August is nearing its end and I find myself walking along the muddy road towards a neighbor’s rice and corn fields. I am walking with his son who is driving a donkey cart loaded with 4 large buckets of trees from his mom’s tree nursery; all thorny species, primarily acacia nilotica and ziziphus mauritiana. For the first several months of my Peace Corps service, I didn’t know how to answer what it is exactly that I do as a Volunteer. I struggled to tell people from home what is was that I was doing every day. I would have to actually pause and go through each hour, thinking, “Really though, what did I actually do today?”
Most RPCVs who I had spoken to prior to becoming a Volunteer had a similar problem; they didn’t really know how to explain what they had been doing for the last 27 months of their lives. More often than not, their explanations turned into nebulous feelings about their experiences and the country they served, rather than what every day looked like for them. My family has asked me recently what I do every day and that spurred this post about the fact that what I’m doing every day is changing all the time and some days I am doing the on-the-ground labor of digging holes or organizing the spacing for an orchard, while other days I am talking to friends in village about what it’s like to inside of an airplane.
A graduate student who I met at the 2014 Western Forestry Graduate Research Symposium held by Oregon State University approached me because my poster had a Peace Corps logo on it. She told me she was a PCV in Jamaica. I asked her what she had done there and she said her primary project was to teach people that lion fish were not poisonous and they should eat them because the population was exploding all around Jamaica. The other part of her job was actually scuba diving to count and collect fish to demonstrate cooking and eating the fish. I remember saying, “Wow, that’s really neat! I’ve never heard of anyone doing a project like that!”
At the time, I was still waiting for my country placement and I was trying to imagine myself scuba diving every week, counting lion fish populations in the ocean. The graduate student saw the starry gaze in my eyes and reacted appropriately, “Yeah, it was cool… Except when you consider that that’s what I did for 2 years of my life,” She paused and then said, “Good luck with your placement.”
Although the idea of what my service is, will be, or has been so far changes every day, I can honestly say that rainy season has proven to be something. Almost every day in August, I wandered around my village, going to every person’s compound, asking when we can out plant the trees in their tree nursery. I was impressed to find that the one training that I had done in May resulted in almost everyone in my village making a tree nursery, seeding that nursery, and watering it for a month. Sure, some people had 8 small papaya trees in one tree sack or seeded more tree sacks than they had land available for out planting the trees, but at least people made nurseries. Most people were just excited that the seeds germinated, but when I walked around to check out their nurseries, people got even more enthusiastic that their hard work paid off and someone wanted to check it. To put it as succinctly as my host dad, “You see, Djenabou, people here like trees, they just don’t know trees.”
This was the first time in my service that I had thought about the conversation that I had with the Jamaica RPCV. Every day, since the rain started falling, I had a routine. I walked around my village or biking to villages in my region, asking every person who I knew had a tree nursery, when they wanted out plant their trees. We would then pick a day, I would show up at their compound, and then we would carry their trees off to a distant field in the bush. Once we arrived at the field, the man I was working with (the women, despite having made a tree nursery, did not want to accompany me to the field) would do the labor of digging the hole and I would split open the bags and plant the tree. We would talk about how to prune the tree, space the tree and fence the tree. Although I (surprisingly) know how to dig a hole, the men laughed when I offered to help; this also quickly resulted in the men never wanting to take a break because they knew that if they put down the post-hole digger, I would pick it up and start digging. The only person who was okay with me digging holes and didn’t want to do anything expect help me with the fencing was my host dad.
On one occasion, I was out planting orange and lime trees in the community mango orchard. Once finished, my host dad came down afterwards to show me how to fence off the small trees with a woven, bamboo structure. The next day, we returned to check on the trees and discovered that one lime tree had been stolen. My host dad was shocked at the discovery and immediately looked at me for a response. I said something that I have only ever said one time to date, “Mi satinii!” (I’m angry!). Trying to communicate frustration or disappointment in a language like Pular is still something that I haven’t quite mastered and although it wasn’t quite anger I was feeling, it was close enough. I can express things like, “They have no empathy,” “I’m happy,” “I’m sad,” “I don’t understand why they would do that;” I can even say the word for “rainbow” (I’ve only seen one so far during my service) or say one word that literally means to spit and pray over an open wound to heal it, but ‘disappointment’ is still just out reach. Disappointment is somewhere between my loss for words to express ‘worry,’ ‘anxious,’ or ‘preoccupied,’ all of which come out as “My head has gone to the bushes,” or “My head is lost in the bushes.”
To put it plainly, saying “I’m angry” to my host father, shocked him more than the missing tree. It’s difficult for me to actually get angry in this country, but when I need to communicate something close to some of the other feelings I just listed, I end up with things that don’t quite equate. “You’re angry?” My host dad’s forehead crinkled with concern, “Well, I’m sure it’s those children who live on the plateau. They’re bad, just like their parents.”
“Their parents are bad too?”
“Oh yeah, we’re all bad here. If someone has something that someone else doesn’t have, they think they deserve it too and they keep asking, why don’t I have that thing too? People here are complicated, Djenabou.”
I told him the real reason I was angry was that the trees I plant in the community orchard are for the community, they don’t belong to me or to anyone. This got my mind reeling again for my real purpose in the community and as a ‘development worker,’ if that’s what I’m supposed to be. Why wouldn’t someone take the trees given the fact that: a.) They didn’t know that the trees were for the entire community and, b.) They didn’t create the tree nursery, water it for 3 months during hot season, and envision where a great place for it would be. I relaxed a little thinking about this, but my host dad said that he was going to tell the children that if they tried to steal any more trees, their hands and faces would blow up (like an allergic reaction), and everyone in the community would know who stole the trees. I guess that’s one way to tell the community that the trees are meant for everyone.