Zoro was the second village along our route where volunteers were dropped off. When I shuffled off and managed to carry my bags to the designated spot at the center of a small clearing preceeding the village, I took comfort in standing with my fellow, equally terrified Trainees. We were at the center of an outdoor space surrounded by benches on which, to our left, sat a collection of men from the village. In front of the mosque, to our right, a group of women and children gathered slowly. There was a lot of staring. After the initial introduction and speeches from Peace Corps personnel as well as the chief of the village, we were matched with our host fathers. My host father, Ziba Youssef, was a tall, lanky imam with an aging, bright face. He embraced me enthusiastically, and as soon as we had all been matched there was an explosive moment when all the everyone flooded the luggage. I thought that, as my host father made me lead him to my bags, he would hoist one over his back and I would carry the other two. But this is Africa. The women carry the heavy things.

As though I had packed a suitcase full of pillow clouds and goose down, my host mother and two other women threw my 50+ pound suitcase over their heads and traipsed off briskly along the path before us. I would be lying if I said my jaw did not openly drop. A small army of children relieved me of EVERYTHING I was carrying, right down to my water bottle, and I followed the entourage unburdened.

My host family’s complex was not far from the clearing, and soon we all burst through the door of a courtyard home to multiple mud buildings. To my left was a small covered area with pots, pans and a water basin, and not far from that was a fire I would soon learn would never burn out. Straight ahead was my room, a separate building across the courtyard with a loud metal door and bug screens everywhere. There must had been at least 15 people following me, and as soon as they dropped everything off in my room the women began to sing and clap their hands. When I joined in, they flipped, raising their voices and encouraging me even though I had no freaking clue what they were saying. After the excitement died down I had a moment to survey my room. It is small and grey with a bed and mosquito net in the corner and a small table and chair next to a water filter in the opposite corner. Currently my otherwise pristine room is diseased by a smattering of clothing, a yoga mat, various light sources and two perpetually dusty pairs of shoes.

My little breakfast table

After unpacking a bit I gathered my courage, dropped my dignity and ventured outside for some good old cultural immersion. I was relatively relieved to find only young children in the courtyard, who promptly got a stool for me and organized themselves before me. In slow, practiced French I asked I introduced myself and asked their names and ages. To date I can’t remember any but one, Ousman, who is one of my host brothers. He is an ever-smiling, strong and very intelligent thirteen-year-old who, it has become clear, has a bit of a crush on me. Ousman is actually hand-capped being that his right leg never developed properly, so he walks is a squatting position, raising himself to his full height on his healthy leg occasionally to give me a bashful smile.

Ziba Ousman

After running out of things to say I had the brilliant idea to ask what kinds of games they play. The response I got was something along the lines of I thought you’d never ask! The children dispersed and returned with handfuls of rocks which they placed in a pile while Ousman drew eight circles in two rows in the dirt. They then proceeded to reach me warre, which is a game not unlike mancala. After the first few rounds, a large crowd gathered to watch the nasara (Western person) badly play this very simple yet seemingly riveting game. This went on for HOURS until it got dark and subsequently became a nightly ritual.

When my host father returned, I had temporarily redirected the childrens’ attention to writing names in the dust. My host father crouched as I spelled his name out in Arabic. He smiled, and corrected it. Then he wrote out some vowels in Arabic which I dooly recited. Pleased, he took his leave.

Playing Warre after dark

Later that night, my host mother called me into their house to eat a second dinner with my host father. I still attribute this honor to our bonding over Arabic vowels. Utterly terrified, I stepped in very tentatively, but still managed to trod on the prayer rug (a big NO NO). My host father showed me how to wash my hands and encouraged me to eat out of a large pot of to, a firm, maize-based porridge which we dipped into a pot of delicious sauce. Mange, mange! He encouraged, breaking off the only piece of meat in the pot for me. By the end of my second dinner I was bloated but happy. I lumbered into bed around 8:45 confident that I had made a good impression.

Ziba Youssef and two of his sons.