Monday, September 05, 2005

Remembering Rita Herkel

I have just arrived in Dakar, Senegal after the long trip west and then south from China. Before the work here begins in earnest, I wanted to first take a moment to remember someone who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week. (This is something I wrote earlier in the trip but was unable to post before now).

In a time when so many innocents are dying - victims of disaster (and sometimes inadequate help) such as in northern Niger and New Orleans, victims of a freak accident such as the Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad recently, victims of genocidal actions and policies, people blown up by others, other people caught in the crossfire of wars and conflicts, and so on, it may seem inappropriate to dwell on the passing of one person somewhere else. But every life is precious and this is one that I had the chance to cross paths with for a brief period.

Last week, on 27 August, one of the people who had served as a volunteer in the group I was responsible for in Niger, Jenny Paulk, forwarded a really nice letter by another former Niger volunteer who was in Malawi helping to build schools - Rita Herkel. Rita had written it on 24 August to some friends, telling with enthusiasm how the work with the communities was going and expressing her feeling of being so lucky at that time.

Four days later (31 Aug.) another e-mail from another former volunteer, Barney Smith, (it's considerate of them to keep me on some mailing lists) said that the Peace Corps office in Niger had decided to name the resource center at the office in her honor since she had died in a bush taxi accident a few days earlier.

There is so much that could be said, and others closer to her or more eloquent might say it much better, but once past the shock, I couldn't help but think that if she had to go so soon, this was the way to do it. She was doing something that made her feel lucky and indeed was helping others. She went out on top, as the expression goes, something we might all hope for when our time inevitably comes.

I knew Rita only as her Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) - every volunteer is in effect assigned to a sector headed by an APCD - for the two plus years (2001-03) she served in the village of Holla Bella in the Balleyara district northeast of Niamey. I've always had a lot of respect for all volunteers, but as in any walk of life, some seem to shine especially. Rita as I knew her from being her APCD was one of them. In her work, in her integration in the local community (she had a very high level in Zarma language), and her relations with other volunteers she was exemplary. It was fitting that she be remembered back in Niamey

I did not know that after her planned travel following her close of service in Niger she went on to work in Malawi. But it didn't surprise me. As a volunteer and in other development work she took the risks that we all do - local modes of transportation are sometimes quite unsafe whether because of mechanical issues, road conditions, the fault of drivers, or some combination. I don't know what it was the last day Rita took a bush taxi some short time after writing such a bright letter about her work, but she was among 6 people who died in that accident that day. Such accidents happen frequently without world notice, and at a rate certainly much higher than what we know in the West.

There are so many senseless deaths, and with each we all lose something precious, intangible, and from that point on, forever unknown. Separation and distance from the ones we knew are never easy, but the sense of a lost future is hardest of all to take.

This, then, is to remember Rita, her work, dedication, and spirit, and by her the many others who have left us too early. May their souls progress serenely and their memory inspire rather than sadden.

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