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You Never Know Where Peace Corps Will Take You

A well being constructed in Burkina Faso in the mid-1970s.

Kom ka ye, teng ka ye (no water, no village) was a common proverb. Fela Kuti sang truthfully at the time, "Water no get enemy." There was demand for our services.

As one first saw it on the main trail going north, from a high point of these mostly flatlands, my new community was spread out, tan and brown compounds well-spaced, almost picturesque, on the opposite rise above a seasonal marigot. We dipped through the bas-fond in a Peugeot 404 pickup truck and rose again on a wide dirt trail—I won't call it a road because four-wheeled vehicles rarely passed there. It was called a piste on French maps.

I came as a well-digger, living in a three-room, mud-brick, tin-roofed house at the crossroads of that piste and another one trucks never took, but many people did to get to the outdoor market, under the trees about a half-mile beyond my house. The trail went on west from there and split in many directions to small villages, many of which I would later dig wells in. Getting to know the trails took trial and error, learning which trail at which fork led to which village.

The only way to know was to ask after I'd followed one until I knew I was lost and came upon a fellow traveler, who would give me directions in a language I could, at first, barely understand. I learned to understand because I had to. That's a pretty good allegory for my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid- to late-seventies: learning by doing and depending on the kindness of strangers.

I soon moved out of the house at the crossroads because I felt lonely, living in a goldfish bowl, and things were being pilfered from my house while I was gone. My unroofed latrine was so close to the trail to the market that I could see women's heads pass by carrying burdens while doing my business. The chief of the village decided to have me move in with a couple of his grown sons and their small families in what was called his "garden" compound, located on the edge of the marigot near a mango grove and a row of tall kapok trees that gave nice shade in the heat of the day. My fluency in the language and the customs then grew fast, along with my sense of belonging. It changed my life.

Forty-five years ago, when I lived there, the village's human population numbered about 2,000. It was a mosaic of small family compounds, each surrounded by the fields on which families grew their food. The compounds consisted of several usually round mud-brick huts with conical straw roofs, or sometimes a rectangular hut with a flat-top roof of sticks, straw, and mud layered across beams cut from straight saplings. A perimeter wall of mud bricks or thick mats woven of millet stalks joined the huts together, usually forming an oval around a central courtyard of hard earth that was always swept clean. Within that space, sections of the compound, depending on the size of the family, might be divided by other partitions but leaving a central courtyard for receiving guests.

In the courtyard, people ate, men separately from women and children; the women pounded grain in large wooden mortars, people visited each other and on some market-days drank together the millet beer called dam (DAHM) in Moore or dolo in French and English, brewed by the women for sale from the grain we grew.

In the same courtyard, the cocks chased the hens, tried with some success to impregnate them, and fought their serial battles with each other for dominance. Sometimes they fought to near death before a young cock gave up to one older and stronger—until the younger grew stronger and the older weak with age. We saved him from death in battle so we could eat him before it was too late. We—the men, that is—would observe and comment on the cockfights, though we never started or encouraged them, and we occasionally broke them up to prevent death.

My male companions were chiefly Benewende, his younger brother Felix, and Mark, a man about my age (20 or so) who lived in a compound to the north and was a hereditary servant to Benewende and Felix's extended family, for they were sons of the village chief. Although slavery had been legally abolished, Mark, a bachelor, could be ordered to do things by the chief and generally helped the family with planting and harvesting. He lived with his own parents and siblings while mixing socially—though deferentially—with the children of the chief's line to whom he was bound. He could have easily gone off to make a life elsewhere, and a visitor from abroad would not have been able to tell that he was of a different caste than others in the village. He had Mossi facial scars, was generally free to do as he pleased, and regarded Benewende, who was no wealthier than himself except for having two wives, as his elder friend.

