A Night in the Chadian Rainforest

– Michael Varga, RPCV, Chad

Editor’s Note:

This is an excerpt from Under Chad’s Spell, a novel by Michael Varga, based on his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad. 726 PCVs served in Chad over several years in four different segments. Peace Corps is no longer active in Chad because of security issues. PCVs now serve in other African countries in west and central Africa and no doubt could have experiences like the ones described here. Madison the character mentioned here is a Peace Corps Volunteer.

About a month earlier, Madison made one of his rare visits to Medina’s hut.  She lived with another woman who had similarly muddled her standing among Chadians in crossing the color line with a French soldier.  Medina invited Madison to come and have dinner with her and this other woman and their numerous children, brothers, cousins and other hangers-on who lived in the nearby huts.  It was a big event for them to entertain the nasara, and just about anybody who even had a passing acquaintance with Medina or the other woman had shown up to eat, but more importantly, to watch and perhaps talk to the nasara.

Madison was startled to see how many people had gathered to eat with him.  The two chickens that had been killed for the meal would barely allow a sliver for each person, but Medina pulled some large pieces of the chickens from their bones and put them in front of Madison.  After all, he was the guest of honor.  As was the Chadian custom, all the men sat together while the women served.  If there was anything left from the men, the women and children would share that afterwards, removed from the men.

The men kept asking Madison about the unrest in the capital.  Rumors continued to fly that a coup was imminent, that Muammar Khadafi, Libya’s leader, was intent on making all of Chad part of Libya.  They were vehement in denouncing Libyans, although not one admitted that he had ever met one.  Madison jokingly asked how they would recognize a Libyan, and the men sat in silence, evidently not finding any humor in such a challenge.

After the men ate, someone put a radio on and they started pressing Madison to dance.  As the women and children nibbled on the leftovers, Madison called Medina over, and as they started to move rhythmically to the static-filled sounds from the radio, other men grabbed other women and soon the hut was surrounded by bodies swaying to the beat.  There were many more men than women so a number of the men danced together or danced alone.

As the night wore on and the beer ran out, Madison grew a bit uncomfortable with sitting in the presence of all of these Chadians, staring at him.  They had covered the topics they could discuss, so no more words were being exchanged.  They had danced to more than a dozen songs.  The food had long ago run out (long before the beer), and Madison felt he could graciously take his leave.  He shook the hand of every person present.  Medina said she would accompany him.  Madison told her he was sure she was tired from all the cooking and preparations and it was better if he went home alone.

Medina’s hut was only a couple of kilometers from Madison’s house and Madison had walked the paths several times in daylight, including earlier this evening.  But this was the first time Madison tried to find his way home at night and, unfortunately, there was no moon.  The night was a black sheet, broken only by the dim beam of his flashlight.  Strange whining animal calls and falling branches seemed to be always just behind Madison as he stepped forward.  He gripped the flashlight, pointing it in a wide arc as the path twisted and turned.  He tripped on a branch that had fallen across the path and grew more unsure whether he was heading in the right direction.  Where was his Virgil to lead him into the clear?

He circled the pathways for a half hour, passing clusters of huts that he thought looked familiar, but when he spied a person smoking some tobacco before one hut, then a woman cleaning pots next to a fire, he realized he’d been mistaken and these were not the huts he thought they were.  He was lost.

He considered retracing his steps to find Medina’s hut, but he wasn’t sure he could even do that.  He heard a boy’s voice calling out “Petrol! Petrol!”  He waited for the boy to come closer, thinking he might know Medina and be able to lead him to her hut.  He turned the flashlight beam on his own face so that the boy would see him.  But when the boy saw him, evidently shocked at seeing his white face lit up in the black night, he cried “Kaii!  Nasara!  Kaii!”  In fear, he ran in the other direction, spilling the kerosene as he fled.

Madison decided he had to be methodical in finding his way back to Medina’s hut.  He turned around and started heading back in the direction from which he had just come.  He wasn’t certain he was making the right move, but as he walked, he thought things looked a bit more familiar.

“Monsieur Madison?”

He shined the flashlight toward the sound and saw the face of a young man he didn’t recognize.  For a second, he thought it might be one of his students, but despite the size of his classes, he knew every student’s face and he did not recognize this one.  Yet there was something familiar about it.

