25 August 2003
by Dorothea Hertzberg
It was an unforgivingly hot day, and I was leaving the village where I lived in northeastern Burkina Faso, which meant an 18-kilometer bike ride to the nearest paved road.
It was April, and I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in this small, land-locked country in West Africa. I set off on my Trek 800 mountain bike, dreaming of the distant town where I could eat the pizza I had been craving for a month, when I hit a bump in the road.
When I landed, my pedals spun around wildly with no resistance. I pedaled furiously, but like a guinea pig in a wheel, I was going nowhere.
I stood there in disbelief. What was I going to do? I still had 12 kilometers, or seven miles, to bike, in 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 Fahrenheit, of heat beating down on me and only half a bottle of water left.
"Great," I muttered in exasperation, and started pushing my bike down the deserted cow path.
Minutes later I spotted a villager coming from the opposite direction. "Yaa boe tara fo weefo?" the older gentleman asked me in Moore, the language of the Mossi people. What's wrong with your bike?
I explained what had happened, and he tried to figure out my 21-speed, Peace Corps-issued Trek - probably the first he'd ever seen.
He flashed me a smile that said he couldn't fix it but we'd find some other way.
Then he began to rearrange the strap on his bag that was attached to his bike rack. I had no idea what he was up to, but I had nothing but time, so I sweated and watched.
When he finished, he had about a meter of thin but durable rubber strap left over, which he proceeded to tie to my handlebars.
Like many times before in my Peace Corps service, I stood dumbfounded and awaited the all-important cultural clue that would tip me off to what was going on. He gave me one I couldn't imagine: he pointed to my seat and told me to hop on.
I smiled, thinking he was joking but somehow also knowing that he was serious. This older man was offering to tow me 12 kilometers in this unbearable heat? I started to shake my head in refusal and disbelief. He just smiled and stood there until I finally accepted my newest adventure in Burkina Faso.
It turned out to be one of the most touching moments of my life. What a scene we must have been. This poor man vigorously pedaling and dripping with sweat as he towed the American princess through the barren desert.
Every villager we saw along the way shrieked in surprise and called out "Ney Yibeogo!" (Good morning!) After a while, I began to feel terribly guilty, posed on my bike, waving like a Rose Parade float queen.
I thought about pedaling as well, just so he would feel I was participating in our cause, but I didn't bother because he couldn't see me anyway. At least not until we got to the hills. Because our bikes were connected by the rubber strap, I would lag behind him on every hill we climbed, testing the rubber for all it was worth.
Once we began to descend down the other side, though, I was right next to him, waving, and it became my turn to shout a slow "bonjooouuur" as I gradually picked up speed and passed him completely. It never lasted long. Soon I would drift behind him again.
We carried on this way like two horses on a carousel, rotating positions, each time with more laughter and amazement at our plight.
An hour later we arrived at my destination. He was exhausted, I was giddy and in awe of his generosity. I took a long look at his face and those kind eyes, and I told myself never to forget it, because this man is the heart of Burkina Faso. This man is not an exception in his culture. He is the very essence of it.
Two years ago, at the age of 27, I voluteered for Peace Corps service to "give back" to the world. Today, I realize I gained much more in return. I am no longer a volunteer, but I continue to work in the western part of the country.
When I think back on that moment when I was stranded on that deserted cow path, there was a part of me that was calm, because I knew where I was. I was in a place where you never feel alone or abandoned because someone will always come along to help you; where a starving woman would give her last bowl of food to a stranger; where kids are elated to play with an old tire and a stick.
I was in a place where family unity is everything and the guest is paramount.
To the Burkinabe, these principles are more than just cultural values, they are a way of life. Burkina Faso means "the land of the upright and courageous people." It is one of the poorest countries in the world, but a place where I learned what giving truly means.
Dorothea Hertzberg recently finished two years of volunteer service with the Peace Corps.