Chapter Twenty-Six: Learning
Chapter Twenty-Five can be found here.
“You know, of course, that we have a training starting in three weeks, with a large complement of teachers.” The Peace Corps Director, a friendly, pudgy man with a high, squeaky voice who had once been a PCV himself—in Senegal—laid down the papers he had finished flipping through, papers Paul had given him. “What you don’t know is that we’ve lost a couple of them in the last few days, dropping out before they’ve even arrived. So, if your background checks out, we’ll probably be able to take you. I mean, we do know you.” He smiled and looked out the window. “Though you must understand that I can’t promise anything, of course.”
“Is there anything else?” It had been almost nine months, now, that Paul had spent in Burkina Faso, and the school year was coming to an end. Over that time, he had developed at least a nodding acquaintance with many in the small American expat community, especially those connected in some way with Peace Corps. He had even been to dinner at the Director’s house, and drinks with him a number of times in the better of the city’s bistros.
The Director looked down at his desk and twirled a pencil, as though slightly embarrassed. He hesitated for a moment and then looked up at Paul. “My only concern is, well, let me be blunt: One of the biggest problems we have with our PCVs is alcohol. Way too much drinking goes on. Oh, I know, when people get into Ouaga, when they get together after months in the bush, they like to party, but it leads to problems—as you well know.”
Paul nodded, thinking of Jerry and his accident, and the fact that everyone knew that alcohol had been involved. Certainly the Director did.
“Well, you’re getting a bit of a reputation around here yourself, as something of a drinker. I want to make sure that, if you join us, that won’t be your main occupation.”
Looking at him before responding, Paul wondered if the man had a point. After all, he could hardly remember a day since he’d arrived in Africa when he’d not had at least one drink. Most days he had three or four. Hell, six or eight. But he wasn’t going to admit that to anyone. Certainly not here, not to this man.
“One of the reasons I want to join Peace Corps is that I’ve felt I haven’t enough to do, enough work. Sometimes, it’s too easy to just go off and drink. That’s also why I wouldn’t want to be posted in Ouaga. It’s too easy here, too easy just to drink. If I do have a choice, I’d like to go to the north, Moslem country, where the temptation won’t be there, where I’ll have to concentrate on other things.”
“Do you think you have a drinking problem?”
“No, not really. I think I’ve been drifting, and so have allowed myself the excuse for drinking too much. I’m tired of it, and am not going to keep it up. Again, that’s one of the reasons I want to join Peace Corps.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” The Director picked up the pencil and deposited it in a jar already holding a couple of pens. “Remember, though, that one of the problems a lot of PCVs face is boredom, which can, as you have found here, lead to too much drinking. If you do this, make sure you find ways of keeping yourself busier than you’ve been this last year. Find secondary projects, for example, that really push on your free time. If it comes to that, on post, come see me if you feel things are getting out of hand; we can help, but don’t want to need to. I think you have the possibility of being a good PCV, but I do realize I am taking a chance on you.”
Paul stood up slowly. “Well, thank you. I think it’s what I really would like to do, to join you. And I don’t think I would cause you any concern. I’m ready to make a change in how I live, and joining Peace Corps would be a big part of that.”
The Director stuck out his hand. “Well, good luck to you. All in all, I do hope you’ll be joining us. As long as you keep yourself in check.” They shook, and Paul walked downstairs to the Volunteer lounge, where Brian and Lori, in town for physicals, were waiting for him.
“How’d it go?”
Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. He said he’d like to have me, if everything checks out….”
“Though he did say he was concerned about what he’d heard about my drinking. But, fuck it. Let’s have a beer. Celebrate.”
Paul’s small Peugeot was chained up outside, as were the motos of the two PCVs. He couldn’t keep up with them even on the city streets, though, so found them with beers already in front of them, a third waiting for him, as he pulled to a stop by their table on the dirt out in front of the hotel.
The usual sort of crowd had started to gather. Down at the end of the row of tables sitting on the dirt at the edge of the street, a government worker and his girlfriend huddled over their drinks, oblivious of everyone else. A trio of French aid workers sat hemmed in by their large motorcycles, blocked from any contact with those who might have tried to seek them out. At another table, an off-duty hostess slept, her head on her hands. A Tuareg vendor was passing from table to table, showing off leather-covered boxes for holding cassette tapes, and swords and daggers in leather sheaths, supposedly like those worn in the desert.