“Who are you?”  Madison asked in French.

“Medina’s brother, Bousang.  Are you lost?”

Madison was loath to admit that he was, but he knew there was no point in pretending he could find his way home on his own.

“I am.  Do you know how to get to my house?”

“Walk this way.”

Bousang turned and led Madison back up the narrow path. The thick ropy vegetation limited the path to the width of just one person.  After about fifteen minutes of walking in silence through the darkness, the path widened as they neared the center of Baibokoum.  Madison walked next to Bousang. He took his hand.  Madison had grown at ease over these months with the Chadian custom of men walking together, their hands loosely touching in a slight grasp of each other’s fingers.  There was nothing more than friendliness implied in two men walking with their hands touching.  A man and a woman would never touch each other in public, whether they were married or not, but two men or two women would always have some physical link to the other person if they were friends.  It was the Chadian way.

Bousang’s hands were rough from working in the cotton fields around Baibokoum.  Madison asked him how he spent his time.  He told him he worked the fields, but he had been to school and had hopes of returning.  His French was good and that impressed Madison.  Bousang couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and Madison realized now that he had talked briefly with Bousang earlier in the evening at Medina’s.  He was the one who had asked about African-Americans, how they managed in America and whether they ever thought about coming back to live in Africa.  Madison answered that slavery had been a crime and that the younger generations of African-Americans he knew were too far removed from life in Africa to want to return.

When they got to Madison’s house, he turned off the flashlight.  As they stood side by side in the darkness, Madison thanked Bousang for helping him, asked him if he wanted a drink of water or a Fanta before he headed back home.  Without answering Madison, Bousang let go of his hand.  In the darkness, Madison could sense Bousang was moving closer to him.

Under Chad’s Spell is available at Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback editions. Michael Varga can be contacted through his website www.michaelvarga.com

 

Return to Paraguay

– Manuel Colón, RPCV 2010-2012

2014 has been a big year for me in terms of reflection and introspection, largely because of a few life “shifts” that I’m currently in. Specifically, as of May, I have spent more time out of college then the four years that I have spent in it. Additionally, at the end of year, I’ll have passed the mark 27 months from my close of service (COS) from Peace Corps – more time NOT being a PCV than the time served as a Volunteer.

It’s interesting to think of how quickly two years after Peace Corps seems like it flew by so quickly, however the 27 moths of service seem as slow as molasses. Many people keep asking how my trip was and the best way I can describe it is as such – it was strange at how comfortable it all felt. That is, I felt so at ease and able to just jump into daily life and culture. I still remembered street names and bus lines and where to get on and off to transfer (with just one mishap). However, there were obvious changes and differences.

There is new leadership in the Peace Corps office, businesses were closed and/or moved, there was new development in the downtown area, and obvious upgrades to certain green spaces around the country, etc. On the topic of transition, the timing for the visit was just perfect. I was able to go to the swear-in ceremony of the newest training group. In fact, it was the group that was replacing the group that replaced my group – very meta. It was great to speak with the Volunteers nearing COS, who were just green trainees when I was there, and hear their experience with their community and their successes (or failures) with their projects. On the flip side, it was rejuvenating to hear from the newly sworn-in Volunteers about their hope for site and expectations of their future projects. As dynamic and idiosyncratic as the Peace Corps experience, there are always some common threads that persist.

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Manuel with friend, Cristhian Fretes, who was a counterpart on his Paraguay Verde project and currently works for a Peace Corps as a Technical Trainer.

In fact, I actually got to meet and speak with some of the Volunteers who are carrying on some of the projects that I started. I imagine that it’s every RPCV’s hope that their projects continue and make meaningful impacts, so it was refreshing to actually meet with the people that are making that a reality for projects that I had a hand in. And this is just thinking about “work” stuff! One of the Volunteers I met with wanted to work on a comprehensive Ally Training for PCVs and Staff. What started out a simple chat between her and I somehow evolved to an impromptu business meeting with the Director of Training and the Country Director. It was so nice to hear their support of the training and their personal commitments to diversity and creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ Volunteers. I took advantage of the influence in the room to ask their thoughts on if they envision Paraguay ever being a host country for same-sex couples. We collectively agreed that it likely be a tough decision to move forward with, but a worthwhile one to considering exploring seriously.

