The Voluntourist

fiction about africa

Short Story

 

‘I don’t think you’re hearing me.’ Cheryl slumped further into the chair and examined her nail beds.

Jenna inhaled deeply through her nose before continuing. ‘Cheryl, I can assure you that we are, but there’s little I can do for you if you’re not willing to be flexible.’

Cheryl cocked an indignant eyebrow in Jenna’s direction. ‘Look,’ she stood up, walked towards the window and spoke into her own reflection. ‘I’m a humanitarian, right. That’s why I’m here. But you guys should know that humanitarians don’t eat animals, refined grains, dairy or gluten.’ She turned towards Jenna and perched awkwardly on the splintered windowsill. ‘The only way I can stay here is if I have vegetables. You know, salad? That’s what I want and that’s really all I eat. So where’s the fucking salad?’

Jenna brushed a few sweaty strands of hair from her forehead and swatted at two sand flies partner-dancing just beyond her nose. ‘Cheryl, you are in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a drought that’s been going on here for the last 9 months. The whole purpose of us being here is to help people whose crops aren’t growing. So sadly for everyone, there is no,’ Jenna made air quotes with her fingers, ‘fucking salad.’

Jenna wondered if Cheryl was having a stroke the way her eyes disappeared into her skull. Once her irises reappeared, she pushed herself up from her seated position, taking much of the windowsill with her. ‘Shit,’ she pulled her hand away quickly, peering at a tiny piece of wood now embedded in the fleshiest part of her palm; she began to pick at it.

‘This really needs to be made clear on your website. I’m here to help Africa, but I need to look after myself first. I mean how do you propose I survive out here on flour and water? It’s so hot and I have very strict dietary requirements. And what are these?’ Cheryl pointed to the raised, red dots that peppered her skin. ‘A blind man could read my fucking legs.’

‘Those are just a few mosquito bites, relax. Check these out.’ Jenna rolled up one of the legs of her utility trousers to expose great welts the size of thumbprints that began at her ankles and made a trail that disappeared under the fabric once she couldn’t roll it any further. ‘Ta daaaaaa!’ She grinned at Cheryl presenting her damaged leg as one might a prize-winning pie.

Cheryl wrinkled her nose, ‘Ew. What the hell are those?’

‘Well last summer I had some very hungry ants that lived in my tent and made a pretty grizzly feast of my legs. These bites got so infected I had to get them drained. I tell you, the smell of that…’

Cheryl held up her uninjured palm, ‘stop, please. That’s disgusting.’

‘Yeah, pretty gross, and sadly I’ll never get my big break as a foot model now, but we’ve all gotta make sacrifices.’ Jenna grinned as she rolled down the leg of her trousers and motioned for Cheryl to come sit next to her. ‘Can you tell me what you want from this experience? Like really want?’

Cheryl moved towards the chair Jenna offered slowly, still rubbing her wounded hand. ‘I want to help Africa, but I also feel like I have to be true to myself, you know?’ She sat down and looked a Jenna so earnestly it hurt.

‘I know,’ Jenna squeezed Cheryl’s shoulder. ‘Can I ask what you were expecting, though? Can we work together to make this happen?’ Jenna shot a warm smile to Cheryl and she returned it.

‘I just…’ Cheryl furrowed her brow and looked as if she was trying to push something from her brain out of her mouth, and that it was painful. ‘I thought that they’d be more excited to see me. They’re all just going about their day and it doesn’t seem to matter to them whether I’m here or not. And where are all the cute babies in the orphanages?’

Jenna inhaled deeply before speaking, ‘Cheryl, we’re not working at orphanages, we’re doing aid work. And these people live here. This is their actual life and it’s bloody hard. The whole reason we’re here is to help them, right?’

Cheryl nodded weakly, ‘but what am I going to tell everyone back home? That I gave up my summer to not matter and to eat gluten?’ Cheryl paused and Jenna thought she might cry. ‘I wanted a bed, Jenna, a nice bed with a fan. Is that really too much to ask?’ Cheryl slumped over and rested her elbows on her knees. ‘I’m going to miss Cochella and I haven’t even been able to change my profile picture because no one wants to take a selfie with me.

‘Well that is a bummer, but there’s no electricity, Cheryl, so we can’t get you a fan’ Jenna cleared her throat and patted Cheryl on the back like she was burping a baby. ‘There isn’t any alternative food because of the drought, and I really don’t know what to tell you about that selfie. That’s rough.’

Cheryl sat upright and filled her cheeks with air before dramatically expelling it. ‘I think I’ll go. This isn’t for me, but is there somewhere you’d recommend maybe taking a few weeks to collect my thoughts before heading home, somewhere with a beach maybe?’

Jenna’s mouth hung open as she tried to not look at Cheryl the way she knew she was. ‘Uhh…The Gambia is really beautiful. You could head there.’

Cheryl’s mood instantly improved. ‘Is there like wifi and beds and salad?’

Jenna nodded slowly, her mouth now closed into a hard line, ‘yes, I believe they have all of that there. It’s a tourist destination.’

‘Yeah, but I’ll still be in Africa and I’ll be helping by spending my money here. This is really a great idea, thank you so much Jenna! I knew you’d be able to help me out.’ Cheryl lunged at Jenna and squeezed her around the shoulders. ‘I’ll definitely be recommending this programme to all my friends, this has been the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

 

more by LEE ANNE HILL

photograph by Foad Manghouly

 

 

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