5 November 2003
“Just when things are going along all right, without fail someone or something will come along and spoil everything. Somebody should write that down as a fundamental law of the Universe. The principal of perpetual disappointment.”
—Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard
If ever there is a doubt that I love it here, today proved it.
I went back to class after missing two days. I walked in this morning and 11C, my register (homeroom) class all simultaneously said, “Oh! Miss!” The kids were surprised, and the room was a mess—desks were everywhere and the floor was filthy. “Oh, Yeah! I’m ba-ack! Now clean this place up.” I went into the storeroom and began organizing and preparing for the day ahead. Teofelus came in and informed me that I needed a sling—then he demonstrated with his tie how I should make one. I told him I had one, but that it choked me. By the time the bell rang to start first period, the class was cleaned and put back into order. I had planned listening activities with the radio all day so I wouldn’t have to stand up much. The kids were all really bothered by how I held my arm and supported it with my right arm. But it’s still better than that awful sling.
Anyway, my classes were pretty uneventful until 4th period when I had 9B. “We missed you! Where were you? Hospital?” No, just at the house. Then I had to tell them the story of what happened. They had all sorts of questions. How did I bathe? How did I change my clothes? How did I sleep? How did I cook? I said Zac cooked for me. This was just too much for Selma Iyambo. She buried her face in her hands, made distressing whimpering noises, and finally said, “Oh no, Miss” like that was the culmination of the tragedy.
Then they wanted details. How does it fall out? I tried to explain about loose ligaments and such and they seemed all confused until Shalongo said, “Ah yeah!” Then he explained to the class, “You know, when you slaughter a goat and you are cutting the leg off—all those things you cut through.” Ah! The whole class now understood—Mrs. Arcaro is like a slaughtered goat.
Ines kept raising her hand. When I called on her, she said, “Miss. Sit down.” They kept asking, “Isn’t your arm tired?” No, I’m very strong. “Can’t you put it down?” No, it will fall out. Eventually, we had class, and every time I stood up Ines raised her hand and told me to “Sit down.” But the truth was that it was stressful holding my arm and I was getting worn out. At break I went home and lay on the couch to relax—and promptly slept through 5th period.
I woke up and walked back to the school in time for 6th period with 11A. I had the cell phone in my pocket since I was expecting a call about my shoulder from this Peace Corps doctor who was from America and currently visiting Namibia. First I stopped by the office to pick up copies of a review sheet I made. I went to 11B first to distribute them. 11B is my favorite class, so I was passing out the sheets and joking with them when the cell phone in my pocket rang. “Uh-oh, sorry guys, this is illegal, don’t look!” I went outside to talk on the phone figuring the situation justified it.
The doctor (Dr. B) seemed highly competent so I was in the middle of explaining my history of shoulder dislocations and how this one was different than all the rest when he interrupted me. “Yes, that’s what I thought. So you say you’ve dislocated your shoulder before. But I checked your medical application forms and you never mentioned any shoulder dislocations. Furthermore, a question specifically asks if you’ve ever dislocated your shoulder and you said no.” “Really?” I interjected, shocked. He went on, “This is called non-disclosure—where you fail to inform The Peace Corps of a previously existing medical condition. Now, I have to file a report with Washington and this could potentially lead to early termination of your Peace Corps service.” I was in shock. Non-disclosure. A polite way of saying you lied and we just caught you. I tried back-pedaling, but all my lame excuses echoed hollow in my ear. The truth was black and white. I’d always had this shoulder problem. I didn’t put it on the medical form. Non-disclosure. Early termination. He went on to say things about orthopedic surgeons in Windhoek and South Africa, but I couldn’t focus on anything.
As soon as I was off the phone, the dam broke. I cried “like nothing” as they say here. I looked around the school yard. Could they really send me home? Take away all this just because of an oversight in my paper work? To most of you, Namibia is just a place on the map and somehow these emails come to you from there. But to me, Namibia has faces and voices and smells and sounds and lots of goats. That this, my whole world, can be taken away just like (literally) flipping off a light switch, was a heartache more intense with pain than any shoulder dislocation.
I cried and cried. It was too overwhelming. I was reminded of a year and half ago when our Peace Corps Russia jobs were cancelled and I thought we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere for another year. But then I was crying only for what I imagined I lost—but now, I knew exactly what I was losing.
Dr. B had said that if D.C. decided this non-disclosure warranted early termination, I could appeal and write a justification for why I didn’t disclose my shoulder dislocations. Justification. I’d taught that word to my 11th graders in the context of the drama we’re reading. I said it meant trying to make something seem right that you really know is wrong.
By this time, some of my 11th graders noticed something was wrong with Mrs. Arcaro. They came over thinking something was wrong with my shoulder again. I explained my much bigger problem. They went looking for Zac. They were also really concerned about my standing in the sun. Katrina took control of the situation. “Miss, you’ll burn. You must go to your house. We will drop you there.” So they started to walk me that way, when Zac came up.
I blurted out, “They’re going to kick me out of The Peace Corps.” Well, it was more of a blubber than a blurt because it came out with a big sob. Eventually, I got out the story, and he did his best to console me, but I was not one to be consoled when my worst fears were overwhelming me. I’d heard stories of other volunteers going up against admin and it seemed like admin always won.
So why didn’t I just report my shoulder problem in the first place? What is my justification? I filled out the medical forms in April 2001. That was a long time ago and it was difficult to remember what I was thinking then. My arm has been falling out since I was five—but it used to go right back in so it was no problem. Just some weird thing that happened. In the last few years, my left shoulder has come out maybe 6 times and not gone back in right away. So I learned how to put it back in my self and continued on my merry way through life. I didn’t really consider it a medical condition or an obstacle to volunteer service. I only went to a doctor once about it, at the urging of my friends who were more disturbed by my arm falling out than I was. It was in college, and the sports medicine guy said that since it didn’t affect or interfere with my life too much, I should just do some exercises to strengthen the muscles around it. Seemed like no big deal. Nothing can be done—so why report it? I just put it back in myself and go on.
At the house, I continued sobbing. The phone rang and Zac answered it. It was Clara, the in-country Peace Corps Medical Officer. Zac told her, “Sera is very upset right now”—an understatement. Hysterically hyperventilating would have been more accurate. Clara told me they wanted to see me in Windhoek so I should go to the Cresta Lodge in Ondangwa for tonight and then tomorrow they would fly me to Windhoek. They are, after all, just concerned about my health.
I am afraid of tomorrow. I would have more hope if somehow I knew I was right. But they have proof, with my signature on it.
My one hope is that somehow I can convince them that what I’m doing here—my AIDS and Palaver clubs, my teaching, my learners, are all more important than non-disclosure. But to a desk in D.C. Namibia is just a place on a map, with no faces and no voices.
Now maybe some of you think I’m over exaggerating after all the complaining and mocking, after all my missing of ice cream—how can I now say I love it here? My justification is this: I’m not so good at writing about the happiness. But it’s there—like the silent beautiful sunsets at the end of each day.
And who are these people, these faces I’m talking about? I’ve often wanted to write characterizations of my learners, but it’s difficult and I’m no Jane Austin. Any description would fall short, oversimplify, stereotype. But now that there is a chance I might leave and lose all of this, I want to capture, preserve these personalities so that I can save them, take them with me. It seems they may vanish so quickly.