February 04, 1992

Sometimes It Just Happens

Bob --

The mail truck just pulled into the training site at Makeni, where I'm sitting at 9:00 on a hot evening in central Sierra Leone. I trust that a letter or two from you is in my package of mail, but I won't hassle the driver until he takes me back home tomorrow.

Lots of folks are running into the city for sodas and beers, but I keep telling them that my time is best used tonight in writing letters. This is the last one I'll write tonight. I've been pretty bad about responding to my Christmas mail, but I have to get my bi-weekly letter off to Bob.

Your 28 December and 5 January letters lie open before me. I've just re-read them, and they bring a warm feeling and smile to my face. As I think I noted two weeks ago, the first reading nearly brought tears to my eyes. Not bad, mind you -- even your most "unanswerable" questions serve as further tribute to our friendship bond. Your picture hangs in my living room.

Understand that my attempts to define the uniqueness of my experience here were not intended to highlight potential barriers between us. Maybe nobody will be able to completely comprehend the changes wrought in me by the pits and perils of Sierra Leone. I think that your concern that our different life experiences will overcome our commonalities is foundless nonetheless. This, like all things, can serve to make our friendship, our bond, stronger.

Last week, Rob and I took a trip to a rather distant village, drinking and recording our escapades all the way. Once in the village, a smiling Rob began to record the Muslim prayer song of one man sitting on his porch. When it was finished, Rob burst into tears, explaining into the tape recorder that "this man has just shared something that is really personal and meaningful to him." Upon reflection, I realized that I had not actually cried since leaving you, Mom, and Dad in the airport in Kansas City.

Today, I participated in a forum-panel discussion for the new trainees who arrived last month. I related a story in which my trust had been betrayed here, one which left my throat constricted, unable to continue. I wish I knew myself better. I had no idea that I was going to cry until it just happened.

Sometimes it just happens.

Sometimes it just happens.

Until next time. Love, Mark

January 22, 1992

Death, Illness, and Unrest

I'm back. Mail truck comes today.

A little over six months in Africa, and I still miss school. I was laying in bed this morning trying to rest out of the my latest illness, thinking about what I might do when I come back. Some people think about food or electricity. Some people think about music or TV. I think about what school I want to do my graduate work at.

One of my students, Foday -- he is Tammy's houseboy and a frequent (and very welcome) visitor to my house -- lost his father last night. I haven't made it out to get many details, but he had told me last night that his father had fallen suddenly and seriously ill. I found out this afternoon he had been suffering from hypertension. Foday took tylenols and food from my house and started to spend the night, but a messenger around 1:00 last night reported that the family had sent to the hospital for a stretcher. Word today was that he had died. How many times in America can we hear a person say "... and I would have died if I wouldn't have got to the hospital." Well, here those people generally die. I'm glad I had my appendectomy back in college.

School is underway again. I'm not there today because I don't have any classes to teach on Wednesdays. I should go there anyway, but I'm not feeling too well. The closer I am to a latrine, the better. After I come home, I doubt that I'll ever look at (so to speak) diarrhea the same way again. It can get to be an omnipresent condition.

Abu is also here at home today. Two weeks ago, his stool sample turned up with hookworms. Last week, he had a nasty case of malaria. This week, his stool sample turned up with schistosomiasis. None of these explain the persistent pain he's having in his chest. Poor guy. Things have been kinda depressing around the Mr. Mark house.

Wish I could give you a rundown on the political situation in this country, but I'm having a hard time second-guessing everything. Apparently, the rebel situation seems to have quieted down for awhile. There are, however, a greatly increased number of people running around with guns. The wielders certainly lack disclipine, and it is not uncommon to hear soldiers randomly firing shots in the air for no good reason. I heard a story a few days ago about someone going into a town south of here and firing a few shots into the air. Rapid rumors gave way to panic and half the population fled into the jungle. Anybody with a gun here can be an effective bandit.
As far as I know, elections are still on hold.

January 31 is the official date when the government agreed to meet all the teacher's demands. the day rapidly approaches, and the government had been unable to fulfill their promise. The teachers are prepared to sit down, paralyzing once again the nation's schools. Parliament was supposed to meet yesterday in a special session to discuss the situation. I haven't heard what happened. More likely than not, February 1 will be the start of a vacation of indefinite length for us.

