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Scenic images from the field

An Inconvenience is an Adventure, Rightly Viewed

Sierra Leone

At dusk the first day upcountry -- a day filled with colorful uniformed school children singing us into town, dancing masqueraders, speechmaking, and the moment I'd anticipated with the most hopes and fears, moving into the home of a local family -- I learned how to take a bath. It wasn't a trivial exercise.

I'd returned from an introductory walk through town overcome with physical exhaustion and jet lag. Amadu, the youth who seemed to be in charge of me, immediately came to the door, however, carrying a pail. I took the hint, gathered a towel, cup, and soap from an overstuffed suitcase, and after self-consciously locking the door, willed my middle-aged body and overwhelmed mind to complete one more activity.

At fourteen, Amadu was gangly. He lugged the brimming bucket of water in one hand and motioned with the other to follow him to an enclosed area attached to the privy. In careful secondary school English he asked if I knew how to take an African bath. I hesitated at the unexpected question. He mimed: Fill cupped hands, splash, rub all over, splash. A smile flickered. "That," he said, "is African bath. All clean." He shrugged, turned abruptly, and took a few steps toward the house. There he sat on a ragged stump of a palm beside a spotted kid. She bleated and strained at her tether.

I grinned as I entered the stall gingerly. Rusty metal, supporting sticks, and sandy earth were all there was to see. No hooks. No bench nor shelves. The semblance of privacy was questionable. Through the lacework of decaying corrugated metal walls I could watch a half dozen children just a few feet away hacking open coconuts with a machete. A farmer ambled by with a lumpy, overstuffed bag balanced on his head and a hoe in his hand. I could hear him breathe. Amadu's mother, Isatu, had warmly welcomed me earlier that day. Now she bent over a supper fire near the back wall of their pink mud-brick house.

I stood a moment transfixed. After years of pausing before museum dioramas and dreaming of this day, Africa surrounded my curious eyes, animated, real. Despite humid heat, harsh conditions, and nervous fears I burst with the thrill of it all.

The latrine -- a bath area and privy combined -- was at the far edge of their clean, bare earthen yard near the border of dense brush. The privy was roofed. The bath stall remained open to the sky. Walls were built from recycled sheets of roofing tied or nailed onto raw sticks crusted with dry, flaking bark. Shaggy coconut and oil palm trees spread their fronds overhead. Underfoot the sandy ground was lightly graveled except where Amadu set the pail on a broken chunk of concrete.

The privy -- a two-holer -- was a walled concrete slab with small squat holes partitioned, one side for the family and one for me. Surprisingly, the area didn't stink. I noisily scraped aside the wooden cover with one foot and looked in. The pit was scary -- ten feet or more deep.

I disrobed cautiously, trying not to drag my clothes in the water or drop them, and strung them with the towel over the most eroded holes. An older boy crossed the yard to the well by the house and glanced at the enclosure. I felt intensely self-conscious. A brouhaha of ridiculous insecurities and cross-cultural questions battled good sense: "They must be curious. Can they see in? Do they want to see in? Does it matter if they see in? Why do I care? It's so dumb to care. Take the bath."

I'd purchased a plastic cup in an open market on a training exercise the day before, though I never imagined its usefulness. Now I poured water over my sweat-soaked head. It flowed and meandered in sensuous, soothing rivulets down to my sandaled toes. I soaped up well and began to relax, continuing to watch the world around through the wall.

A pair of children nearby, poised like frogs, bounced forward and back, jousting. A skinny dog loped up to the fire where a pot, supported over coals by three stones, steamed. He flopped beside a tall wooden mortar tipped on its side that a youngster straddled. One dusty foot stretched out and shoved the mutt away.

Palms arched silhouettes against the deepening dusk and rustled in a sudden breeze. It was a storybook moment, until the soap shot out of my hand. It ricocheted off a wall and landed in the sand. I wiped it off as best I could. It rocketed off again.

Slowly I rinsed, toweled, and tried to put on a muumuu, but my body was still wet. I toweled more and observed stars beginning to twinkle through the atmospheric haze. I was still dripping. In fact sweat was pouring out faster than I could dry. My clothes stuck. As I wrestled them on I envied Isatu in her lappa, a length of cotton cloth easily wrapped and knotted into place by women of the tropics.

Equatorial nights fall fast. When I emerged, not all so long after starting, it was dark. The Southern Cross hung off to my left. Amadu picked himself off the stump, took the empty pail from my hand and led the way back to the tiny pair of rooms I now called home. The giggling jousters had vanished and the other children, now under the eaves, barely glanced up. Mommy Isatu murmured kushe (hello) as I passed her still at work over the smoky fire.

Of course no one had noticed or cared about the routine event except me. It was a trivial activity. But it also became a private baptism into life as it would be -- public, complicated, and new, day after day. My desire to remember it all deepened that evening. For 799 days I often looked back, one gritty lesson after another, and thought, "If I'd gone home last week I'd have missed...."

J. Kinney Thiele (Sierra Leone)

Kinney was a health and rural development Volunteer. She helped the local community open an adult education center and taught health education to off-road villages. She holds an M.Ed. from the Unitersity of Massachusetts/Amherst.

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