Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Coins Make Me Cry

As this is both my first entry, and we are celebrating the Peace Corps this week, I want to share an unforgettable experience that changed who I am; one that guides me, centers me and has become fundamental to my perspective on the world.

After two years, my time in Niger was coming to a close.  While I knew that Niger had forever changed me, the experience had yet to sink-in.

I was looking forward to coming home, seeing my family and enjoying some of the luxuries that we take for granted in America. (Double Whopper, here I come!)  I was a bit jaded at the end of my service and was ready to go home.  But Niger had one last surprise left for me. A “Peace Corps Moment” was imminent, and if you don’t know what a “Peace Corps Moment” is, I’m about to show you.

A Biki is a ceremony – a celebration that the Hausa of my village would stage for important events.  The women of my village had decided to send me away with a Biki.

While I was moving on, they knew that I was leaving their lives …likely forever.   They were happy that I would see my friends and family, because for them, friends and family meant everything. Their world was so small. They wanted for me to be happy and they knew that my home was far away … that my journey would be long.

The Biki began when the women of the village sat me on a woven mat on the ground.  Then, they crowded around me and began to yell the Guda, shouting and wailing about my leaving while they stuck coins to my forehead.  These women, whose babies barely had enough to eat, these women with no formal education who couldn’t even read or write their own names were giving me coins. Some told me, “This is money for water on the road.” “This is money for a bush taxi.” They were wishing me well, making sure that their little pet American got home safe. They were happy for me. They knew I missed my family, but they were also sad for me to leave.

This moment was both beautifully ironic and shockingly moving. They were throwing me a Biki, which was usually only reserved for births or weddings. My leaving felt more like a funeral. My villagers knew we lived worlds apart and that there would be no way they could reach me, except for by plane, which they called “sky engine”. Most of them were afraid of planes and couldn’t even afford a bag of airplane peanuts, much less a plane ticket.

They were giving me coins. This is no big deal to those of us who have, but these women were the extreme case of the have-nots. On average, most of them had 8 children. The women had to work all day in the field in a perpetual drought to harvest a paltry amount of millet to keep themselves alive. In truth, the Hausa in this region merely existed, but these women were giving me all the coins they had. I felt humbled and shamed. Who am I to accept these coins from starving people in Africa? Isn’t this against everything my parents taught me? But I looked into their sun-weathered faces, and started feeling the lump in my throat. I looked down at their rough farming hands, with tears blinding my eyes. I saw their smiles, the tears they struggled to hold back in their eyes. I saw how they delighted in giving me a good sendoff. I ended the Biki with tear-stained cheeks.

It was the most humbling experience in my life, and this post is not doing it justice. I only hope that each of us can experience a great “Peace Corps Moment” just like this someday. Inshallah.

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