Bonus Episode: Service Disrupted, My Peace Corps Story
This is a bonus episode, where I take some time to talk about the My Peace Corps Story podcast and share a little more about my service in Burkina Faso. In this episode, I confront my lifelong fear of reading aloud (sorta) and read the first two chapters of my book, Service Disrupted, with the addition of a few added soundscapes. I’d love to know what you think. Below, you’ll find the text of the first two chapters of my book, a plus bonus photos and videos for greater context. Enjoy!
Chapter 1 – May 29th – C.O.S.
I sat in the Peace Corps transit house, staring blankly at my laptop, waiting for a website to load. The transit house was where volunteers stayed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouaga. The two-story communal house contained two large rooms filled with rows of bunk beds, men’s and women’s dormitory style bathrooms, a large kitchen, a large living room, a balcony, a wrap-around screened-in-porch, and a cubby room lined with lockers. I sat in the large living room amongst other volunteers. The room’s furnishings consisted of several old couches, two long wooden dining room tables surrounded by chairs, unorganized bookshelves packed with paperback novels, and an assortment of eclectic art pieces cast off by former volunteers.
The transit house, which sat next door to the Burkina Faso Peace Corps office, was intended for volunteers who were either staying in Ouaga on official Peace Corps business, were in the capital for medical reasons, or were in transit across the country. Several fellow volunteers and I were in town for our Close of Service medical exams. Three other volunteers were closing their service (COSing)—completing the Peace Corps and heading home tomorrow. Many more were passing through town, hanging out, or here to say goodbye to those leaving.
It was Ascension Day, a Christian holiday observed by the Burkinabé government. Offices across Burkina Faso were closed, including ours. Today was a free day to lounge around the house, idly waiting for web pages to slowly load. A group of friends talked about going to the pool in the early afternoon, and afterward many of us would head to one of Ouaga’s fancy restaurants, a goodbye dinner for the three departing volunteers.
After spending a large chunk of our monthly income on one delicious meal, we would undoubtedly move to Dinario’s, a local bar with pool tables and, more importantly, cheap beer on tap. Lastly, the night would end at a dance club. I thought it was going to be a good day.
Surrounding me sat several volunteers of my training group, Group 26. Nearly two years ago, we came into our Peace Corps service together and we were now preparing for our departure. It didn’t feel like two years. The day I arrived in Burkina, a volunteer who was days away from completing her service gave me words of wisdom. She told me, “The days will be long, but the months will be short. It will be over before you know it. Enjoy it.”
She was right.
I spent countless days in my village, where the clock seemed to stand still. No matter what I did to fill my time with work, projects, and chores, I would arrive at 11:00 a.m. and wonder, Is it too early for a nap? Maybe I’ll have an early lunch.
Out of nowhere, September became October, and then I woke up two years in the future, unsure of where the time had gone.
For the past two years, I served as an agriculture and small business volunteer in Banzon, a rural village in Southwest Burkina Faso. For my primary assignment, I worked with a women’s cooperative that processed and packaged locally harvested rice. My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer, however, was hard to define. Day after day, I searched for ways to make a difference in my community.
Over the 24 months as a volunteer, I led malaria prevention trainings, held maternal and early childhood nutrition workshops, weighed and vaccinated newborn babies, conducted classes on hygiene, built handwashing stations, helped plant more than 10,000 trees, developed a garden training program, started a youth karate club, and taught a group of women how to make soap. Yet, most days were spent slowly passing the time in village, desperately searching for anything that could provide me with a sense of importance or accomplishment.
You could tell that the group around me was ready to move on from the Peace Corps and on to the next chapter of their life. We had had a positive experience overall, but two years, even if passing quickly, were still two years. We were gradually checking out, focusing on the end of our service. Some of us would head to grad school, others would find jobs, and a few would take time to travel and delay having to choose between grad school or a job.
Suddenly, I was pulled from my reveries, back to the present by another volunteer.
“Hey, Tyler. Crystal has been trying to get ahold of you.”
