People often ask me why I joined the Peace Corps. This question is asked in various tones of voice, from incredulous to honestly interested, but it has been a mainstay of almost every non-professional introductory conversation over the past ten years. My answers vary with the questioner. I usually say something along the lines of “I had been lucky in what I had all my life and thought it was time to give some back” and “I saw a Peace Corps commercial during Saturday morning cartoons in 1983 and it always stayed with me.” Both of which are true. I usually leave out the third reason. “Because I was living with my boyfriend in a shitty apartment in Queens, working in a job I didn’t like, and one day looked down the road and saw the path I was on.”
The next question people ask is usually “Did you like it?” I usually respond by asking them how they liked the time period from 2001 to 2003, just generally. It had its localized highs and lows, but yes, generally I did like it. And regardless of whether I liked it or not, the decision to join changed everything – going back to the old path just was no longer possible.
Of all the people and experiences from that time, the story of Mariam and Armella was perhaps the most influential. Mariam was my age and worked nights at the bar next to my house. As I (from time to time) could be found at the local bar at night, I got to know her a little bit. She was about my age (24), had two children on her own, Armella, age 7, and Aristide, age 3, plus she took care of Karim, age 5,the child of one of her relatives. Eventually I knew her well enough to offer to employ her at my house doing laundry and dishes and the like so that she didn’t have to work at the bar.
Mariam never impressed me with her decision making skills. She worked late with sleeping three year old tied on her back. She would come to my house and ask for money for medicine for the baby – with a brand new expensive hair weave. She completely drove me crazy with her lack of reliability in anything. But the kids I liked - particularly the oldest girl. Armella was sharp as whip. She knew to come by with a pack of her friends in the afternoon because I would give them lollipops. She also knew to come by alone with her primary school report card – class rank 5 out of 113 got a plate of bonafide American mac&cheese.
Mariam died a few months before I left. I worried about Armella. I brought by food and money once in awhile while I was still there. I sent some money back to a village elder. I wrote letters and sent them through people in the village. But eventually people moved and died, and I lost contact. I tried to find her over the years a few times through current serving Peace Corps volunteers, but never with any success.
Then a few months ago a request came into the division for technical assistance on a project in Burkina Faso. In hindsight I might have overplayed my hand a bit in trying to get it (after all Burkina generally isn’t high on Joe World Banker’s priority list) and if I end up sitting in Tchad or Guinea Bissau at some point I have no one but myself to blame. But I got it. And on Sunday September 5th at 3:30 pm, I landed in Ouagadougou for the first time since I left as a Peace Corps volunteer more than seven years ago. Burkina has and hasn’t changed over the years. (I promise to write another post next week on that.) And on Friday I took advantage of the end of Ramadan holiday to escape the office and head north to Yako.
Armella was still there - still living in the same compound. We drank Fanta and I found out she is 16 now and going into her 3eme exam year at school. (Less than 30 percent of Burkinabe children get that far in their education with the rate for girls being far lower.) She is a pretty happy kid who hates math, dissolves into giggles when we talk about all the silly games we used to play, and is excited for the school year to start. I will still worry about her – she is now also old enough to serve drinks at the same bar where her mother worked – but so far she is doing great.
I apologize for being sappy. This has been a really mixed up emotional week being back here - way more introspection that I am used to either experiencing or sharing with the world. I promise next week to have a more upbeat *oh those crazy Burkinabe* posting.