Saturday, May 10, 2014

Precarious Life

“You only live once” could be a mantra for Peace Corps Volunteers. As young expats (mostly in our twenties) living in Africa, most of us are focused very much on the now. We travel, try new things, take risks, plunge into challenging situations to show we can handle it. This is our time to prove ourselves. (Conduct health trainings entirely in the local language? Navigate the rickety public transportation system alone? Eat that weird looking fruit? You got it.)

We take necessary precautions and then turn the telephoto lens on our lives, focusing only on the big end goals and blurring out the rough spots. We do it so we can succeed and survive – and hopefully thrive – in this pretty tough job.

But lately I’ve started noticing how fragile and fleeting life really is. A person’s presence in your life, suddenly removed, feels like you missed a step and plunged into air where you expected solid ground.

That happened when a lifelong, childhood friend back in the U.S. passed away in February this year. Unexpected. Unknown causes. I didn’t know how to write about it, so I haven’t mentioned it until now. He was like a little brother – someone who had always been around, who I expected to always be around. We played together as kids, joked around as teens, and I thought I had decades of time to get to know him better as an adult. Sadly, I was wrong.

It hurt, but I felt so many worlds away that I didn’t quite know how to process it until now.

Here in the developing world, so many risks to health and life define existence that we can’t dwell on it too much, or we’d live in fear. Unlike kids born in the States, many children here still remain unvaccinated to a plethora of diseases. Those diseases then become a continuous threat to life: tuberculosis, hepatitis, typhoid, yellow fever, meningitis, polio. Not to mention endemic diseases with no current vaccine, such as malaria or HIV, or water-borne illnesses transmitted through poor hygiene and sanitation. Diarrheal diseases are one of the biggest child killers in Senegal.

Then there are the risks of malnutrition, maternal/infant mortality, largely unregulated transportation systems prone to dangerous accidents, violence and banditry, you name it. Still, we try not to give it too much thought, for our mental sanity.

But then, starting in February, the Ebola virus arrived in my part of the world. Beginning next door in Guinea, it ravaged the population, spreading to Sierra Leone, Mali, and Liberia. A total of 235 people have been infected, 157 killed.

Ebola is one of the world’s most deadly viruses, terrifying in its rapid, hemorrhaging slide into death. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with virus-containing body fluids from a person or animals, usually primates and bats. Outbreaks mostly occur in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests or jungles. This happens to be my present environment. Yikes.

As the outbreak worsened in March, Senegal closed its borders to Guinea. Only this week have the borders been reopened. But I remember that tangible feeling of fear during March and April, all through Kolda. “Don’t buy meat in town!” my host mom warned me, her eyes wide. We’re close to the border, and people seemed to sense death lurking like a shadow around the corner. There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola.

Thankfully, the outbreak didn’t spread to Senegal, and our major trade markets down here in the south have reopened.

As much as I’m happier doing so, I can’t ignore the fragility of life any more. From the tiniest baby brought to my house flopping listlessly in his mother’s arms, his little tummy distended with intestinal worms, to my far away loss of a good friend at home, to the looming threat of Ebola here, death is back in focus.

But I’ve decided that this is okay. I want to feel that fear, because I want to appreciate every day I have – and I want to live with everything in perspective. I never want to be oblivious. I also never want to become jaded or hardened to the pain. Too many Senegalese people I know have become like this. I’ve seen it: they mourn their family or friends for a day or two after their passing, and then are back at work and immersed in normal life.

One day last month, I returned home to my family’s compound, joking about something stupid to make them laugh, only to notice one of the girls staying at our house (a cousin of some kind) wasn’t smiling. When I asked what was wrong, my host mom replied, “Oh, her older sister died a few days ago.”

I was shocked, and I felt awful that I had been obliviously going about my week without even knowing. But everyone else was carrying on like normal. The girl wasn’t accorded any special treatment because of her loss. Death is too common here, and self-pity is not tolerated. Life must go on.

It’s harsh, but I understand how this attitude came about. I admire the Senegalese people for their strength in moving on.

For myself, though, I never want to become so tough that I become numb. Each life lost, or each risk averted, is worth feeling and remembering – whether it’s relief or pain. If that’s the price of valuing lives, I’ll pay it.


This post is a tribute to my friend Jason Mastroianni.