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Lessons From A Mud Hut

by Susan-Marie Stedman
Service at UUCSS on July 14, 2002

Lesson #1. The true self is inspiring

I arrived in Gabon, a small country on the west coast of Africa at the equator, in June of 1982. I’d been anticipating this moment for more than a year, dreaming of living in a jungle so green and verdant that vines enfolded my house and leaves peeked through the windows. I’ve always said that I joined the Peace Corps for two very different reasons: first, to do some good for the world, and second, to find out how tough I was. I felt vaguely that I had grown up very privileged, and hadn’t ever been in a situation that really tested my character. Not in a way that meant something, anyway. I’d had my share of teen age social crises—more than my share it often seemed—and felt I had failed miserably in most of them. But I had the sense that the challenge of living in a strange place with a different culture would reveal to me strengths that I hadn’t been able to awaken in middle-class America.

SO when our plane landed in Libreville, I had a lot of expectations. Fortunately, Gabon lived up to them. It was exciting, exotic, fascinating, and I drank it in as fast and as fully as I could. And in doing that, essentially turning myself over to the experience of being there, I discovered that you are your truest self when you forget yourself. I began to notice that I no longer felt awkward talking to people, that I laughed and smiled easily, that people seemed drawn to me - it was as if I glowed. Try to imagine what it would be like to have all of your insecurities and anxieties drop away at once and to discover that what you are underneath is everything you’ve always wished you could be. Talk about wish fulfillment.

Predictably, that euphoric state didn’t last. It ended several weeks later when I started language training. Being with a large group of other Americans in a classroom setting brought back old ways of thinking and perceiving myself. But I’ve never forgotten the weeks I spent free of those self-limiting habits, and the memory of that experience helps me recognize when I’m encouraging my true self, and when I’m smothering it.

Lesson #2. Gender identity is overrated

I was posted to the small village of Moukoundou in southern Gabon. My job was to teach people to build ponds and grow fish to provide protein in their diets. Digging with a shovel, riding a motorcycle, working primarily with men - I was aware it was a little outside the Gabonese cultural norm for a woman to be doing these things, but little did I know how far outside the norm .

When I first got to Moukoundou, my neighbors kept asking when my husband was arriving. When I finally convinced them that sorry folks, I’m all you get, they were angry. They had wanted a big male volunteer with a big truck to lend prestige to their village. Like George, in the next village over, or Mike and Mark in Lebamba, where the fish station was. Instead they got me, a skinny woman with a motorcycle. But how could I be a woman? I had no children, I had no plantation for growing food, I wore pants, and I rode a motorcycle, which for some reason they thought required immense strength. Wanting to fit in with the village, I worried a great deal about how to resolve this apparent conflict. I’d spend my off hours with the women, trying to grind manioc and carry water like they did. I wasn’t very convincing.

Meanwhile I stared working, visiting potential fish pond sites with the men. One morning I was walking through the jungle in my khaki pants and t-shirt, weighing barely 100 pounds thanks to some intestinal parasites I won’t elaborate on, when a man from a neighboring village passed us on the path. He looked at me and asked the men from my village “ça c’est une fille ou bien un garçon” - is that a girl or a boy? There was no joke in his question, no insult - he really didn’t know. Fidel, the chief of the village, looked at Joseph who shrugged. Fidel put an arm across my shoulders and said “ça c’est ma soeur” - this is my sister. Joseph then put his arm across my shoulders and said “ça c’est mon frére” - this is my brother. The man nodded, and we all walked on. Later Fidel explained that as his sister, I would be protected from improper advances from the men of the neighboring village, who were all, apparently, immoral and thieves. Joseph explained that as his brother, I would be allowed to join the men when the next palm-wine fête was held. But how could I be both sister and brother, I asked? Fidel and Joseph looked at me as if I had just asked something incredibly stupid, then Joseph looked at me very intently and said well, you are. And that was that.

From that day forward, the villagers and I stopped trying to figure out how I fit in. I was free to drift between hanging out with the men on the front stoops drinking beer, and hanging out with the women in the kitchens smoking small stone pipes. Every so often someone new would come to the village, usually male, and there would be this uncomfortable period when he would treat me like a woman, meaning he would drop in unannounced and ask me to cook for him or bring him a beer. But the villagers always set him straight, explaining that I was Fidel’s sister and Joseph’s brother, and he’d better treat me accordingly.

