(this story works best when read along with the prescribed musical accompaniments)
There comes a point in every Volunteer’s service between 1 and 4 months after being installed when culture shock finally takes its toll. Culture shock is defined in the Peace Corps Wellness Handbook as “the psychological disorientation people experience when they live abroad for an extended time in a culture quite different from your own.” In a remote Islamic agrarian society on the edge of the Sahara Desert, this was kind of inevitable.
Initially everything in Mali is new and exciting. But once it settles on you that your life for the next two years shall entail communicating in a very different language, being either sick and/or injured, pumping all of your own water by hand, the constant feeling of living under a microscope, being accosted for everything you own, the swarms of children chanting Tubabu! Tubabu! Tubabu! Tubabu!, donkeys crying, the call to prayer at 5 A.M., the heat, the dryness, mosquitoes, filth flies, sand storms, etc., there comes a point when even the most indomitable of spirits gives way.
The Pollyannaish reaction is to tell oneself “But I’m making a difference!” Though as I walk the dusty, filth-ridden streets of my village each day I realize that the kids with grotesquely distended stomachs down the street are probably going to die within the next year because their mothers will never cook food with any nutritional content and that no matter how hard I try I can only make the tiniest of dents in the poverty and disease which will remain facts of life in Mali for the foreseeable future.
I can’t put my finger on exactly which straw it was which broke this camel’s back. Dealing with all of the above day in and day out eventually led me to lock the gate, hole up in my hut and not want to talk to anyone for a long time.
In a nutshell, that is what culture shock looks like.
The ability to deal with stress in a healthy, non-self-destructive manner is as necessary to human survival out here as is the ability to prepare food and water. Escapism is usually a good remedy, and for that I have the Lord of the Rings trilogy and an impressive collection of Phish bootlegs. But as much I enjoy alternate realities, at the end of the day the streets of Diaramana are still strewn with human waste, people are still drinking from mud puddles, and the sulfurous clouds of giardiasis gas still waft through the air at night.
Thankfully I brought with me a miniature rinkydink guitar and a two year supply of strings so that I can express myself by strumming blues riffs and crooning tales of woe. Even if I cannot rid the world of evil, I can vent by singing about it. I know the whole neighborhood can hear me, so it is to the good fortune of all parties that I am the only one who can understand a word of my crude lyrics.
Even so, spending two years moping in human misery and fantasy novels was a recipe for disaster and I knew it. What I needed to abate my spiritual loneliness was something of this world that would radiate joy and happiness into my life.
During my bad case of the I-Live-in-Mali-and-There’s-Garbage-Everywhere-and-Nobody-Understands-Modern-Germ-Theory Blues I rode my bike to the mud hut of my teammate Nicole. Nicole is a good source of succor for she has been here more than a year and has gone through all the same things I am dealing with and she has been featured on Malian state television for somehow being able to cook gourmet cuisine out of the few things sold in a rural butigi. This time I came over she happened to have acquired a pair of four-week-old kittens.
At Nicole’s house I was feeling abnormally sweaty and disgusting (a level of disgustingness which you can only imagine) and I took off my t-shirt to lie down and bask in the wind. One of her kittens took the initiative to climb up on me and had a joyous time playing with my forest of chest hair and quickly tired himself out and sprawled out on my belly to take a noonday nap. I’ve never really been fond of felines, but as this huggable, squeezable fur ball was purring and making little kitty snores on my belly, I was converted.
“He’s all yours if you want him”, Nicole offered.
And with that, he was mine.
The next week Nicole biked over to my hut with my brand new kitty cat in a basket. For the first and only time in my life (my dad is deathly allergic) I became a cat person.
I reiterate, I’m not really a cat person – never before had I known cats to have anything resembling a personality. But this particular kitten is something else. My kitten wants to climb on my shoulder and accompany me wherever I go. He rolls over because he wants a tummy rub every 15 minutes and he paws me awake in the morning because he wants to wrestle. My kitten likes to start fights with the other kittens down the street and he clobbers the shit out of them every time. He likes to catch geckos and chameleons and smack them until they are just about dead and eat them alive. And yet he too recognizes the tragedy of underdevelopment and cries sad soul ballads every night. I was thinking maybe I’d call him Sam Cooke or Otis Redding…
I walked down the road with my kitten on my shoulder to meet my host family, who promptly picked him up and inspected his gonads. “He is a man cat”, my jatigi pronounced, “All the other cats in the neighborhood are woman cats. One day all of the new baby cats will look like yours.”
Then and there I knew that my kitten’s name had to be James Brown, because he is destined to be a sex machine.
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