Silver Lining Microbes
I have been welcomed with open arms from my friends, crinkle-eyed smiles from my elders, and by the sticky kisses of children who love to poke at my chronic sunburn from the moment I set foot in Boki Diawe, a lovely road village in the northern region of Senegal.
My human experience has quadrupled since the start of my service and there is a zero percent chance I can give my community even half of what they have gifted me. My creativity has resumed growth after the couple stagnant years I spent out of college and my love of cultural and developmental education has pushed me back onto a path of inspired, career-mindedness.
That being said, a lot of the poetically put "human experience" that has been quadrupled here, has been kilometers outside of my comfort zone. As is famously said by the Peace Corps volunteer community, the Peace Corps is "The toughest job you'll ever love". With every small success comes a million moments of staring into a nonexistent camera with that notorious “Jim Halpert” look.
I had initially started blogging because that's just what one does--a way to let friends and family know that I’m alive and well. But my blog has evolved into a type of lens in which I can make that "Jim" look into and others can admire what a great impression I do of John Krasinski. It has become a big part of my service. Along with discovering a very niche skill I have (ability to draw goat-themed comics) It has helped me sift through my emotions, work, day dreams, aspirations and the moments that I want to immortalize so I can nostalgically pour over them fifteen years from now. **Below, I have pulled a piece from one of my blogs that I loved writing and showcases my relationship as a volunteer with a cultural event in Boki Diawe.**
Silver Lining Microbes
Senegalese celebrations can be pretty draining. First, I have to strain to fit myself into a complait, a two-piece traditional outfit that either fits like a sausage casing over your fish-and-rice-stuffed legs or accents your butt. I do not have what one would call an “accentable butt” and get told this constantly. My family continues to force feed me every carb-dense food available on this side of Senegal, and even though I tell them my carbs go to different cheeks, they still insist on challenging my genetics. Then, I waddle to a compound where tons of people from my village are dancing, cooking, eating and praying. Note that the women are sporting beautifully colored, handmade complaits, doing all of these activities with graceful ease. I get gawked at and called "toubaab" (foreigner) by the people who don't know me. I get hugged and welcomed by my friends. They warmly introduce me by the Senegalese name my host mother gave to me, Diedia (pronounced “Jay-juh”). My friends love to showcase my sub-par Pulaar to the people gawking who don’t know why I rolled up to a wedding in the middle of the desert looking like a suffocating crayon. When I run out of things to say in Pulaar, I normally stand awkwardly waiting for someone to tell me what to do.
On this particular day, I had been to not one, not two, but THREE celebrations-- a naming ceremony and two different weddings. I am terrible at turning down invitations or requests. Here, in America, everywhere. You remember in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the dad is like, "..somebody will say to her: take this bag down to the bus depot, and she'll DO it!" That's me. I'm Toula. I totally would do it. I tried to tell my host mom "no" to the third celebration, but she just gave me this look that translates loosely to: "Are you serious? After everything I've done for you, you can't show up at my sister's neighbor's second cousin's uncle's daughter's--who JUST got over a terrible bout of the flu, mind you--second-day-of-celebration-wedding?". So, I went, found my gaggle of grandmas and planted myself. I had exhausted my Pulaar and my patience. A grandma nudged me and passed me a bowl of water with a cup in it, mumbling. I said, "oh, I'm not thirsty. Thank you." She shook her head and gave me the bowl again, mumbling.
What is up with everyone in this village constantly taking care of me? Why am I flagged as some helpless child who needs to be fed, watered and walked on a daily basis? My resistance worn raw, I begrudgingly took the cup, scooped some water and drank. There. Happy? I wiped my mouth and when I looked up at my crew, they stared back at me in silent horror. Oh no. Did I drink blessed water? Is blessed water just a Catholic thing?
"No, no, no, Diedia. That was the hand washing water."
Hand washing water. So this is how I die: drinking the water people used to rinse off their hands. The hands they use to work in the rice fields, wipe their children's noses (among other things) do laundry and so, so much more. I drank the worst germs from at least sixty different people.
I estimated I probably had about twenty minutes or so before I made my journey to the afterlife. Maybe there, I could learn more about blessed water. And have a one on one with the big guy upstairs about whether or not Adnan Syed from season one Serial is guilty.
The grandmas had a child grab my mom and they told her what happened. "Oh no, Diedia." She looked at me in shock and sympathy. "Go home. Run. Run!" She called to my back as I started power-waddling back to my hut. My host mom knew I would die too, and I should salvage what little dignity I had left by dying curled up in a puddle of my bodily fluids, alone in my hut.
I waited for death and stomach cramps, sparking a howl that would bring all the stray cats to my hut, but nothing happened. I survived. I sat in my hut feeling like someone who just took first place in the 400 meter hurdles after tripping over the first three, when in reality, I had just barely avoided public defecation. Still, I chalked up my avoidance of a Big Yikes moment as a solid win for the day and went to sleep that night with a smile on my face, hardly being able to contain my big-headedness.
It’s the little things--the microbes, if you’ll forgive the pun--that elevate my service. The grandmas that radiate care, understanding and unrelenting orders to EAT. The mother that drags me to a million celebrations, because that’s what you do when you’re a part of a family. The community, that still to this day, laughs about the time I almost died at a wedding. The laughter I share with myself, about myself. The smiles that keep me company as I drift off to sleep under the brilliant, desert stars.
All these details of my service have been woven together to make it unforgettable and massively impactful. I've gained a lot from my Peace Corps service thus far (if anyone knows how to casually mention the ability to use body language with the skill of a New York street-mime in a resume, please contact my assistant), but something beautiful that no other experience has granted me, has been the ability to allow the silver lining of life to take the mainstage and quadruple my human experience.