Africa is a complicated place, and the Peace Corps Volunteers who have worked in 43 African nations have seen it all: from public executions to public celebrations to life in a time of AIDS. This heartfelt collection is the first of its kind to chronicle fifty years of Peace Corps service. Stories range from poignant to hilarious, involve political intrigue and cultural missteps, illuminating the joys and agony of volunteering abroad and representing the United States in the process.
Sixty stories provide a broad overview and give readers a glimpse into the life and times of these brave volunteers, who each learned at least one new language and went to work in the villages and cities from Morocco to South Africa. They worked hard, too. But in these stories you will see that they also danced, faced death by elephant, and witnessed unbearably grim events. One is admired for her “big butt,” another reminded that he had taught proper police procedure in a time of civil unrest. Saying “I was there” is sometimes a bittersweet declaration.
Big Butts Are Beautiful
Naledi was my name in Botswana. When I arrived, I had asked my language teachers for a Setswana name. They said, all right, but it’s not something casual to give a name. It’s not something we can do on the spot or even overnight. They told me, “We’ll keep our eyes on you, and think about it for awhile, and then let you know what your name is.” Every week I’d ask how my name was coming. They’d say, “Wait a little longer.” One week they came in and said, “We’ve got your name. It’s Naledi.” I said, “What does that mean?”
“It means ‘Star,’” they said, “and that’s how we feel about you.” Which was a good thing. But Naledi is not an exotic name in Botswana. It’s not any more unusual than Susan or Mary would be in the United States. The good thing about my name being Naledi was that there are so many beautiful songs heralding and celebrating the stars, naledi. As I walked around the village, children sang these songs to me. Being serenaded wakes a body up. In Africa, you don’t have to be standing on a balcony, either.
Now, I’m going to teach you one of these songs. It’s a call and response song—the most common pattern in Africa. It means, “Star, star…star of the morning. Wake-up!”
Naledi ya mosong.
Not only did I get a new name in Botswana, but I changed the way I felt about my body. You see, I come from a long line of women with big buttocks. Now, you all know what it means to have big buttocks in the United States, where we grow up thinking you have to have a big bosom to be beautiful. Makes it kind of hard on us gals that are bigger South of the border than North of the border.
But, fortunately, in my early 20s, I struck the body-image sweepstakes and got my measurements imported to Africa—first to Botswana and later to Ghana. In these countries, a woman's large buttocks are lavishly and openly admired.
I'll never forget the day in Botswana when this first happened to me. I walked through the village minister's compound and he launched into a litany of praise about my big buttocks in Setswana that set my ears on fire:
Myself: Ke nna, Rra.
[That’s me, Sir.]
Minister: Nalediway! Maraho waharho wa atona mahomasway.
[Your buttocks are amazingly big.]
Myself: Maraho wame, Rra? Ow!
[My buttocks? Oh, goodness, gracious.]
Minister: Eeee, Mma. Maraho waharho wamouncle taaaaata!
[Yes, Ma’m. Your buttocks are incredibly beautiful.]
Myself: Keitumetsi, Rra.
[Thank you, sir.]
"It's true, Naledi," said his more understated wife as she awarded some love pats to my rear end. "Your buttocks are traditionally-built—just like a Motswana woman! O Motswana tota!"
I cast a look around behind me with an increased appreciation of what I'd been carting around back there all my life. The feeling grew that I had something good going on behind me. It was the secret side of me that I couldn't fully appreciate because I could only see my buttocks in stillness reflected in a mirror, not in motion, as those around me did.
This feeling of secret wealth was reinforced when I bicycled 15 miles over deep sand tracks between the village to the capital city. I’m not talking blacktop, here. I’m not talking gravel. I’m not even talking dirt. I’m talking sand. My bike was a balloon-tired bike with no gearshifts on it. Has anyone ever ridden a bike like that recently? I’m talking about the bikes with the fat, fat tires. I stood up to pump, of course, in order to cut through the track. With every downward stroke, the tires sunk down into the sand something like four inches.
Villagers working out on their lands stopped to lean on their hoes to view my buttock muscles straining against the fabric of my long, traditional skirt. Then, all along my bicycle route, as if by prearrangement, whole farming families waved and greeted me with the same chant of appreciation the minister and his wife had showered on my previously unnoticed buttocks:
Maraho waharho wa atona mahomasway.
Maraho waharho wamouncle taaaaata!
That is how I came to know that big butts are beautiful, and that mine are just as beautiful as any others.
Some of you have big butts like me and some of you, well, we’d have to send out a search party to find your butt, it’s so small. But, no matter what size your butt is, we can be happy we have this precious treasure. We can all feel like stars, right here in this heaven on earth. Ladies, Bo-Ma, show your gents what you’ve got. Strut your stuff just a bit. Remember, your butt is beautiful, especially if it’s a big one.