He had been gone a year, our oldest son, gone to Africa with the Peace Corps, and now we three - his mother, younger brother and I - are on the last leg of the long journey from Montclair to West Africa to see him.
We knew he had changed. His photos and letters and occasional phone calls confirmed that. And every Peace Corps parent with a child in a difficult post had told us the same thing: They are different now. Seasoned, sober, serious.
But even prepared as we were, Josh left us reeling. I am still trying to understand what I saw, still trying to find the words that describe his metamorphosis. At the moment, the best I can do is tell you some of what he said, offer a few anecdotes from a son who astonished us.
When he graduated from New York University last spring, a student of philosophy and German, we were proud, as proud as all the other parents standing in the bright sun and celebration in Washington Square Park. I have a snapshot of Josh in his cap and gown, standing with his arm around his brother, his smile easy, his eyes gentle, his face full and relaxed.
Now, a year later, he is standing just inside the dusty, down-at-the-heels terminal in Lomé, Togo
, watching us trudge across the tarmac in the stifling West African night.
At first glance, he looked well, deeply tan, reassuringly tall, but as we waited for luggage that, as it turned out, was lost in Lagos, I took a moment to size him up. A diet of corn gruel and yam mash and many bouts of dysentery from contaminated water had stripped some 30 pounds from his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, and he looked thin. And then I noticed his eyes - weary eyes rimmed with deep bags and dark circles.
At dinner at an open-air restaurant on a dark and deserted boulevard, we finally settled down to talk. Gone was the shining humanist faith and forbearance that had led him to the life of a volunteer. In its place was a certain edginess, a kind of involuntary irritation. And behind this, but near to the surface, was a palpable sense of sadness.
"What have you learned here?" I asked. "The one thing, the big thing."
He looked hard at me for a moment.
"All right, dad, I'll tell you."
He leaned a little forward with his elbows on the table.
"This is the most important thing I've learned," he said. "There are . . . well . . . there are so many ways to die here."
And then he told us two stories, "African" stories. Which is to say stories about an American whom Africa has changed.
1. The story of the shoes. The Togolese love "le soccer," and many months ago in a phone call Josh asked us to gather "a little bit of soccer gear" from the neighborhood and send it for the children in the village.
"They don't even have a decent ball," he said. "It's just an old ball stuffed with rags." Working with another Peace Corps family in Maryland and with school districts in Montclair and Anapolis, we gathered some 1,200 pounds of used uniforms, pads, nets, balls and soccer shoes and shipped the lot to the American embassy in Lom, which trucked it a hundred miles up country to the dry, hard-scrabble prefecture where Josh lives and works.
There was enough gear to outfit hundreds of children, so Josh helped a fellow volunteer form a girls soccer league with teams from 16 villages and towns. The PCVs, as the volunteers are called, knew how precious this used gear was in Togo
, a country so desperately poor that the combined average income of a family unit of 25 people is probably less than $1,500 a year. So they took care to guard it and to avoid a stampede when they handed it out. They decided to distribute the equipment one team and one child at a time, lest it end up for sale in the markets of Bafilo and Kara.
Josh bridled at this regimentation. He wanted to "trust" the people to whom he had become attached. And calling in the children one at a time and safe-guarding the supply made him feel "like a Nazi." But he knew it was necessary. Several months before at a combined soccer exhibition and AIDS lecture, a volunteer had set a table with several hundred cups of lemonade and as soon as the children saw what she was doing, they rushed at her, knocking her down and grabbing for the drinks.
"The Great Lemonade Riot," as the PCVs called it, had taught them a lesson in cultural and class dissonance.
A few weeks after the last of the teams was done, two teenage boys from Joshua's village came to him and said they'd been overlooked and needed cleats. Josh had a meeting with an agricultural official that day and, weary now of sitting like a hawk over his store, he told the boys to rummage through the pile of shoes that were left, about a hundred pair, and find what they needed.
