Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience Poems
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)
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Negotiating Culture

As predictable as the muezzin’s call to prayer,
I jog past arthritic skeletons silhouetted against
craggy cliffs on the horizon — Fulani tending
their boney cattle. Into a stiff north wind
I turn to face grains of sand blowing in
from dunes on the outskirts of town.

Stacked with food baskets, bicycles pass me
bouncing along the laterite road to market.
Pestles pound from compounds like muffled drums.
A festival of colors dip and nod before my eyes —
bright blues, yellows, greens, and reds;
blending in stripes, spirals, and polka dots.

A tiny girl blushes and smiles, then waves,
costume jewelry jingling on her chocolate arm.
Her powdered face and deep-brown eyes
break my stride. I want to sweep her up
into my arms and race her to a safe haven,
to carry her far away from her destiny.

Boys run along side of me, their fists raised
in greeting: “Sannu Batuuree” they chime
in harmony. “Lafiya lau” I reply out of tune.
Sun-baked, mud-gray walls straight ahead
mark the limit for Westerners who dream.
I must focus on the moment, not history.

In this race, victory is measured in inches,
by a pivot or a kick in the sand, gestures
that silently negotiate culture. I bend down
to tie my shoe and somersault forward
to the foot of the medieval Muslim façade.
Children’s laughter welcomes me.

One Night in Africa

twilight fades
to terra cotta
savanna shadows
slip into corners

two indistinguishable
black and white silhouettes
moving to essential rhythms

lying down together
on cool sheets


igniting —

village drumming
sky flushing

night people
clinging to life

African Woman

I offer greetings in secret
from my window each morning
as you walk to market,
arms and hips swinging
in counterpoint rhythm,
an Africa I yearn to know.

Your willowy silhouette shifts
and we exchange a look that ignites
the eastern sky in carnation pink
laced with lavender.

Let the gods grumble
and mumble in their beards.
They dare not interfere
with black and white
at last together dancing
on the petals of the sky

The Bent People
I: “Peace Be Unto You”
Across knife-edged gravel they drag
their scabs and stumps and scars,
and pull themselves crab-like
along the scorched concrete to my porch
and groan: “Salamu alaikum.”
II: “Allah is the Greatest”
Blind adults prodded along
by chattering skeletons, tiny children
whose every joint and rib protrudes.
From faces, stretched tight like drum skin,
the chant: “Allahu Akbar.”
III: “If Allah Wills”
Medicine might have revived some
and raised them from the ground,
surgery might have unbent a leg or two,
with prayer a miracle might even save a few.
I whisper: “In Sha’ Allah.”

IV: “May the Blessings of Allah (be upon you)”

I begin my lecture, “Why can’t you . . .
we . . . ” then history intervenes.
I retrieve some coins and fling them
and turn to escape the bent people,
who cry out: “Baraka Allah.”

The Man Most Admired

Stooped and wrinkled, this father
of tribal fathers sits all day
strumming a finger harp
and greeting villagers.

Calabashes filled with juju
hang inside his cone-shaped hut
from white washed mud-straw walls.
A son's son sweeps the loose dirt
from his floor and airs his mat.

Each day he faces Mecca to pray,
but he retreats each week
to a family shrine and scatters
a broken kola on the ground
to guarantee harmony in both worlds.

For a half century this unread man
made a fool of the land, transforming
sand into food for his extended family.
This father who knows no encyclopedias
knows secrets only spirits will reveal.

On market day, they still walk in
from miles of bush to hear his tales
of Fulani princesses and princes.
His memory is endless, linking families
to clans to tribe — He is the legend.

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