As they drank, other people joined them, including Michel, to Paul’s surprise, who came over once he had seen them. He had almost passed by, walking the last bit of the way home from work, but had seen Paul as he made his way down a cross street nearby.
“So you’ll be a PCV,” he said, appraising Paul. They had talked over Paul’s future, and Michel had known that Paul was preparing an application. He turned his attention to the beer he was pouring into a glass, not expecting an answer or wanting one. He watched Paul for a while, not joining in the conversation, even though it had shifted into French for his benefit. Finally, in a pause, he spoke, but quietly and just for his friend.
“I don’t think, as a PCV, you’ll be able to keep your Peugeot.”
“No. I will have to sell it.” Paul wondered, a little startled, why he had brought that up.
“Sell it to me then.”
Paul looked at him, now completely surprised. “Can you afford it? It’s less than a year old.”
“I have been saving since I came to Ouaga. Right now, I think I could buy a new one, but I don’t want to spend that much.”
“Done, then. The day I start Peace Corps, you get the bike. If, of course, you’ll meet my price.”
“How much do you want for it?” Michel’s eyes glittered, though he kept a straight face. He knew he would get a good price out of Paul, after all, he had watched him try to negotiate prices in the market, and had tried to teach him to bargain a little more carefully and in the ways Burkinabe did it, always making a show of it but never quite pushing the other too far. He was willing to try Paul’s skills, but knew this would be little more than a game.
“Let’s see…. I paid…. “
They haggled for a little bit, each of them throwing up hands and feigning withdrawal at least twice before coming came to an agreement.
“I see that at least a little bit of what I taught you has remained with you,” said Michel. It had been he, in fact, who had been the first to take Paul to the marché on the outskirts of town, the temporary home for the vendors displaced as the central market was rebuilt. “So, you will have to give me a gift when I pay you.”
Paul laughed. He knew, from Michel’s teaching and many hours of watching others, that this sort of thing was often a merchant’s last attempt to get something more from the buyer. Now, Michel was testing him once more, but turning the tables.
“Of course, of course.” He laughed. “Anything to get you out of my face.”
They went back to the business of drinking, Michel, though, only drinking the one beer before heading on home.
After leaving the Oubri, Paul rode over to Eric’s. He wanted to tell him what he had decided to do. Bakary was there, as he often was, and the three of them sat down to cold beer from Eric’s refrigerator.
“You sure about this? You know how Peace Corps is. Mama Peace Corps, and all that. You’re going to lose a great deal of freedom.”
“Yeah, but it’s like Brian says, stay away from the office, get posted as far away from it as possible, and you’ll be OK.”
“But you’re here already, and you have the freedom. Do you need Peace Corps thinking it has to take care of you?”
“Maybe I do. I certainly haven’t accomplished much here, this past year. All I’ve done is teach a couple of classes that any native speaker could handle with their ears closed. That, and drink.”
“I suspect you’ve done a lot more than that.”
“Not really. Not like you. You’ve got a goal and a grant. A specific interest. What have I? I’ve been here, why? Mainly because I couldn’t think of any reason for going home. I mean, I really wasn’t happy with my life back home, and didn’t want to go back to it. But, really, I was too embarrassed to go home. I had come with such hopes, I felt almost obliged to stay.
“But this,” he spread his arms, continuing, “even though I love it, is this enough? If I felt I were heading toward something, maybe, but I’m not.”
“I think you do yourself a disservice.” They had been speaking in English, which Bakary could follow, though not well. Now Eric switched into French. “You have learned to get by in a new language. You have learned to deal with a new culture. That’s a lot, in less than a year on one’s own.”
“But where does it lead? I look at some of the old expats, and certainly I don’t want to end up like them. Somehow, I’ve got to jump-start my life, and maybe I can use Peace Corps for that.”
“I don’t know,” Eric looked at him, thoughtfully. He was speaking English once more. “It seems to me you could pick something a lot less complicated than a two-year commitment to a paternalistic organization.”
“Oh, come on, Eric. You know it isn’t that bad. And it could be interesting.”
“Your funeral.” He got up. “I’ve got to go, though. Bakary and I are going to visit a batik maker he told me about, a man named Lamourdia who lives across from the Red Cross. Seems the guy is good, even made a special one for that reggae singer, Jimmy Cliff. I hope he’s as good as Bakary says, but I’m not sure I trust his judgment on art not his own.”