A strike giving way to violent or otherwise radical reform would probably not be a bad thing. Keeping the country limping along isn't helping anything. You've heard me say before that Sierra Leone is a 5th world country -- but the scary thing is that bulldozing it and starting from scratch would immediately move it into the status of 3rd world. I talked with the Peace Corps Sierra Leone Associate Director for Education a few weeks ago. He argued for the value of pulling out all international development agencies so the people will reform themselves and learn to do things for themselves. Most of the problems here seem to be human-made problems -- social, political, and economic. Until these convoluted problems are eliminated, the country will be unable to sufficiently address the problems of health, nutrition, and development.

Getting Rob back from his Christmas in Michigan has been really nice. He had some trouble re-adjusting (and is still feeling it some) to Sierra Leone, but we spent a lot of time together this past week, mostly with a cup of palm wine in our hands. We didn't do much for getting each other less depressed, but we were able to keep some good time together. He doesn't want to teach and he doesn't want to be in the villages any more. That doesn't leave much else. Hopefully he'll snap out of it. Wonder how I'll be feeling this time next year.

5:05 in the afternoon now. The mail truck came as I was writing that paragraph about Rob. The truck carried me to Tammie's house where we had a nice meal of rice and plasauce (what else?). I got two letters from you, one of which left my eyes moist as I left it to move to the lunch table. I'll write my response next time.

For now, I'll close. They buried Foday's dad this afternoon -- it has to be done immediately with this heat. The last couple of days have been a clue that the hot season is ready to begin. The cool night wind off the Sahara is starting to wane. The coming heat is supposed to be "unbearable." I'll let you know.

Need to write my lesson plans for school tomorrow. Nothing on the BBC tonight about the meeting of the Parliament yesterday (5:05 every day is "Focus on Africa"), but the mail truck driver said something about student demonstrations in Freetown. Maybe the ball will start rolling.

I'll send this letter with a short-term missionary who leaves tomorrow. This letter will undoubtedly reach before the ones to other people that I put on the mail truck today. I hope to get back on track with my letter writing so we can "talk" on a more regular basis.

Love, Mark

January 20, 1992

Post-Holiday Blues


Well, it's probably been more than a month since I word processed that last letter to you. It if makes any difference, I'll note that that was the last letter I've written since I finally got back into the swing of things yesterday with some letters to family. Lot of excuses, I guess. The holidays and two trips to Freetown really threw me out of my routine. Further, since my return from Freetown 10 days ago I've been kind down in the dumps. Nothing real bad, but enough that the last thing I wanted to do was attack the stack of Christmas cards and letters on my table. Made a pretty good haul on Christmas greetings -- I guess not being able to answer back quickly can be kind of depressing. Anyway, I'm slowly starting to wade through them.

I'll keep adding to this letter, since it'll be a couple days before the mail truck comes.


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

November 24, 1991

An Essay on Community Service

Because You Can
by Mark A. Hager

[Written for the 1992 Kansas State University Community Service Program Seminar Reader.]

Welcome to the world of public service. If you're serious about it, it will change your life. If you're not, hold on to your hat. Nobody enters and exists this world through the same door.

Not so long ago, I endured a series of discussions with service providers where the central question was "Why do you choose to dedicate your time to serving others?" The only conclusion I can draw from the variety of answers I heard is that people hold a wide range of philosophies regarding service. Even though most answers were carefully scripted and well-rehearsed, the motivations were as diverse as the people who divulged them. Social analyst Nancy Gibbs notes that "if 80 million adults are volunteering, then there may be 80 million impulses for doing so -- whether political, professional, spiritual, or personal. The precise mixture is measured from needs within and needs without. In the end, the decision to volunteer usually occurs at a crossroads, where moral indignation and moral responsibility meet." Everyone has their own motivation and philosophy. I offer mine solely because it is what I have to offer.

The fine line between moral indignation and self-righteousness is often just a matter of personal rhetoric. If you can fool yourself into believing that you are serving a cause "because you like helping people," then you, like the vast majority of service providers, will be seeing only part of the picture. The world is too big a place and has too many real problems for us to see our social responsibility solely in terms of personal interest.

I'm trying to get at two grains of truth here: the first is that our motivations are seldom what we think they are. The second is that volunteering to help someone should never be accompanied by a desire to get a pat on the back. If the word humanity means anything, it means that you should lend a hand to others for one simple reason: because you can.