“Huh? What?” I asked, looking up from my laptop. Anna hobbled into the room, wearing her foot brace. I didn’t remember how she’d injured herself, but she’d been wearing that boot for a month.
“I just came from Crystal’s office. She said she wanted to see you and has been trying to get ahold of you all morning,” repeated Anna.
Crystal was one of our Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs), the doctors who helped us get through two years of service in West Africa. Why would Crystal want to see me? The office was closed today. I looked down at my phone, which was next to my laptop, and found it turned off.
I turned my phone on and instantly received two messages:
Tyler, call me when you get this.
Please stop by my office.
“Why does Crystal want to see you?” chimed a volunteer sitting in the living room.
“I don’t know.”
“That can’t be good,” inserted another.
“Maybe. We’ll see,” I said with a smile and a playful shrug, “Wish me luck.”
I thought about the day before when I had the first part of my Close of Service medical exam. Dr. Patel, the other PCMO, reviewed my medical history over the past two years, drew my blood for several tests, and performed a head-to-toe physical exam to document anything that would require further follow-up. Something was wrong.
I checked out of the house with the security guard and turned left out of the gate, walking a hundred feet down the street to the Peace Corps office. I slid my ID card under the protective glass barrier to another security guard, who then buzzed me into the building. I quickly bounded up the stairs to the second-floor medical offices.
I knocked on Crystal’s door. No response. I knocked again. Still no response. Impatiently, I cracked the door and inquired, “Crystal?”
“Oh, come on in. I can’t hear when anyone knocks on that door,” she replied. Her door was padded and upholstered to resemble the back of a cream-colored couch—a peculiar design choice.
I entered her office and sat across from her at her desk.
“How are you doing, Tyler?” she asked.
“I’m doing well. Yourself?” I replied, trying to get comfortable in the rigid office chair.
“I’m good. I sent you several messages and tried to call you, but I think your phone was off,” responded Crystal.
“Yeah. I don’t know why it was off. Anna told me though. You wanted to see me? What’s up?” I asked calmly, even though my mind anxiously raced through the possible reasons for this meeting.
“Well, I got a call late yesterday evening from the Embassy lab. Your test results. Your HIV screening test came back positive,” Crystal quickly stated, followed by an uncomfortable, lingering silence.
“Okay,” I returned numbly, “what does that mean exactly?” My mind sat still as a high-pitched ringing faintly reverberated in my ear.
Crystal realigned herself in her chair and awkwardly shifted a paper on her desk before saying, “Well, it was only a screening test for HIV, not a final, conclusive test. Another test will have to be run to confirm the screening test. I was called yesterday evening and told that yours had come back positive. Since then, I’ve been reading more on HIV testing protocols, speaking with the regional PCMO in Senegal and others at Headquarters, planning out our next steps.”
“Okay,” I mumbled, leaning forward in my chair. “So, what now?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out actually. The Embassy lab can’t run the additional tests. Your blood could be drawn and then sent off to France for testing, but I have yet to figure out how to properly send the sample. Our best option is usually DHL, and it doesn’t look like they can do it. The sample needs to be kept at room temperature and arrive within 48 hours. There is a lab here that is part of the Ouagadougou Hospital. It is a World Health Organization HIV lab. We’ve never used them, but Dr. Patel is confident in them.”
“Okay. So, you’ll draw my blood today and send it to the WHO lab?” I questioned.
“No. It would need to be drawn tomorrow. Since today is a holiday, they aren’t open. We still haven’t decided what course of action to take though. I’ll be figuring that out today.”
“So, draw my blood tomorrow. Send it somewhere. Sounds good.”
“Yes…Tyler, are you okay? You’re not reacting how I thought you would. How I would.”
“Yeah. Doing as well as I can be, I guess. Not really feeling anything,” I replied.
It was true. I had heard what Crystal said. I tested positive for HIV. I was very aware of what that meant. Yet, I didn’t feel anything other than my body as it sat in front of the doctor, still, eyes locked forward.
I continued, “It’s just that there isn’t much point in freaking out. It won’t make anything better.”
