“Attends,” Angelle says. Wait. Her French is limited, but she knows this word. And she uses it a lot. She drags a plastic chair out of the house and plunks it down in the middle of the concession for me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, if anything at all. I’ve come by to drop off my laundry, which Angelle happily does for me every week.
I met Angelle almost immediately after moving to my village, and she quickly became like my village grandmother, though I’m not actually sure of her age. I could ask, but it doesn’t seem important. Her skin is worn and leathery, so she must be old. But her smile is bright and youthful, so I guess she’s young at heart. C’est ça. That’s what it is.
Angelle is always telling me to wait for one thing or another. Today she probably has a language lesson in store.I never request these lessons – I just kind of get swept into them. But I can’t mind because Angelle has such a pleasant way of teaching – persistent yet unhurried. She clapped her hands and hugged me the first time I counted to ten without looking at my notes. Then as I turned the page and prepared to write more, she just smiled and held up a hand. “Attends. Après,” she said. Next time. She expects progress, but her style is one step at a time.
Even before I got to know Angelle well, I could tell she was the real deal as far as activists go – the kind of person who has the guts and courage to demand change but also the patience and humility to wait for it. In my first few months, she tried to start a village clean-up initiative. Unfortunately, the project was a flop. There are just certain circumstances and attitudes in the village that stand in the way right now. But Angelle is not discouraged. She’ll let the idea rest, and when the time is right, she’ll be ready to give it another go.
Sometimes I wonder what this is like for Angelle. I wonder what it’s like to be the visionary in your community when few others can see your dream.To believe that better is possible – and be scoffed at for it. To want nothing more than to serve your community and to have the energy to do it, but to be told you’re just expecting too much. Maybe it’s like going through life asking other people to wait and give you a chance, when all the while you’re the one waiting on them.
There have been days when this whole peace corps experience has felt like one big exercise in waiting – waiting for the small things like a taxi to arrive or a web page to load, and waiting for the big things like development and cross-cultural understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been all fired up to work on something that desperately needed it, only to be met with indifference. And that’s when I just want to shake people and say, “Aren’t you tired of waiting?!? You’ve been dealing with this your whole life! Let’s do something already!” But maybe I’m just looking at it the wrong way.
Less than a week ago, I turned a light on in my house for the first time. It’s been years in coming, but my village finally has electricity. I still can’t really believe it. I don’t have to hold a flashlight to read in the evening anymore. I no longer need to bike five miles on a hilly dirt road to charge my computer. For me, it’s as though I’ve been waiting for this since the day I got here. But the people of this village? I don’t know. For the past two years, if you asked anyone when we’d be getting electricity they’d tell you, “it’s coming.” They weren’t waiting for it so much as simply expecting it. In the meantime, they went on with their lives.
One of Angelle’s favorite topics of conversation with me is America. She’ll ask about “over there,” and we’ll talk about all les bonnes choses (the good things) in America – the abundance of nutritious food, the smooth paved roads, the clean water… She’ll nod her head and smile the whole time, like a child who knows a story by heart but still delights in hearing it read again and again. Angelle believes that one day her country will be able to offer better living conditions for its citizens, too, even if not in her own lifetime.
So she waits. And though she wants les bonnes choses as much as anyone else, she doesn’t view the wait as a waste of time. Angelle is the sort of person who can find richness in any moment by simply allowing the slowness of the present to create its own meaning. And maybe now I’m starting to see this, too. I think of all those times in the past two years when I’ve been sitting around at someone else’s house, for example, just waiting and wondering how long I had to stay before I could “demander la route” (“ask for the road”) and take my leave. It seemed so pointless at the time to sit around when I could be doing other things. But now I imagine leaving for the last time. I imagine leaving Benin and becoming what they call a “returned” peace corps volunteer. I imagine saying good-bye to my village and to my life here, and to inspirational people like Angelle.
And all I can really think is wait.