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Friday, 06 February 2009

The Peace Corps' Dark Side

Written by Chad Jarrah
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The Peace Corps’ Dark Side, Peace Corps adventure, Peace Corps service, volunteer Niger, Amoebas, Chad JarrahThe 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.

 

The Peace Corps’ Dark Side, Peace Corps adventure, Peace Corps service, volunteer Niger, Amoebas, Chad JarrahMentally, 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 Peace Corps’ Dark Side, Peace Corps adventure, Peace Corps service, volunteer Niger, Amoebas, Chad Jarrah

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.

 


My pre-emptive relief didn’t last long. I jumped up from my mattress as if a bucket if ice-cold water was thrown in my face. My heart-pounding and face drenched with sweat, I instinctively felt something was wrong. What could it be? It was wrong enough to wake me from a calming sleep, and as I shifted uncomfortably on my millet stalk bed frame, the sound I heard coming from the back of my pants did more to enlighten me to the situation than a thousand images ever could -- Squish. One of those Saturday Night Live commercial parodies, ‘Oops I crapped my Pants!’ came to mind as I turned to see if anyone else was awake. Embarrassing myself was one thing, but embarrassing myself before an audience was something I wasn’t sure I could handle.

 

I got up from bed as quietly as I could and washed my soiled boxers at an outside faucet. With the stealth of someone committing an illegal act I looked up warily at each movement or snore from the nearby volunteers. As I frantically scrubbed my shame away, I racked my brain trying to think of any believable reason I could give to a waking volunteer. “Why are you washing your underwear at two o’clock in the morning?” they would ask. I came up with nothing plausible but finished before I was noticed. I hung the boxers up with the rest of the volunteers’ laundry and again breathed a sigh of relief as I returned to bed.

 

Even more exhausted than my first attempt at rest, this time my head barely hit the pillow before I fell asleep. Huh!? What the shit? It happened again! It wasn’t even my fault. As soon as I nodded off, my muscles unclenched, and the flood gates re-opened. Again, I scrubbed my once clean underwear under the blanket of night, and made my way to bed. I tossed and turned afraid to sleep, this time shoving a rag between my ass and underwear for an extra layer of protection. I didn’t sleep, keeping out an all night vigil against the Amoebas’ attack, and awoke the following morning before the other volunteers, both looking and feeling miserable.

The Peace Corps’ Dark Side, Peace Corps adventure, Peace Corps service, volunteer Niger, Amoebas, Chad Jarrah

That morning, I kept to myself. I took my meds and did everything I could to speed up my recovery. I tried to stay optimistic thinking about the previous nights’ events thinking, “at least no one saw you,” and “you’ll feel better soon.” I tried to work on some grant proposals for village projects, but lacked the focus to get any real work done. Instead, I retired to our “cubby room” to relax with a good book. The “cubby room” was so called because one of the more handy volunteers built a wall of cubby holes for the volunteers to place their belongings. Although other volunteers were constantly going in and out of this room I didn’t care. This was the only room with a couch where I could lay down and read and I was happy for the luxury.

 

I read and chatted with the incoming and outgoing volunteers, making small talk about the status of my health or the pace of the book. Eventually, the room got quiet, and I was left to myself to read and relax. The room was warm, the book boring, and I was weary from the restless night. Before I knew it I had dozed off. The book fell from my hands, and with it, the only scrap of pride I had left. Shaken from a deep sleep, my eyes opened, rapidly scanning the room as my body remained still, frozen with the fear of discovery. It happened again, only this time there were three volunteers milling about, reading their mail, and rummaging through their cubbies. What could I possibly do? I couldn’t just lay there in my own filth, and anyway, the smell made its way to my nostrils, and would eventually drift in their direction as well. I lay there feverishly, thinking of anything that could delay my humiliation, but drew a blank and decided to face the ridicule.

 


 

I slowly rose, already noticing the distorted faces made only when one smells a stink beyond description. I waddled out of the cubby room well aware of the comments made by the other volunteers. Harry, the most pretentious and unsympathetic volunteer, stated the obvious: “You stink man.” Olivia, kind and understanding, merely sounded her feelings as she turned from my sorry state to the stained couch cushion: “Awwwww…ewwwww.” The final volunteer to witness the display, Cammy, shook her head in sympathetic concern and whispered to Olivia a statement that would later make more sense: “Look…It’s the walk of shame.”

 

I made my way to the shower amidst the many understanding stares. I washed myself, hoping time would pass quicker under the only amenity left to comfort me. Allowing myself to get lost in thought and self-pity, I relaxed under the warm water.

 

“Why did this have to happen to me?” I reflected sadly, “Wasn’t it bad enough that I had to crap my pants all night? Did I really need to do so in front of my friends? Damn this place and it crappy amoebas.” (No pun intended.)

 

I left the shower cleaner than I had been for days, and sat among the volunteers, returning their glances for the first time. They smiled at me, and surprisingly I smiled back. I took a deep breath prepared to explain myself, but was pre-empted by Cammy’s kind words. She handed me a Coke, and repeated those words that struck me before.

 

“The walk of shame,” she stated with finality, “Now, you’re a true volunteer.” The other volunteers all recounted their poop stories about losing control in their villages, or in front of visiting parents, and for the first time it dawned on me that we had been humbled at one time or another by the attack of the Amoebas. It’s true that misery loves company, because I felt a thousand times better.

 

The Peace Corps’ Dark Side, Peace Corps adventure, Peace Corps service, volunteer Niger, Amoebas, Chad JarrahI felt stronger and days later, I recovered completely. The once horrifying experience became nothing more than a footnote in my Peace Corps service. I made that long walk back to my village, recalling the past weekends’ events and laughed to myself about the amusing circumstances. I thought about the next crop of volunteers, filling out their applications, and romanticizing their Peace Corps adventure. Poor fools; ignorance is bliss.

 

©Chad Jarrah

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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