Paraguayan hospitality is one that I think is rivaled in very few places. I had forgotten that one of my main contact’s wife works at the airport. So, imagine my surprise when, after landing, before even going through customs, I see a familiar face awaiting my arrival. She helped us collect our luggage and even negotiate the taxi fare into the city. My host family had a room prepared and waiting for me, still remembered all my random quirks about morning rituals, and cooked all my favorite meals. My community contacts welcomed me with open arms, ushering me into the Mayor’s office to announce my return, and setting up a barbeque to recount all the updates and progress of the town.

All in all, it was great visit and I can’t wait to go back again!

You can contact the writer at macolon2@gmail.com

 

LGBT Peace Corps Alum Wins 2014 Franklin H. Williams Award

For Manuel Colón, Peace Corps service was about more than gaining skills and helping others overseas – it was about sharing his experience with people back home and inspiring others to consider making a difference. Even while he was still a volunteer in Paraguay, Chicago native Colón kept in touch with friends and family and used Skype to chat with prospective applicants at a recruitment event. While home on leave during his two-year service, he was the featured speaker at a 200-guest send-off event for new volunteers in Chicago.

Increasing understanding of other cultures in the U.S. is one of Peace Corps’ original goals dating back to the agency’s founding, and Colón embraces it more than ever since completing his service. Now, that commitment has brought him national recognition from Peace Corps.

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet honored Colón and five other returned Peace Corps volunteers with the Franklin H. Williams award on Wednesday, Oct. 8, during a ceremony at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The award honors returned Peace Corps volunteers from ethnically diverse backgrounds who exemplify an ongoing commitment to community service and Peace Corps’ Third Goal of promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

 

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet with Manuel Colón

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet with Manuel Colón

“In memory of Franklin H. Williams, we honor some of the brightest stars in our Peace Corps family who are incredible champions of our mission at a time when the Peace Corps has never mattered more,” Hessler-Radelet said. “These extraordinary individuals embody what the Peace Corps is all about – a lifelong commitment to service, social justice and cross-cultural understanding.”

As an environmental education Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2010-12, Colón carried out sustainable tourism development work, youth group education, and cultural exchange activities. His most successful project was a national environmental youth group workshop conference called “Paraguay Verde,” which fostered youth interest in environmental stewardship and is now in its fifth iteration with current volunteers in Paraguay.

“I’m beyond honored to be a 2014 Franklin H. Williams award recipient,” Colón said. “As I explain the three goals of Peace Corps to people, it’s very clear that the first two are constrained to your 27 months abroad, while in service. The beauty of Third Goal is that every volunteer, at any and all stages in their life post-service, can engage in it.”

Now pursuing his Master of Education in Human Resources Development and working as an Undergraduate Recruiter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, his alma mater, Colón continues to assist with Peace Corps recruitment there. He also serves as the New Volunteer Coordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers association. In that capacity, he works closely with Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity and National Outreach to engage prospective, current, and returned volunteers, in addition to promoting recruitment and Third Goal activities to the Queer community through the group’s social media.

Both in his everyday life and while working, Colón never misses an opportunity to share his personal Peace Corps story with diverse audiences. At his alma mater high school, Whitney Young in Chicago, Colón recently spoke to students about the way Peace Corps could, one day, transform their lives, as it has transformed his. In the summertime, he enjoys drinking tereré (Paraguayan iced tea) and listening to music from Paraguay, sharing the country’s culture with his friends and co-workers in the U.S. This year he waved the Peace Corps flag at multiple Pride events, inspiring countless LGBTQ Americans to serve.

Colón’s commitment to bettering his world also extends beyond Peace Corps’ Third Goal. He currently volunteers with the University’s Intensive English Institute as a conversation partner, helping students from South Korea and Saudi Arabia improve their English and learn more about American culture. “The parallels to Peace Corps pre-service training are so strong, so I’m glad I can give back to visitors to our country the same way I was so warmly received by the people of Paraguay,” Colón said.

