Cotton Love

Children find a silver lining to forced labor in Uzbekistan.

By Sara Hjelstrom - Peace Corps Volunteer, Uzbekistan (1998 -2000)

Their progress is plotted on the national news.

Their bags, weighted with stones, measured

against the quota, are sometimes counted

twice. They are, after all, children.

In Uzbekistan, my students are singing

slave songs as they bend

in the state cotton fields.

I taught them these songs,

but they tell me this slavery frees

them from sexual segregation.

As students are harvesting the snow from fields,

they are seeding forbidden love affairs,

here, where they sleep side by side

on the ground. They share eyes

over cold rice, and move beyond

the forbidden touch when the desires

of their silent bodies translate through wrists

and ankles in their evening dance.

My students tell me the horror of

cotton time: the meager food

charged against their student stipends,

the cups of water they wash in each morning,

their frozen and crooked fingers.

But when they return from their months

on the collective farm, wasted

and bright-eyed, with lovers in other micro-regions,

they only remember cotton love.

This poem was entered in the returned Volunteer category for the 2015 Peace Corps Poetry Contest. The contest received more than 1,000 submissions, representing over 50 years of Peace Corps service in more than 100 countries.

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