“Oh, he is good,” said Bakary, standing also, “though you might not be able to tell.” Paul laughed and drained his beer. He got up while Eric spoke to his house guardian, who was involved with some project of his own around the side of the building.
The day that Michel would finally buy the moto proved to be closer than expected, for Paul was quickly accepted into Peace Corps as an on-site Volunteer, and was told he would, in fact, start with a group arriving in just a few weeks. He arranged with Michel that they would ride together to the airport, where Paul would join the incoming group as it arrived from the States. Michel would pay him then.
As he had promised, Michel showed up early the appointed afternoon with the money for the P-50. Some of the bills were old. All were carefully sorted and stacked. He handed them to Paul and insisted that he count them right there, so there could be no mistake.
“OK.” Paul finished, and put the money away. “But there’s one more thing. I’m going to give you my helmet. You have to promise to wear it.”
Michel picked up the helmet, which was lying on the floor next to the door. “Sure, I’ll wear it. You’ll see. I’ll drive up to Saria one time, and pay you a visit during training.”
“Now, that I’ll be looking forward to.”
Paul looked one last time around the room. Nothing of his remained in the little room. He took the lock off the door and dropped it into a pocket of his backpack. Beckoning for Michel to follow, he pushed the moped out of the compound.
They rode out to the airport, Paul on the back with his pack on and an old Peace Corps helmet on his head. The luggage rack was serving as a passenger seat. When Paul got off, Michel turned and shook his hand, telling him they would get together soon, either at Saria or when Paul came back to Ouaga for swearing-in.
After watching Michel ride away, his blue helmet standing out against the bare heads around him, Paul looked around for the group that would be his training companions. They hadn’t arrived yet, clearly—he saw the members of the local Peace Corps staff, including the Director, standing together near the customs area. He didn’t want to join them yet, so he walked up to the observation deck to watch the plane land.
As he stood waiting, watching for the plane to appear in the distance, he realized he was more excited than he had imagined that he would be. He hadn’t been lying to Eric: the months in Ouaga, though he had enjoyed himself, had proved unsatisfying. He had thought he could find community there among the expatriate community, but the Europeans weren’t interested in getting to know footloose Americans. Neither were most of the Americans, outside of Peace Corps. Most of them were diplomats, or connected to the embassy in some respect. They stuck to themselves, dealing with Africans even more rarely than with ‘outsider’ Americans. Paul, slighted by them the few times he had ventured into their insular world, had learned to ignore all of them except for a few of the USAID workers, all of whom had been PCVs themselves, and the bunch who worked for Peace Corps.
Though he never would have admitted it, Paul was lonely, and was hoping to find the fellowship he had yearned for since first seeing that group of PCVs in Togo. He hoped that, in this group of Volunteers, in these people he would live with closely for the next twelve weeks of training, who would be his peers for the next two years, he could find something of what he had seen in Lomé and Lama-Kara. He had seen the camaraderie of Peace Corps in two countries, now, and was jealous of it. Now, or so he hoped, he could be part of it.
He was earlier than he needed to have been, and he knew it. He had shown up early on purpose. In a way, he had hoped to be earlier, even, than the Peace Corps staff that would meet the group, take them all to a hotel, then to the US ambassador’s residence for an introductory gala, and, next morning, on to Saria and stage, or training. He wanted a little time alone, which is why he had come up to the deck rather than joining the waiting group. Unable to keep still, he wandered back and forth, his eyes constantly turned to the sky. It was still too early, though. There was nothing to see. Finally, he went back inside and bought an overpriced beer at the little restaurant that served as the only watering hole at the airport.
These people who were about to arrive, what would they be like? Would he fit in with them? Could he develop the kinds of relations with them he had seen among other PCVs? Paul, again, knew he yearned to be a part of something but he wondered if his outsider status was the result of something in him, that he would find a way to remain the outsider, even within this new group. Could he, with these others, actually put in the work to build the kind of community, the group strength that he had seen in Togo, that Brian, Jerry, and Lori had here in Burkina Faso? He didn’t know, of course, but nervously suspected he was going to be let down. Or let himself down.
