Friday, March 1, 2013

First Volunteers

It’s amazing that after two years of service—two years of working and walking and living within a community—that just a handful of memories linger beyond the first couple of years.  People remember what they want to remember, and, after time, things get forgotten or distorted.  Two years of service can be boiled down and summarized in a handful of words:  “He always wore a hat,” your neighbors might say, or “She didn’t talk a lot.” 

I remember hearing about one volunteer who lived in the south of the country.  “Oh,” said his co-workers.  “He traveled a lot.  He was never around.”  And, years later, that’s all that they seem to remember.  Another volunteer, a woman, was living next to a family with four small children.  “One time,” said the kids, “She stayed inside ALL DAY.  She didn’t come out, NOT EVEN ONCE!” 

It makes you wonder what they’ll say about you when you leave.  How will your colleagues summarize your short but (hopefully) meaningful presence?  “He built a basketball court,” they will say.  “She taught English, I think.  Maybe computers.  I don’t know.  They liked to passear (walk around).”

Almost everything that I know about the earlier volunteers in Zobue comes from the meager information supplied by teachers and neighbors in the bairro.  Here is what we have heard about each of our six predecessors:

Chelsea (2006-2007):  Brunette.  Taught English.  Brought the white measuring cup from America.  Gave our next-door neighbor a blanket when she left.

Katie (2006-2007):  Brunette.  Taught Biology.  Used to run.  Liked to take pictures. 

Joy (2008):  Asian.  Once cried in class.  Switched sites after one year.

Angelina (2008-2009):  Blonde.  Well-loved.  Always smiled.  Had her phone stolen in a chapa.  Did not climb all the way up the mountain.

Lucas (2010-2011):  Male half of married pair.  SPOKE CHICHEWA.  Liked church.  Did housework.

Janet (2010-2011):  Female half of married pair.  Let Lucas do dishes.  Wasn’t afraid to scold children.  Outspoken.  Taught French. 

There is more, of course.  Everybody seems to remember something different.  It just depends on who you ask, or who feels like talking. 

This weekend, we received a visit from the first two Zobue volunteers, Chelsea and Katie.  Chelsea was in Maputo, traveling for the World Bank.  Katie was in Malawi, working in a hospital north of Lilongwe.  Both girls collaborated and, with a little bit of luck, were able to orchestrate a weekend visit to Zobue.  It was incredibly exciting for Dan and I and probably very meaningful to both of the girls.  It had been more than five years since they had left Zobue, in late 2007. 

A lot has changed since they last lived here.  Romao and Seni have both grown up (Romao wears a ring now, Seni actually speaks Portuguese).  Babies have been born.  Toddlers have become people.  Teachers have transferred out and others have transferred in. 

To Chelsea and Katie, their visit must have been a surreal experience.  Outwardly, Zobue is very much the same.  The mountain is still here.  The road is still here.  The school is still here.  Millions of little things have changed, though.  The trees are taller.  The kids are taller.  Paths have moved and houses have been built.  Imagine how strange it must feel to barely recognize the same town that you yourself called home for two entire years. 

The girls organized a reunion with one of their old students, Taurai, who is now a third-grade teacher on the border of Mozambique and Zambia.  They also visited the school, talked to most of the teachers, and finally got to see the computer lab that they were responsible for funding.  They visited with Marcelina (the landlady) and Marta (the next door neighbor).  They brought presents and toys for the neighborhood kids, and spoiled them unabashedly.

When they left, Seni drew a picture and left a note for Katie:

Dear Keti,” it read.  “Thank you for visiting Zobue.  It is good to see you.  I will be sad when you go back to America because then you will be back in America.  – Arsenio Julio Sardinha

Chelsea (left) and Katie in front of their computer lab.  The room was
 inaugurated in April 2008, just four months after they left.
A rather awkward Zobue family photo:  Dan, Katie,
 Chelsea, Taurai, Tabita (not smiling), Seni, and Romao

For the girls, I think that it was touching to see the school and the computer lab still in operation.  They enjoyed seeing Seni and Romao “all grown up,” and visiting some of the other neighborhood kids.  For Dan and I, it was simply valuable to discuss Zobue and to realize that our current struggles were their one-time struggles, too.  It is heartening to realize that our Peace Corps support system stretches all the way back to the very first volunteers from Zobue.  

I wonder if Dan and I will ever come back to visit.  Will I return one day, with my own baby strapped to my back, and revisit this little yellow house?  Who will still be here?  Who will have moved on?  Who will have died?  It’s moving and painful and scary, all at the same time. 


  1. Excellent post. I love the feeling you put in it.

  2. That is cool that they came back to visit. We were the second volunteers in our village. The first volunteer came back to visit, but we were at MST, so we missed her at site. We met up with her later and she said she had tried to get the dirt on us, but no one said anything bad. huzzah! Who knows what they say now...