Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Self-Defense
   by Melissa Moses (Lesotho 2002–04)
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I AWAKEN WITH THE ROOSTERS, just as the closest stars begin to fade from the sky. Another day. Fifteen hours or so to survive. With a sigh, I push off the numerous blankets that must be used to stay warm. Time to run. My daily ritual. Many give me grief for running so early but I tend to find reasons not to go if I give myself the time. And the thirty pounds that I’ve gained, eating my blues away, are making me even more depressed. This morning is no different than others, and I fight off the fleeting temptation to stay in bed — cozy and warm. The rest of the day will likely be spent there.
     I put on my running clothes — a bit smelly as I’ve been running in them for three days now. This morning is my bi-weekly long run and I prepare a bottle of Gatorade to carry with me. I’ve tried to go without but begin to feel hallucinatory and shaky after about two hours. A package of cookies awaits my return — carb replacement, I tell myself, yet the instant they are devoured I will begin to feel guilty.
     The air feels like a second skin — no longer chilly, not yet warm. I walk through my still sleeping village to get to the road. Restless animals eye me as I pass and renegade chickens flee from my path. They throw rocks at the creatures here — all of the larger animals have cuts or scars on their flanks from the beatings. I can see the despair in their broken eyes. I claims to be numb to this, yet just yesterday caused a ruckus for attempting to rescue a poor puppy being thrashed by a group of young children.
     I set off at a steady, constant pace. No one is out yet and I savor this time. To think, to breathe, to soar. I’ve turned down numerous offers from people who wish to accompany me. The whole concept of alone time is unheard of here. I try to refuse politely, jokingly. There are cultural and linguistic barriers that I do not care to delve into. My previous attempts have failed; either the explanations were met with blank eyes or, worse, laughter. I cannot bear this reaction when my morning run is my salvation. The one thing that gets me out of my hut. The one thing that keeps me from smoking so much pot that upwards of three days can pass by in a sleepy, groggy stupor. With the sound of birds being the only thing disrupting the silence, the sun creeps over the peaks, illuminating the landscape with a soft light that grants everything beauty. For a few brief moments, I am able to appreciate this “Switzerland of Africa”.
     I leave early to minimize the number of people that may be encountered. This lessens the potential for harassment. The run helps me to burn off residual anger only when there is no cause for it to bottle up during the course of the jog. Passing a bar where drunk men leer, “hey baby/sweetie/sissy/mama”, or children scream, “hey white person, give me money,” these dreaded occasions trespass on my brief feelings of freedom. They cause me to erupt in anger, telling quintessential starving African children to “fuck off”.
     An hour passes. My route is defined. I run by distance and rarely glance at my watch. People are awakening and I am happy to turn onto a road that is rarely populated at this hour. A downhill stretch. My body is floating. I’ve fallen into a pleasant rhythm that allows my thoughts to flow without focusing on my body, my breath, the amount of time remaining.
     I notice the group of men approaching, three of them. They are quiet and do not appear to be amongst the throng of men who stagger home from the bars at daybreak. There are no bars out this way. I am not frightened. Men often head out early to tend to their herds, walk into work, etc. Still, my body becomes alert. Tense. An ingrained response in me, perhaps in all women, when confronting a group of men alone. I contemplate turning around but choose to continue, moving to the opposite side of the street. My eyes on the ground, my demeanor screams, “leave me alone.” It does not translate.
     They begin calling out, “run, run, white person, run!” I feel my jaw clench and my fingernails dig into the skin of my palms. They start to run with me. I pick up the pace, hoping to discourage their pursuit. Laughing, they match me. I am not laughing. I turn and yell, “No, stop!” My hands are unconsciously thrust out in front of me, palms out, creating a physical wall in what I now know is the basic stance taught in self-defense. They stop, their faces fall, and their offense is obvious. A wave of exhaustion floods over me. I’m so tired of this.
     Feeling the bitch, I turn and head towards home. I can’t take anymore. My serene state of mind is now busily calculating the amount of time remaining until I am able to go home. Home is personified by my mother. Twenty-four years old and all I want is my mom.
     The rest of the run passes by in a haze of division. One-third of the way through this month, 2 months until I am halfway done, etc., etc. I round the curve that marks the beginning of my village and try to make my presence inconspicuous. I always cover my skin as much as possible, running in water-proof, canvas pants that cause sweat to accumulate in little droplets on my legs. A long-sleeved T-shirt disguises my arms. If I felt that it would help, I would rid myself of my blond hair — I ache to blend in. But my differences seem ingrained. Dogs snarl at me, the lone animal rights activist in a country whose population has more immediate concerns. I sometimes wonder if, were it not for my white skin that leads to assumptions of money and sweets, the people here wouldn’t snarl at me in the same manner. I slow to a walk — a short cool-down before I retreat to my house. At the shop, two of my favorite children run to greet me. They live in the huts next door. One, my beloved, has a smile that can always soothe my seething. Nicknamed Mootaka for his nudist tendencies, he was terrified of me when I arrived. I fell in love with his little bottom fleeing whenever he caught wind of my presence. Months ago, I was sitting outside when I noticed him approaching alone. “So brave,” I thought, “Had I finally won him over?” About fifty feet away from my house, he covered his face with his hands, peering under his fingers to the ground to check his progress as he continued along. When he had almost passed my house, his hands came down into a sprinter’s stance as he bolted to his nearby compound. I moved to watch him and caught a glimpse of his infamous grin, thrown my way. Not meant for me, he was exalting in the thought that he had escaped unnoticed. Today, he is with his younger brother, less than two years old but already a firecracker. I don’t understand a word from either of them but respond in a way that allows them to continue babbling on. I have never known such spectacular kids.
  
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