On our way back from Sokone, the big Peace Corps bus that had been so true to us for hundreds of kilometers started making a horrible intermittent noise that brought my heart to my throat every few minutes. I started examining the villages we passed, noting their size and their distance from the road. I drank my water slowly, in sips now, saving it just in case, and mentally counting the money I had left on me. The sun was setting, after all, and the bus sounded bad enough that I stopped feeling confident we'd make it back to Thies that night.
The group I found myself traveling with understood what it would be mean, to be benighted on the side of the road. They were all Peace Corps folks, one way or another. Peace Corps/Senegal has invited all the other posts in Africa to send experienced volunteers and staff members to our training center here in Thies for a malaria boot camp. This is the beginning of the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, the program I have extended for a third year to work with. We are pooling knowledge and resources from across the continent and bringing together all of our partner organizations to step up malaria education and prevention and treatment programs. We're working toward a 50% reduction in deaths caused by malaria by the year 2015, and the substantial elimination of malaria deaths by 2020. We're working to completely eradicate malaria.
We had been in Sokone and a couple of other places that day to watch as Peace Corps/Senegal volunteers and Senegalese community health workers did their crazy thing. We watched men and women receive new bed nets and learn how to use and maintain them properly. We saw volunteers teach market women how to make and sell neem lotion, a cheaply-made natural insect repellent that is gaining in popularity here in Senegal. Every time we got off the bus to visit another location, grinning women and joyful men gathered around us to shake our hands, tell us their stories, and thank us for our work.
It had been a good day, and maybe in the States we would assume that such a day could not end on a sour note, leaving us stranded short of the training center and our dinners and beds in Thies. Senegal, however, has taught me to be gentle with the future. Speaking aloud to a friend in the next seat or even thinking to myself, I began phrasing every sentence in the future tense conditionally: "If we make it back to Thies tonight...." Mostly, I just sat and stared out the window, less out of grumpiness or apprehension than habit.
It's a difficult time of year here. The hot season is two or three months old, but no more thoughtful of what might please us, or make it less uncomfortable for us to sleep at night without the benefit of fan or breeze, let alone air conditioning. And it wants to rain so desperately. Every day, the heat rises and the humidity thickens as the morning passes. All through the afternoon and evening, we seek shelter from the broiling heat, and in the evening we sneak away to quiet seats beneath cool mango trees, to let the heat drop before trying to sleep. And still, day after day, no rain yet.
Driving now, trying to make it back to Thies, I watch what manifests itself from all this heat and humidity. There are clouds in the distance; or rather, the clouds are all you can see of the distance, with thick baobab trees perching on the horizon, reaching up for a single penetrating ray of sun here and there. Closer to the road is the occasional small village, usually just a handful of clustered compounds. Sometimes a man and his sons will still be working the fields, preparing them again to receive seed and rain, even though this hour of approaching darkness is for bathing, eating and resting. They bring the debris of the last harvest together, circular piles of millet stalks and other organic material, and light them on fire to clear the field quickly. When the last of the fires is ablaze, they leave it to God and turn home. Here and there are girls, brightly clothed and conspicuous against a grey sky quickly turning black and inscrutable, who were sent from their homes for a last pail of water from the well. Not lingering as they might during the day, they quickly hoist their buckets to their heads and start for home. The sun sets.
Our driver is a king among men, and he has managed to silence the horrible grating noise coming from the engine of the bus. We are thirty minutes away from Thies, from dinner and showers and rest. I am suddenly confident that we will make it; it seems obvious, as if it's already happened. We open the windows and let the night air in, and though it is not yet cool, it is rushing and refreshing. The sun has set, but our hearts have not; the night comes in through the windows, but despair does not.
Please excuse my wordiness. But we are all young, and we have a beautiful goal ahead of us, after a filling meal and a good night's sleep. Excuse the wordiness, and also the confidence that was justified to me when we did in fact arrive in Thies that night. It is that confidence, a touch of humility, and a bounty of joy in our work that will bring us to the true end of our journey.
I'll post the link to the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative's website as soon as we have it up.
Until then, love and guts,