Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
The Things I Gave Her
   by Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 1998–00)

Winner of the 2005 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award

Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

THE FIRST THING I gave Genevieve was a pile of my clothes to wash. The shirts and trousers were red with dust from day-long bus rides and bike rides, andPrinter friendly version from nine weeks of my swirl-and-rinse washing. I gave her my full attention as she showed me how to wash thoroughly, with merciless, strong arms, two basins of water and a small bar of soap. She returned my clothes to their normal color and left them smelling only of wind.
pito = a mildly alcoholic millet beer, brewed and sold by women.      Once I had more than just a mug to eat out of, once I cleaned the lizard poop off my bed and chased the scream-sized flat spiders from behind the kitchen shelves, I gave Genevieve my trust. She maneuvered me down the rutted, dusty path of Daffiama’s Sunday market, around people talking limply in the sun, past men who called to me with exaggerated smiles, and past adolescent girls in satin Church dresses with torn lace who watched me out of quickly guarded eyes. She guided me past table after shaded, rotting-wood table covered with small pyramids of tomatoes, onions, soap, dried fish. She showed me the best okra, and made jokes to escape the toothless old women who pestered me to give them my earrings. When she pulled a bench into the shade so we could share a pot of pito to quench our thirst, I was relieved.

tempane = bean flour "dumplings" eaten with sauce

banku = a starchy accompaniment to soup; made from fermented corn.

     I gave her my curiosity and willingness to try tempane, banku, baobab leaf soup; I let her laugh at the way the soup, green and slimy as a turtle, curled around my fingers and slithered between my knuckles.
TZet = a sort of firm porridge made from ground corn and soured water; TZet is usually eaten warm with soup but it can be eaten cold, or thinned as a sort of beverage; it is a staple food in northern Ghana      I gave her my tomatoes on the verge of spoiling and I gave her my insect-ridden beans — for her pigs, I told her, but I knew she would let them sit in the hot sun to chase the insects away, and that she might eventually eat them. From the town of Wa, I brought treats for her and her children—bread, plantains, oranges. I gave her children handfuls of peanuts and mangoes when I had too many, and I gave Genevieve eggs from my chickens when she got her sore and rotting teeth removed. She said the TZet I prepared according to her instructions was delicious.
     My second year in Daffiama I gave her money and she brought me dinner. Every evening she came, whether the cool, moist air swirled on the skin like chiffon or whether it scraped like sandpaper, whether Orion glinted above, or whether a slate-purple rainstorm drowned out the skronks and whistles of the mating frogs in the field next to my house. She came after we spent all day tending thousands of young trees in the nursery, and she came after she had knelt over her children who were feverish with malaria the night before. I hoped I was giving her more than enough money to cover the cost of the food — maybe even enough for her and her children to eat comfortably as well — but she would never let me pay her for her knowledge and effort.
     I went away for a night, a week, a month, and I left her the key to my house so she could take care of my cat. I promised her one of the cat’s spring-loaded kittens, but there was an accident, and one kitten lost part of a paw. She would take that one, she insisted, and I knew she was the only person who was kind and nurturing enough to accept a cat that might not be able to catch the mice gnawing on her dried corn. I helped her stand up to the men who wanted to buy her pito on credit but would never repay her, but she resisted when I said I wanted to make her nursery treasurer. I told her I’d pay for training in fabric dying, teaching, anything to help her earn a reliable living, but her confused look begged to know how she would do it, when the children needed her, there was cooking and washing to do and water to carry; she could never take me up on the offer, whether she wanted to or not.
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