After finishing the beer, wandering back up to the observation deck to see if the plane had arrived—no—he joined the Peace Corps staff members. One of them told him he could drop his bag off outside in the truck brought for the purpose. He found it parked next to a bus also waiting, door and windows open to try to keep it a little cooler than an oven as the day progressed—a vain hope. Paul handed over his bag to the man watching the truck then walked back inside and up to the observation deck once more, accompanied by one of the Burkinabe staff members, for the group had been told the plane would be landing soon. It was in sight when they got up there. They watched as it touched smoothly onto the shimmering runway, passed beyond them, turned by the old abandoned DC-3, and came back slowly. A ground crew pushed the moveable stair to the plane.
Thirty-four people got off in one group, about equally men and women, all but four white, the others African-American. They didn’t look as young as Paul had expected, though a number had to be recent college graduates. One or two must have been in their forties, a few more in their thirties. All in all, from what Paul understood, they looked like a fairly typical group of new volunteers, not much different from and group of Americans. Paul and the Peace Corps staffer walked down to customs, to await them.
The group had been together for three days already, in Philadelphia and had started to divide into program teams, each member beginning to get to know each other. The teachers-to-be, he knew, had been told about Paul, and were curious to meet him. His year in Africa made him, in their eyes, and old Africa hand and they looked to learn from him. To him, they looked fresh and innocent, so he figured he must appear a bit the opposite, worn, perhaps, and a bit ragged. Still in his slightly depressed mood, he wondered how long it would take for them to see through the fraud of his image as an experienced old-timer. On the other hand, he suspected they would be too stunned by the alien environment to really think much about him at all.
He stared at each one of them as they filed out of customs, wondering about them trying to judge them, to get a handle on them. Who would he like? Who might be a rival of some sort? Who an enemy? Who would be posted close enough for visiting? Who would he get to know in stage and then not see again until Close Of Service two years and three months from then?
Paul joined the group with as little fanfare as he could, letting the Director introduce him here and there as people collected their bags and hauled them to the truck. On the bus, he shook hands with others, faces and names, unfortunately, all a blur.
The bus took them to the Hotel Kilimanjaro, the biggest of Ouaga’s second tier of accommodations. Paul found himself rooming with a man named Jack Nagy, another teacher. A couple of years younger than Paul, he had been teaching math in Louisiana since graduating from college, but decided he wanted to do a bit more before settling into a career in the classroom. He was taller than Paul, and a bit stooped, with brown hair and cowboy boots.
“Got any tips for us new guys?” They had dropped off their bags and were sitting in the lobby, waiting for the bus, again, for it would take them to the ambassador’s and a welcoming dinner.
“Yeah, stay out of Ouaga.” Almost without thinking, he echoed the advice he’d been given by Brian.
“Why? What’s wrong with Ouaga?”
“This is a crazy town, too loose, too free. To tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to the strictures of training.”
“Haven’t they told you?”
“Well, I’ve heard it from the PCVs here now. There’s no English during the day, and the only free time is in the evening. We aren’t allowed to leave Saria without permission. We have to be at all of our classes, no excuses except illness. We’ll be watched constantly, and counseled if the staff thinks things aren’t going well. Privacy will be gone.”
“Great,” said Jack, almost wistfully, “but it’s only twelve weeks.”
“Yeah. The thing I’m told is to not fight it, just get through it.”
“Well, I just hope I do. I don’t think I could face washing out.”
“Nor could I,” Paul responded, “nor could I.”
They got up, for the Peace Corps driver had appeared at the door. It was beginning, Paul told himself as he stood up; finally he was inside. Inside! He liked the sound of that and smiled at Jack, who probably thought him crazy. He walked out to the bus holding onto a sense of euphoria he hadn’t felt in years, a contrast to the slight despair he’d been feeling since Michel had dropped him at the airport.
That night, after the party at the ambassador’s and all of the Peace Corps staff had retreated to their homes, Paul took a small group of trainees to Don Camillo’s, where Mousa was again playing. As a result, they all woke up good and hung-over the next morning, but ready for the three-hour trip to Saria. As a result, Paul also began to believe he might just fit in.