About the Franklin H. Williams Award: Franklin H. Williams was an early architect of the Peace Corps. He worked at the agency from its inception in 1961 to 1963 and helped Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director, to promote the agency and its programs to the world. Williams’ exceptional public service career included positions as Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana.

Since the first Franklin H. Williams award ceremony in 1999, 107 outstanding returned Peace Corps volunteers have received the award. For more information on the award and bios for all awardees, please visit: http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/staycon/williamsaward/?from=hps 

About the Peace Corps: As the preeminent international service organization of the United States, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. When they return home, volunteers bring their knowledge and experiences – and a global outlook – back to the United States that enriches the lives of those around them. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and people of other countries. Since then, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages have served in 139 countries worldwide. Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov to learn more.

As the preeminent international service organization of the United States, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. When they return home, volunteers bring their knowledge and experiences – and a global outlook – back to the United States that enriches the lives of those around them. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and people of other countries. Since then, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages have served in 139 countries worldwide. Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov to learn more.

This story was reproduced with permission of the Midwest Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Association.

What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

20 Years after an HIV Scare in Africa

– Brian Guse, RPCV, and PC Trainer, Mali

I was perusing the National Peace Corps Association site on Facebook today and saw a post urging readers to check out an RPCV’s blog titled “No Going Back – There Is Only Forward.

The author is a young woman who was recently med-separated from Peace Corps after contracting HIV while in country (Zambia). Her story is one of courage and strength and she is an inspiration to all – Peace Corps or not, HIV positive or not.

After reading her blog I couldn’t help but think back to where I was 20 years ago and the intersection HIV made with my own Peace Corps experience. By no means do I compare my “scare” with what she is going through, but I think some of you might be able to relate to the story I am about to tell.

20 years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting on an airplane crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Mali. I had been away from my village, my friends and my Malian family for more than 45 days – on medical evacuation for a serious life threatening illness. After having spent a week in Georgetown University hospital, another 2 weeks recuperating in the Virginian Hotel in Rosslyn, VA (Washington, DC) and a couple of weeks fattening up back home in the Midwest, I was anxious to get back to my mission and finish my remaining months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

To many of the other PCVs I met on medevac, the time spent in DC was like a vacation – time to recuperate from whatever ailed them, job hunt or visit the sites of the Nation’s Capital. For me, those weeks in DC were some of the most frightening days of my life; a time when I thought I was going to die.

As a sexually active gay man in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was extremely aware of and paranoid about the prospects of acquiring HIV. Nonetheless, safe sex was a concept but not always a reality for me. Getting tested for HIV was a nerve wracking affair yet throughout college I had been pretty good about getting tested on a regular yet anonymous basis. Then, as now, Peace Corps required a full physical including an HIV test in order to be placed in a country. Before submitting to the full physical, I went to a city health clinic and was tested anonymously one last time. I tested negative. I was ready for the real deal, the official, named and documented HIV test. I tested negative.

I was living in Chicago the day the acceptance letter arrived. Mali, West Africa. Never heard of it. Still, what a happy day. I sat at my favorite Chicago hotdog stand and cried tears of joy and relief as I opened the acceptance letter. The moment the invitation package arrived, the HIV testing stopped. I wanted nothing to get in the way of being a PCV. I knew testing positive would put an end to my dreams of joining Peace Corps so I put it out of my mind and assured myself that I was and would remain negative. If later I discovered I was positive I would be compelled to disclose the information to Peace Corps and end my PCV experience before it ever began. Better not to know. In four non-celibate months I would be on the plane to Mali. Nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t sure of my HIV status the day I flew to New Orleans for pre-service orientation. Stupidly or rather naively, it never occurred to me that Peace Corps would require one final HIV test before allowing me to get on that flight to Mali. The test took place on the first day. I lost sleep in New Orleans. While my fellow trainees were out enjoying their last few nights in the US, I sat in my hotel room shaking with fear. I wasn’t afraid for my health or even my long-term future. Testing positive meant only one thing to me: the end of ever being a Peace Corps volunteer. I tested negative.

After getting settled into my rural village the fears of HIV passed and I focused on other things. In 1990, AIDS hadn’t penetrated land-locked West Africa yet. Peace Corps hadn’t even begun to build an HIV/AIDS sector yet. In my mind the next 2+ years would be a time free from worry. HIV would not get near me.

