Five Thousand Miles from Ground Zero
As the world watched the events of September 11, 2001, a young Peace Corps member found solace in a remote village of the Mossi Kingdom.
By Joshua Cornehlsen for Fathom
This story was originally published for the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The keen sense of sadness and perseverance lingers, even thirteen years later.
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – On September 3, 2001, my sister got married, and I missed it.
Even with five siblings, all now hitched, I wouldn’t have considered missing a wedding, but I wasn’t in a position to negotiate. Two days earlier and nearly 5,000 miles away, in the capital city of Ouagadougou, I had raised my right hand in front of the U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso, ended three months of in-country training, and taken an oath to faithfully serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the 24 months that followed. I had known for weeks that, on the wedding day precisely, I’d experience what every grassroots adventure-seeker and do-gooder simultaneously dreams of and dreads: loading up a mud-covered Land Cruiser, heading off to the middle of nowhere, and being left there. As my family danced around a New England farm and my sister committed to a blond boy from our hometown, I watched an orange sky burn out over the West African sahel.
Burkina Faso is one of the five poorest countries in the world. A popular guidebook starts the Burkina section by saying that there are few such unlucky places on earth, but finishes the paragraph by noting that it is home to some of the warmest people on the planet. I suddenly found myself dusted red by the surrounding semi-desert, in a remote village of the Mossi Kingdom where 800 residents spoke a local language called Mooré. With no running water, no electricity, no shade, and no other foreigners for 50 miles in any direction, I knew life in Pensa would be the hardest I had ever lived. So, like the rest of my fellow volunteers who struggled elsewhere, I promised the Peace Corps that I would go six weeks without leaving — an initial hardening phase, so to speak.
I got to know the spiders, scorpions, and owls that inhabited my space, and more importantly, the amazing children who ran circles around me each time I stepped foot outside, and who cackled with laughter when I threw this crazy thing called a frisbee. (The 12-year-old boys in the photo — Marcel, Antoine, and Lasane — were some of my closest friends). I learned the basics in Mooré. I learned to eat tô (pronounced “toe” — a thick millet porridge and daily staple) and leaf sauce with my hands while squatting around a communal cast iron cauldron. I learned to fiddle with my shortwave radio until I could hear the BBC Newshour under the stars. In those initial few days, I took the first soul-searching steps in the quest to live slowly and simply.
And then it happened.
September 11th was about as “normal” a day as any of the others had been up until that point in the village, a market day when vendors charged into town to pawn fabrics and plastics, live chickens and sheep. Sweat-covered and smiling, I weaved my way through the outdoor stalls constantly greeted as nassara (the equivalent of “whitey” or “foreigner”). My rat-pack guided the way, pushing me to snack on fried pond fish and millet cakes, and making sure that the prices I paid were fair. I left them only briefly to enter a thatched hut and drink dolo — a bubbling, fly-covered concoction most aptly described as millet beer — with Gong Naaba (“Chief of Animal Skin”), a village elder with a weakness for alcohol, who was president of the community organization with which I would later work. By nightfall, I was eating by lantern-light with my neighbor Alain, the local doctor, one of the few with whom I could piece together actual conversations in French.
Should the other details of my time in Burkina begin to fade, the remainder of that evening will, of course, be burned into my memory. Even with a six-hour time difference, the news elsewhere had long since spread. I began my stroll home through the fields at around 9 p.m. completely unaware that much of the outside world stared at their televisions in shock. On route, I was startled by the Gong Naaba who lay passed out on the path. Feeling somewhat unsettled already, I finally entered my house at 9:20 and, having missed Newshour, decided I would listen to ten minutes of VOA (Voice of America) before bed. “Fire and smoke pouring out of the Pentagon” were the first words I understood. I improved the reception, and little by little heard each terrifying detail of what had happened that day. I stayed up listening in the dark, stunned, my head in my hands, the words “holy shit” coming repeatedly from my mouth. My mind raced. I need to go home, I thought. No, I need to stay. I must at least call my family. I decided to catch the lone bush taxi departing my village each day, at sunrise. Trying to explain the seriousness of the situation felt impossible. Whereas everyone back home had seen the images over and over again, I could only pretend to imagine what it looked like, planes swooping down onto the Manhattan skyline I had seen all my life.
I arrived in a regional capital named Kaya that afternoon. The first 30 minutes alone would have made the trip worth it, as it gave me a chance to process what had happened. I called home and then another volunteer and I spewed all the questions we needed to ask, but that nobody could really answer: Why do people hate America? Who did it? Should we fight back or would that perpetuate the problem? We wondered, however naively, what might have been different had Bin Laden had a Peace Corps volunteer in his village as a child, had he grown up laughing with a bright-eyed, well-meaning American.
It’s been ten years this week since those first days in village, and ten years since the planes hit and the towers collapsed on the infamous morning that etched 9–11 into our psyches. “Where were you when it happened?” we ask our friends, much like our parents did about the Kennedys. I have pieced together what it was like back at home: the 24-hour news cycle, the anger and sadness, the confusion, the proud patriotism, the political posturing, and the sheer disbelief. These days I think I am glad to have missed it, but at the time I felt absent. I craved connectedness. My father lives just blocks away from Ground Zero, and my mother could see the smoke plumes over the water from Connecticut. Pensa seemed about as far away from civilization as I could be.
In the days that followed, Peace Corps closed its doors completely in three countries. Two of my colleagues went home to be with family and one never returned. I saw the image of the planes hitting just twice on the French news channel TV5, spent two more nights processing what had happened, and returned to my village. Weeks later I’d see small boys wearing fifty-cent tank tops that said ‘Osama Is Hero’ — with an image of the legend himself wielding a sword atop a horse. I didn’t take it to be a political statement. I lived the rest of my time there in peace and in awe of the kindness I witnessed. Two years later I finished my service and returned home. My mom told me I had gotten more serious. I supposed I had.
Now ten years have passed and bigger publications than this one are asking people to describe what they’ve learned. I find myself skeptical. Bin Laden was killed. The war in Afghanistan continues. And I’m left simultaneously remembering two things this week, with a confusing semblance of a paradox in my gut. The attacks made me angry and sad. I felt it. I missed home and had the boyish desire for everyone to live happily ever after with the same freedom that our president would soon co-opt to lead the counter attacks. I too read newspaper editorials that aroused my pride in the diversity and harmony of an ideal called America.
But I saw all of it from what felt like the other end of the earth, and today still, I wonder if a little bit of what the sympathizers desired, what perhaps young people are still being taught to fight for in far away madrassas and living rooms, was what I got the opportunity to experience — a simple life of dignity, of connectedness with land and family, free from foreign interference, free from the seductive yet suffocating tentacles of consumerism, free from the constructed hierarchies of power, need, and dependence. As I said in the narration to a slideshow I once presented, the people in Burkina live simply and they work hard. They farm millet, corn, and beans, mill their grain by hand, and grow few products to be sold. They take seriously their traditions, customs, and faith, and their lives go on exactly as it seems some higher power intends it, religious or otherwise. There is a peaceful dignity in the day-to-day actions of the living, a happiness for which so many of us search.
I do not feel aligned with the terrorists or the war-wagers, outspoken capitalists or partisan politicians, fundamentalists or, quite honestly, the hyper-nationalists. Like most today, I am trying simply to reflect and remember, knowing that when the dark ash has settled I’ll see the smiling faces of Marcel, Antoine, and Lasane in my head, and hope with all my heart that they are well.
And that we are too.
Joshua is a writer, educator, and development worker who has lived on five continents, and who now calls Montreal and Nicaragua his homes. He travels to observe and share, to feel alive and small, and to awaken his senses.