Their twelve weeks at the training center in that small town of Saria, they soon discovered, would consist of a series of loosenings and tightenings but not a lot of independence. As the staff, mostly Africans, many of them graduates of the University of Ouagadougou or students there, gained confidence that the stagieres could negotiate African culture, they let them out into the village, more and more often and with less and less supervision. On the other hand, the demands of their classes got harsher the further along they got. Each stagiere had to reach a level of 2+ in French on a Foreign Service language scale of 5, where 4 is the equivalent of a native speaker. After that, they had to continue with French, though with fewer classes, and had to start learning the African language, generally Moré (for the country was over half Mossi), spoken where they would be posted.
Aside from bush taxi, the only way to leave town was on the daily train to Ouaga, for Saria was on the country’s one train line, a track that once been planned as a connection between Abidjan in the Ivory Coast and Niamey in Niger, with major stops in Bobo-Diallasso and Ouagadougou. Though the line had not extended much further than Ouaga (and though the new regime claimed it was going to build the road to the Niger border, even if it had to do so by hand), the railroad was still called “RAN,” “Railroad Abidjan Niger.” None of the stagieres was allowed to take the train, though, and certainly not a bush taxi. Any transport, as yet, would be in Peace Corps vehicles.
Their first French test occurred only hours after their arrival at Saria, and they were immediately divided into classes generally consisting of two or three others at their level. Among the new group, one person managed a 3 and three got 2+. These were immediately started on Moré as well as French. Six, including Paul, managed a 2, and were divided into two classes that met as one, on occasion. Of the other fifteen, only three started at 0. These would have the most work of anyone over the coming three months.
Soon, the drinkers among them, including Paul, discovered a bar across the road from the training site. A simple place where the beer was rarely cold, it had a large paiotte out front with a thatched top, making for a cooler place to sit, especially in the evenings, than most they found. Paul, who had more cash than he knew what to do with (for the moment) since selling his moped, spent a great deal of his time there. Too much, really… and even he knew it.
A group of them generally met together under the paiotte after their last class of the day during the hour before dinner. Paul, Jack, a forestry Volunteer named Gillian Riddle, a man named Stuart Eisen who would be working with a wild animal project in a game park called Nazinga, and Sy Campbell, another teacher, were the mainstays. Others came and went. These five, bonded by their drinking, became good friends.
Because they would not be issued motorcycles, only Mobylettes which did not, it had been decided, require special training, the teachers had one fewer class than the other groups. That didn’t result in free time, however, but in an additional class training them for secondary projects. They learned to make mud stoves that were more fuel efficient than the three rocks used in most compounds, some basic gardening techniques, and how to care for seedlings.
Though the official test would come only at the end of training, they were all tested in French along the way, and when any reached the 2+, they moved into a Moré class. Over half of their time was spent in language classes, and all of their other classes were in French.
Their exposure to the village of Saria was gradual, starting with a Saturday afternoon visit to the market, each three stagieres walking into town accompanied by a teacher. As time passed, they were allowed out more and more, initially always accompanied, later allowed out alone. The stagieres training to be teachers envied the other groups, for they got out more, of necessity for their training. Once basic motorcycle skills were mastered, those groups spent an hour or two each day on the roads and paths in the surrounding area, learning to ride through sand, mud, hills, and rocks, learning how to avoid animals and children, and to keep themselves alive.
Mail call, one of the most important events of the week, happening whenever someone drove up from Ouaga after a diplomatic pouch had arrived at the embassy. Paul, who had maintained very little contact with anyone back in the States, got little. Some would receive stacks of letters from lovers left behind, reminding Paul of the many he had sent, just a little less than a year before, vainly hoping to rescue his own dead relationship. Now, he also saw what had happened to them, the initial tears and re-readings, and the gradual embarrassment at the continued flood of letters that soon started to be abandoned, unread.
They showered out of buckets, and used buckets and brushes for washing their underclothes (their shirts and pants were washed by staff). The food they ate turned more and more African as time passed.
As their shared rooms were shutterless, there was little chance for romance to blossom, but it did, to a degree. Tentative relationships began, then diminished, or grew stronger through the shared experience. By the end of stage, there were four rather solid pairings.
They lost only seven in training. Two through experiences with dysentery that left them dreading further disease. The others felt too strong a pull from family or love in the states, or felt overwhelmed by the relentless training.
About halfway through their training, just a week or so before their “live-ins” when they would stay alone with Burkinabe families, their assignments were given to them. Paul had asked to be as far away from Ouaga as possible, wanting, as he had told Eric, a different experience, wanting to stay away from the temptations of the city. To his relief, his assignment was in Djibo, up in the north of the country, near the Sahara. Not the most absolutely remote site, but near enough. It would take him two days, at best, to get to Ouaga, so he felt he would likely stay away. And it was almost all Moslem up there, so little drinking.
