A young struggling volunteer finds friendship and inspiration start with 'Tuesday'
It Was Tuesday…
She’d spent another morning crying. The turbulent waves of unbearable loneliness had gradually calmed since her arrival two weeks before; but the ebb and flow of homesickness still lapped gently on the shores of this foreign land. At times, she feared she’d drown in her tears. Letting her emotions overflow onto the pages of her journal always brought comfort.
How naïve I was, thinking that I was brave enough to spend two whole years ripped away from my comfortable world and thrown all alone into this one, she wrote across a smudged page. Everything looks and feels different. I have no one to talk to, no friends. I’m supposed to be creating a project to benefit this community, but I don’t even know where to start! She paused, pen hovering inches above the paper. With determination, she wrote on. But I wanted to come here to challenge myself and learn about life outside my little corner of the world. Somehow, I’ve got to find my way…
Closing the journal, she set it on a low, three-legged stool. The freckles on her sunburned arm stood out as she reached for the crudely woven basket sitting in the corner on the concrete floor. Come on, she cheered herself on. You know you can do this. She took in a deep, assertive breath, chasing away the longing to stay isolated in the safety of her mud-brick house, and pushed open the wooden door. Emerging from the interior’s murk, she squinted as she stepped into the glare of the morning sun.
“Bara ala, Madam Sara!” Gilbert, the day guard, greeted her in the yard. The whites of his eyes stood out from his beaming, nitrous face as he raised both hands to his chest, palms facing her. She returned the greeting, telling him in a blend of Sango and French that she was going to the market. He pulled open the high, bamboo gate separating her compound from the village. Sara stepped through it into another world.
Heads turned as she made her way down the crowded, unpaved streets. Her blonde hair stood out like a misplaced orange in a bin of apples, drawing considerable attention. She wondered if she’d ever get used to it. Last year, during the interview process for this position, a returned volunteer had asked her, “Imagine you are waiting for a bush taxi on a street corner, and a tight circle of staring people forms around you. How do you imagine this will make you feel?” She had idealistically opined that growing up in a family with four siblings in a one-bathroom household had prepared her for a life with little privacy. Looking back, her answer struck her as ridiculous. The past few weeks had taught her what her first nineteen years couldn’t: that culture shock, as elusive to describe as the color blue to a blind person, can only be truly appreciated by those with first-hand experience.
The morning market was teeming with the daily throng of merchants and patrons. Each morning, the village’s lack of electricity, refrigeration, and telephone service drew most of its population out in search of the day’s sustenance of food and gossip. A foreigner in their midst quickly became the main topic of conversation. At first, Sara had crumbled under the villagers’ intense scrutiny and run away from what she thought were jeers. As the weeks progressed, she was becoming more accustomed to the attention; and, with her growing understanding of the local language, she realized they weren’t jeering at her after all. In a rise-to-the-occasion attempt to ease the pressures of acclimation, she had begun setting daily goals for herself. Today, she sought out and purchased just three items; and, with a sense of accomplishment mingled with the relief of being done with it, she walked light-heartedly back toward her house.
Turning up the road, she fell in step with a young girl. A pale yellow frock hung loosely on her thin frame; and the enormous shallow basin she carried on top of her head emphasized her graceful lankiness. Sidling closer, she addressed the girl.
“Bara mo,” she said.
“Bara ala,” replied the girl, smiling demurely without looking at Sara.
Exercising the limited Sango she had mastered, Sara introduced herself, and asked what the girl’s name was. The girl, named Mardi, shyly answered ‘yes’ when Sara asked if she had been born on a Tuesday. She was not the first person Sara had come across in this land whose name was a French word for a day of the week. During the intensive in-country training, she’d been taught by a ‘Samedi’ and a ‘Dimanche’.
Glancing into the basin on Mardi’s head, Sara saw it was full of round, green-skinned fruit. Resting on top was a metal plate containing five round, white fruits. Sara asked what the fruit was. A fleeting look of surprise passed across Mardi’s face before she stopped and agilely lifted the basin from her head to the ground in one graceful movement. Holding one of the green fruits out to Sara, she simply said, “Les oranges.”
With furrowed brow, Sara inspected the fruit more closely. She brought it to her nose and deeply inhaled the undeniable citrus scent. Looking back to Mardi, Sara raised her shoulders in question and said, “But, it’s green.”
Puzzled by her confusion, Mardi was nevertheless compelled to provide convincing evidence. Producing a short blade knife from the bottom of her basin, she took back the orange and deftly pared the skin off in one continuous, spiral rind. It now resembled the white fruit on the metal plate. She completed the last step, slicing off the very top of the orange, before handing it back to Sara.