Outside, close by the walls of the compound, we grew corn, which needed more nutrients than millet or sorghum but ripened earlier, and so provided a staple in the last weeks before the millet and sorghum could be harvested. The nutrients came from the droppings of chickens and a couple of sheep that, in the daytime, mostly scavenged outside the compound for food, the hens staying close to the walls to protect their chicks from hawks above.

Planted just beyond the corn, and taking up most of the two or three acres around the compound, we grew sorghum and millet, with beans, peanuts, and tobacco planted between the rows closer to the compound. Down in the marigot we would plant a few rows of yams and manioc, hard to get in that region and needing longer periods of moisture than the grains that ripened later. We had two pigs—until we slaughtered one of them—that rooted around mostly behind the compound under the kapok trees, where it was cool and moist until about November. They ate anything in sight, even feces, including my own—peering at me hungrily at eye level as I squatted and then gobbling it up as soon as I was done. Sometimes they would wander further to the margin of the well to wallow in mud and spilled water until the women shooed them away. They would come in in the evening to sleep in the compound, close to the entrance.

Of all this we were made.

The chickens roosted at night on the compound walls, awakening us before dawn with their rustling, cackling, and then crowing at break of dawn. Thus began the sunrise crescendo: the shuffling of the sheep, the barking of the dogs as the horizon brightened, the grunting of the pigs, and finally the reverberant eeeee-haawwww of the donkey, tied just outside the compound's broad threshold, which broke our hold on the last remnants of sleep and dream. Then we all began rustling around, emerged from our huts, gently shook hands, and greeted each other in the soft familiar tones of polite people living together.

I was fortunate to be a well-digger, a job I presumably was chosen for because of prior construction experience, some leadership experience, and my knowledge of French. Two local masons, Korego Roger and Daoega Kirsi, worked with me—exclusively in villages that asked for us. The village was up in the northeastern section of the Mossi plateau and was completely dry most months of the year. Kom ka ye, teng ka ye (no water, no village) was a common proverb. Fela Kuti sang truthfully at the time, "Water no get enemy." There was demand for our services.

We trained people and helped them dig (with pick and shovel) and construct the concrete-sheathed wells that protected the purity of the water, wells that would not get washed out every year or so. I will never forget the sense of teamwork and community in those many villages. When we hit water, the word spread quickly, and people would come with their clay pots from miles around. The women and girls no longer had to walk so far for water as before or camp out overnight, waiting for a well to refill. And they returned to their families with cleaner water.

When I tried to get the local sous-prefet to sustain the program under the supervision of Korego and Kirsi after I left, he listened politely but did nothing. He couldn't get the funding from the government, I suppose. So, although the wells remained, the wells program ended in that area when I left, though there was still plenty of work to do.

This is the sort of frustration with the fonctionnaire class I often felt. Too many (not all) seemed to disdain the common people, adopting, I thought, the attitudes of the former French colonial fonctionnaires. (The gendarmes I encountered were much worse.) Yet, I also came to understand the pressures under which they worked. It made me more aware of how the legacies of colonialism continued to grip the continent.

I remember going to speak with the chief one day and finding him in his receiving room, finishing up a prayer with a Muslim marabout who had come from afar to visit. I was surprised. I waited till they were done, and then the man left. I told the chief I was confused: I thought he was traditional, practiced the Mossi customs. I'd seen him taking part in the Catholic services a while back, despite having thirty-nine wives or whatever. Now, this. Looking me in the eye, he held up an index finger and said, "There's only one god, right?"

Another memory: I'd been asked by the chief of another village to start a well for them. I rode out there, where I was not known. As I rolled up to the entrance of the compound, a little boy, maybe three years old, was standing stock-still in the middle of the entrance on locked knees, naked. His mother was sitting in the shade of a wall, her feet straight out before her, shelling peanuts into her lap. As I pulled up, the boy wanted to run but could not. His jaws worked spasmodically, his eyes spitting tears—but no sound at first. And then a piercing wail cut the air, and the boy began peeing involuntarily—the very image of stark craven fear—as his mother scooped up the peanuts from her pagne and put them aside, stood up, brushed off her pagne, and tightened it around her waist, then hurried to him and swooped him up onto her hip. She stood quietly studying me, a little afraid.

