December 15, 1991

In a Philosophical Mood


I'm writing from a word processor at the hostel in Freetown. I haven't typed for over two months. Feels a little strange.

I arrived in Freetown yesterday for a conference that begins tomorrow (Monday) and runs through Friday. It is my "re-connect" conference that happens after three months of service. Anyway, I got two of your letters on the mail truck Wednesday and I just got another one straight from the mail room today. So, let me make some responses, then I'll see what else there is to report.

Thanks for the football scores. Good to know KSU finished fourth in the conference. Amazing. Got word today that my high school won another state championship. Third in four years. I know that doesn't mean much to you, but I always like to keep up with hometown news anyway.

Hate to hear the Community Service Program budget crunch news. I'm glad that projects are continuing. I think I'm familiar with the "Topeka Youth Project." When I attended the Youth Service America national conference in D.C. last October, there were reps there from TYP. I met them, but they seemed very discouraged (and a bit discouraging). The current rage in youth service corps is to pay a small stipend to youths who participate/contribute. TYP was philosophically opposed. I think their own budget problems was a contributing factor.

You note that you and Carol mused about me after team interviews one day and that my letter hangs on a bulletin board at KCRI. "She almost didn't accept you when you first applied as a team member; she noted that you seemed most concerned about being near your dentist." This matches my recollection, too. My application was a last minute throw-together that was given to me by a former team member living at Smith House. I just didn't want to spend another summer at home. So, with little academic skill to offer, I applied. No high ideals. No concern for liberty, duty, freedom, or responsibility. I didn't want to stay in Manhattan, either, because I was to have some kind of dental appliance made in Garden City, requiring me to spend several days there. Whatever Carol's reservations, she accepted me. But I'm not the same person I was then, and I'm not ashamed of who I was in the past either. Everything I ever was contributes to who I am today.

Nonetheless, I can't help but muse about how different my life would be if she had rejected me. I don't have any idea where I would be today, but I do know that her acceptance set me down a very important and notable path of my life. Do you think Carol realizes how profound her statement "I almost didn't accept him" is for me? My work in Leoti is a footnote in the history of my life, but something I did there moved me in Carol's mind from "little boy who wants to be near his dentist" to "student who may be able to contribute administratively to the program." Even now, I can see that I'm different from the boy that entered the office back in August of 1989. I was studying math education. I wanted to do some coursework at Manhattan Christian College. I was a Republican. I had no direction.

I've learned so much. That boy met Mr. Bob Burns soon after beginning work for the Community Service Program that semester. I tried to act like a man. Even as early as those first meetings, you talked to me about work on your dissertation. You talked about publishing work on the Community Service Program. You talked about the kinds of things that academic children don't talk about. You helped me grow up. You said "I accept you for what you are capable of" and made me to understand my potential.

I changed my major. I flew to conferences on both coasts. I learned about prejudice and hatred and what they do to people. I learned about drugs and hunger and why they exist. I learned about people. More importantly, I learned about myself. I've learned so much about myself. I learned to stand by what I believe so that I can look at myself and be happy with what I see.

On this path, I met myself. Maybe I could have met myself on other paths as well, but I am well pleased with the Mark that I've found. The other Marks -- the ones I would have found on other paths -- wouldn't have a friend/brother named Bob. The other Marks wouldn't be building latrines in Africa. With every bite of rice I eat, I thank God for setting me on the paths that brought me here. I won't thank Carol for accepting me, but I recognize the contribution that her decision made to my life. The important thing is that Carol continues to accept me and understand how that fateful decision fits in my life.

The funny thing is that I never did go to the dentist that summer. The poignant thing is that I still lay awake at night sometimes and think about home. The important thing is that I can look myself squarely and not regret anything in my past.

You've evolved, too, since we met. Perhaps I've just got to know the real Bob better, but I think we've changed together. Maybe I'm just afraid to think that I've changed while you've just hung around to oversee it. I really wonder how different we would be if we had never met. You are my closest friend. You know me better than anyone. You understand me better than anyone. You accept me more than anyone. You have helped to shape some of my biggest decisions and you have been the only one with me when I have had to break down and cry. Even now, I've typed a lump into my throat.

