The sweat ran down the middle of my back and, even seated in front of the overworked fan, the air was what my grandmother used to call “close”. That is to say that the heat and humidity of the African afternoon pressed against my face, making me reluctant to move even my little finger. I closed my eyes and day dreamed about the cool September breezes in New England and pumpkins and apple pies and the start of another school year all over America. The annual ritual of back to school shopping, new notebooks and yellow wooden pencils and sweaters that matched knee socks, all reinforced the rhythm I had come to know as a girl and which was, to me, advent and Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. The first day of school signaled new beginnings, a clean slate, new opportunities, and all of it was inextricably linked in my mind and heart to September.
But here I sat on a crudely made wooden chair at an equally crude wooden table in a cement block three room apartment (with private latrine) in Benin, West Africa. I was a non-traditional Peace Corps Volunteer who, at 50 years old, definitely didn’t fit the stereotypical bright bright-eyed and bushy tailed newly minted college graduate. My short-cropped hair was the color of old sterling silver. The lines on my face were a map of hardship and challenge as well as of joy and love and accomplishment. My shape contrasted with those of my young fellow volunteers and belied motherhood and a sedentary occupation devoid of most physical exercise.
Everyone in my village knew me but not necessarily my name so they just called me “la vieille blanche” (the old white woman). And because I was obviously old, and college educated (I was, after all, a teacher), and American, I was accorded respect. But more than respect, we enjoyed mutual affection, especially between me and my students.
So, on that Tuesday during respite (like siesta), I was preparing lesson plans for the mid-October commencement of school. My second year of teaching was bound to be easier than the first. The bland khaki uniforms forced me to learn each student’s face. Their names, usually spelled with only one vowel, had at first seemed to impossible to pronounce, now rolled off my tongue with ease. I delivered interesting and even fun English grammar lessons, often acting out the verbs to illustrate their usage and I became a resource for the other English teachers at my school.
At my little table on that bright afternoon, I listened to the short-wave radio as I wrote exercises about the past perfect tense. My little portable set received only three stations during the daytime and only one of them broadcast in English. The mighty BBC was my savior which brought me church services from England on Sunday, Liverpool soccer on Saturdays, and various news from around the world every day. Tuesdays was usually book review day and the rather stuffy British accented voice coming out of the black leather cased radio sitting on the corner of my table sounded like Alistair Cooke had taken up a position in my apartment. On and on he droned about the overarching theme of the book and the plot line and the character development in the target of his latest review. I will admit I got lost somewhere between the story arc and my verb tense chart, half listening and half writing.
Suddenly the radio came alive as if it has become supercharged. The staid book reviewer sounded panic stricken and was almost unintelligible. I was able to catch the words he was nearly shouting now: World Trade Center, New York, airplane. An airplane had flown into the side of the North Tower. I couldn’t believe my ears. The breath caught in my throat and my eyes widened as if I were in a horror film at the movies. The breaking-news cue “doot-doot-doot-dah-doot” announced one update after another. I couldn’t move and the more I listened, the more transfixed I became. It couldn’t be true. It must be some horrible Bruce Willis movie stunt gone awry. I pushed the papers on my table aside and pulled the radio closer to me, staring at the antenna, still believing this was some horrible sick joke ….
Before long, the announcer was relieved by a real newsman at BBC and then came the report of the second plane striking the South Tower. Lower Manhattan was covered in smoke and debris. Not long thereafter came news of a plane being deliberately flown into the Pentagon and another supposedly bound for the White House crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
This was not joke. My country was under attack by unknown people with unknown motives and I was stuck in equatorial Africa more than 5,000 miles from home. This was unspeakable and yet it was happening. As the afternoon became evening, neighbors, students, even complete strangers appeared at my door with fresh water, palm wine, food, beer, and most of all condolences. “Madame, are you alright?”, “Have you heard from your family?”, “Who would do this to America?”, We are so sorry this has happened to your dear homeland”, and “Was Michael Jackson injured in the attack?” (Don’t ask … they thought all Americans know one another!).
The fact was I didn’t really know what had happened, why, to whom, or anything about my family (or Michael for that matter). I could not phone home because there were only 6 phones in the town, none of which I had access to. I had no television, neither did anyone I knew. I needed answers and I couldn’t get them in my village. So, I did the only thing I knew to do: I packed an overnight bag and left for the largest city in Benin which was home to the American Embassy and the Peace Corps country office.
Upon arrival in Cotonou, I descended from the taxi after a 90 minute ride, during which RFI radio out of Paris could report nothing but the attack and even though it was in French and I still only spoke Franglais (French and English combined) the urgency came through. The driver opened the car trunk and placed my back pack on the cobblestone street outside of the St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church and declined my payment of the fare. “No charge for you today, Madame.” After he left, I bent down to pick up my bag when I heard a voice – loud and clear and gravelly and angry. “Américaine!” I froze. My country was under attack, I was clearly American, I was in a strange country and I can hardly remember feeling more frightened and vulnerable than I was at that moment. “Américaine!” came the summons again. Somewhere inside of me I decided it was time to stand up, be the person I wanted to be: proud, strong, kind, and most of all unafraid. I straightened up and slowly turned around to face my challenger.
There, on the sidewalk about 10 feet from me, stood a dark-skinned Beninese man in a functionary suit of a short sleeved gray shirt and matching pants. Around each forearm was a metal ring attached to rods with handles. They were Canada canes or crutches and it was then I noticed that one of his shoes pointed at me and the other pointed away from me in the opposite direction. This man had likely survived polio and the result was standing before me. He had overcome huge obstacles, surviving a deadly disease in a third world country, and succeeded in finding a job in spite of his deformity. “Américaine,” he said a third time and lifted his fists from the crutches.
I was readying for fight or flight at this point when, all of a sudden, his thumbs popped up out of his brown fists. “Du Courage, Américaine!” he said giving the universal sign that everything is OK. Then he turned away and hobbled away. Du Courage. Have courage. Don’t quit. Don’t be afraid. This man had with two simple words moved my world out from underneath the darkest cloud I can remember as an American. He bolstered my spirit, reminded me of what will be required in the coming days, and most of all, he showed me that he and the rest of the world was with me, with us, with America.
Upon my return to the United States at the close of my service the following July, I found my country covered with the American spirit, united in our patriotism, and taking the fight to our enemy, whoever he was. My 9-11 experience was unlike that of anyone I know because on that awful day, I was embraced and fed and nurtured by the love and protection of my village in international unity. And in my dark days, and there have been plenty of them since then, I remember that Beninese functionaire in Cotonou on September 11, 2001. Du Courage, indeed.