Last month I composed a story entitled My Safe Space for the Peace Corps RPCV Story telling Contest. I didn’t make the finals, but I wanted to share it with you. It was a turning point for me in my service. So many days I asked myself why I was there, who was I helping, and was it really worth the life I had given up?
The staff spends literally hours convincing us we’re not safe because we’re foreigners, but then insists we become one with our neighbors and for someone who is sometimes more literal minded than she cares to admit, this was a hard line for me to bridge.
Here is the video I sent in to the RPCV Story Telling Contest, and the text you can tell I was reading below.
My Safe Space by Jessica Walker
The plumber was coming on a Wednesday. I had very little notice to clean my house. I tried to make my bed and do the dishes. I picked up all the cockroaches that lay dead on my floor, a vicious reminder to those who would come into my house later of what happens when they do. I had just finished a load of laundry in the tub. Most of it was hanging on the line outside, but I knew it wouldn’t be okay to put out my underwear, so they dried inside.
I scrubbed the toilet, and when I realized the stain that was there long before I arrived, was going to take more time than I had available, I sighed and headed off to school for the day.
When I came home that afternoon, my landlady stopped me.
“Neo! Have you ever seen a clean house? I asked you to clean, and your house, it was not clean! I was so embarrassed to have the plumber over. I told you he was coming! I asked you to clean the bathroom, and it wasn’t clean.”
“I am sorry mma, I did the best I could in the time I had.”
“Neo. Come here.” She brought me into her house, to her bathroom. She pulled out a scrubber and got on her knees. “This is how you clean, Neo.”
Frustrated, that I hadn’t even had time to set my bag down, I nodded. There was nothing for me to do about it.
“I’ll do better,” I said. I just wanted to go back to my house. My safe space.
“Neo. You must clean that house! You see how I keep my house! I am too busy and it is clean. You must keep it clean or the Peace Corps will remove you from here. They will move you to a village without water, without toilets. Without electricity. Is that what you want? You have forty-eight hours to clean your house, or the Peace Corps will move you to the middle of nowhere with nothing and no one!”
The threat of eviction sparked an old fear I thought I’d long left behind. Those days when I had been homeless, and wasn’t sure where I would end up, how I would get to the next day, or where my next meal would come from. Suddenly I was blinded by the fear of the unknown, and being alone.
And so, I screamed back at her. “Okay! Okay! I’ll get it done! Leave me alone you bossy old hag!”
It was not my finest moment.
I finally made it into my house, and slammed the door, collapsing to the floor in a fit of tears. It was no longer a safe place, but a place that threatened my very livelihood.
It was particularly bad timing, this crying jag, because I promised a teacher I would meet her at the church in the middle of the village and take some photos for her. The church was in need of a roof. They had been building it for years, small donation after small donation at a time. The progress took so long that parts of the infrastructure were already coming apart, and it wasn’t close to being finished yet.
I could hear my landlady talking about me through my window, partly in English, partly in Setswana. “Why is Neo crying? What is there to cry over? Is she a child?”
Crying, publicly or at all is not common or acceptable in Botswana.
I grabbed my camera, and headed out down the red dirt road, tears still streaming down my face. My two favorite girls rushed up to the fence to get their high five hello, but all I could do through my tears was shake my head.
“Not today, bana.”
What would I do, I wondered. Where would I go? Surely, the Peace Corps wouldn’t remove me over a dirty house. Even if they did allow her to evict me, they surely wouldn’t make me switch villages over it, right?
As I passed the cow jail, the Kgotla, and then the little grocer, I tried to picture the worst case scenario. I would start over in a new village, perhaps one that another volunteer recently left, and try to finish out the next eighteen months there. I could do it. I would be alone, but I’ve been alone before. I could do it again. I didn’t spend ten years working to get enough experience to be accepted into the Peace Corps, just to give up when the house got too dirty.
A few teachers from the Primary school were at the church when I arrived. They saw my tears, and without any question, they wrapped their arms around me, and held me there. They gave me comfort, and they let me cry.
So I did.
These women, I realized were more than just teachers at the school. They were my friends. I wasn’t alone in my village and these women would be on my side in case of a fight. I wasn’t alone. It was one of those moments in life where you know nothing will ever be the same again. They saw me at my most vulnerable and accepted me with love and friendship, and in turn, my service became devoted to them and their school and their students. My safe space.