She stared at the orange, searching for the right words to ask how to eat it, when an older woman approached. She spoke to Mardi in clipped Sango and tossed a coin into her basin of fruit. Without a word, Mardi wielded the knife across the top of one of the pre-peeled oranges and handed it to the woman. The woman covered the cut end of the fruit with her mouth and squeezed, sucking out the juice as she turned to walk away. Following the woman’s example, Sara hesitantly put her mouth to the fruit and tightened her grip. Braced for the acerbic shock of the verjuice she expected, her eyes widened in amazement as a rush of the sweetest juice she’d ever tasted inundated her senses. Mardi beamed.
As she enjoyed the orange, Sara asked Mardi why she sold fruit.
“My father is teacher at le lycée,” she said in careful English.
“You can speak English?” Sara interrupted.
“Little bit. My father teach me.” Mardi smiled at the ground. She went on, “My mother she worked in zee field. Sold crops at zee market. When zee dry season came, she die.”
Sara stared at the girl, at the same time shocked by her sudden sententious admission and humbled by her stoic demeanor.
“How old are you?” Sara asked quietly.
“I have ten years,” she smiled proudly.
Mardi said, “I must go. I have many more oranges to sell today. My brother is baby, he sick. Les médicaments sont chères. I must have money so to buy. I not want him to die.” She bent to pick up the basin of fruit.
Sara stooped to help her, and was surprised at the weight of the load. “C’est lourd!” she remarked.
Mardi grinned mischievously at her. “You try?” Her gaze rose past Sara’s eyes to the crown of her head.
Laughing, Sara agreed. She bent her knees as Mardi hoisted the basin to Sara’s head. Holding the sides of the heavy basin, Sara fought to find her center of gravity. The hard, flat bottom slid easily on her straight hair. Each time she cautiously eased her grip on the bowl, it threatened to slide right off her head. Finally, with every muscle in her body tensed, she found her balance and awkwardly lowered her arms to her sides.
A group of colorfully clad women returning from the market was approaching, carrying on their heads various burlap sacks and basins brimming with purchases. Seeing a Caucasian standing statuesquely with a basin poised on her head turned out to be an instant cultural ice-breaker. The serious countenances they conveyed moments before were replaced by spirited, appreciative laughter. Applauding, they praised her, cheering, ‘Bravo!’ and ‘C’est trés bon!’. Uninhibited, they grabbed at each other’s arms as if the hilarity would bowl them over. Irrepressible giddiness infected Sara. The basin started to slip as Sara trembled in her struggled not to laugh, bringing new peals of laughter from the women. When Sara finally conceded the lost battle of the balancing act, the women gathered around her to help lower the basin back to the ground. Talking rapidly, they touched Sara’s long hair. Sara gathered from the few words she caught that they felt her difficulty was not due to a lack of ability, but rather that her hair was simply ‘too slippery’. Each woman bought oranges from Mardi before departing in an animated chorus of ‘au revoir’.
Elated, they continued on. Immersed in an amalgamated conversation comprised of French, Sango, English and charades, Sara and Mardi walked together until they reached Sara’s gate. Lingering on the road a few minutes more, Sara asked where Mardi and her family lived, and was pleased to learn they were practically neighbors. After arranging for a visit the next day, Sara bought the rest of Mardi’s oranges and said good-bye.
Gilbert watched discretely from his post at the gate as Sara unlocked the door to her house. Looking around, she found a large rock and propped the door wide open with it. She walked in to the kitchen and emptied the sack of oranges one by one into a large bowl. She held the last one to her nose, thinking about Mardi. Turning, she headed back to the door, collecting her journal and the three-legged stool on the way.
Gilbert looked up surprised and caught the orange as she tossed it to him. “Cadeau,” she smiled.
“Merci mingi!” he thanked her. Bemused, he watched Sara step off the worn path to the house and head across the yard. She placed the stool in the generous shade of a large palm tree and sat down, leaning against the trunk. With eyes closed, she listened to the fronds moving in the gentle breeze and reveled in her buoyant mood. Her thoughts floated to Mardi, and then to the sick baby brother. Suddenly Sara’s eyes snapped open. The floodgates of inspiration burst open as she grabbed for her journal. Opening to a clean page, she began scribbling furiously the torrent of ideas flowing from her mind through the pen, and spilling wildly onto the paper:
Possible Project Ideas:
Create Medicine Cooperative for Children
-- establish fruit stands, proceeds buy medicines for sick children
Create Mobile Health Unit
-- provide children with regular health check-ups, monthly baby weighing,
Organize Health Education Program for Mothers and Children
-- teach nutrition, rehydration, childhood illnesses, accident prevention, first aid
Pausing, she had to smile. She wrote, I hope two years will be long enough.
(Word Count: 1,889)
First Place winning entry for Newsboys (and Girls) Short Story Contest