The depth of field is so skewed, it feels like I can I reach out and take them in my hand, glittering orbs they are in the night sky. Encircled in my palms, I gaze upon the glow that emanates from between my fingers. But it’s only an illusion, and the reality hits home as my host brother’s kombie turns a corner and its headlights obliterate the serene darkness I’ve lost myself in.
I’m standing outside behind my two-room cement hut, sneaking a rare cigarette on a moonless night and enjoying the unfettered view of the Milky Way above. The porch lights of my family’s house catch on the plastic soda bottle used as a rain shield for those of my own abode – the ones I’ve switched off. If you cup your face and strain your neck, they all begin to fade.
I feel like I can see everything – or everything that’s important. In a way, I am seeing everything: Arab traders plied the waters 150km to my east hundreds of years ago, relying on the very same view. The light I’m seeing now is several thousand times older than the ruins and relics they left behind. In a hundred years, when all the friends and family I have made here have left their own dust on the land, the sky will look the same to their lineage as it does to me. The stars never change.
“Oh god,” I think, “What am I going to do in six months?” A common plea, I think, for many of the agnostic Volunteers currently serving out their final quarter in Peace Corps. And, like them, I don’t know. As I stand there, pulling a drag of the only thing that still reminds me my previous life, memories flood back.
I know what New York is: it’s greasy pizza, public transportation, good bars and live music. It’s my 20s, in as much as any one place can be. But I can’t say I really know what it is I’m going back to after my service. I’ve lost all ability to imagine the workings of my life before Peace Corps and, despite all details to the contrary, I don’t really know what New York will be for me if I return.
Something winged flits across my face and, instead of spasming in a feat of urban horror, I subconsciously brush it off, mildly perturbed by its distraction from my gaze. The stars: when you can see them, really see them, they never cease to captivate. The otherworldly equivalent of fire, or an undulating ocean at sunset, all sparks and flashes and shimmering awe. I stand there as time drips away.
I drop the unsmoked cigarette, my fingers stinging from the heat. I check my watch: it’s been almost fifteen minutes. Inside, I close the burglar gate, then the door. I never bother to lock either anymore. I wash my face, brush my teeth: tomorrow I’ll tend my tomatoes with that water. I turn on a song to fall asleep to: the same routine since childhood. I lie down in bed and close my eyes and still I see the stars.
What we seek, more than anything else in life, is permanence. We are drawn to the search because, whether we realize it or not, we are aware that nothing lasts. Nothing lasts: it is a wretched thought. All things come to pass, good and bad, and in the end, regardless of a supreme being, the world turns, the sun sets, and the stars come out. And so we seek permanence in the face of the passage of time.
For most of us, we achieve such perpetuity a bit piquantly, with a paroxysm of passion and the aid of something French and red. Others accomplish it more surreptitiously, not through children, but rather legacies of profit, expansion, and market share. Like blind men, we churlishly hurl our ephemera into the ether, convinced they will breach God’s carapace.
With great aplomb, we beget our legacies onto the world. And the humble truth is there is no right or wrong way. There are simply choices: how do we choose to conduct our lives? What are our values and how do they influence our behavior? Whom do we love and for what reasons? For the many who find solace in religion, most of these questions are answered. A good friend of mine would argue – and I’d agree – that most of them are answered for the agnostics and atheists, too.
Regardless, we find agreement in the gray areas in between. One such place would undoubtedly be the Kgwale Le Mollo Foundation. This fantastic NGO sends a overachieving yet underserved student from a rural area of South Africa to one of the top high schools in the country every year. And then it pays to keep them there for all four years – all costs, everything.
Each year, Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa run the Longtom Marathon in March as a fundraiser for the KLM Foundation – an organization started by PCVs some years ago. Last year, I raised a lot more than where I am now. If you haven’t donated, please: check out their website and consider making a small contribution. They truly need it, every bit helps (it pays for a child’s education), and it’s all tax-deductible.
Faced with such impermanence, surely there are few better ways to make our presence felt than by sending a brilliant, alive thing to a place where it will take root and grow. Mawkishness aside, this is the mirror we hold unto the stars. This is the sacred fire that outshines the night sky. It is not about money, or African children, or any of the effusive causes with which we are inundated daily. Knowledge is the key, the factor that empowers or dissuades, and an organization like the KLM Foundation empowers with the utmost prejudice. I encourage you to do so, too.