An old man came out and took charge—the chief—and after exchanging greetings, we went out to pick a place to dig a well. When I got home, Bangba, the eldest wife in the family I lived with, told me that it was my long stringy hair, not so much my color, that frightened people. I looked like the Mossi image of a ghost.

I settled down in my stick chair in the shade with a calabash of water and Julius Nyerere's Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. He based his conception of African socialism not on Marxism and class conflict, which descends from Adam Smith and capitalist relations, but on African village life and the moral claims of kin. Land belongs to the commons (as in my village at the time). Everyone has a right to use it, but none can own it.

The small community where I lived was well-known for its funerals and mask traditions, including the annual Soucou festival in April, when mask clans came from villages all over the area and performed over a period of several days, pounding out impossible rhythms to the accompaniment of long drums while we stood and watched. Needless to say, there was no entrance fee. The funeral ceremonies—which took place in the dry season—most often involved mask dancing as well, and involved the entire village in which they took place. For three days, we had to suspend work in any village celebrating a funeral.

These examples give some sense of the rhythm of my life in those times, vibrating between unexpected learning experiences in the course of work, living, and reflection inflected by reading paperbacks from the Peace Corps library, followed by food and family conversation. About once every two months, I would travel to Ouagadougou for a weekend well-diggers' meeting—a day-long ride on my moped—and join other volunteers, visit some bars, and speak English for a while, maybe go for a swim at the embassy pool. I'd buy things in the Grand Marche for people back "home" (there were always many requests) and pick up more books from the library.

Now, the village I lived in has an earthen dam and an enormous reservoir extending far to the west, viewable on GoogleEarth. I'm told it's the third-largest body of water in Burkina Faso. The area was transformed: rice paddies, vegetable gardens, fish, crocodiles (!), a road regularly traveled by bush taxis and trucks (!!)—all inconceivable in 1975-1977. These changes nourished a growing market economy and altered the social dynamics of the village. Most of the houses now are rectangular with metal roofs and clustered tightly together along the main roads. I'm told there's a mayor now, not a chief.

I lost contact with the family I lived with during Thomas Sankara's regime in the 1980s, when my letters started being answered by people I'd never met, as far away as Ivory Coast. (The people with whom I lived could not read or write; someone would read and translate my letters to them in Moore.) Well-diggers like me are no longer needed there, and that's the way it should be. Many years later, a couple of volunteers taught English there in a junior high school that didn't exist in my time. It's enough that I made a difference for a few years while that work—that life—made a difference in me that reverberates in everything I do.

It's common to hear the Peace Corps equated with neocolonialism, especially in the academic environment in which I make my living today, but in my experience, the work had exactly the opposite effect. I arrived with an unhealthy dose of the early-'70s-style primitivism that was rampant in elite universities at the time, and within three months, realized how ignorant it made me. I abandoned the abstractions of my college education and attended to the work at hand and the people with whom I lived. I have never quite accommodated myself to American culture since—its wastefulness, its worship of money at the expense of the commonwealth, its dearth of community life, its racial etiquette.

And yet I've learned not to speak of it here. People can't understand; they plug the stories into American categories of aspiring missionaries, white saviors, neo-colonists. For years I struggled with that feeling of alienation. I became an American studies scholar and have spent most of my career as a critic of the racial mores, materialistic addictions, and ecological errors of the United States. That might have happened anyway, but I now have a point of reference that is impossible to forget.

One of my sons, who is African American, joined the Peace Corps a generation later. He taught high school chemistry in Mozambique to hundreds of pupils and, after coming home, got an internship at the NIH's vaccine research center, hoping to eventually help combat viral diseases globally. His lab ended up developing the first COVID-19 vaccine, now in final-phase trials. Now he's working on a PhD in immunology. You never know where the Peace Corps will take you.