Peace Corps Writers
The Things I Gave Her (page 2)
The Things I Gave Her
page 1
page 2

     I tried not to give her my impatience. It was her idea to bring the food to me — she never knew exactly when it would be ready — but waiting made me hungry and bored and a little lonely. I chased the thoughts of burritos or pizza or ice cream away before they had a chance to spoil in my brain. When Genevieve bustled in and announced with smiling, crinkly eyes that we were having beans’ leaves soup, I gave her my enthusiasm, privately wondering whether she had forgotten we’d already had beans’ leaves soup three times that week. When I offered thanks, Genevieve chastised me for saying the words before I’d even tasted the soup.
     “How do you know you will like it?” Genevieve demanded. “You taste it and see.”
     I knelt by the water storage tank and washed my right hand, having learned before that if she didn’t see me do it, she would remind me. Then I took a small corner of the TZet and dipped it into the soup bowl’s green abyss.
     “Can you take it?” she asked hopefully.
     “It’s good,” I assured her, letting the starchy lump and viscous soup slide down my throat. “I can take it.”
     And when I was alone again I did take it. I took it silently and gratefully as I hovered in the candle’s yellow-orange glow.
     I could not give her a comfortable house with a roof that didn’t blow and leak in storms. I could not give her easy access to clean water, or a courtyard gate to lock out the noisy assholes from the bar who stole her water, leaving her without enough to wash her face in the morning. Still, when the health clinic allowed her to draw good, clear water for me as part of her tree nursery duties, I always encouraged her to take an extra basin home for herself. I could not give her guts that stayed solid under the assault of internal parasites, and I could not repair her gums that twanged when food was too hot or sour or sweet. I could give her respect for never complaining. She didn’t need me to give her dignity.

fufu = pounded African yam (may also include cassava and/or plantain, especially in southern Ghana)

shea butter = a multi-purpose oil produced locally from the seed of the shea nut tree. Very similar to cocoa butter in texture and scent.

     I gave her my loneliness and she didn’t even notice the burden. Genevieve invited me over to pound fufu at her house, and told me to keep trying, even after I almost brought the wooden pestle down on her hand; she let me grind the nuts for the shea butter, even though I took twice as long as she did. When, each evening, the familiar timbre of her voice arrived at my house behind her flashlight’s dying glow, I wondered if she knew that her few moments of company were just as important as the food she brought me. She carried me along to festivals where her brown eyes grew wider and her claps louder as I stamped my feet in the dust trying to dance, and to her hometown where I met her mother’s brother’s wife’s aunt, who showed me yellowing photo albums and gave me as much pito as I could drink, welcoming me as kin. I gave her the privileges of mother, sister, friend, and counted on her to fill the roles.

shedda cloth = high-grade cotton cloth that differs from most cloth in that it has a woven pattern in addition to being dyed

     After the first kitten died, I gave her another one. I gave her six yards of orange cloth for a new dress. The shedda cloth, hand batiked by my favorite artist in Accra, made my eyes giddy. It made Genevieve’s black skin radiate, and I gave her earrings and a necklace to go with it. I told her she looked like a queen, but I would never tell her that the cloth cost more than three months of her salary.
     When I cleaned out my house before I left, I gave her my old foam mattress, my pots and pans, my cheap aluminum silverware whose handles got hot moments after plunging into a boiling pot. I gave her my most comfortable shoes, a pair of Tevas nearly everyone in town coveted. She traveled part way to the airport with me, but eventually we had to say goodbye. We faced each other, and my mind grasped for one last idea, something to give her a way out, a chance to be something more than a village woman in second-hand clothes who wondered each morning what she was going to feed her children. I wanted to give her courage, independence, relevance. Instead, I gave her stationery, stamped and with my address already on it, and when she was boarding the lorry to go back to Daffiama, I gave her money, not knowing what else to do. She thanked me tearfully and mentioned that she needed a towel, like the old ones I had given away to my male employees. If I saw one, she suggested, maybe I could send it. She needed it.

Lisa Kahn Schnell was a Forestry Volunteer in Ghana. She currently teaches school children about raptor migration at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and is working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays about her experiences in Ghana. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and baby daughter.

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