So. As many of you know, I completed my Peace Corps service at the end of August, and for the 2012–13 school year I’ll be a foreign language assistant at a senior high school in Gap, France. I hope you liked some of what I’ve written here over the past two years. This blog will no longer be a Peace Corps blog, obviously, but if anything interesting happens in France, I’ll post it here.
Here’s my last post about Benin.
My last few days in Kêmon were largely spent clearing out my house. Anything useful went to my friends and neighbors. Anything else — the packaging for a pair of earbuds, an empty bottle of cooking oil, half a can of expired powdered milk — went into the black garbage bags that I periodically carried to the nearest trash heap.
As soon as I walked away from each bag, small children descended on it and tore it to pieces, kicking and clawing at each other to claim anything that might be fashioned into a toy, or merely anything that gave a hint of the other world, the world where earbuds come encased in shiny, colorful plastic. One of the children found the can of rancid milk powder, ripped the lid off, and poured it into his mouth.
I knew that if I stopped them, they would just go back to it as soon as I left. And so I watched and dwelled on the same thought that had haunted me every day for two years: Somewhere, right now, someone is dropping a hundred dollars on dinner and wine. Someone is dropping a thousand on a hotel room. Someone is dropping a hundred thousand on a sports car.
Now I’ve left that world for this one. That haunting thought has been reversed, every time I am reminded in some small way of the vast divide between these two worlds. Somewhere, right now, a child is eating a chicken bone off the ground. A girl is being forced out of school. A family is going to bed hungry.
That is the best idea I can give you of what, for me, coming back from the Peace Corps is like. Before I left, I knew that inequality was evil and that I ought to do my part, as the saying goes, to fight it. Now I have no sense of having done my part, because it is one thing to cognitively understand an evil and another to experience it at close quarters. The people in the other half of humanity, the ones who helplessly watch their lives being warped or destroyed by poverty, are no longer just people. They are friends and neighbors. Some of them are like family. I knew all of the children who tore through my garbage bags, and had come to love many of them, but always knowing that their lives will be, in many ways, dead ends.
Once you know an evil like that, you can never have done your part until it exists no more — and, of course, it will always exist.
A few weeks ago I saw the below painting at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I want to use it as a conclusion, at least for now, on what I’ve been trying to write about for the past two years.
In rural France at the time this was painted — as in rural Benin today — going to the pump to get water for drinking, cooking, and laundry would have been a daily ritual for women and girls. Right now, as you are reading this, someone in my old village is pulling water from a pump exactly like the one in the painting. Its presence is a small way of telling us that this girl’s life, in the most boring ways, is a harder life than most of us have ever known.
The pump is showing rust around the spout. Its platform is chipped. The pitcher, obviously, is broken. The girl’s feet are bare and her hair loose. Her gaze is hurt and vulnerable. Her hands, clenched but in the way of a child, are perhaps trying to hold it all together.
But her gaze is also a stare, a defiant regard of whoever is watching her in her moment of weakness. You do not imagine this girl accepting a helping hand. The sunlight on her loose strands of hair wreathe her face in a golden glow, like the halos of light behind the heads of holy figures in medieval paintings — and, like them, she knows something we don’t. She has some power, even if it’s only the power of unconquerable weakness, that we can’t grasp. And she dares us to judge her on first appearances.
That is how I’ll remember the village.