Leaving my village after two years was more beautiful, more painful, and more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I don’t even know how to begin to explain the love and friendship I was shown over the past few days as I said my goodbyes. The days (and nights) were filled with endless visits, thoughtful gifts, silent tears and nonexistent sleep.
Leaving my village, where crying is considered shameful and negative emotions are suppressed until they find their way out in distorted ways, was a battle of emotional endurance. “Fo rat n loog n bas tondo,” they’d say, day after day. You want to go away and leave us. “Bi fo boos kiuugu n paase.” Just ask for one more month. “Ra kum dat! Fo sen n kum, mam pa na n puus fo!” Don’t cry! If you cry I’m not going to say goodbye to you!
Well, I cried. And they said goodbye to me. Most of them at least. There was one that was just too hard. My old lady friend, my Burkinabé grandmother, who in the past two years has lost her sight and most of her mobility, but never her sense of humor. With her, I just couldn’t do it. Not without breaking down at least, and that would have been considered worse. But we had breakfast together, ate boiled sweet potatoes with our hands, and shared a laugh or two as always. And when I went back to my courtyard to finish packing, we both knew I wouldn’t be coming back again.
But let me rewind a bit. Two days before my departure, the health clinic staff and I invited the whole village to a party outside the health clinic to celebrate all we’ve accomplished over the last two years. We ate rice and drank zoom koom, a local millet-based drink, and we reflected on the two years we spent together. Women that I worked with in neighboring villages walked several kilometers to come and celebrate and say goodbye. And I was showered with love and praise and gifts. The elders of my village went first, handing me a live chicken dangling by its feet. Each of my women’s groups went next, each giving me a different type of traditional woven fabric, along with the group of women from my own courtyard as well. One group even got their gift wrapped in the city, its sparkly paper exclaiming “IT’S A BOY!” I got a locally made ring from my friend the pharmacist, and another beautifully wrapped present from my co-workers at the health clinic. And the peanuts! I can’t forget about the many overflowing basins of peanuts. The gifts, it seemed, were never ending.
In the two days following the party, I hardly stopped moving to sit or to eat or to think. It was all packing, goodbyes, gifts, visitors, laughter, tears and benedictions. Peace Corps has decided not to send another volunteer to my village this year, and so I had to move every last thing out of my house. And giving it all away was a process in and of itself. The night before I left, I sat under the stars with a revolving flow of women, kids, friends and coworkers, chatting and drinking tea as I finished emptying my house. I finally fell asleep under the brilliant canopy of stars at about 2 a.m., and then woke up at 4:45 with the first call of prayer. When all was ready to go, the kids in my courtyard took my bags and bike ahead as I followed on foot with a procession of women behind me, accompanying me on the first steps of the next part of my life journey. As we left our main courtyard I spotted my pugnyanga, my old woman, sitting as usual against her neem tree, and I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“Stop crying Breejeetie!” my friend Matoma yelled, shaking her fist in my face. “Stop crying! We’re not going to walk with you if you cry!” I heard her voice trail off behind me, having stopped walking. But as anyone who’s ever cried before knows, it’s not so easy to stop the flow of tears once they’ve started. Finally they caught up to me.
“Stop crying Breejeetie!” She said again, this time a little weaker. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her wiping her own eyes with her headscarf. Together, we kept walking.
When it was time for the women to head back, they each came forward and shook my hand – this time, and only this time, with their left hand. The left hand here is only used for dirty things, never to shake hands or even hand something to someone. But if you do greet someone with your left hand, the person must eventually come back to make it right. That morning, I was given more left hands than I can count.
Four women, along with my good friend Madi, accompanied me all the way to the bus station in town. Two of them rode their bikes with me, each carrying a piece of luggage, and the rest followed in what we call a taxi moto – basically a motorbike with a cart attached – with the heavier bags. We arrived to find the bus station teeming with passengers, so we had to wait about an hour and a half before we could catch a bus. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Just before I boarded the bus, two of my best friends – 13-year-old Mahawa and Yimeo – pulled up on their bikes for a final goodbye – the best surprise all morning. Everyone together helped me load my bags and bike under the bus, then gave me their left hands and wished me a safe and healthy journey.
But even then, I didn’t journey alone. Two of my favorite neem cream ladies, Ramata and Kalizeta, insisted on accompanying me all the way to the capitol. So they each paid the equivalent of $10 (neem cream sells for approximately 20 cents) for two-way tickets to the city, just to see me off. When we arrived in the capitol, they put me and my bags in a taxi, shook my left hand, told me not to cry, and went to wait in line for another bus to take them three hour journey back north, hoping to make it before dark.
So here I am now, settled in Ouagadougou, about to begin working on the inexhaustible list of paperwork and errands and reporting that make up the close-of-service process. It’s a whole different world here, but it’s one that will get me that much closer to re-entering the world of home. The two years I spent in my village in the hot, dusty north of Burkina Faso were the most challenging, most beautiful, most frustrating, and most rewarding of my life. And I couldn’t imagine a better way to end them. I’m ready to go.