By popular legend, America was built through an attitude of Volunteerism. Somehow, though, the American culture has become so highly individualized that we have to re-learn what it means to consider others' interests as important as our own. Today we read about barn-raising spirit and true community, but we are out of touch with the real meanings that these attitudes must have conveyed. Twentieth century America is a "me first now" culture. Even our religious doctrines focus on notions of personal relationship rather than civic responsibility. Theoretically, if all of us "succeed" as individuals, then there is no need to consider the success of the whole. In practice, rugged individualism results in broken spirits and broken homes, hungry neighbors, and a destructive attitude of superiority toward other races, other countries, and our natural surroundings. Unless we re-awaken ourselves to understand our civic responsibility to care for others, the social fabric of America will continue to fray.

Ironically, my words about the American condition come to you from an isolated town in West Africa. Recently, the United Nations Development Programme released its rankings from its 1991 Human Development Index. Sierra Leone had no problem ranking 160 out of 160 countries studied by the UN. With the highest infant mortality rate in the world, the average Sierra Leonean lives to 42 years. The adult literacy rate stands at less than 14 percent, which is no surprise because the average "years of school" for the Sierra Leonean population is less than one. Rampant inflation, devaluing currency, rebel incursions, corrupt officials, tropical diseases, twelve languages, decaying roads, and an absense of water works and electricity make Sierra Leone a truly interesting place to work and play. A woman recently wrote in a Florida publication that the miracle of Sierra Leone is that "you wake up and it's still there." I, however, don't think of it as a miracle. The way the people in this country survive from day to day can be summed up in one word: community.

True community is as hard to define as it is to achieve. If you think I'm talking about a "place where people live," then quit reading now because you aren't going to understand me. I'm referring to the sense of communal dedication and responsibility that Scott Peck and others write so extensively about. I'm talking about commitment to a body of brothers and sisters. In a community, you don't serve another for money, for glory, or even just because you want to. In true community, the motivation to serve another is so basic that it seems almost trivial: you serve because you can. In Sierra Leone, a person is revered for giving his or her money away -- not for being able to amass it. I've seen a large bridge made from sticks and vines by the self-help efforts of an entire village. I've toured large farms that are developed through back-breaking labor solely by community effort for the community good. If you can, but you don't, you might as well find a new place to stay. In Sierra Leone, the rugged individualist doesn't live very long.

So what was I saying about the social fabric of America? Granted, Sierra Leone and the United States are two very different places, but they are made different solely by the differing attitudes of the people within, which in turn are shaped by history and the availability of resources. One hundred and fifty years ago, however, the places were not so different. Diligence in development and technological advance have no doubt made America an easier place to live, but they have also taken their toll on the national soul. The age gap widens. The gender gap widens. The rich-poor gap threatens to swallow us all. Individuals escape from hollow marriages and abusive parents into television and drugs. The proliferation of computers in the schools is no more notable than the proliferation of guns and knives. Inner-city gangs outnumber youth service corps, and standards of education are consistently compromised. Industrial development spells industrial wastes and a growing indifference toward environmentally sound methods for disposal.

All of this is the result of development and technological advance? Well, probably not. Certainly the answer is not deconstruction of our development -- the answer lies along the lines of a pathological change in our attitudes. I thnk we can learn a lot from the lessons taught by the people of Sierra Leone. Service should not be a means of seeking a perk on our emotional résumé; service should be a simple end in itself.

Two summers ago, my good friend's mother asked me, "Mark, what is the answer to the world's problems?" My answer came quickly: "We need to all love each other more." We have to re-learn what it means to consider others' interests as important as our own. We've got to be in touch with why we're doing what we're doing and take responsibility for it. No doubt you've heard that the price of liberty and freedom are fulfillment of duty and civic responsibility. That's the deal. If you can't answer the call, you're part of the problem. If you can, that's all the reason you need to kneel down in the ashes of the world to serve those around you.

Mark A. Hager is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, where teaching secondary school and constructing latrines give him an excuse to drink palm wine. He served on the Leoti, Kansas, Community Service Program Summer Team in 1989, and was the student coordinator for summer teams from 1989 to 1991. He was awarded the B.S. in Speech from KSU in 1990.

Where I Should Be

Bob --

Just a short note this time to accompany this rough draft of the essay. It's as polished as it's going to get, I'm afraid. It has its moments, I think, but as a whole it is a bit weak. The last academic writing I did was in early May. I'd appreciate a copy. My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers here feel that a version of it should appear in our Peace Corps Sierra Leone publication. Maybe I'll work something up.

Thanksgiving is Thursday, but I'll probably be eating rice instead of turkey. Peace Corps wouldn't let me go to Guinea.

Thanks for the football news. News from home has my old high school marching to another undefeated season. Hope the Cats were able to win a few more, too.