A constant stream of PCVs made its way through Saria. Most of the older Volunteers itched to see who the new Volunteers would be, so found any excuse they could to stop by, though some actually came for work, to help train the stagieres. Lori and Brian both visited briefly, in the weeks before their own COS and return home. Paul would have liked to have spent more time with them than he did, but there was little enough free time in stage, and the two had also come to say goodbye to people who had been their teachers, two years before. They had a few good drinks, though, and Brian told him that Jerry’s rehabilitation was now almost complete, and that he probably wouldn’t show any signs of permanent damage.
Eric, too, came through in his truck for an afternoon, with Bakary along, stopping on his way to Bobo on one of his constant trips through the country to find and watch people creating art. There were only a few months to go before he, too, would be leaving the country, and he was trying to get in as much research as possible.
Michel, as he had promised, visited the week before live-in, the week each trainee spent living with a Burkinabe family, puttering up on the P-50, helmet on but, as Paul noted loudly, not strapped.
“I didn’t sell you that thing for you to die on it.”
“Michel laughed, took off the helmet, shook Paul’s hand, and said, “It’s good to see you, too.”
They walked over to the Paiotte where Paul bought them beer and Michel caught him up on happenings in Ouaga. Life at stage was isolating, and Paul was anxious to learn about people he had gotten to know back in the city.
“So when will you be getting back?” Michel had finished his beer and refused another while Paul ordered one for himself.
“Not until swearing-in. The only time I’ll be out of here is a week in Djibo, to introduce me to the place.”
“Djibo? You’ll be posted to Djibo? Poor guy.” Michel knew quite a bit about Peace Corps and how the organization worked. Lori, after all, was the third PCV who had lived with his family. He knew very well about “live-ins” and “postings” and had even visited Saria before.
“Yeah. I need to keep out of Ouaga.”
“That’s only because you like this too much.” He touched his glass. “Well, then maybe it’s right for you to go up there. With all the Muslims in Djibo, you won’t be able to drink much, anyway.”
“Yeah, Michel. I’ve thought about that. Believe me, I’ve thought about that.”
Michel left the next morning, and Paul concentrated on his French. He wanted to have his 2+ before leaving for Djibo and the live-in.
There was something insulting, he thought as he walked through Djibo sands a week later, about being left in the care of a ten-year-old. The family he was staying with, clearly, had in mind only the money Peace Corps was paying them. Instructions were, he knew, that he eat and stay with the family. He had been dropped off at their compound, but had been immediately escorted to a room behind a bar in the middle of town. This kid had unlocked the door, waited for Paul to deposit his bag, locked the door, and motioned for Paul to follow him.
Paul stood still. The kid stopped, turned, and looked at him. Paul held out his hand, palm up. After a few seconds hesitation, the kid placed the key into Paul’s hand. His training to obey adults had defeated his instructions to nursemaid the white man.
He was to eat, Paul discovered, in a little courtyard restaurant the kid led him to. As Paul sat down to a plate of rice and sauce, the kid said he would be back later, if Paul needed anything. Paul told him not to bother.
He spent the evening in what passed for a bar, a hole-in-the-wall with a couple of warm bottles of beer on hand, glad to be out of the clutches of Peace Corps for a day or two, at least, even in a place as desolate as this sandy, spare place. It actually proved to be a good and relaxing evening for him, if a little lonely after the closeness of stage.
In the morning, he wandered down to the animal market, hoping to see a camel up close for the first time.
Sure enough, there were a couple of them there, among the sheep, goats, occasional horse, and cattle. They were smelly, though, and dirty—and, to Paul’s mind, ill-behaved. Disappointed, he turned away and started to walk back up the low hill to the center of town.
He saw that a new Toyota LandCruiser had parked at the edge of the market. A white man was standing on the running board, almost inside an open door, pulling a child’s bicycle from the top while a woman and a kid watched.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?” The woman called up to the man in English.
“No, I’ve got it.” He stepped back and to the ground, the bike in his hands above his head. He lowered it to the ground. The kid ran over and took it from him.
“Thanks, Dad.” He rode down the hill, circling to the left of the market.