“No, no it won’t. Do you have any reason to think you would test positive? Sex with prostitutes? Intravenous drug use? Unprotected sex? High-risk individuals?” nudged Crystal.
Prostitutes, no. Intravenous drug use, no. Unprotected sex, however, but it had been with other volunteers.
“Nope. All good,” I lied. Oh, shit. I started to feel something. Then I felt a lot, hitting me like a wave crashing down. I was engulfed in thought, gasped for air, surfaced, and quickly recomposed myself in a matter of half a second.
“And Tyler, there are the stitches you received in Bobo after your bike accident. The facility was reviewed and approved by Peace Corps, but there is a possible risk there. The needle used for stitches is solid and disposable. The syringe used for your anesthetic, however, is hollow and could transmit HIV if reused, but those shouldn’t be reused. It is unlikely, but it is something that I’ve considered,” proposed Crystal.
Chapter 2 – Bike Wreck
Patrice had come to my house two days earlier to suggest exploring a cave he knew of outside the village. I was down. I was always down for an adventure or new experience, a quality that helped me make the most of my Peace Corps service.
My best friend Issouf, however, didn’t have confidence in Patrice—understandably. Patrice was short with a very muscular build, thin dreadlocks, and best defined by his laugh and the happy-go-lucky way he typically carried himself. He was a musician, dancer, and a Rastafarian. Patrice also drank a lot. On more than one occasion, he would stumble to my house in the morning, smelling of alcohol, to say hello and see what I was up to. We’d chat for a bit, and he would then pull out two small whiskeys from his pocket and start drinking one while holding out the other one to me. I would either decline or, not wanting to be rude, accept the gift but say I would save it for later. Later being sometime not in the a.m.
As happy and goofy as Patrice usually acted, if you got to know him you started to see the pain and frustration held behind his bloodshot eyes. He was a talented musician with an ability to play any instrument he laid his hands on. He was also an accomplished dancer and acrobat who had spent time traveling across Europe performing and teaching African dance.
I remember the first time Patrice told me about his time in Europe. Initially, I couldn’t believe it. I lived in a rural West African village, in a country most Americans don’t know exists, and here was a guy telling me that he had been to Europe, on two different occasions, while we sat on wooden benches in a thatched lean-to. But, he had in fact traveled Europe as a dancer. He had the photographs to prove it. When Patrice talked about his career, you could hear a mix of nostalgia and regret. He knew that he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, twice.
From Patrice’s photographs, stories, and the gossip of others, I pieced together his past. Patrice’s older brother, who was a successful businessman in Ouaga, helped Patrice join a dance troop, as well as finance the endeavor. His first tour to Europe, through France and Switzerland, was a successful trip filled with street and stage performances, as well as dance classes comprised of what I imagine were groups of uncoordinated Caucasians spastically moving to drums.
Patrice and the dance group would showcase different styles of West African dance, and Patrice would rotate between dancer, acrobat, and musician. After his first trip, he returned to the village for a short period before heading back to Europe for his second tour with the dance troupe, high off his success as a bona fide performer.
Back in Europe, Patrice started to pursue music more, his main passion. I saw the pictures of Patrice in professional recording studios, standing behind keyboards, playing guitars, and singing. In conjunction with his new musician lifestyle, Patrice began to party, drink, smoke weed, and explore other drugs.
My big brother in village told me, “Patrice started using cocaine. Eventually, he took something more than cocaine. It was mixed with something else. That’s what messed up Patrice’s mind. Turned him crazy.”
While I didn’t know the exact details of Patrice’s story, I knew that he was now back in village and had been for many years. He was a talented performer who was troubled and longed for another chance to make it as a musician. He and I would play music together, and I would record videos of him playing guitar and singing for him to share with others. Regardless of his past, he was a good friend to me and had a big heart. He looked out for others and wanted to put a smile on your face.
Aside from Issouf’s apprehension of Patrice, he also feared that there would be something dangerous in the cave. Issouf wasn’t afraid the we’d find a poisonous snake or another dangerous animal, but rather an evil spirit. As well as being my best friend, Issouf was a sorcerer. He practiced magic, made traditional medicine, and communicated with genies. Yet, I didn’t think any of this was strange. It was the culture and tradition of Issouf’s family. Plus, I enjoyed learning traditional medicine, magic, and lore from him.
