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Manual Labor (and some goats)

photo by Jean Kelly

There is no substitute for hard work.

--Thomas Edison

On the third full day at Na’ankuse, my team was scheduled for “Project Work.” Like most everything else, I had no clue what project work entailed, so I did what was slowly becoming second nature: I went with it. It was still frustrating to feel like someone not in the know. But, something else was starting to edge into the forefront. It was nice to follow along. As the regular go-to person at work and in some of my personal relationships, letting go of being the “one who knows” was incredibly freeing.

We were joined by another team, and as we gathered around to wait for further direction, Lotte stood next to me, put her head on my shoulder.

“We’re going to have to work so hard today,” she said with a big sigh.

I patted her head and replied, “We work hard every day.”

“But this project work. It’s the hardest.”

And right on cue, one of the volunteer coordinators told us to pick up work gloves, shovels, pick-axes and meet her at the meerkat enclosure. We shuffled over to the large, shipping container that doubled as a shed where all the tools were stored. Josh and I were grabbing some gloves as Lotte called from the outside, “Grab me a pair, okay?”

The gloves were clipped (with clothespins) to a string that hung across the back wall of the container.

“Make sure you shake them out first,” Josh told me before pulling a pick-axe off the adjacent wall.

“Shake them?”

“Yeah. For spiders,” he said with a nonchalance that made me feel very…city.

Over at the meerkat enclosure, we learned a new enclosure was to be built to give them more room. I'd never seen a meerkat before, and I gotta say, they're pretty freakin' cute. Though, I don't know why they needed more room. Both teams were tasked with digging two ditches measuring 15 feet long and three feet deep. Whoever started the first ditch the day before, hadn't gotten very far, so we had our work cut out for us.

Between the two teams, there were five men and four women. The men got to it immediately, pick-axes in hand, shovels ready to dig. The women, as in me, Lotte, Sara and another girl, well, we just stood there for a minute not really knowing what to do. I wanted to jump right in there and do my part, but shoveling dry, dense dirt? I wasn’t really sure how that was going to work.

Still, I had to give it a shot. As the guys broke ground with their axes, I retrieved the loose dirt with a shovel. I lasted maybe 10 minutes. The shovel was heavy. The dirt was rocky. And all the bending and lifting wasn’t going over very well with my back. I also worried I was slowing the guys down. In a short time, they’d finished the first ditch and had started on the second.

Abraham was in charge. He was native to the area and worked on The Farm. He wore dark sunglasses and barely smiled. He also didn’t say much, but it wasn’t hard to know what he was thinking. Abraham took the shovel from me and demonstrated the best way to gather the dirt.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, knowing full well I couldn’t do it the same way. He was stronger and much taller. I had to compensate by holding the shovel in a different way, otherwise, I'd drop what little dirt I managed to pick up.

I tried to do it his way.

“Hello. Hello,” he said.

He took the shovel and showed me again the “right” way to do it.

I felt stupid and singled out. The other women had no problem staying off to the side, watching. But I didn’t want to watch. I wanted to do my part, but clearly, my part wasn’t right. I tried to explain to Abraham that my back wasn’t in great shape, so I had to do it my way. He wasn’t having it, and kept insisting I do it his way.

I lost my patience, and became indignant. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do it that way. I am NOT going to mess up my back and ruin the rest of my time here.”

I bet Abraham was laughing inside his head, thinking, “Another silly city girl who doesn’t really want to work.”

I abandoned my shovel duty and opted for another hell. This one came in the shape of a five-foot tall iron stake with a point on one end. The task was to grab it with both hands, raise it as high as you could, and drive it into the ground to loosen up the dirt – again and again. I thought it’d be easier than shoveling, but it weighed like 10 pounds. Lotte and I took turns, switching off every 20 minutes or so. It was tedious work that didn’t heed quick results.

After an hour, my hands were killing me. Even with gloves, gripping the iron as it hit the ground didn’t feel so good. I wanted to give up. I wanted to say, “Sorry, everyone. This is too hard for me.” But I didn’t. I wouldn’t.

I was in constant battle with myself. One minute I was go-with-the-flow-girl and the next I was prove-myself-girl. I hate not being good at something. I was envious of how easily the guys swung their axes and worked the shovels. And I was pissed that this work didn’t leave much opportunity for someone who wasn’t as strong as the others to contribute. I was determined to be useful. Why, I don’t know. The others certainly didn’t seem to care. (Sara was off taking selfies with the meerkats.)

Lunchtime finally came. Lunch was my least favorite thing at Na’ankuse. We all gathered in a semi-enclosed dining area that looked out onto the pool and sat at long tables with benches for seating. We were served buffet style, and it irritated me to have line up for a meal. I wasn’t ever really sure what we were eating, and I steered clear of all meats except the occasional chicken. I longed for salad, even a little fruit. But our meals were a carb-lovers dream. Rice, pasta or some kind of dough would always be in the mix. More like a refueling versus a meal.

We ate at 1pm, and usually finished by 1:30. This meant we had an hour to kill before the afternoon meeting that preceded the afternoon work. I hated that time in-between. It was always hot, and there weren’t any shady places to relax, so we’d mostly just sit around the table and bullshit. But shooting the shit with 20-year-olds is not that interesting, so I’d mostly tune out. Or take a walk.

Project work was always followed by a free afternoon, I guess the thinking was that working so hard bought you some rest. I wasn’t complaining.

The plan was to head up to Bush Camp and chill by the pool. Lotte grabbed her swimsuit from her tent at The Farm and we took the shortcut back. We were super dirty from the manual labor that morning, so before we hit the pool, we went back to my tent where we each had a shower.

I learned more about Lotte that day. At just 18, she was mature for her age. We both got a kick out of the fact that I could be her mother given our age difference. She had a horse back home in Denmark or Norway – I can’t remember which – and a job back home in a theme park. She'd been at Na'ankuse for a week already and had two more to go.

Josh met up with us, and the three of us lounged by the pool. It was the first downtime I'd had since my arrival, and it felt GOOD. I drank beer and read a book.

photo by Jean Kelly

And then...

The goats stopped by. It was crazy! It’s like they came out of nowhere. There were at least 50 of them, racing to the watering hole. It reminded me of last call at an open bar.

As Josh, Lotte and I stood there, marveling at the goats, I forgot about the frustrating hard work that nearly ruined my hands and back earlier. I was really starting to enjoy myself – and that was pretty cool.

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1 Comment

Roberta Marshall
Mar 11, 2019

I am loving the way you tell the story. 💕

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