Hate to hear about the Community Service Program and the proposed budget cuts. Sure wonder what happened. I owe a lot to that program, but I, too, sometimes question how many people the thing really reaches. I know "if it helps one person..."; but it never really lived up to its potential. I can't help but understand the plight of the budget cutters. Maybe Marv and Carol will start to give some administrative attention to the program. It needs it.

Thanks again for the camera battery. I've been making up for my lost time in shooting pictures.

Got the package from Fran Irelan's class. Very nice. I need to sit down within the next couple of days and write a BIG letter to the class. This letter is rushed because Rob is carrying it to America for me next week. He is leaving tomorrow, so I want to get it in his hand....

I, too, would like to talk with you via the radio one day. Realize that Sunday night there is after midnight here. Maybe another time. I'll try to call collect via telephone next time I'm in Freetown.

Hate to hear that you'll be unable to make a visit. I certainly understand.

Haven't heard from Carol yet. In fact, the only KCRI-er I've heard from is Spuds. Carol has a University of Minnesota address that I want.

School started here a few weeks ago. I guess I probably said that in my last letter (which I know is running into some postal snags, by the way). Frustrating. Language barriers. Poor math foundation. Poor attitudes. Poor system. Ack.

Rob leaves me his latrine project in full swing. He's really leaving me with a huge chore. I guess I'll be busy for a little while.

Abu just came back from trying to buy some notebooks for school. He says, "Sierra Leone will soon turn into a hell." Yesterday he bought notebooks for Le 260. Today, they are asking Le 300. It gets harder and harder to make ends meet.

Hope your semester is ending well. Seems really strange that a semester got by while I was playing around in Africa. Could have been one step closer to that degree. But then again, I need to be in touch with what is really important. I'm here. I'm glad I'm here. If I was there, I would wish I was here. This is where I should be. I'm getting more of an education here than I could get in any school. This is a necessary step in my destiny. It's warm here. I have a house. I have an income. I have a cat. I serve a purpose. People bring me chickens. And bread. And oranges. My friends write me letters.

Bob -- this is a tough place to live and it's getting tougher all the time. What does the future hold for Sierra Leone?

Love, Mark

November 13, 1991

Waiting for the Mail Truck

Yo Bob:

It's 4:49 in the afternoon and the mail truck is a couple hours later than usual. Thought I'd pry your envelope open and scribble a few more lines.

I was just sitting on my back porch playing "draughts" -- a slightly more complex checkers game -- when a helicopter came over. I guess it set down up at the hospital. Don't know if they were bringing somebody in or med-evacing someone out. Probably the former. In any case, it's probably somebody rich or important. This really is a good hospital. Anyway, you should try to imagine how these people reacted to a helicopter flying over this place. Everyone was out to see it go over, and I could hear excited chattering all around me. The four guys with me on my porch took off for the hospital. Abu wanted to take "my" bike (actually assigned to a newer PCV near me), but I couldn't justify letting him take it to chase a helicopter.

I hope my bike comes today on the truck. Heck, I just hope the damn truck comes. I get really psyched up about getting mail twice a month. If it doesn't come today, it will be a big letdown.

Oh -- I remembered one of those things I'd like to get. I've been trying to write a little bit of short fiction (yeah, "Why doesn't he write the essay instead?) but I don't know much about it. If you can come across a text or other book on writing short stories, I'd probably get some good out of it.

School was frustrating again today. I really don't see how my Form III math students could have passed the exam to enter Form I. Maybe they didn't. It's really possible they didn't.

5:30. Still waiting for the truck.

More next time.

Love, Mark

November 12, 1991

Teaching Begins, and Education Continues


Haven't heard from you for a month, so I'm expecting a big haul in tomorrow's mail truck. I'm feeling pretty good about how I've been in my letter writing to everybody. I've written more letters than I've received -- individual exceptions to you and my Mom.

The adventure continues. This is now the second week of classes -- it feels good to finally be getting into the classroom, although it is as frustrating as everyone said it would be. More than once, I've recalled the philosophies of band-aid approaches to development. I feel like a small band-aid on a festering wound. I can see the value of building a latrine, but today my Form III (roughly sophomore high school level) students couldn't tell me what 7-3 is. After yelling at them for about five minutes, I wanted to cry. How many different ways can you think of to explain that 7-3=4? Sure, Abu has 7 mangoes and Fatu takes 3 away, but then how do you explain 3-7? Negative mangoes leaves them with a blank expression. Frustrating.

