Seeds of Doubt (and Peace)

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


October 29, 2010

I woke up buzzing. For several days I had been sniffling as I struggled to fight off a cold, but yesterday I opened my eyes and felt wholly refreshed and bold under the visage of adrenaline. I ran downstairs to remind my mother, “j’ai besoin d’aller à l’ecole—tey ci suba nun dinanu dem biro corp de la paix!” Translation: “I have to go to school—this morning we will be going to the Peace Corps office!”

Several hours later, after the van driver had turned onto almost every street in the Dakar area except for the one where the Peace Corps is located, my excitement had abated only slightly, resurging gloriously as I proudly presented the notarized copy of my US passport to the guard.

After several lectures the GCY Senegal Fellows participated in a mutual question-and-answer session with the Peace Corps volunteers; they were as inquisitive about us as were of them. The situation was reminiscent of a middle school trip to the zoo, except that I am still unsure of whose face and hands were pressed up against the glass to watch with befuddled amusement the curious creatures beheld.

Figuring it was a chance opportunity for some concrete, optimistic advice, I asked one volunteer if he had any thoughts for a Fellow soon to be working in “public health and awareness,” as it was called when I learned of my Sangalkam-based apprenticeship. He smiled-laughed-inhaled-hiccupped in a manner of friendly foreboding, and then spoke the few sentences that have been giving me pause ever since:

People will be angry at you. They will expect you to give them care and treatment that you cannot give and to do what you cannot do. You have to prepare yourself to refuse, because there will be things that you cannot give and cannot do.

Five minutes later I exhaled.

As I crawled onto my bed last night I had a flashback to a not-so-distant past. In 2007 I joined the Wheelchair Foundation on a distribution mission in Guatemala. We brought 500 wheelchairs, each one for a specific name in a specific town on an itemized list that was etched in stone. No matter how desperately people wanted or needed the precious commodities of motility and freedom, they would have to wait until the next distribution if they were not on the list.

In one town tucked into the anonymous hills of the arid Guatemalan countryside, a woman approached me at the outskirts of the crowd. She bore in her sun-drenched arms a child whose legs and head sagged under their own gravity and whose dark eyes were clouded by the strain of only a few years in the dusty reality of the forbidding landscape. She spoke to me:

“Por favor. Éste es mi hijo. Es un niño especial. Las piernas no funcionan. Por favor, es un niño especial…”

“Perdón, señora. No puedo. Yo sé, sí, yo sé. Si pudiera, lo haría. Lo siento, pero no puedo, no puedo…”

I remember being a high school freshman flailing in the glad trumpet sound that triumphantly pronounced our arrival and the oppressive heat of the scorched midday. I floundered amid the spontaneous explosions of homemade “fireworks” (bombs) and the swarms of teenagers pushing aside younger children to obtain the gifts we brought. Ultimately the liberating multitude of life-changing wheelchairs failed to meet the need to which we bore witness. I could not forget the day even if I wanted it forever withdrawn from the timeless, twisting vaults of memory.

As a group we have been warned time and time again to temper our boundless optimism with the facts, frustrations, and contradictions of the developing world. I have experienced it, albeit briefly, but soon I will live it daily in domestic and professional spheres. At the ebbing tide of my city experience in Dakar, our visit to the Peace Corps reminded me of the doubts I have always carried. With no wisdom of my own to profess, I fall back on a favorite Senegalese proverb:

Nit, nitay garabam. One person is a remedy for another.

I believe it and I believe in it. When all else fails, when the future remains as inscrutable as the countenances of a faraway mother and child, I have to believe that even if I have no medication to give, wheelchairs to distribute, or bandages to apply, there lives in the human spirit something that will allow me to offer whatever I can, until I can offer more.

Nit, nitay garabam—this will be my marching cadence.

Yo no lo puedo hacer. Je ne peux pas faire. Ma nu ma def—never again.

Gus Ruchman