Yours vraiment, American expats on the fourth

Dear America,
This one’s for you.

* * * *

“Happy Independence Day!” I announce, throwing open my front door. The random kids who’ve been playing noisily on my porch all morning stare at me blankly then ask for sugar for their porridge. Fine. I’ve woken up in a giddy mood so hey, maybe even I’ll start the day with a mound of sugar in my porridge!

The electricity is out. Nothing odd about that, but I ask my neighbor anyways if he knows why. He says it’s broken. No kidding. And no one will pay to fix it. Typical. And a little disappointing ’cause I’m having company in this evening. Looks like candlelight will have to do. Suddenly I remember my scented candle. I should light that monster. Once upon a time I received this giant green candle as a hand-me-down from a previous volunteer. In the moment it had seemed like a lovely acquisition, but now it just overwhelms me with its powerfully perfume-y breathe. Still, I’m committed to burning this thing down before I leave, and today my friends are coming over, so why not ritz up the house with aroma of gummy worms before they arrive?

My village is a little out of the way so I don’t get many visitors, but today I’ve managed to convince my friends Dave, Emily, and Jayne to come out and celebrate the fourth with me. I text Dave, who can always be counted on for sports equipment, to bring bats and balls so we can teach America’s favorite pastime to some village kids. He texts back: “All my bats have gone the way of all the African teams in the world cup, but I can bring some baseballs. And we can use yam pilé sticks as bats.” Yam pilé sticks. Those are the elongated club-like things used to mash yams into oblivion so they may be eaten as doughy yellow blobs. Well that could work! And it would be so trad, I think to myself. (This is my new favorite expression. Trad: like rad, but traditional. Perfect for Benin!)

Jayne is the first to arrive, and we’re soon whipping up something to snack on: a red, white, and blue funfetti cake from a mix she got on a recent trip home. Jayne is from Texas. She is gorgeous and entertaining, pretty much all the time. Today will be no exception as she’s come equipped with her unaffected humor, her country music, and some delightfully tacky American flag hats. As we sit on a mat waiting for the cake to bake, she tells me about the patriotic outfit she has for later, and I’m immediately wishing I had a little more red, white, and blue in my wardrobe, too.

But wait! I do have some permanent markers, I remember. One of them is red. One of them is blue. And the dog is white… “Sami, come!” I coo. She spies mischief in my eyes and tries to flee, but I nab her and quickly scribble a neat little American flag on the canvas of her haunches. Now at least one of us is red, white, and blue! She takes a half second to sniff suspiciously at her new tattoo then forgets what just happened and rockets out the door to assault-greet Dave and Emily as they pull up on their bikes.

It’s a long journey by bike for them, so I give them time to rest and shower off, but pretty soon a small crowd of urchins have gathered outside my house, eager to see these new Americans. They had heard I would be having friends over today, and I may have mentioned something about a ball and a game… Dave gets out a softball and starts tossing it around. He lobs it casually in the direction of the kids, but he aims a little too high. It bounces off the roof of the chicken house into a patch of weeds and disappears forever. Well, so much for that. We start dinner preparations instead.

We’ve got canned chili and some sweet bread to toast, plus desserts from Emily. Emily and I share mid-western roots, artistic minds, and recipes. We both enjoy baking, though between the two of us, Emily is definitely the master. And she’s proved it today by bringing a homemade apple pie. Only Emily would seek out all the right ingredients to make one, bake it in a makeshift Dutch oven, then transport it in a soggy cardboard box, strapped to the back of her bicycle for twenty plus miles under the hot African sun, and still arrive with a finished product that looks and tastes divine. There are four of us, so later when it’s time for pie, we stake it out with mini American flags (furnished by Jayne, of course) then quarter it and circle up to eat.

It’s getting dark outside now, which I guess would be the time we’d start lighting fireworks or sparklers if we were in America, but we have nothing of the sort here. Instead we play with waterproof matches on my front porch and contemplate the circumstances under which one would need matches such as these that can be lit, dunked in water, and re-emerged, still burning. I set a few aside and make a mental note to remember to show my neighbors in the morning just what it was we were doing so they don’t make dubious assumptions.

We won’t stay up late. We are well adapted to the village rhythm of rising and retiring early each day, so as it quiets down, so do we. The pie is reduced to a pile of crumbs, eyelids droop, and the conversation wanes. We move inside where mats are rolled out, candles are gently snuffed, and the iPhone that’s been dutifully singing our music all evening is finally silenced. But even then, as I crawl into bed and fall off to sleep, soothing tunes from The National still hum steadily along through my dreams.

* * * *

Some holidays are hard to celebrate away from home. Others are even better. I never went crazy over the fourth of July at home, but here, it wouldn’t have felt right to let my country’s independence day pass without fuss. It’s because of American leaders and ideals that the Peace Corps exists. America is not the paradise or promised-land people in Benin seem to want to envision it as, and I’ll be the first to confess I don’t really believe in chasing the classic “American dream.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other dreams worth pursuing, and I’m not sure if there’s any other country out there with a body of citizens more dedicated to supporting its dreamers than America. I feel pretty fortunate that I had the opportunity to grow up in a place like that. Thanks, America.

Yours truly,

Peace Corps BeninPermalink

2 Responses to Yours vraiment, American expats on the fourth

  1. Grandma Joyce and Grandpa Dick says:

    Hi Heidi,

    Thanks for the inspiration. We are truly proud of you and all Peace Corps volunteers. Your unselfishness and willingness to try to help others shows your love for your country in a way which makes us so proud to be your grandparents.

    We are now so excited at the thought that God willing you will soon be back in this great country. Until then we know that you are busy trying to tie all ends together and we know that your efforts and accomplishments will have a lasting effect on all those villagers.

    Take care and we look forward to your return.

    Love, Grandma

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