Velo, Rapido | This is about a few different things.
I’ve told this story before and I’m sure I’ll tell it again and it evolves a little every time I tell it, becomes a little more elaborate. When I write my memoirs I promise not to spin it into my own personal experience. But it goes like this, approximately.
First, because this is how I tell stories, the backstory is this: once upon a time, I had a job organizing a summer conference. The registration numbers weren’t coming together and at some point late in the semester I took my boss aside and said “look, this summer job thing is how I pay the rent during the school year. I really need a job this summer and I don’t see any dramatic turnaround in registration numbers on the horizon. Should I be looking for a summer job?” It was already late in the spring and I was genuinely worried that I wasn’t going to be able to find anything as it was. He swore up and down that I’d have a job for the summer. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. I’d have a job, the conference would go on.
A week later, we some how made the connection that his wife and my father’s cousin had been roommates in grad school. That sounds a little removed, but we’re actually quite close and anyone who’d been roommates with Neal would know that family ties run deep. We were still marveling at this unlikely coincidence, when his boss announced that he’d have to eviscerate his whole program. Not just the conference, either. So now we had a pickle: I was family, he promised, he was wrong.
So his wife hired me to do GIS data entry and measure trees (in unfortunately unequal parts) with her graduate assistant. We were working on a study on how forests recover after they’ve been logged. The assistant, whose name is long lost, told me the story of how she decided to drop out of the Peace Corps.
The first thing I can’t promise you is that she was sent to Malawi. In my memory it was Malawi, but people do mis-remember. The way she told it, she only realized midway through her orientation that the Peace Corps is really just a great big marketing effort, that what she was really doing was making the world safe for US foreign policy abroad. So she was already kind of getting curmudgeonly about the whole endeavor, but she went. In my mind she spent her free time sitting around a dusty fountain (I can picture it clearly, in fact) talking to locals. It’s possible I invented the fountain, but lets just run with it, okay? Her peace corps team is putting in the foundation for a school in some town somewhere in Malawi. Everyone is incredibly hospitable and she genuinely feels welcome, genuinely feels that they’re all truly excited about the school that will eventually open on the foundation she and her cohort are laying. So one day, she’s sitting around the fountain at the center of town, talking to a local, who says, perhaps for the hundredth time, “We’re so glad you’re here to lay a foundation for us.” and she almost doesn’t hear him when he adds, “maybe, one day, we’ll have a school.” Picture her cocking her head, raising an eyebrow and saying “you’re clearly trying to tell me something here.” Picture him, demurring. “It will be great to have a school.” Picture them going back and forth before he finally takes her on a walk and shows her, at one edge of town, a foundation that had been poured by a Korean Christian group, elsewhere a whole school building that had been erected at the edge of town by some well meaning Swedes. In my mind his tour included a half dozen such structures at various stages of completion. It took all of that for her to realize that without salaries for teachers, without books and notebooks and chalk for the chalkboards, a building is not a school. Because of course it is all very well and good to build a school, but usually the building is not what’s missing. She was young. You already knew all that, right?
PS. Why does it not surprise me that Kristof thinks everyone is being too hard on Mortenson?