Peace Corps Writers
by Mary Beth Simmons (Cameroon 1989–91)

Finding a life
In William Gass’ essay “The Art of Self” he says: “Many lives are so empty of interest that their subject must first perform some feat like sailing alone around the world or climbing a hazardous peak in order to elevate himself above mere existence, and then, having created a life, to write about it.” I must admit that at age twenty-two, when I joined the Peace Corps, I was looking to do just this. One night early on in my training days I found myself in a circle with other trainees, drinking beer, missing home, talking about why we’d joined. The usual comments about doing good and experiencing another culture were tossed out. When it got to me I said, “I joined so I can write my autobiography Into Africa.” A few laughs, a few stares.
     Ten years ago this month I left for Cameroon to teach English. I’ve been writing about Africa ever since. My M.F.A. thesis is a collection of essays about my two years in Cameroon. I’ve written about the brothels of my village, the funerals I attended and bad days in the classroom.
     But there is one subject I’ve neglected for any extended, serious consideration and that is the subject of my servant Habra.

Living with servants
Isak Dinesen waited 25 years after the publication of Out of Africa before she paid tribute to her servant Farah. In Shadows on the Grass, a collection of four long essays, she says of Farah, “Were any reader to object that I might choose a character of greater importance, I should answer him that that would not be possible.”
     While I am quick to echo similar sentiments about Habra I must also be realistic and consider our terribly rocky beginning.
     But first, another brief look at my reasons for wanting to go to Africa. I was raised in a somewhat racist household. I was unhappy about this and thought it would be important for me to be a minority for once. I wanted to embrace another people, another landscape, another culture. But I did not want to have a servant. Unlike Dinesen, who was planning out and worrying about her staff before she’d even arrived at the farm, I wanted no part in a master/servant relationship. Too, to cover the obvious, our endeavors were completely different. She was running a farm, she needed a staff. I was going to teach English. I was volunteering. Having a servant was antithetical to the whole Peace Corps philosophy.

Living with Habra
I envisioned spartan quarters and was prepared to do all housework, all cooking and maintain my home. When I dropped my duffels on the dusty floor of my house I had about 15 minutes to myself before Habra walked up the lane. In our broken French and body language dance I quickly gathered he was there to stay, despite my protests. He came with the house, he said. He had worked for eight Volunteers before me. Plus, the owner of the home lived at the other end of the country and he was the one that had final say. Habra informed me I would pay him so many francs a month (roughly $50) and I had a servant.
     But I didn’t call him that. Habra was always my guard. Yes, he did my laundry and ran errands for me in the market. But his primary duty was to sleep on my front porch. My house was on the edge of the village — my nearest neighbor half a mile away. While part of me loved this isolation, I must admit that, some nights, frightening scenarios filled my thoughts. With no car for escape and no phone for dialing emergency 911, Habra with his machete and my trusty dog Homer kept any would-be thief or late-night tipsy suitor at bay.
     The distance of a decade has given me a new appreciation of Habra and what he sacrificed to work for me. Not that I gave little thought to his wife and child then. His own home life suffered, no doubt, since he slept every night on the white woman’s porch and not in his own bed. Who looked after his wife and baby Pauline every night? Dinesen speaks very little of Farah’s life off the farm. In letters home to her mother she mentions Farah’s upcoming wedding, Farah becoming a father, but the life she shared with him dealt with the farm and her people, guests that were to visit and what spices to pick up in the market. Just as Dinesen and I had two homes, so did our servants. Ah, but I’m assuming Habra felt at home at my house, and possibly it was just his work place.

Master and servant
I think it’s virtually impossible for me to be presenting a paper at the end of the politically correct 90’s without offering an apology for having a servant from 1989 to 1991. Or I should admit shame, embarrassment. At least address the situation tactfully.
     I take note of Dinesen’s approach, which invokes examples from literature. She says “Within the literature of the ages one particular Unity, made up of essentially different parts, makes its appearance, disappears and comes back again: that of Master and Servant. Here Don Quixote rides forth, with Sancho Panza on his mule — here the Fool follows King Lear across the heath in the storm and the black night. Phileas Fogg struts on to the stage with one single idea in his head and versatile Passepartout at his heels.”
     While I nod in understanding I also pause and consider the absence from her list. Where are the examples of the pairs that represent different races or different sexes? This is notable, but maybe only of interest to me from a post-colonial perspective. Dinesen also says the servant “needs a master in order to be himself.”
     I bristle each time I read this and the gap between us widens; our places in history more clearly defined. Near the beginning of the 20th century this statement was not debatable. It just was. Were I to say this at the end of the 20th century, that a servant can only be himself if he has a master, well, I think I’d be in trouble, to put it quite simply. Even if I were to reverse the statement and say I needed Habra in my life in order to be more myself is a dangerous comment. It would be a declaration that nothing is wrong in the power dynamic. That the master/servant relationship is a natural one.
Or, as Dinesen says, “a true Unity.” Capital “U.” Her example of this true Unity with Farah? “He followed me, very erect, at a distance of five feet where I walked, in my old slacks and patched shoes, up and down Nairobi streets. There he and I became a true Unity, as picturesque, I believe, as that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
     This image calls to mind my one trip into the village marketplace with Habra. I had to catch an early morning taxi out of the village to then go catch a plane that would take me to a conference at the other end of the country. Backpack on and duffel in hand, I set out from the house at dawn. Habra saw this and offered to use his hand cart to take me to the taxi park that was about two miles away. And there we were, he ahead of me, the two of us strolling past the huts of Doukoula, waving to the women as they started cook fires to boil water for tea, calling out good morning greetings, he in Tupuri, me in French.
     And what I remember mostly is how everyone stared at us. I was not new to the village and everyone knew Habra worked for me. But it was the first and only time we were seen walking together in the village. What did the villagers think of us I wonder? While I wouldn’t call the moment picturesque or believe it is an example of my true Unity with Habra, I will say it is a quiet memory that’s filled with cook fire scents and early sun sprinkling the streets. And Habra’s proud pushing of the cart, his usual slump from thirty years in the cotton and millet fields was gone that morning. Had I been ahead of him, perhaps I would’ve missed most of this.

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