I didn’t, however, heed Issouf’s warning. My mind was set on going out to the cave. Patrice arrived at Issouf’s shop where I was waiting, and we set off in the direction of the cave. As we parted, Issouf asked for our safe return, “Allah ka sira diya – May God make the route good!”
The cave was approximately 10 km outside my village. I rode my Peace Corps mountain bike, which was built for the terrain. Patrice rode an old, rickety, undersized single-speed, but he was flying down the path. At the rate we were going, we’d arrive in half an hour.
Zipping down the path, winding back and forth, I was having a blast. Patrice would hit bumps and come crashing down on his shockless, steel frame bicycle. I would follow and try to gain more airtime with each proceeding ridge. I was a little worried about the speed, but I wasn’t a stranger to being reckless on my bike. During my service, I had already snapped a front tooth in half and gained a few scars. Funny enough, however, those injuries happened at slower speeds and were caused by absent-mindedness and a runaway donkey rather than thrill-seeking.
Bombing down the path, we hit a patch of sand and my back tire swung out from behind me. I quickly whipped the tail of the bike back around, re-correcting, and pushed on, invigorated by a rush of energy from the near spill.
I scanned ahead and readied myself to jump a natural ramp formed by compacted dirt and an exposed tree root. Hitting the bump at full speed, I pulled the bike into the air and took flight, relishing in the momentary weightlessness as I glided through the air. As I landed hard on the bike, my front tire exploded and I fought to keep the bike upright. I stayed vertical for less than a second before turning sideways to dump the bike, sacrificing my left side to road rash rather than going head-over-heels. Instantly, however, my bike caught another tree root, and flipped my bike and me into the air in a series of somersaults.
I crashed down hard on my side, but promptly popped back up, and began to assess the damage. I hadn’t hit my head…good. My tongue glided across my teeth to check if they were all accounted for. No newly broken teeth…good. I hadn’t landed on my back, which was also good, for my back and the camera in my backpack. I took a big deep breath to simultaneously calm myself and check for broken ribs. I hadn’t cracked anything…good. Scanning my arms from the shoulders to my fingertips, I only saw a minor scrape on my right forearm.
Holy shit! I had a horrible wreck, tumbled through the air, smashed into the ground, and I was fine. Awesome!
Patrice, who led the way, braked to a skidding halt, threw down his bike, and turned to run to my aid.
“Tyler! Tyler! Are you okay?” Patrice yelled in a panic.
“Don’t worry. I’m fine,” I said with a smile. I beamed from ear to ear, riding an incredible adrenaline high.
“Oh God, Tyler. No, you’re not okay,” Patrice shuttered as his pointed down to my right foot.
“Oh, shit!” I said aloud as I looked down to see the pool of blood forming at my feet.
Without pause, I grabbed a bottle of water and doused my foot to clear the blood and get a better look at the damage. I don’t care for blood. It makes me squeamish. But luckily, when in times of real need, my gag reflexes shut off and my basic first aid reflexes kick in.
This wasn’t good. I had sliced the instep of my foot very deep, about two inches wide, and at an angle to produce what I would later describe as a ‘meat flap.’ Blood continued to pour out of my foot as Patrice paced in a tiny circle, repeating his mantra, “Oh God. Tyler, this isn’t good. Oh God. Tyler, this isn’t good.”
I reached for my backpack, opened the front compartment, and pulled out sterile gauze, medical tape, and hand sanitizer. I had accepted long ago how accident-prone I could be and thus, tried to be prepared. Using more water to flush out the wound and clear bits of dirt and grit, I began to prep the wound. I gritted my teeth and squeezed a sizeable portion of hand sanitizer into the wound. Zero pain—endorphins were still keeping the pain at bay for the time being.