When Josh returned a few hours later, 83 pairs of shoes were gone. He was angry and bitter with disappointment. He had known the two teenagers well. They were part of his "host family," the people he sat with every morning in the gray light of dawn, eating breakfast and watching the sun come up over the hills. He had worked with the boys, and he had trusted them.
A few days later the boys showed up in the village with new watches and new portable radios. A few days after that a couple of women in the compound were sporting new cloth wraps.
Joshua confronted the boys and met with the chief. Everyone was very sorry, they said, and the next morning 18 pair of shoes were returned. Josh again pressed the chief for action, but this time it was clear that all the parties involved felt the matter was closed - all, that is, save Josh, who felt betrayed.
He had committed to spend two years of his life in the village, had diverted his subsistence money into village projects, had given the people his energy, his talent, even his love. And now he wanted to punish them. He told the chief that unless the rest of the shoes were returned, he would leave the village and tell the Peace Corps not to send someone to take his place. The chief told the villagers this was "a very serious matter," but that was as far as things went.
Weeks passed, weeks during which Josh stewed in his bitterness and choked on his disappointment. Then he stepped back and realized what had happened. "There is no word in the Cotokoli language for the future," he explained. "There is only a word for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Life is so hard here and so precarious that people live for today, for the moment. You take what you can when you can, because there is little today and nothing beyond tomorrow."
2. The story of the curse. Several months ago in Kollo, a village of some 300 divided into family compounds, a young child became ill, and his family took him to the local government dispensary. The male nurse in charge there diagnosed the child with meningitis and told the parents to take him to a larger infirmary nearby. The father complained about the cost of the trip and the inconvenience, but the nurse shamed him into going.
At the new clinic they confirmed the diagnosis, but this time the father refused to pay the small fee for treatment and returned the child to the first dispensary. There, of course, the boy foundered. He went in and out of one coma after another, began to wither, and one day the nurse found the child curled in a fetal position, cold and dead.
The father, looking to lay off his responsibility, announced that the child had been killed by a spell, some black magic, or "grigri," as the villagers call it. He said relatives who had come to the dispensary to nurse and clean the boy had seen a snake there, a bad omen, and he was convinced there was a grigri plot at work. He asked the relatives who had seen the snake to name the people they thought were part of the plot.
On the list of names was a man from the village named Abderman who worked for various development organizations, including the Peace Corps. Josh relied on Abderman and respected him. No one knows why his name was on the list - an old grudge or slight, perhaps, that someone now wanted to settle.
At all events, the idea of a grigri plot began to take hold in the village and soon, with the chief's approval, the local charlatan was called. He determined that the people on the list had to undergo a purification ceremony, involving the sacrifice of a sheep, a cat, a duck and a pigeon. The cost of all this was about $100, and Abderman, who likely makes less than $1,000 a year, refused to take part.
The father of the dead boy now proclaimed Abderman a "sorcerer" and demanded that he be expelled from Kollo. Josh tried to intervene with the chief, but to no avail. So Joshua's friend and trusted associate - "the most capable man in the village and someone I really relied on to get our projects started," said Josh - had to pack up his family and leave. Josh missed Abderman and his family and could not stop thinking about the child who died - about all the children, for that matter.
"Children have it the worst here," Joshua said. "At mealtimes the children eat last; they get what's left. And they are always left untended. At home we'd call it neglect, but here you have to understand that life is so hard that people don't have the time or energy to keep a careful watch on their children. And because no one watches them, they wander into the bush and get hurt or bitten. And then, of course, they just die. There are so many ways to die here."
I cannot, of course, stop thinking about my own child. He is "of the world" now, the world where death and hardship and tragedy are more than rumors next door or sound bites on the evening news. I cannot think of him without hearing his refrain: so many ways to die here. I am not so anxious anymore about his loss of weight or wizened look. What worries me now is the rent in his heart.
Reproduced with permission of Josh Norman.