The Peace Corps experience I had, although difficult, was one I wouldn’t trade for the world. I learned a different language, experienced a new culture, made lasting friendships, and, I’d like to think, helped a little in the process. I was posted in the West African nation of Niger, a country known for little more than its Uranium deposits, millet production and overwhelming poverty. I was stationed in a small village that hovered along the Nigerian border. The transition was rough, but I loved every minute of it. But that’s not to say that everything I gained didn’t come at a price. Living in a foreign country, especially a third world country, requires one to adjust both mentally and physically. I felt I was prepared for this, but like a soldier who brashly assumes he’s prepared for war, and cracks under the line of fire, I wasn’t ready for the shame that many of my experiences would leave me with.
Mentally, I adjusted fine. The language barrier, being stared at by the village children like a circus freak, missing my family and friends back home: all within my mental capabilities. The physical adjustments, on the other hand, took more of a toll on me. Within weeks of being placed in my village, the weight disappeared from my body faster than the meat off of a chicken wing in front of a chubby kid home from fat camp. The water, the food…I think even the very air, took getting used to. Both my body and pride took a beating before they were humbled and, ultimately, strengthened.
The worst of the illnesses came during one of the monthly meetings held in my region. Every month, for a few days, all of the volunteers from the same geographic region known as Konni, would make the long trek out of their villages, and assemble at our city base for a regional meeting. During these meetings we would discuss village projects, and/or problems. This was merely a pretense, because we all saw it as a chance to get away from the hard living of village life, and relax among like-minded Americans. We would feast on care packages sent from home, and unwind under the working shower that the city’s running water provided (a luxury not known to the village.) During of one of these gatherings, I was suffering with an illness our medical officers referred to as “Amoebas.” I had always pictured an amoeba as the harmless single-celled organism we used to draw in grade school science class, complete with dots on the inside and hairs on the outside. As I learned from experience, these microorganisms were far more sinister. Upon infection, they would bless their unlucky host with an array of gifts including but not limited to: sulfur burps, vomiting, and the most unrelenting case of diarrhea I wouldn’t wish upon Richard Simmons.
As the other volunteers busied themselves preparing the Stove-Top stuffing, and Jell-O pudding packets sent from home, I wasted away squatting over the hole of a fly-infested latrine. Good times. I was able to hang out and joke around with the other volunteers, but every conversation and every laugh was interrupted by an impromptu bowel movement.
So went the afternoon and before I knew it, the calming blanket of night replaced the cruel heat of day. My illness affected me more than I had anticipated, leaving me with immense fatigue, and I crawled under my mosquito net grateful at the prospect of a restful night. All the other volunteers had joined me and were fast asleep before I finished tucking myself. “Ahhhh,” I sighed in relief, ready to pass out from exhaustion.