I gently lifted and replaced the displaced portion of my foot into its original position and tore open several packages of sterile gauze to sandwich on top of my wound. I tightly secured the bandage with rounds and rounds of medical tape. Blood still seeped through. I added more gauze and bound my foot as tightly as I could to slow the blood flow. It seemed to be working. My foot was back together, somewhat.
I looked up from my field triage unit, surrounded by empty gauze packages and covered in blood. Patrice had stopped pacing in circles and now stood silently, inhaling a cigarette as if his life depended on it. I washed my hands and pulled myself off the ground. My foot was as good as it was going to be here, but I needed medical attention and stitches.
I took out my phone and was ecstatic to see that I had a signal way out in the bush. I dialed the Peace Corps Medical Emergency number and waited calmly while it rang.
“Hello, Medical Emergency phone. How I can I help?” Crystal answered, stressing the words ‘medical emergency.’ The doctors had this phone on them all the time and were regularly called and bothered for the most minor of issues. Some volunteers called at the first hint of a headache or stomach trouble.
Oh, do I have a medical emergency for you, I laughed to myself before I bombarded her with, “Good morning, Crystal. This is Tyler. I am about three miles outside of my village, and I just had a bike wreck. I sliced my foot open very deeply, and I’ve lost a good deal of blood. I have cleaned the wound with fresh water, added sterilizing solution, and bound the wound with medical tape and gauze. I’ve stopped the bleeding, but I am going to need several stitches.”
“Okay, we will send a driver to your village to come get you,” replied Crystal. “You said that you are three miles outside village? Can you make it back?”
“My bike has a flat tire, but I don’t know if I could bike anyway. I think I can find a way back to village though,” I replied. I would limp if I had to, but ideally someone on a motorcycle would pick me up. Motorcycle use wasn’t permitted, but this had to be a warranted exception.
“Okay, I will call Vincent in Bobo and he’ll leave immediately to come pick you up.”
“Thanks. Talk to you soon.”
I hung up the phone, and at that very moment, the adrenaline had run its course. My body became weak, my foot was throbbing, and I felt like vomiting. I had to get back to village though. The Peace Corps driver in Bobo, the closest regional capital city to my village, was on his way to pick me up.
“Patrice, that was Peace Corps. They are going to send someone to village to take me to Bobo, but I have to make it back to village first,” I said, finally acknowledging Patrice after ignoring him for what felt like a half hour. He also looked weak and ready to vomit, possibly more so than me. I didn’t think he would be of much help.
As I began to limp and apply pressure on my foot, it became apparent that walking wasn’t an option unless I wanted to arrive sometime the next day. Then, I saw how I would get back. My form of transportation was bouncing down the path in our direction.
The donkey cart arrived and Patrice told the woman who steered the donkey that we were commandeering her wagon. I asked him to explain that I was injured, unable to bike or walk, and needed to get back to the village. Patrice loaded my bike onto the cart, calmly asked the woman to get off, and told her that she had to walk back to village. She willingly accepted and looked very concerned for the tall, bloody foreigner. I mounted the cart and the donkey began to saunter back to village as Patrice slowly rode his bike next to us.
Twenty minutes after I arrived at my house, giving me enough time to unload my bike, pack a bag, and inform my family what happened, Vincent pulled up and we headed to Bobo. The doctors in Ouaga had arranged for me to have the stitches done in Bobo. It was much easier to get stitches there and then move me to Ouaga afterward for further consultation.
I had the stitches as planned. Then, I traveled to the Peace Corps office days later and spent the next three weeks taking progressively stronger doses of antibiotics as I waited for my foot to heal. After I returned to village, I showed off my new gruesome scar and told everyone that it would make a great souvenir, an idea they did not understand.
Issouf never trusted Patrice again and never wanted me to associate with him.
Later, when Issouf and I recounted the story, we realized something. The village near the cave was called Sinfara. In Dioula, my village’s primary local language, “Sen fara” would translate to “to tear a foot.” Sinfara had torn my foot. “Sinfara sen fara.” This funny coincidence gave us an afternoon of amusement.
What if I contracted HIV when getting my stitches?
What to know the rest of my story? Check out my book, Service Disrupted.