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.