From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Keep Your Head Up

No one can make you feel inferior but yourself.

Eleanor Roosevelt

I am a volunteer teacher in Africa. I am not here to change anything, I say to myself on the way home from school. Yet today the boys made it clear that girls aren’t allowed to participate in class. The girls don’t even try. They are outnumbered: 102 boys and five girls. The girls sit squished on two cement bricks in the back of the class, pretending to be invisible.

As I pass the well, I wave to the women working and smile at my student, Lydie. She sees me, stops pumping water then approaches. In class, she’s the only girl out of the five who leans forward, listening to my lesson, looking as if she wants to raise her hand, take a risk and participate.

“Miss?” Lydie asks. “Will you teach me to ride your bike?” She is so shy, almost shaking, and her eyes are squinting as though she’s afraid I’ll slap her for merely asking the question.

“When do you want to start?” I ask.

Lydie’s eyes flutter as if there’s a butterfly trapped inside, longing to be set free. “No one must know, Miss. You must teach me in the darkness of the morning. Please, Miss, promise not to tell.”

“I promise, Lydie, but why?”

“Women don’t ride bikes. They say we won’t be able to make baby. And no one would want to marry me if he thought I could ride a bike across the village and get into trouble.”

I don’t understand what it means to be an African woman. I don’t understand how to be a volunteer teacher. How do I teach her what she wants to know without causing waves? How do I set her mind free without getting us both in trouble?

The next morning, Lydie arrives at four-thirty. She insists on guiding the bike through the darkness toward our remote destination. Lydie’s shoulders are high and tense as we head out from the village.

“I want to be strong, like you, Miss,” Lydie says.

She is so nervous that I now understand why this is an activity where we better not be caught.

“Which direction is Nigeria?” Lydie asks. I point west toward the bridge. Lydie’s eyes fill with tears. She clears her throat, then says, “I have watched you cross that bridge so many times.”

Lydie fixes her eyes on the horizon. Here, women learn to put their secret hopes in the distance and wait for the wind to change and blow their dreams closer.

“How far is it to Nigeria?” she asks, dreaming of the freedom to have an adventure of her own someday. “Miss, you come only once in my life. I want to learn from you,” she says.

“This is a good place,” I say and Lydie confronts the bicycle. She lifts her head and for the first time, swings her right leg over the bicycle.

“Okay,” I say, “you pedal, and I’ll push.”

“Don’t let go, Miss.”

I don’t say a word. I just begin to push. She glides along for twenty yards or so without doing a thing.

“Pedal, Lydie, pedal!”

She begins to pedal. I try to maintain the balance myself, while increasing the speed so she can gain momentum. But Lydie is steering wildly and twists the bike from my grasp. I’m forced to let go and fall to the ground as she crashes.

Lydie lies sprawling on the sand as I quickly get up and run to her.

“Miss! You let go!”

“The bike was swerving, and I couldn’t hold on,” I say.

“I will never be able to steer!”

“Steering will come.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Lydie, you will learn!”

Lydie climbs back onto the bike. As I push again, running behind and steadying her with both hands, Lydie pedals furiously.

“That’s it, Lydie. That’s the way!”

“Don’t let go, Miss!”

When she has a rhythm, I let go. But this time she falls hard, screams on impact, then quickly throws a hand over her mouth in panic. We both look around to see if anyone is nearby.

Lydie looks up at me bitterly.

“I’m sorry, Lydie, but it’s the only way.”

“I can’t do this! When I look down and see how fast I’m going, I get scared.”

I haven’t yet told Lydie about needing to find a balance. Here I am trying to find the balance for her, and it doesn’t matter how she pedals or how she steers if she doesn’t have a balance of her own.

And then I realize, African women grow up learning that skill. I think back to the well when I tried to find a balance carrying a bucket of water.

“Lydie, imagine carrying a bucket of water on your head. You don’t look down when you’re carrying water. You look at what’s in front of you.”

Lydie winces as she mounts the bike. Both knees are bleeding, and her elbows are badly scraped.

“Imagine a bucket of water right here,” I tell her. As I touch the top of her head, she looks into my eyes and, finally, smiles.

Lydie begins pedaling confidently. Her steering is better, and her head is up. The seat is steady in my hands now, and I’m no longer struggling to maintain a grip. In a moment, we’re gliding through the fields.

“Keep that bucket of water on your head!”

Lydie raises her chin. The imaginary bucket is there, sitting atop her head like a crown. Lydie gets it and flies with it.

And when I finally let go, she doesn’t even notice. She just pedals on. What seems like an eternity is perhaps only one triumphant minute. I hold my breath, watching Lydie flow through the desert like a graceful sailboat driven by a steady wind. Lydie has found her moment of victory. She is free!

I realize this is Lydie’s achievement, not mine. I recognize that Lydie has found the door to freedom on her own. I let go of the “American volunteer hero” concept that I carried with me in Africa. I am no longer Peace Corps, no longer a volunteer, nor am I Lydie’s teacher. I am simply a woman. And Lydie is no longer of the developing world. She’s not African, not Cameroonian and not a student.

We’re only two women, and each of us is struggling to learn something new.

It feels right, and I let out a joyful cry.

Lydie hears and realizes that my voice has come from a distance. As she turns her head and looks back at me, she loses control of the bike and crashes.

But this time it doesn’t matter. Lydie has had a victory, and I can’t wait to tell her how proud I am and how brave she is.

I run to her and lift the bike away. Then, on my knees, I lift her from the sand and into my arms. “You did it, Lydie!” I exclaim, as I rock her in my arms. “You did it!”

As the realization comes crashing down on her, Lydie begins to cry. Then she smiles. She can do it. She can do anything.

Susana Herrera

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on the Peace Corps, contact 1111 20th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20526; 800-424-8580; Web site:]

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