Peace Corps year 2


Mid-afternoon in May is the hottest part of the hottest time of the year. In the village, where there are no electric fans and no ice water, we are simply waiting it out. The kids play Uno and everyone else sits around in the shade, talking and napping. I’m lying on a wooden bed under the neem tree, reading a book.

Suddenly, two or three of the guys yell and take off for the nearest hut. It takes me a minute to figure out that they have spotted the feral cat that had been lurking around the compound since the day before, ambushing chickens. The other boys and men jump up, grab rocks and sticks, and join the chase with excited whoops.

* * *

All the stereotypical privations of Peace Corps life—no electricity, pulling water from a well—are really just bragging rights. Volunteers are constantly jockeying for the privilege of claiming the toughest site with the fewest amenities and the worst food:

PCV1: I have to bike fifty kilometers through sand to get to my village, and then half the time the boutiques [stores] are out of cold Cokes.
PCV2: You have Cokes in your village?
PCV3: You have boutiques in your village? Like, more than one? We don’t even have a bread oven.
PCV1: We do. I live off of bean sandwiches.
PCV2: Bean sandwiches?! I would kill for bean sandwiches. All I get for breakfast is mooni [millet porridge].
PCV3: We have gosi [millet or corn porridge, a step below mooni], but never with sugar. Sometimes they put salt in it, and I end up pouring most of it down my douche [pit toilet].
PCV1: When I got to site, my douche wall was only two feet high. I could wave to people while I was squatting.
PCV2: Oh my god, I swear I have the smallest douche hole ever. It’s four and a half inches in diameter—I measured.
PCV3: Yeah well, my douche hole is so small I have to crap into a funnel.

These things are all part of the Peace Corps “Great Adventure” marketing pitch. No one joins Peace Corps for gourmet food and first-rate amenities; if anything, “roughing it” is part of the attraction. Most of the other, less concrete challenges—loneliness, boredom, the feeling that you’ve spent two years accomplishing absolutely nothing—are frustrating but, one would hope, ultimately character building experiences. Even the rage, surprising and exhausting, balled up inside and escaping in angry outbursts and fits of sobbing—even that changes, fades.

What I wasn’t prepared for—and what I have struggled with the most during the past 19 months—is pervasive, unrelenting guilt.

* * *

The hut and its backyard are now surrounded by men and boys, projectiles in hand, hoping to corner the cat inside. I make a choice. I stand up, go in my hut, and close both doors. I don’t want to see whatever’s going to happen.

I can hear a crowd of kids gathering and can tell by the yelling that the cat has escaped that yard and made a dash for another compound. The kids and men run in a joyous, screaming mob from one end of the village to the other, following the cat. This is probably the most exciting thing that has happened all week.

I stand in my hut sad and angry both with them and with myself. I’ve seen this before—lizards attacked simply because they’re moving targets, birds turned into live pull toys—and my reaction is still the same. I am sickened by this cruelty but simultaneously ashamed that I am judging them. I grip the back of my chair and focus on not crying.

* * *

The question is not so much what do I feel guilty about as it is what have I managed to not feel guilty about—yet. Jogging in the morning? The luxury of recreational exercise. A cereal bar for lunch? Friends who can mail snack-food across an ocean. A trip to Dakar? Disposable income and mobility. A pet dog? Food and money that should go to people. The fact that I can and will leave after two years? Betrayal. Maybe it’s just residual Catholicism, but all of my anger, my homesickness—feeling sorry for myself—reminds me of what a privileged, opulent life I can lead simply by some accident of birth.

Add to that the Peace-Corps-ingrained guilt about taking breaks from the village, not working 24 hours a day on new and innovative projects, slacking on Pulaar, and ever spending time in my hut for any reason whatsoever—and, stupidly enough, I find myself feeling angry that I’m guilty and guilty that I’m angry.

* * *

Outside, the chase is still on, coming back towards my compound. I hear a thud against my back door and I know. I know, but I have to see anyway. I look through the crack between the door and the frame and the cat is crouched there, looking up at me, eyes wide with terror. I step back and stand in my dark hut. I want to open the door, to let him in and hide him. But then what would I do? I’d have a wild cat in my hut who I’d, what, sneak out in the middle of the night and release in the fields? He’d just end up back here, and in the meantime I’d have to explain why I was sheltering a chicken killer.

The yelling men and screaming children surround my backyard. A large rock thumps against the door, and I hear cries that it’s “in Djenaba’s douche” and then, “It’s dead! It’s dead!” One of the older men comes to my hut to tell me the cat is in my douche. I go look and don’t see anything on the fenced-off slab of concrete.

