Monday, September 22, 2008

Teneh's Cold

Mariama looks at me.
“You suck at this,” she says.
She is seated on an overturned mortar, removing chunks of ginger from the caldron of juice. It is pungent and opaque, almost ready for the children who will purchase it in plastic bags after school.
“I know,” I say.
My job is to peel open the baggies for the juice. It is like prying a piece of masking tape off a sheet of plastic wrap, except less fun. My fingers are red, my eyes ache, and I’ve opened about ten bags.
Teneh laughs and leans towards me. The mayor’s wife, her hair is elaborately braided, her complet new and starchy. Today she has a bad cold. Her eyes are small and watery. Seated on a stool beside me, she sniffles and snot droplets fall on the dust.
“Tubabu,” she rolls her eyes, smiling. “White people.” She snatches a pile of unopened bags off my lap. She grasps one and blows deeply into it.
“TENEH!” I yell.
She is startled. Mariama stops stirring. They stare at me.
“Uh, bad things, the cold, bad, in the thing there,” I say in Malinke. “Person drink juice, bad thing there, cough cough bad.”
Teneh stares at me and then she gets it. She starts to laugh. It’s deep and throaty with phlegm. Tears of mirth and cold germs dripping down her cheeks, she turns to Mariama, who is still confused.
“Listen to this: tubabu is saying that if I blow into this bag, and someone drinks the juice--are you listening?--Then they are going to get sick, too.”
Mariama jerks forward. “Get sick? From drinking juice? No way! Are you serious!?!”
Teneh yells to a group of farmers who have appeared around the corner. “Mamadi! Sidi! Come listen to this!” They file over to her and form a wall of loud ridicule.
“Germs cause disease! Germs cause disease!” I keep insisting. Western science is as useless to me here as my usually potent powers of persuasion. To them, I am hysterical, absurd. I am funny to look at, I lose half a bucket of water every time I carry it home from the pump, and my prepositions are a mess. And now this.
A childlike petulance wells up inside me. Where is teacher? Who will tell them I’m right? Just think how they’ll feel when they find out I’m right!
But there’s no teacher. The doctor is out of town. Educated Guineans, other volunteers, America, are too far away to tell them I’m right.
I run to my hut and I sulk, with a profound sense of entitlement. I came all this way to help and no one listens! If people won’t even trust me on basic western science, how will they ever be open to my other ideas?
These issues grated, but what really upset me was that nobody liked me. My best friends, Mariama and Teneh, thought I was a fool. They would tell their families that night over dinner and have another good laugh. From then on, people would surely laugh and retell the story every time they bought juice.
I lay under the mosquito net, contemplating early termination. Strangely, what popped into my head were those painfully obvious adages from anti-drug campaigns and the biographies of great men. “You have to believe in yourself.” “There’s no guarantee people will accept you even when you are right.’ “You mustn’t rely on the approval of others.” So this is what they meant. Those vacant, hackneyed phrases from so many mandatory middle school reading lists actually meant something quite valuable.
How strange to learn it in a village in Africa! How strange to let the opinion of foreign villagers matter so much that I might learn it here!
But it really makes perfect sense: being inescapably absurd for two years to strangers (who can’t help but become your peer group) is arguably the best lesson in strength of character. If everything I do is crazy, I must give up on being sane. If I give up on being sane, I can promote crazy new ideas, weed out the open-minded people in town, dance miserably and unabashedly in a drum circle. Maybe I can even go back to America and do the same thing.
It wasn’t easy being the lone believer in germs in Banfele. I got a cold, along with everyone else, a few days after the vendors started sneezing. I got ridiculed if I suggested the existence of disease vectors, and I never knew if anyone changed their minds. All I know for sure is that so many needless episodes of sinusitis resulted in my acceptance of being unaccepted, arguably the best outcome of Peace Corps service---and excessive phlegm--ever.