Lesson #3. When the chief says sit, you sit

One of many foolish notions I brought with me to Moukoundou was the idea that I could somehow make people forget I was white. I especially wanted to avoid the “white god” syndrome that I’d noticed among some of the male volunteers. I was convinced that if I lived in their village, ate their food, worked with them, and drank palm wine with them, that I would be one of them. I thought the assimilation process was going rather well until the first major festival in the village. I can’t remember the occasion, but some of the women told me there was a party and I walked down to the host’s house with them. When we arrived, the party was in full swing, with singing, dancing, and drinking. A few of the more important villagers were sitting in chairs, but my friends and I sat down on the ground with everyone else. As soon as the local chief Albert noticed me, he sprang up, picked up the chair he was sitting in, and carried it over to me. Sit, he said, placing the chair beside me. No, that’s OK I demurred, I’ll sit on the ground with my friends. Sit, he insisted, “it’s not fitting for a white woman to sit on the ground”. This puzzled me because Albert was one of my farmers and he’d seen me sitting in much worse than dirt. No, really, I said, it’s not necessary for me to sit in a chair. A look of desperation grew in Albert’s face. Half of the crowd was looking at us and not at the dancers. Finally, my friend Josaline said softly “Suzan, assez-vous”, and accepting her wisdom, I got up and sat in the chair. Albert walked stiffly back to the men sitting in chairs, where his younger brother moved over to share one with him. He refused to look at me, and after failing to find an answer in his face, I looked down at Joseline. “Regardez les gens d’armes” she said, pointing with her chin to the other men in the chairs. Sure enough, there were soldiers from Lebamba at the dance, soldiers whose job it was to enforce the cultural hierarchical code. I had seen the gens d’armes kick village men out of the way of the French doctors, and push village women aside so the Belgian director of the agricultural co-op could have the first place in line at the marché. Finally I understood that what I had thought was genuine acceptance of my desire for a color-blind society had actually been mere humoring of my eccentricity. And that humoring only went so far - I was white, and when it counted, I would always be treated as white. And while that made me angry, I also sympathized with Albert. If he had let me sit on the ground he would have been accused of not showing me proper respect. My protests would have meant nothing, for this really had nothing to do with me. SO I did my best to relax on the hard seat, and the next time I was offered a chair, I accepted it graciously, playing my official role as token royalty.

Lesson #4. Mud makes you more attractive

There were white people from France, Belgium, and America in Gabon, but of course we all looked the same to the Gabonese. A former Belgian colony whose dictatorial government was supported by France, Gabon was used to white people acting like colonial lords. Even the catholic missionaries, while extolling humility and humanity, tended to act like superior beings too pure to interact with the earthy locals. With a few exceptions, most Peace Corps volunteers didn’t fit the mold of the high and mighty white man or woman. As a result, what for us were common courtesies or acts of common sense were, to the Gabonese, acts of surpassing generosity.

For example, half-way through my two-year assignment I went to visit a volunteer in the town of Tchibanga. Pat suggested we hitch a ride to Mayumba, on the coast, via logging truck. SO early the next morning we flagged down a passing logging truck and asked for a ride. We climbed in the back, finding four French volunteers on the same adventure. Like most of the French volunteers, they made fun of our French, but we passed the time amicably. After about four hours, the truck hit some rough road and one of the tires became stuck in the mud. The Gabonese driver and two workers who had been in the front got out and began discussing how to get the tire unstuck. We white people milled by the side of the road. Ultimately the driver came to a decision and began gathering palm fronds to put under the tire. With a loud smoky stutter he re-started the engine and his two workers pushed against the truck, trying to move it forward. It was quickly obvious that they would need help, so Pat and I went over and started pushing too. A few minutes later the tire came free, spattering me, Pat, and the two workers with mud. When the driver came out of the truck and saw Pat and me brushing mud off each other, he was obviously dumbfounded. You helped push the truck? he asked excitedly. You madam, you monsieur, you helped push the truck? Yes, they did! confirmed the two workers. Laughing and shaking his head, the driver got back into the cab, the French volunteers joined me and Pat in the back of the truck, and we continued on. Thereafter, at every village, the truck slowed down and the driver yelled out the window “do you see these two white people? They helped push the truck!” The villagers would look at me and Pat in our mud-spattered glory and wave or clap their hands. When we got to Mayumba the driver led us into his office and insisted on pouring us shots of Johnnie Walker Red. A tall Frenchman came in, the logging supervisor, and he was treated to the tale of how the white people had helped push the truck. Leaning over the desk, he shook our hands and then said “Vous êtes Americans, oui?” Yes, we said, we are American.

Later as Pat and I ate fried bananas and antelope, we marveled at how little it took to impress our driver. We hadn’t saved any lives, like the French doctors were doing, and we hadn’t promised to save their souls, like the missionaries, but we’d helped push their truck. I’d heard the phrase ‘ugly American” and it was a good feeling to know that although we were mud-spattered Americans, we looked pretty good for white people.

Lesson #5 Children are and endless source of entertainment

When the sun went down the jungle seemed to creep closer to the borders of the village, so people sat around small fires to keep the night at bay. With no television, no board games, and no playing cards, we did the next best thing - we watched the kids. I grew up in a house where the children were sent to bed before the entertainment began. In Moukoundou, the children were the entertainment. The babies would coo and make faces in that universal baby sign language. The boys would put on plays about things going on in the surrounding villages - the palm-wine fete that was overrun by army ants, the hunter that turned up with four gazelle and a deadly gabonese viper. The girls would braid each others hair or practice dances under their mothers’ approving gaze. The smallest children spent their time trying to master basic skills such as balancing large baskets on their heads, and playing with machetes. My friend Joseline had a 3-year old daughter Antionette. One night as I was sitting with the family around the fire, Antionette picked up a small machete and began dancing around the fire with it, waving it in the flames. I looked at her mother and grandmother, expecting that one of them would take the machete away from the child, and sure enough, Joseline reached over to Antionette, took the blade from her, and then handed it back after showing her the right way to hold it. Antionette went back to doing her fire dance. A few months later, she was skilled enough to join the five or six kids who cut my lawn with their machetes. My ideas about the alleged fragility of children were strongly influenced by this experience, and although I don’t let me own daughters play with machetes, I do let them take a lot of risks I probably wouldn’t were it not for the memory of that 3-year old dancing with her machete.

Lesson #6. We probably don’t know what we’re doing

(Excerpt from Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell, pps 83 - 89)