A Precious Gift
I spent the last two weeks in KwaZulu-Natal, along with a dozen other PCVs, assisting a local NGO and the international eyeglass company Luxottica to examine, treat, and prescribe glasses to almost 8,000 rural South Africans. Spread out over eight days and four sites, Volunteers involved with these OneSight clinics acted primarily as translators and (occasionally) as cultural liaisons, relaying specific medical information between the team of doctors, optometrists, sales representatives, and other members of Luxottica who had volunteered their time to come here and the mostly elderly South Africans who would wait hours in line to be seen.
It was a fantastic experience, a refreshing departure from standard PCV work in which results are often disguised and progress all but impossible to measure. It was also hard work: on our feet for 10 hours a day, in 90-degree weather with matching humidity percentages, struggling to interpret an inexact language for medical experts who wanted definite answers. I can’t tell you the number of times I explained to a Gogo (grandmother) that her bifocals worked both for distance and reading, but that she must look through them at different levels in order to accomplish such a feat. My isiZulu got real good, real fast.
Because KZN is impossibly far from my little home next to Mozambique, on my way back from OneSight, I spent the night at my friend and fellow volunteer Nathan’s site, in the mountains that border the western boundary of Swaziland. While I had seen him more recently, it had been more than a year since I was last there, and we quietly reminisced over the last two years of our service. At one point in the evening, he recounted a story from our PST (Pre-Service Training: the first three months in-country) that I had forgotten.
We had shared the same village during PST, a place Peace Corps had no business placing Volunteers, never mind Trainees. During the course of our three months there, several robberies took place, there were a handful of stabbings, and a mentally disturbed stalker took an interest in a few of us. Bellicose, dirty, and disjointed, it was about as close to urban as you could get away from a big city. You will understand then why we bestowed upon this humble little community the sobriquet Murderval.
One particular evening, a few short weeks in, Nathan, myself, and two female Trainees decided to organize an undercover party for ourselves. Nathan’s host family was frequently out of town and, as kids and sex-starved Trainees are wont to do when their host parents are away, we decided to make a play date. It was dark by the time the coast was clear, so Nathan and I had to pick up our fellow Trainees from their host families’ homes and bring them back to his.
Of course it was a moonless night. And of course an Mkhulu (a man of grandfatherly age who is allegedly so revered he is untouchable) had just been stabbed a few nights before – in his own home. We also had to pass two different shebeens, or bars, to arrive at the homes of the two female Trainees. Packs of adolescent boys roamed the dirt roads that jackknifed off the main. Going out that night was, without a doubt, one of the more stupid things we did during PST.
That twenty-minute walk might have been the longest of my life. Nathan and I carried baseball-sized rocks in both hands, content for the moment to forget our mutual inability to both throw and catch a baseball. We made a plan on what to do in the event some unsavory fellows stopped us. Then we re-worked the plan; after which we made a new one. Secretly, I accessed all the memorable scenes I could remember from spy flicks and war films, methodically analyzing what I had seen and determining whether those actions were improbable or realistic – and, if so, how I could apply them in my current situation. Unscathed and lubriciously proud in our success, Nathan and I brought them back to his house safely.
As I sat there at Nathan’s kitchen table, a stone’s throw from Swaziland, the fog of clouds that ring his village swirling around us, I realized that these memories are the sort I cherish the most from my service. For better or for worse, when I return home, my favorite stories won’t involve feeding tiny black babies or standing at the head of a classroom, ringed by wide-eyed students. They won’t describe bringing water to a parched corner of the continent or tell of communities empowered by my mere presence. I’m proud of those moments, however rare, when my image suddenly gelled with what I thought it was supposed to look like – but they aren’t my favorite.
I’m not sure if this makes me a bad Volunteer or a good one – and I’m okay with that. I joined Peace Corps because I craved access to a part of me I had never known before – the part of oneself that shows when your edges are frayed. In a sense, I needed to know what I could withstand and, failing that, how much I could endure. Yes, I came because I have always been drawn to the concept of service; because I believe the world’s problems are all our own problems; because I wanted to help those in need. A part of me came because work in the public interest makes me feel better about myself. After all is said and done, though, I applied to the Peace Corps – and I stuck out the droughts of depression, the elephantine setbacks, the stink and the funk – because I didn’t know if I could do it. And I wanted to know.
My dearest memories, the ones I won’t tell everyone but rather save for confidants and confederates, will be about those times when, as Eugene O’Neill wrote, “the veil of things as they seem [was] drawn back by an unseen hand” and “for a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret.” The real reward is the experience: to have lived in this world in such a manner.
The pleasure of life, the sheer beauty of being alive, is the massive possibility it provides: the overwhelming potential inherent in every moment. We are transients in this world, brief glimmers of love and faith reflected in a pool of the unknown. To live as fully as Volunteers do, afloat in that pool, is to have seen the world turn from a vantage point unsullied, to have felt its vibrations elide all consciousness.
And, finally, I understand that my service is a deeply personal thing, removed from the gaze of those unfortunate enough not to participate in it. We will never be able to share it, nor would we want to. It is a favored dream, that place you go on warm afternoons when time ceases its steady march and you forget what your eyes see, lost in a hypnagogic reverie; of the same matter that sparkles in the right beam of light. A secret lived, a life removed. All one in the same. It is a precious gift: the sine qua non of life.