Unable to resist such a typically American scene in such an atypical spot—for Americans, at least—Paul walked over and introduced himself.
“Hi,” he reached his hand out to the man. “My name’s Paul Cassamude. I’m in Peace Corps. Going to be stationed here.”
“Al Simson.” The man accepted Paul’s grip. He pointed to the woman. “This is my wife Jean and,” he pointed to the rapidly dwindling kid on the bike, “that’s Noah.”
“Do you live around here?” Their vehicle was empty and they seemed perfectly at home, so Paul couldn’t imagine them as tourists.
“Yes. We’re Lutheran missionaries. We live about halfway between here and Ouahigouya.”
“Been here long?”
“About ten years.”
“Wow.” That impressed Paul. He was about to say more when a motorcycle roared up and pulled to a stop beside them. The rider, Paul saw, once his helmet was off, was a teenage boy.
“And this is our other son, Josh.”
The youth stuck out a gloved hand. Paul took it.
“Paul here is a Peace Corps Volunteer who is going to be posted in Djibo.”
“Great. What are you going to do?”
“Any botany, biology?”
“No, physics and chemistry.”
“Oh.” Josh looked disappointed.
“Josh is our tree fanatic,” his mother explained. “He’s going off to Duke in another year, into their forestry program.
“I delayed admission. Got things to finish up here, first.”
“What sort of things?” Paul looked at him, interested.
“I have my own tree nursery, had it for years. Now, I have been granted three plots for reforestation. I want to see them through their first year.”
“Sounds great. I hope you’ll show them to me, sometime.”
“Sure,” Josh put his helmet back on. “Gotta go, though. Nice meeting you.” He roared away. Paul chatted for a moment more with his parents then continued his walk back up to town.
Paul hoped he’d see the Simsons again during his live-in. He wanted to find out more about Josh’s trees, for reforestation was one of the secondary-project possibilities they were training for in Saria. But he saw no more of them. He saw little of anyone, in fact, including the family he was supposedly staying with. He went by the school where he’d be teaching a couple of times, to introduce himself and look around, but no one there seemed to have much time for him, or interest. For the most part, then, he spent the week of his live-in sitting in the bar near his room, drinking and reading the novels he’d had the foresight to bring. All in all, he decided as he left, it wasn’t a very illuminating week.
Back in Saria, Paul found it difficult to concentrate on his work. His disappointment with Djibo weighed on him, but he wasn’t about to ask for another assignment. He had lobbied for Djibo, after all, wanting to be as remote as he could be. The town, though, had nothing. The thought of spending two years there was beginning to scare him.
It was also just then that they lost the largest group of ETs, of early-terminating trainees, people who had held on through live-in, then had decided that Peace Corps just wasn’t the right place for them. No matter what, Paul told himself, he wasn’t going to do that.
Besides, what else would he do?
Four slow weeks later, as he looked around him, at the stagieresrepeating their oath at the swearing-in ceremony at the Peace Corps Director’s residence in Ouaga, Paul told himself once more and with continuing sadness that he hadn’t really found, in the training, in this group of people, the kind of community he had been seeking. Nothing like the community he had seen in Togo, that he had seen among the Burkina PCVs of a year ago. He felt disappointed, had for some time felt increasingly lonely, though he was still giddy at the thought of getting out of training and into life as a full-fledged PCV. Win some, lose some, he thought as the crowd clapped at the finish of their swearing-in and the group turned to itself with smiles.
Though he now knew each of the twenty-seven others in his stageintimately, he felt close to none but the four who had become his constant drinking companions, Jack, Sy, Gilly, and Stu, all of whom were soon jostling with him at the bar at the post-swearing-in party. He knew he would be able to relax with any of the others, could drop in on them at any time, but he suspected he would find no reason to. This evening, he would celebrate with them, for it would be one of the last times they would all be together, but soon they would all be at their posts, their new lives beginning, talking them each in separate directions.
How did it happen, he wondered, that some groups could cohere, while others remained gatherings of individuals? It saddened him that he continued only as an individual.
He went out with the group and celebrated with them for a time after the party at the Directors, but had little heart for it. Instead, he wandered off and found one of his old haunts, the Hotel Oubri, where he chatted with the waitresses, drank beer, and felt sorry for himself.
Chapter Twenty-Seven can be found here.