Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
The Last Ride
by Elise Annunziata (Senegal 1996–99)
 
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I HAD SAID SO OFTEN that leaving my Senegalese village, Keur Madiabel, would the most difficult part of my three-year Peace Corps service. Every time a farewell scene crept into my mind, I banished itPrinter friendly version quickly and vowed to think about it later. But, before I accepted the reality of my departure, “later” was looming over my head and it was time to drive — for the last time — from my village to the regional capital, with a fraction of my original possessions thrown into the backseat of a Peace Corps vehicle.

My last full day
Most of the afternoon on my last day in Keur Madiabel, I spent talking with my adoptive family, Ousmane Thiam, his wife Mame Diediou and their children. Ousmane and I sat outside on two broken wooden-back lawn chairs while he fiddled with the wire antenna of a hand-held radio with speakers that I had given him. We talked about the kids’ education, how I could wire money to him through Western Union (when, God-willing, I got a job and had some money) and the project I wanted to pursue — to publish the poetry and prose of an extraordinary villager, collaborator and friend of mine who had recently died from an unidentified illness.


Mame and children with PCV Elise
     Mame and I talked while she was ironing, again mostly about the children and which of them was destined for education beyond the 6th grade. Incredibly, I found myself agreeing with her statement that only three of their six children would likely be encouraged in school; I urged her to push the youngest — Kiné, Mbaye and Elise, my 1-1/2 year old namesake. In an another attempt to stress the importance of girls’ education, I also mentioned that I thought the eldest girl, Ndeye Astou, was a very good student — although I suspected the Ndeye’s destiny as the oldest daughter could be to stay in the village and help in the household until she married. Culture prevails, and I’d grown to accept that, although it rarely stopped me from expressing my opinion to my Senegalese friends. I now wonder if anything I’d said or demonstrated, albeit with a certain American optimism and illusion, will have a significant impact on this family or on the teachers and students from eight rural villages with which I had worked.

Baptism
     At the end of my conversation with Mame, she said “Elise is your daughter too, and she belongs to you even if you can’t take her with you to America.” I was stunned to hear those words aloud, even though the “giving” of children to other family members was not uncommon. To me, it was an immeasurable demonstration of love, friendship and acceptance of me as a member of their Senegalese family. It was then that I felt the haze of our cultural differences, which I had fumbled in and out of for three years, was transgressed by our common work, love and humanity.
     That evening, Ousmane talked with me for a long time before and after dinner about how he felt I was like a member of the family. He said that when he decided to name his youngest daughter after me, he did so not because he thought I would give them things or that I would bring her to America. It was, he said, because he knew I was human, as they were human, and none of us differentiated between our conditions or ourselves. I ask now, why does the idea that there is nothing more or less human about a white or a black, or an affluent or an illiterate, or a Catholic or a Muslim, or an African or an American seem like an unshakable truth? That last night, sitting in the dark with Ousmane and Mame, I felt truly united in humanity when he said we were “comme des parents” (like family). He thanked me again and told me not to worry about leaving them; we had already formed unbreakable bonds, even if it took me 2 or 5 or 20 years to come back to Senegal.
  
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