Growing up, I would look around the house at keepsakes that my parents had accumulated over the years, but was particularly drawn to a few objects that didn’t quite fit in with the Appalachian décor. The red drum, batiks, and picture of my Dad’s brother in his Togolese dress all piqued my interest. I was confused as to how and why Dad’s brother ended up across the globe serving in the Peace Corps.
After Uncle Scott finished his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine, he was recruited to join the Peace Corps and serve as a small animal husbandry volunteer in Mandouri, Northern Togo. About 9 months into his service, he was hiking ahead of some friends and climbed a large Teak tree. When his friends arrived, they found him under the tree covered in bees. Local villagers scrambled to light a smoky fire to expel the bees, but unfortunately it was too late, and my uncle had succumbed to the hundreds of stings.
My Gram, aunts and uncles would tell stories about my uncle ever since I can remember. He was a scholar, talented veterinarian, and an idealist. He was a friend to anyone and would go out of his way to care for animals both large and small. I remember hearing a story about him staying up all night in the horse barn at VA Tech to care for an ill mare. He built connections, not only with people, but with life in general.
A cousin recalled that “He had a reverence for all that was living and wished to bring comfort to those who suffered. This, about him, was infectious. [This] would be a good word to describe [my uncle]. Not with the negative connotations, but of all that is good. No matter what it was that he did, he seemed to have that effect on people."
As I signed up to join the Peace Corps, I really wanted to figure out who Scott was from people outside my family. I posted his picture to the Peace Corps Togo Facebook group and I could not believe the number of people who started sending messages, pictures, and memories of my Uncle Scott. My family’s stories were echoed in his friends and colleagues that he met during his service. I could feel the positive vibes and happiness that my uncle gave to his cohort. He was someone they all looked up to.
In one note our family received, a friend wrote:
“In the brief nine months that we knew each other, he was able to show me so much about myself, about human potential, and about life in general…That will always remain in my heart. His honesty, his attitude towards work (his ability to turn obstacles into opportunities), his desire to give, and above all, the way he interacted with people on a day to day basis are all qualities I saw and admired in him and am trying to develop in myself.”
When I started packing my bags for my service in Tanzania, I printed out some of these memories and thoughts of others that I had collected and put them away in my luggage. I had part of his Peace Corps journey in my bags. When I arrived at site, I struggled, as most volunteers do, to fit in and figure things out. I taught a few periods of chemistry each day and would walk around the school campus to familiarize myself with the environment. I was acutely aware that bees were in about six of the buildings at the school, one being at the school laboratory where I would soon be teaching. This scared the hell out of me, but no one seemed to think much of it. I talked to my friend and counterpart about it and he said that they would likely spray the hives and hope they wouldn’t return. This is the way most people deal with bees in their houses.
The Saturday after this conversation, while setting up the buckets to do my laundry, I heard a loud buzz becoming louder and louder by the second. Curious as to what it was, I peaked my head out of my courtyard door, where a mass of African honeybees had formed in the tree outside my house. I was overtaken by both fear and excitement and went inside immediately. The adrenaline coursed through my veins and I all I can remember doing was thinking about my Uncle Scott. I am convinced, still today, that the mass of bees that formed outside my house was a message from my uncle. I knew he would not have been happy to see the bees get sprayed or for me to fear them. The eeriness of it all was my call to action, to learn and not fear, and to turn this “pest” into an asset.
My counterpart ended up finding a local beekeeper that soon became my second hand man in my Peace Corps service. Together, we started an environmental club with the students, and developed a learning apiary with 50 beehives. We extracted the bees from all the dormitories, classrooms, and the lab and trained the students in the best practices for beekeeping. I could hear the fear in my parent’s voices as I told them about this project, but I knew Uncle Scott was there with me, protecting and guiding me through it all.
Even though I never got to meet my uncle, I feel like I know him so well. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we share a common experience. My service was my shared experienced with Scott. The picture that my family and his friends have painted for me is one of someone who dreamed big and saw the good in all people.
I received a very special letter just before my Peace Corps service. I connected with a volunteer who served with Scott and whose brother was able to make it to the funeral in our small town of Accident, MD. He wrote her a letter that painted a picture of that day and his words were are able to somehow reckon and make sense of what had happened. I brought this letter with me to Tanzania and is something I now live by. Here is an excerpt from this letter:
“I am content at times to believe that God created an imperfect world with certain scientific principles and forces which he chooses not, or cannot alter. Thus, if you step off the side of a mountain or stumble into a lion’s den, not even the angels can save you. But I also believe with all my heart that the Spirit of some sort of God, if one accepts its presence, can give us strength and comfort and peace and understanding to deal with the harshness of the world. And I believe that this Spirit, this particle of this God which is in all of us, returns to the source of all life upon our deaths and that we are in perfect communion with those who preceded us and touched us in some way. Indeed, it will be the most perfect meeting.
But until then, it is up to us to try, each in our own way, for as long or as short as our lives may be, to make this world a tiny bit less imperfect. Of Scott, it is now too painful to imagine all the good he might have done and all the learning he could have shared, Instead, we can fairly look at his 28 years of life and then ask, “Were our lives better because of Scott?” Scott succeeded in making the world a little less imperfect. That is the only measure that matters. And now the torch is passed. “
Although my Uncle Scott has long passed, he will never be forgotten. New and old stories will continue to be told and new connections will continue to be made because of him. The work he did inspired a whole generation of kids on the family farm to look at our world differently and understand the importance of hard work, dedication, and empathy. The torch was passed and we all carry it strong.