs up to me and hugs me when I’ve been gone for more than a day. He never allows me to do any work and insists on washing my clothes/laundry if he sees me doing them.
So it broke my heart when he and some local kids broke into my house and stole some money. I’ve given so much love to them and they still think of me as Mr. White Money Bags.
It turns out the parents of the kids put them up to it. Manipulate the child, steal from the wealthy folks on the compound. It has happened more than once, we’ve found out.
And here’s the real crusher. As of a week ago, the kids were headed to prison for a few weeks, the disabled kid I love was sentenced to a year in prison, and the parents were free as their was no evidence they were the masterminds. This was the complete opposite of justice.
So for a while, I walked around with my head down.
Fortunately, the other day, after pleading with the police, the charges were all dropped and everyone was freed. My friend Geramo is now with his mother.
It was a very tough month. Anyone who is joining Peace Corps should expect to have these moments: when nothing works, everyone sucks, the culture seems backwards and the poverty and desperation eats you inside. There is no happy ending here, just the hope that I can still make a difference and that the next month will bring more joy.