Haven't been to Freetown in over a month, but even if I'd been there I don't know if I'd splurge for stationary. I'm not sending random scraps -- I really do think about who gets what scrap when I write letters on the backs. I thought maybe the order of service for this "money service" -- a pretty typical order -- might be interesting. The service lasted a little over two-and-a-half hours, and I didn't understand much of it. The music was cool, though.

By the time you read this, my service will be 1/6 complete. No, I don't sit around ticking off the days -- I feel increasingly adjusted. Nonetheless, I miss you, my other friends and family. Last night, Rob and I were drinking palm wine with some other guys. He was being pretty quiet while I was talking to another guy. When I asked what he was thinking about, he said he was having a big daydream about what getting off the plane in America would be like. He said he thought he could expect around 20 people there to greet him. I told him I thought I could probably expect 3 -- the same three that put me on the plane. That's not a sad thing -- it just provided some discussion about the differences between our families. I think plenty of people will be glad to see me -- they'll just wait until I happen to be in the neighborhood to show it.

One of the palm wine discussions I had last night was with a guy I'd never met before. The discussion was about U.S. foreign policy. He was looking very hard for an argument, and he was as well-informed about international affairs as most non-Americans seem to be. I mean he knew his stuff. I remember sitting in 760 last year while Maribel ran circles around everybody with facts and incidents on international affairs. Americans (I'm making a rash generalization here) tend to be really stupid about international happenings. Anyway, I like to think I was able to hold my own. He started out by talking about all the international conflicts that America doesn't take an interest in. Then he noted that America's interests in the sovereignty of Kuwait is inconsistent with the apparent lack of attention we give to other conflicts. I felt like he was really trying to make the most of a coming verbal battle when he pointedly articulated how he thought the war was fought for oil and that America chooses its battles according to its own economic interests. He ended with flourish, giving me an opportunity to "defend" myself. I said "Right." This clearly wasn't the response he was looking for. He says "What?" (Sometimes there is a language problem.) I said "Correct." He looked as confused and disappointed as a cat when a mouse simply jumps into its mouth. Anyway, the whole thing ended up being one of the more indepth discussions I've had with a Sierra Leonean. Being miles away from Tom Brokaw and having BBC to listen to every day, I'm more in touch with international affairs than I ever have been. I don't think I care more about them -- I haven't been able to thoroughly break out of my American socialization -- but at least I know more about them.

Yes, I've started the essay for 701. It is titled Because You Can and is a synopsis of my philosophies on service. I had hoped to send it out on this mail truck, but I haven't gotten very far on it. I expect to meet your Christmas deadline, however.

I have tentative (very tentative) plans to spend Thanksgiving in Guinea. Three female and one male missionary from the hospital need one more male to meet their gender quota for overnight excursions. They've asked me to go on a four-day trip (Nov 28, 29, 30, Dec 1) to Conakry (the capital). I'm likely, however, to run into several travel restritions as a "new" Peace Corps Volunteer. I wasn't able to make my case in person, and I haven't heard yet how my request to Peace Corps administration is turning out. Heck, you won't receive this letter by Thanksgiving anyway. Ack -- the perils of international correspondence.

Still on the latrine business. Built a double slab yesterday (helped, that is) for a trench latrine here in town. I've got to check a couple potential sites here today, too. Further, two Volunteers just showed up on Rob's doorstep so we have to entertain them tonight. I'm responsible for going to find wine. I'm not sure when I'm going to write my last letter -- one to Mom and Dad -- before the mail truck comes. Now that I've got a real job, scheduling has gotten a little tighter.

Periodically, I find myself thinking "I need to tell Bob about that" or "I need to ask Bob for that," but I can't for the life of me think what some of those things might be. I called Mom via ham radio last week, and I asked her to give you a call. Hope she did.

I'm currently suffering from what is probably giardia, although I have sufficient aversion to the idea of shitting in a cup to avoid going to the hospital. If it gets worse or persists, I'll go. For now, I'll go ahead and sprint to the latrine every once in awhile.

Abu contines to be a great source of information and assistance. He is now one of my students, so now I'm seeing the flip side of the teacher-student-friend relationship. I'm sure it will work out well.

My cat is growing larger, but needs its shots.

I'm gaining weight and not shaving. Both are good.

Haven't heard from Fran Irelan, but expecting to soon.

Seems strange that your semester isn't too far now from being over. Hope it is going well. I look forward to hearing from you tomorrow.

Love, Mark