It hardly seems possible that two years ago I was watching, more than a little teary-eyed, as the official Peace Corps Land Cruiser pulled away from my new home and headed slowly out of my village. I had heard stories of Volunteers being dropped off in their new homes, only to go quickly chasing after the vehicle exclaiming, “Wait—I’m not ready yet!” I had laughed at those stories at the time, but as the Land Cruiser faded from sight, I felt a kinship with those fabled Volunteers, understanding now how it felt to realize you were on your own in a place that seemed so foreign to anything you had ever known. With a combination of euphoria and trepidation, I waved one last goodbye at the car that couldn’t even be seen anymore, turned, and walked slowly toward my house to start my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mahon, Burkina Faso.
It’s now two years later and last week I was the one driving away, being waved at by a crowd of villagers as I officially ended my service and said goodbye to the people who once seemed so foreign and now are so utterly familiar. My last days in the village were amazing. Although I always knew the people in Mahon liked me well enough, their warm words and gestures over the past week were unbelievably touching. Aside from imploring me to stay on and promising to do their best to find me an African husband, they showered me with thanks, blessings, tons and tons of peanuts, and five chickens! (My neighbor wanted to give me a goat and seemed genuinely disappointed when I explained there was no way I could transport a goat to the United States, let alone to the capital of Burkina.) Although no official announcement had been made, somehow the entire village seemed to know I was leaving soon, and thus I spent the better part of the week repeating “Amina” (the traditional response meaning “Amen”) to such benedictions as: “May God bless your parents for giving birth to you,” and “May God keep you in good health and give you many children.” The villagers’ concern and well-wishes for my family—people they had never even met—only underscored the warmth and hospitality for which the Burkinabe people are known. Aside from the constant benedictions, the villagers also had a request for me: Il ne faut pas nous oublier…. Quite simply, “Don’t forget us.” For me, this was a request that was impossible to respond to; I did not know how to find the words to make them understand that I could never forget them or their kindness—that these people will always have a special place in my heart for opening up their village and their customs to me.
My last night in Mahon, the village threw an all-night party for me outside my house. Celebrations that lasted until the wee hours of the morning were the norm in Mahon, and my closest friends knew that I had never quite mustered the stamina for these events and was usually in bed fairly early. But in the days leading up to the party, I was told, “You are not going to get to go to sleep this night!” And they were nearly right. For hours, we danced under an African sky full of stars as the local balafon (traditional xylophone) players performed their music. Later, the theater group I had worked so hard to establish staged their skits for the crowd. People kept asking me to get out my camera and take photos, but I politely refused. I kept saying it was too dark for photos and, although it was, the real reason was that I knew pictures would never adequately capture the scene in front of me, nevermind all the emotions I was feeling. I closed my eyes and took a series of mental snapshots: the musicians’ hands moving furiously upon their instruments, the circular conga-like line snaking around me, and the children on the edge of the crowd giddily playing tag the way any kids in America would.
The next morning, I awoke early after a few hours of sleep. Mahon was quiet. I had never once been awake before the villagers (or the roosters), but this time, all was silent as I put the last of my things together and I looked around my little house. Soon, a small crowd had formed outside, and 35 people escorted me to wait for the bus. When the bus pulled up, I was surprised by my own emotions. During their two years of service, there are certainly many moments when Volunteers fantasize about going home, about finishing service and saying, “I am done!” But now that that moment was finally here, it was a hard reality to know that I may never see these people again.
The Burkinabe have an interesting custom for goodbyes. When you leave to go on a long journey, you must shake hands with the left hand. This is quite significant because normally doing anything with your left hand is culturally inappropriate and is actually quite rude. But the custom holds that now you must shake hands with your left because it indicates that you have to return at some point to rectify this wrong. As the bus pulled up, my friend Clarisse held out her left hand for me to shake. I felt as if I had been stabbed as it finally sunk in that this was really goodbye. This gesture was repeated over and over during a ca-cophony of even more benedictions, more “Aminas,” more pleas not to forget the people of the village, and mostly, my own repeating of “A ni ce kossbe…a ni ce…a ni ce.” (Thank you for everything…thank you.) The bus driver finally honked that it was time for me to board. By the time I had said my last goodbyes and managed to load my things—chickens and all—on the bus, I was quite a sight. Despite the fact that I had worked hard during my two years to understand and adapt to local customs, this morning I couldn’t help but break some of the rules. People in Burkina Faso do not cry in public. Yet, here I was, walking onto a bus crowded with startled, staring African passengers, crying like a baby.
Now that my Volunteer service has ended, people ask me if I think I have changed because of this experience. I may still be too close to the experience to tell. But there are little things I’ve noticed: I’ve gained a good deal more patience, I’ve lost a certain sense of vanity, and I’ve discovered the joys of eating with my hands and bathing under the stars. In general, however, I think I’ve learned less about me and more about the human condition. Burkina Faso is a terribly impoverished country and the sub-standards of living, particularly en brousse (in the bush), are something we as Americans could never fully understand. This is a country with more than 50 ethnic groups and languages, let alone a belief in magic and ritual that doesn’t easily fit into our Western logic. But what I have learned is that, despite all of this, the Burkinabe are not so different from us. Babies get born, children grow up, marriages take place, people die. People fight, love each other, develop friendships, have enemies. Some people work hard, some people don’t. And at night, people go to bed only to get up the next morning to do it all again. We go through this life with its good days and its bad days and, ultimately, it is our relationships with others that make all the difference. The beauty of the Peace Corps, of this experience, is realizing that I have much more in common with a group of African villagers than I ever thought possible. John F. Kennedy, in creating the Peace Corps, said that one of its goals would be to foster a cultural understanding between peoples all over the world. To me, that goal, beyond any work I did in Burkina Faso, is the one I am most proud to have achieved.
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