You yourself are facing an uncertain future. Do what you need to do. If you want to get out of education, get out. If you want to leave KSU, find another job. Go to Ball State. Go to California. Life is waiting for you wherever you go. Just make sure that you are going to like the Bob that you meet down the path. I, for one, will be there to meet him.

Kamakonkwie beat Kamabonko 1 goal to 0 in last week's soccer match.

I think I reported before that the camera battery worked fine and that I'm taking a lot of pictures, but you keep asking. Thanks again.

Hope your semester ended well. Seems strange to think that I've sat out an academic semester. I have to fight the feeling that I've wasted my time. I know that I haven't, it's just that I've psychologically conditioned myself into the quest for higher education. I trust that you've received my essay.

So, Friday, 28 February 1992, 10:00am, will be a big day -- I realize this is your defense day, not graduation day. I remember when I told you that I was disappointed that I would be out of the country and therefore unable to attend your graduation. You expressed surprise that I would attempt such a trip even if I was in the country. I guess I was surprised by your surprise. I'm pretty sure I would have made every effort to see sunny Michigan. Certainly, no matter how long it took to accomplish the task, you have every reason to be proud of your work. As we say in Sierra Leone, "no shame." You should let your family and friends do everything they can to make it the occasion it ought to be.

Life goes on in Sierra Leone. It's now Friday night, and most of my training group has dribbled in for tomorrow's conference. For the most part, this once-spirited and hard-driven group of people is broken and discouraged. Four of us are gone, and I've talked with two others who have come to grips with the idea of leaving this place behind and returning to the comforts and dangers of the First World. At least half of my group are requesting site transfers because their jobs just aren't working out. Peace Corps Sierra Leone is facing the exact same problem that KSU-Community Service Program Summer Teams has faced in the past -- a lack of good sites due to economic factors. Anyone who gets a Volunteer here has got to provide a viable house with furniture, a latrine, and a nearby water source. As the economy here sinks to the lowest depths of utter hell, fewer agencies are able to make the commitment for a Volunteer. There are plenty of places where Volunteers are needed, but if you don't have a house....

Anyway, this is the first time I've been out of my site since I came down for my birthday. I've been busting my ass to make things work in Kamakwie, and I can honestly say that I'm enjoying the work. I've had the time of my life the last three weeks. I've made 34 latrine slabs, and I've began plans for wells, drying floors, and a road. I've been teaching more periods a week than any other Peace Corps Volunteer teacher that I've talked to. I've spent the night in three different villages the past two weeks, and they've given me rice, wine, oranges, bananas, chickens, and a goat.

I've been accused in the past of having a capacity to deal with adversity, but this is a supreme test. I was talking to a Volunteer yesterday who has just returned from a medical evaluation to D.C. (really bad dental problem). She said that she could see a real change in herself. She said, "People say 'so how's Africa?' and all you can do is just look at them because they have no idea what they are asking." That question isn't like "so how's your folks" and you just answer "fine." The answer is a complex assortment of reasons (and non-reasons) precisely why things aren't fine here. We can listen to USA for Africa sing "We are the World" and listen to the statistics for inflation, disease, infant death, and illiteracy, but unless one lives it one CANNOT understand it. That same volunteer says that she loved her hot showers and variety of foods when she was back, but she doesn't think she'll be able to return to America when she finishes here. The waste and ignorance is just too much. I've adapted fine, but I'm curious what adapting back is going to be like.

Teaching continues. My initial frustrations have virtually subsided. I guess I stopped trying to teach at the level I expected the kids to be learning and opted for the level where they actually can learn something. For my Form IIIs, that means addition, subtraction, multiplication, division of whole numbers and some work with fractions. I'm curious to see how they do on the exam that they'll be taking Tuesday morning. I hope that there is no more teacher strikes at the beginning of next term.

Rebel incursions have really heated up all along the southern and eastern borders. The rebels have apparently got ahold of some heavy artillery (better than what the government forces have) and came up with some Sierra Leone army uniforms. Lots of reports of dead people and victories on both sides. Kamakwie is not in danger, but I had to come through six military checkpoints to get here yesterday. Actually, only one checked bags. The other five just stopped all vehicles and demanded bribes. I don't think they would know a rebel if they saw one.

Well, this one is getting long so I'll try a smaller font and close. It's been nice talking to you. I doubt this reaches you by Christmas, but I hope you've had a good one. I'll certainly be thinking of you through the holiday season.

Love, Mark