Qualifying for the Club

Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana sometimes asked each other, “Are you in the club?” But it’s a club none of us wanted to join.

This is installment #10 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of an essay collection Kabile, which starts with an introduction here.

March, 2012. A wise woman once told me that if you dug deep enough into any of the seven deadly sins, you’d probably find one—pride—at the kernel.

I think she was right. Pride is about our self worth, usually with some fear that we don’t really believe in it ourselves.

Pride is a big problem for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer in small-town Ghana. (Kabile literally means “small town”.) I became an instant celebrity, not through anything I did, but by sheer fact of birth. Birth in American, where everyone is supposedly rich and gifted.

It can be a very heady thing, to have people completely light up, simply by saying hello to them. Once I passed a school, trying to quietly leave town by a back road, and scores of kids came running out of the classrooms in waves, shouting my name. I attract attention everywhere I go. People leap and run to bring me a chair or offer me the best seat. It is both pride-inducing and completely aggravating. It’s like living in a fishbowl, with the constant threat of the fish being judged.

Pride also comes up in thinking about being of service. What projects will I work on? When my time is up, will I have accomplished anything worthwhile? It’s so easy to have fantasies of glory, doing big projects, having an impact. Harder to remember that much of it is futile.

If you want to explore pride, a good way to do it is to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

On Friday night, I had one of those dreams…the kind you can’t shake off after waking, the kind that stays with you all day, the kind that makes your heart pound.

I didn’t feel well all day Saturday. “I am running” is the familiar local expression for diarrhea, which all volunteers are plagued with, sometimes endlessly. I chalked it up to “normal” running.

My room in Kabile.

Drained, I went to bed early, woke after a couple hours to make another trip to the latrine, then went back to sleep.

Maybe a half-hour later, I wake up suddenly, with a feeling of dread. It takes several seconds to get conscious of what is wrong, and it comes over me in a wave of horror.

I shit the bed.

I scramble to clean up, tear off the bedclothes and pile them on the floor. It’s just the beginning of a night of misery, making endless trips to the latrine as my body expells whatever it can, from wherever it can. Solids, liquids, and sulfurous gases. Piss, shit, vomit, sweat, and tears.

It’s one thing to huddle on the floor of a bathroom over a toilet. It’s another circle of hell to huddle on the cement floor of a latrine over a pit toilet where the spiders and scorpions live.

My latrine. Pretty swank, as these things go in rural Ghana. Eventually I splurged on a toilet seat that I just laid on top of the hole.

At 5 am, I get a bucket of water as quietly as I can, and take a cold bucket bath. The next problem is my bedclothes. If I get another bucket of water, Esther will surely wake up and demand to know what’s going on. But if I wait until she is awake, she’ll insist on washing the shit out of the sheets herself. I can’t stand the thought of that.

I can’t wait. I get the water as quietly as I can, but as I feared, Esther is out of her door like a shot. She already heard me through the night, of course, but she knew the second bucket of water meant something unusual was up.

She tries to ask me, but I can’t understand her questioning in Nafaanra. As usual, she continues to repeat the questions, as if I’ll suddenly understand it. “I don’t understand,” I repeat wearily, over and over again. “Yes, I have been sick.”

One of the spiders that lived in my latrine. I named this one “Hank Williams”. I don’t remember why. Definitely not the biggest one I saw there.

She watches me take the bucket to the porch where I have the sheets piled up. I’m mortified when she grabs them and starts looking through them. I beg her to let me wash them. “No, no, Mama…let me do it. It will make you sick, too.”

We tussle over the sheets for a while. I lose the argument, of course. I lose every argument with her even when I’m feeling my best. I go back to to my room, curl up on the bare mattress, and cry as quietly as I can. I’m further humiliated when Esther finds me that way, when she comes to my room to return my lantern that I left next to the water barrel.

I listen to the sounds of her scrubbing on the washboard as the sky begins to lighten. Usually, it’s the time of day to be sweeping the paths, and I hear the sounds of other women doing so. One of them calls to her. They call back and forth across the yards, and I imagine a translation of their conversation.

“Esther, good morning!”

“Good morning, Afia! How are you?”

“I am well! And how are you!”

“I am also well!”

“Esther, why are you doing the laundry before the sweeping today?”

“I need to do it right away; the American shit her bed.”

“Oh my goodness! Does she do that often?”

“I hope not! This is the first time.”

In all likelihood, they were concerned about me or maybe not discussing me at all.

My misery was probably a Giardia infection, a common parasite in Ghana as well as in the United States. It cleared up on its own after a couple of days, and it didn’t show up in any testing the doctors put me through. I had another bout of it in Ghana, and then one shortly after I returned to the states…then, thankfully, it never reappeared.

I’ve heard returned volunteers say that the one thing their Peace Corps experience gave them was humility.

I’ve also heard volunteers claim that you’re not a true Peace Corps Volunteer until you’ve shit your pants at least once. That’s when you’re “in the club.”

The jokes help. A little.

I used to think that humility should feel good. That it would give me some kind of holy glow inside. But the wise woman who told me about pride also helped me learn about humility. And when it comes to humility, if it feels good…then I think you’re probably not doing it right.

But humility does force us into accepting ourselves as we actually are, as imperfect humans…and owning our own shit, so to speak.

Next: Make a Joyful Noise

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