Tangled Paths

The children stopped to stare at the green truck as we passed. Our eyes locked: mine memorizing their angled arms and milky palms, theirs taking in my strange, thin hair and pale skin. Their mothers picked their way along the uneven ground at the side of the road, balancing wide ceramic bowls, eyes steady and careful.

After six weeks of study with the other SSTers in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, we were all heading au village. My destination was a tiny village beyond Danané, close to the western border of the country. I sat in the front seat of a Chevy pick-up, smashed between Charles, a Baptist pastor in Danané, and Lydia, his wife. Their children rode in the back. It wasn’t very far, but not knowing what lay ahead, I wished the drive would last forever.

The road was full of potholes and ruts, losing ground to the thick green vegetation. Some puddles were as long as the truck.

“The name of this village is Bougle,” Lydia said.

“Boo-gu-lay?”

They laughed. “Bwug-lee.”

I repeated it over and over until she nodded, smiling. Bougle’s buildings were white-washed mud huts with packed dirt floors. Chickens ran loose in the road. An old woman sat bare-breasted on a low stool in the shade. She stared as we passed.

Out of the Classroom, Into the World

In his opening remarks at a service-learning conference a quarter century ago, Goshen College president emeritus J. Lawrence Burkholder said he claimed only one credential for speaking at the event: He was a “born again” believer in international education.

As one who has co-led nine SSTs — in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Cuba, China, and Cambodia — I write today as one similarly reborn. And in the spirit of some Dominican evangelicals, I’ll testify to a series of rebirths during my years of teaching in a small, Mennonite, liberal arts college — recommitments to graceful living as well as to international education, and to service or experiential learning. God knows, I’m a believer.

But even back when I was a pagan, in my undergraduate years at a college that had no international education program, I intuitively recognized the need for and value of cross-cultural education and experiential learning. In my sophomore year, a friend and I spent six weeks of the Christmas break and January interterm backpacking and train-hopping our way through western Europe. We lived off of oranges and bread; toured museums, cathedrals and other historical sites; bedded down in the homes of any family that would take us in, or in youth hostels; and communicated in our halting French and German, smiling and gesturing profusely when we traversed Italy and Spain.

Potatoes and Grit

On the white lace tablecloth covering the hardwood table lay two sliced palta (avocados) and a bag of white bread. I spread the palta on bread for breakfast, and sprinkled it with salt, at my host brother Eric’s suggestion. I told him it was muy rico because it really was delicious, not because I was trying to be polite. Later that night, he told me, we’d eat “real Peruvian food.”

All five members of my host family crowded into a 6- by 10-foot kitchen to prepare the meal. I sat poised at the supper table, preparing to taste my first authentic Peruvian meal.

Four large ceramic plates arrived in front of me, and I saw that real Peruvian food meant, most accurately, potatoes. Potatoes, potatoes, and more potatoes. And rice. A small cucumber and onion salad rested in a small white bowl off to the side, and a strip of fried chicken lay across some of the rice — but these foods were barely visible next to a colossal plate entirely covered in thick papas fritas, another plate lined with baked yellow potatoes, and a third dinner plate heaped with a mound of white rice — and, of course, a side of potatoes.

One Question at a Time

A very pregnant, soon-to-be mom wobbled bow-legged down the hallway as my guide led me on a tour of the Nyarero Health Clinic. We continued our walk down the long, sun-streaked hall until we reached the birthing room. Yelling, she hopped up on a wooden table draped in green plastic, and with not another word, a newborn slid right out onto the table. The nurse and I stood back in shock (though most of the shock was probably mine).

“Don’t touch anything,” she said as she darted out in the pursuit of gloves. I stood alone in the middle of the room. The questions “What’s going on?” and “What do I do?” were racing through my English-speaking head. I just stared at the (thankfully) wailing child still attached to the relieved mother. I was petrified as I watched the birthing juices flow off the table into the bin perched below, apparently placed there for that very purpose. I would later see the pit where this bio waste was disposed, not far off from this very room. I came to think of it as “The Placenta Pit.”

Todo El Mundo Me Da Miedo

I was walking my wonderful 4-year-old host sister to school, holding her hand as we walked along a street on a steep hill. There was a little drop-off by the side of the road. I carefully helped guide her as she walked on the curb between the street and where the road dropped off. She looked down, and I asked her if she was scared. She replied, “Todo el mundo me da miedo” — the whole world scares me.