Winning Essays from the 2012 Contest

First prize winner was Hilda Banks Shapiro.  Her essay can be read here:

Hilda Banks Shapiro essay


by Sheela Clary

Sheela Clary

“Please don’t leave me alone with this guy,” I silently beseech David, my host Papa. It’s 2 am on day 8 of Peace Corps training, in the house of the village chief, in Nalepa, in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I am sitting at the feet of David’s other guest; a sloppy drunk politician who’s had me roused from sleep so he can enumerate the things he knows about America. David is nodding intently, though he doesn’t understand English. He flashes a broad grin my way, which I interpret to mean, “What a proud moment! Two important people in my home!” Abruptly, the Governor cuts off his tutorial on skyscrapers, and announces he’s going to bed. As he shakes my hand, he carries on, “If something should happen in the night, don’t fight it. Try to enjoy it.”

“Uh….Okay”, I stammer, and retreat under the skirt that is my bedroom door. There are salutations outside, the door bangs shut. A bit later, snoring. I stare at the mosquito net and contemplate my predicament.

Seven days earlier, I’d written a letter home: Dear Mom and Dad, I’m lying in my new bed, room, house and village, with my new family next door. I live in a 3-room house made of bamboo bark, leaves and a tin roof. I have my OWN room, with a mattress and night table. Papa’s a little overprotective, but that’s it for hardship. 

Oh, dumb girl, coveting a place of her own, where one with any smarts would share it with armed children. Where are you, Papa? How could you abandon me for a sound sleep at your sister’s? Then again, in terms of terribleness of crime, rape here seems about equivalent to petty theft. I witnessed a village trial where three brothers brought a case against a cousin for violating their sister. The rapist’s family had to give the brothers two pigs for their loss.

Don’t panic, this girl’s not getting raped. Let’s take stock. No phone, no power, no nearby road. Flashlight batteries died, as did the watchdog. Efforts at self-defense would be unpersuasive. So much for applying a first world brain to third world problems. Tears emerge. What did I do to deserve this? I’m just a well-meaning volunteer, a good girl who’s quick to follow rules. No exposed skin above the knee? I packed long skirts. No walks by myself? I can adjust. The trainers bawled me out for wearing headphones in public; no more headphones. Yet here I am, at home with mama and papa, wearing amorphous pajamas, and one of this nation’s most powerful men thinks I’m asking for it. The alarm! I fumble for the Peace Corps issued ‘personal safety device’ and hold it to my thumping chest. I wait.

The letter home finished with: I sat with a girl named Lynette on the bus. She loved touching my hair. She told her mama she wanted me for her mama. We walked hand in hand along the road to Nalepa. She asked why I left my family; kids here don’t understand why a young woman would leave her parents. Obviously, she’s not met you guys. Ha, ha. Love, Sheela

Actually, New Guineans of all ages ask me why I left home, and I have no clear answer. “To find myself”, of course. “To make the world better”, naturally. Because I could. For me, gender discrimination has mostly come in handy; I was introduced to it in the form of a high school Calculus teacher who only called on boys, which prejudice fit nicely with my complete ignorance of Calculus.

When Peace Corps assigned me to Papua New Guinea, I had to find it on a globe. It’s north of Australia, about as physically and culturally far on Earth as you can get from Western Massachusetts. In PNG, ‘sexism’ would make as much sense as foie gras. The value of a woman in Nalepa is measured in livestock. I learned this from proud Papa David, who assessed me at 100. Pigs, that is. (Could’ve been 200 were it not for narrow hips and small breasts.) Women are commodities to protect, and men distribute power amongst themselves according to ferocity. David has a reputation in that area. On my first night, David had performed a reenactment of a tribal fight for a houseful of guests. As he mimed both victim and victor, I wondered if he was fond of Charlie Chaplin. After the audience’s laughter subsided, he turned to me, face stern, and said, in Pidgin English, “Mi wok dispela samting long wusat pulim yu, pikinini bilong mi.” (This is what I will do to whoever hurts you, daughter.) I laughed again, alone.

When my eyes open, light’s poking through the bamboo. Made it.

At the training center, the Peace Corps staff tell me I can stay with them. But I’ve not escaped the Governor; in fact, he’s holding a rally on the adjacent field. The content’s unclear, but his tone and the crowd’s response bring Hitler and Nazi hoards to mind. I have no choice but to listen, my head and stomach churning with bitterness. Lynette’s question was right on. What the hell AM I doing here, making sacrifices for people who treat their females like dogs. God has forsaken this place, and I can too. For the rest of the morning, I consider the option of returning home, less than two weeks into a two-year commitment.

Heading outside for lunch, I hear an insistent shout from the field. “Sheela! Sheela!” There’s a small, lone figure pressed up against the fence, waving wildly. Up close, Papa David’s face is shiny with tears. He reaches his arms to me through the fence, sobbing, “Sori tru, pikinini bilong mi!” It’s not the last time during my life in PNG that I will give up on comprehending, and give in to love.

My papa and his machete had been standing watch outside my bedroom until daybreak, ready to do battle for me.


Suzanne Fowle also won a prize in the 2012 contest.