Bethany, Bethany, Bethany, Chelsi thought, over and over to herself. What can I say? The two women had hardly exchanged more than a handful of words until Bethany expressed interest in going on the trip to Kasanka. And even then, it was a simply yes, then no. Maybe if she had come, I would have something to say… It’s not as if we were unfriendly to each other, I’ve only ever heard good things when I hear them. But it’s just that, I never hear about her, she lives two provinces and a world away…
Chelsi tamped down her anxiety for the coming activity she had heard so much about from past COSing intakes. ‘I drew someone’s name I didn’t even like,’ one volunteer had said. ‘A lot of people cried’ another had said. ‘I wish they would have just let us pick people we knew to talk about,’ said still another. ‘It all sounded so fake; It took way too long; I dropped my candle and burned my foot on the hot wax; I guess it was a nice idea…’ Chelsi sighed and wiped her mouth with her napkin.
“Are you alright, girl?” her friend Rachel asked from across the dinner table.
“Yeah, I just wish they would make announcements about extension already. The applications said they would let us know by the 11th, and it’s now the 19:30 on the 11th.”
Rachel laughed, “You know its Peace Corps, what did you expect?”
“That and all this rich food is really doing a number on my stomach and lower bowel. I’ve been sick for the last 15 out of 20 days now and this really isn’t helping.”
Rachel rolled her eyes and smiled at her friend, “Then stop eating it!”
“But it’s sooo good!”
“Excuse me, if I could have everyone’s attention.” Gloria, the most recent American to join Peace Corps Admin in Lusaka stood from her chair just behind Chelsi.
Chelsi heart jumped a beat. She didn’t turn around.
“I have some exciting announcements to make. I have just received an email from your country director Leon, with the list of volunteers who are being invited to extend their stay with Peace Corps Zambia. First, I would like to congratulate all of you who applied, good work, I know you have all been working very hard. Alright,” Gloria slipped a pair of read glasses on to her nose, “first we have, Laura Shepard, who will be staying in her village another six months!” Applause and cheers rose up around the dining room. “Next, Laura Mckinstry, who will be extending her stay in Central Provence for 13 more months. Ray and Liz will be joining our partners in Kasama together, for 13 more months. Daniel, from Lulapula, will be moving to Lusaka, to continue his great work on Girls can Code. And Chelsi will be joining the team at Yalelo, in Siavonga district. Oliver, Oliver has been invited to stay at Mujila Falls farm for 13 more months as well.” And with that Gloria slipped the glasses off her nose, “I would like to thank again all those who applied and to all of you for your great work in the field.”
“There you go, good work,” Rachel said when Chelsi looked up at her.
“Congratulations! I didn’t even know you applied for an extension,” and her friend Chris gave her a solid high five.
“WAIT, wait there’s one more,” Shoo shouted across the dining room. “I, Amy Shuman will be extending with USAID in Chipata. Thank you, thank you all for remembering me.”
Oops, Rachel’s face grimaced at Peace Corps’ mistake.
When Shoo finished, Gloria stood back up. “Now that it’s evening time, when you’re all finished with your dinner I ask the you move on to our next activity, down by the tennis courts, our candle light ceremony.”
Chelsi sighed and stared at the remaining food on her plate. “Come on, let’s go,” Rachel prompted her.
On the porch off the tennis courts, nineteen chairs were arranged in a circle with a fire lit at the head. “Please if you can all take a seat,” Cleopher, her program manager asked when it looked like everyone had arrived. “Fraiser is coming around with candles, if you could all take one.” Chelsi took her candle and slipped on the wax catch. “I hope you have all been enjoying your Close of Service conference so far.”
“Yeah this place is beautiful,” Matt replied to Cleopher’s rhetorical statement, but a lot of volunteers hollered in agreement.
Cleopher chuckled, “yes, yes. We just wanted to thank you all for the work you’ve been doing out in the villages. You’ve all been working very hard, and even if fish farming hasn’t worked out in your village, you’ve adapted to take on the challenges unique to your communities and have made a difference in the lives of real people. Now most of you have just three, four months left and we’ve been talk this week a lot about going home, how to adjust, what to expect, we wanted to take this time for all of you to reflect on the relationships you have made here. Everyone has some ones name from the envelope yesterday?” He took a brief scan of the circle. “Good, so if someone can volunteer to start, you can say something about the person whom you drew yesterday, then use your candle to light theirs, and we’ll keep going around the circle till everyone’s candle is lit. Is there a volunteer who would like to start?”
Chris raised his hand, and after a little confusion over how to lite the first candle when no one’s candle was lit the lights were dimmed.
Chelsi listened, laughed and remembered with her fellow volunteers, all the while quietly terrified for her turn to come. It was a mystery who would speak about her until Janelle stood up. It sounded like a blur of vague compliments until her name was mentioned, and her work on Camp TREE and her tipsy humor. And her heart began to race when the wick of her candle was lit.
Stick to the plan, stick to the plan, she told herself. “Thank you Janelle. Umm,” Chelsi struggled with her candle in one hand while tying her scarf around her hips with the other. “I’m not so great with words, and with so much to say, I couldn’t chose, so ummm,” she walked across the circle to the chair next to Bethany’s. “Could you hold this for me, yeah, just like this,” Chelsi handed her candle off to Matt, and regain her place in front of her empty chair. “Instead I’ve prepared this short, interpretive dance,” there was sudden whooping and hollering from the circle of volunteers.
“Do you want us to drop a beat!?” someone called from the crowd.
“No, no, no silence is fine.” Deep breath, deep breath. Side step, step, step. Twirl, leap, spin, step, step, she went through the motions again in her head, then her feet left the ground.
When Chelsi had finished the room was more quiet than at any time before, and she was left on one knee in front of Bethany, reaching out for the candle left in Matt’s hand. Transferring the flame to Bethany she said, “It’s been an honor to serve with you in Zambia, I’m only sorry we didn’t get to know each other better. But I’ve only ever heard wonderful things about you. I wish you all the best on the rest of your service and all your future endeavors.” True words to all of you.