Several months into my service I received a cassette tape (yes it was the 90’s) from my best friend back home. We went to high school together and came out to each other at a time when coming out was not in vogue. Hearing his voice was wonderful; hearing news about our friends and families brought a smile to my face; hearing him cry as he told me had tested positive for HIV devastated me. HIV had returned to my life; it suddenly became of part of my reality albeit it through someone else; someone for whom I cared deeply but could not comfort in person. I immediately got on my motorcycle and drove to the capital. I placed a phone call to my mom asking her to arrange for my friend to call me from her home the next day. He and I talked for an hour. We laughed and cried and discussed how he became infected. We talked about the future – my future. I felt selfish and petty talking about the community garden I was working on when all he could focus on was whether he’d live long enough to see his 22nd birthday and avoid a slow and painful demise. The early 90’s were an especially frightening time for people with HIV. My generation witnessed the sudden loss of the gay generation before us to AIDS. We had no mentors; we had no role models. To us, AIDS meant death. He was positive. I was negative. He could only focus on the present. I was able to look forward; look to the future. Guilt.

Fast forward one year to three restless nights of fevers and sweats in my mud hut. I had already come down with malaria a few times while in country but this was something different. My Malian host mother had seen enough and insisted that I make my way to the capital to seek medical attention. She sent word by mouth from village to village until a nearby PCV learned I was ill and gave me a lift on his motorcycle to the capital. A few days later I was unable to eat; was losing weight too quickly; had abdominal pains and high fevers. PC sent me to several specialists – no one had an answer. During that time a close friend came to country for a visit. When he saw me at the airport his jaw dropped. I looked bad. In a way that only close friends can speak to one another he said, “You look like you have AIDS.”

Months before, as part of our mid-service physical, Peace Corps required an HIV test. I tested negative. Shortly after the physical I went on vacation to Europe and made up for sexual lost time. For the most part, I was safe. I had nothing to worry about. Until, “You look like you have AIDS.”

The Peace Corps medical unit was unable to diagnose what ailed me. The only choice was medevac. My heart sank. I knew deep down it was HIV. I knew that once it was confirmed Peace Corps would separate me and I would never again see my Malian family. I would never have the chance to say good-bye.

The Peace Corps doctor escorted me on the flight to DC where I was immediately admitted into Georgetown University hospital. I weighed 109 lbs. I had lost 50 lbs in less than a month. The fevers continued. I couldn’t eat. I was delusional at times. I called my mom and told her she needed to come to DC. The doctor spoke with her and said make it quick.

For days, doctors examined me. Phlebotomists drew blood. Nurses held my hand. Students studied me. Most had never seen my symptoms. One intern, I never got her name, boldly suggested a bone marrow exam. She had an idea. She was correct. Typhoid. Curable. Not HIV. No, that test came back negative. Twice. Called mom and said not to worry. “I’ll come visit you once I recover.” Bacon – the first solid food I ate in weeks. I love bacon.

A week in the hospital. Christmas and New Years in the Virginian hotel. Finally, home to mom. More bacon. I spent a good amount of time with my friend. I was embarrassed. I had been worried about myself. I was negative. He was positive. But in those months since sending me the cassette tape much about him had changed. He had come to terms with HIV and was under the care of a number of HIV/AIDS specialists. In the time since we had spoken on the phone he had become positive about life again. He was looking forward; looking to the future. He was not defeated.

20 years later he still is looking to the future. He has lived with HIV for over 20 years. He has suffered losses and buried a lover. He graduated from college. He witnessed his brother’s wedding and watched his nephews grow into fine young men. He bought a house and started a career. He and his partner adopted one too many pugs. Through his strength and perseverance he has inspired all who know him.

I remain engaged in international development. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen African nations fall victim one by one to HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen hope disappear and reappear on the faces of the farmers, students and professionals that I have come into contact with. This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to Mali. Not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I was to have a second chance on life – a second chance to complete my Peace Corps service – although really, come to think of it, do we ever really finish Peace Corps?

You can contact Brian Guse at bvguse@aol.com and visit the story on the blog that inspired this article “There is no going back, there is only forward.”

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