My family explains that it was a wild cat, not a village cat, and had been eating chickens since the night before. They know I’m upset—they tell how a previous volunteer got angry when her village killed a puppy that had eaten chickens. And they repeat that the cat’s in my douche. I say that I looked and didn’t see it. They say, no, no: IN my douche. I scoff; there’s no way the cat would have gone through that tiny hole (four and a half inches—I measured) into a pit toilet.

That night, however, I go look, angling my flashlight through the hole so that I can see the bottom, about six feet down. My stomach clenches when I see him—clean white fur, lying in that perfect crescent moon cat shape. He silently stares up at me, his giant saucer eyes reflecting the light.

The cat’s in my douche. The goddamn cat is in my goddamn douche.

That’s how desperate he was. He had to squeeze himself through that tiny hole and drop six feet into mud, trash, and worse because it was the only way to escape the flying rocks and sticks.

I look again but I can barely stand to see his eyes glowing back up at me. He must be seriously injured or in complete shock—he doesn’t even open his mouth to meow, just lies motionless. The next night he has changed position but is still just staring silently. It feels like an accusation. What can I do? Even if there was an easy way to reach him, I’d never manage to get him back through the hole. Do I demand that the men bring out the family shotgun? Do I just leave him there to die of heat and starvation? And in the meantime?

I literally have to shit on the cat.

It took him four days to die. Fewer for the smell to go away. In four months I’ll be home and the village will still be here. When I first arrived it seemed incomprehensible that I could ever go back to America, much less go back to living as I had before. How could I just walk away from these people who were so quickly friends and family? How can I ever again take for granted what Aldous Huxley describes as “the unthinking and almost unresentful acceptance by millions of my less fortunate fellow-beings of my claim to be educated, leisured, comparatively wealthy”?

What gives me the right to condemn killing a cat with rocks when I indulge the other extreme, providing a pet cat in the U.S. with medical care beyond the reach of any of the children in my village family? Is putting a cat to sleep with expensive drugs and then burying her in the backyard garden next to gerbils and goldfish any less absurd?

B. Kite writes, “What are the limits of empathy? Certainly if we were wholly to open ourselves to suffering it would be impossible to function in the daily world. That path leads to isolation and/or sainthood. Yet the issue of where those limits can securely be placed is unresolvable; its provisional resolutions make up the moral task of a lifetime.” Fully confronting our culpability in workings of the world is overwhelming and unsustainable. But I can’t shake the feeling that allowing oneself the distance to analyze is also permitting oneself to slowly forget. I don’t want to forget.

10 replies on “empathy”

I’ve already begun to take America for granted, and to converserly hate it the way I once hated Senegal. What was once home is now foreign. As comfortable as the Jamba Juice’s and lap pools are, I don’t think we can ever forget, or will let ourselves forget.

This entry really touched me. I feel weak and guilty an awful lot lately, and hearing you speak this way was overwhelmingly eloquent on many points I can relate to in some strange way, but can’t put into words.

I can’t really begin to speak about what your experience is from so very far outside. and I feel like I should not react or get an opinion, but here are my thoughts:

I have a lot of experience with empathy and guilt and anger.

sometimes… those feelings are big enough to squelch all other perspective, especially when they happen all at once. I used to be a confronter. I used to stare everything in the face to force some kind of resolution and feel like a coward if I backed away.

I’ve learned to welcome and work with distance. sometimes the universe has a miraculous way of sifting out all the extreme parts and what is left from a distance are simple truths. strong choices are made by being able to confront those truths and not the screaming in your head.

I am a person who has screaming in my head that doesn’t stop… so I understand not wanting to or being able to or being afraid of forgetting. but don’t be afraid of distance either. don’t betray the moment by worrying about what you can or can’t allow later. you’ll take it with you. you have to.

Not that I know you very well, but it seems to me that you are not a person who was complacent before this and you never will be. You were just in a different place and you will be again. the most complacent and absurd thing you let yourself can be is guilty for that.

You will keep making strong choices. and they will keep leading you to moments where maybe the most beautiful thing about you is your awareness and ability to think and feel this way.

Many people don’t have that ability and even given the circumstance, don’t try.

This was an impressive/interesting post for someone who is about to leave for the PC. I hope I have many experiences like yours. Many triumphs and many moments where I feel like I can only cry. Thanks for sharing your feelings.

Excellent piece — you write well.
If it’s any help, Senegal will stay with you. I left in 2003 (agroforestry in the Thies region, PCVL Tambacounda) and Senegal is part of me now. It sounds like it’s under your skin for good, as well.
To echo what Bonnie said (you will continue to make strong choices) — RPCVs tend to live more extreme lives that most folks. Not many are willing to subject themselves to what you’ve done. Thank you for posting your thoughts.
— Marc

Its amazing how you put your stories into words, almost like painting a picture. You sum up so simply some of thoughts as well on the ongoing struggle of guilt. Well put Clare.

Comments are closed.