The Longest Week

This is without a doubt the hardest post I will ever have to write.  To start my “c” key doesn’t work so I am forced to use my On-Screen Keyboard every time I need to type a “c.”  This is, however, a minor nuisance compared to the main subject of this post and that is the death of a fellow volunteer.  I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this so please bear with me.

When I got “the call” I was on a bus returning from helping at a malaria awareness surf competition.  All had gone well and I was returning to my village with Jocie.  I answered a call from a random number, and it was one of my supervisors.  She asked if I was at my site which was a weird question especially since I wasn’t but I had already informed another supervisor.  Then she said “I have some sad news.”  Right then I knew someone had died.  They only divulge medical information if someone is dead and this certainly isn’t the way to begin a call about an evacuation.  Then she said “Danni Dunlap…”  She kept talking but I only half listened.  I was clenching Jocie’s leg saying “Oh my god” and in my head thinking no no no.  She went on to explain that Danni had gotten suddenly ill and they sent a car to pick her up.  She made it to the hospital where she passed away.  When I asked what the cause of death was she said it wasn’t confirmed but they believe cerebral malaria.  I was in shock and disbelief (still am).

Danni was incredible personified.  On paper she was beyond accomplished: Brown alum, taught English in South Korea, volunteered in Haiti and was attending graduate school at Emory in the fall on a full tuition fellowship.  In Ghana she seemed to do just about everything from HIV/AIDS education, building latrines and a health clinic, new volunteer training and helped out with STARS.  She was also set to be enstooled as “Queen Mother” of her village an honor bestowed on very few volunteers.

Beyond her resume she was a vibrant individual full of life.  She always had a smile on her face and greeted you with a hug.  She could help you through any problem Peace Corps related or not.  When she described her projects at site she wasn’t pretentious or bragging.  She wasn’t scary or intimidating.  She was motivational and inspiring.  What made her so great was that she made us all better people.  Even though she is gone that impact continues.

If someone had told me that would be immediate I would’ve called that person a fool.  Everyone flocked to Accra as fast as they could.  Naturally the mood around the office was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  I’ve experienced death before but not like this.  She had touched EVERY volunteer and staff member in some way.  Over 200 people from all over the world arriving in the country at different times knew her.  Now we were all coming together and emotions were indescribable.  Despite the seemingly insurmountable despair we knew there was work to be done.  We needed to say goodbye in a proper way.

The memorial planning was the longest few days of our lives but everyone pitched in to make it as beautiful as we could because that’s what Danni was…beautiful inside and out.  One volunteer coordinated getting 150 beds for volunteers at various embassy workers’ houses.  Other put together videos and slideshows.  Some got decorations for the venue.  Some helped get funeral cloth made (200 yards in 48 hours).  Others prepared speeches and planned the actual memorial service.  We also had people at the funeral home 24/7 to be with Danni as per request from her mother.  I designated myself as an errand boy running all over town picking up random items people needed, delivering messages and getting in contact with necessary people.  I also organized the set up and clean up of the service.  Not the most glamorous job but something that needed to be done and it kept me busy.

The memorial itself came off better than any of us could have ever imagined.  Over 300 people were in attendance.  Stories about Danni’s life, pictures, videos, singing and dancing all portrayed the amazing life Danni led.  There was ever a Dr. Pepper toast in her honor (she was obsessed with that stuff).  The US Ambassador to Ghana made a speech as well as Danni’s mother.  When her mom spoke it was like Danni was speaking.  She was strong and full of life, it was a spitting image.  And despite just losing her only child she thanked US for what we do and for OUR service!  I couldn’t believe it.  And her final words were for us to take care of ourselves and to come home to our parents.  We all lost it but I can promise you that I WILL COME HOME!

The next day Danni went home, but not the way a 25-year old should.  Not the way she was supposed to in less than a month!  I was in the last group of people at the funeral home where we saw her one last time before she was taken to the airport for her flight home.  She was in a box draped with an American flag.  It was a nice gesture but it couldn’t heal our pain.  We all stood there on the tarmac saying good bye as she was taken away from us forever.

The next few days had been planned for a conference for everyone who came to Ghana in my group (including Danni).  We had talked about postponing it but we decided not to change it.  We thought everyone being together would help.  We discussed the process of leaving the country and Peace Corps different paperwork we need to fill out, things we need to return and life after Peace Corps.  We were at a nice hotel and the sessions were not very intense so we were able to be together and try to relax.  They also brought in grief counselors from Washington DC to help.  One positive from the conference is I officially got my date to finish which is July 17th so two flights and one day later I will arrive in the US for good on July 18th!

I am now back at site and doing well despite watching the Blackhawks lose last night.  I met the two new volunteers that have been placed in our area and they are as excited as I was when I first came which I can’t believe was almost two years ago!  I will now begin wrapping things up and trying to get a volunteer to replace me.  I want to thank everyone for their donations to the STARS youth conference that will take place next week.  Although I won’t be there, I’m sure it will be another great event thanks to all of you.

Finally I need to take the time to thank everyone for their support through the recent tragedy and this two year endeavor as a whole.  I always say that I have the best family and friends in the world but it’s true.  I’m incredibly blessed that I now also get to add a fantastic Peace Corps family.  Even though we just lost one of our members, we are stronger than ever and I am confident we are all going on to do wonderful things.  I’m going to savor these final 59 days in Ghana, and I will be sure to enjoy my two weeks in Chicago to the fullest before my next adventure in Maryland.



2 Responses to “The Longest Week”

  1. Steve Burgoon Says:

    Beautiful job Steven. Can’t wait to get you home. Let me know when you will have a chance to Skype (if you can). I am not traveling until June 3 so the next two weeks should be pretty good to talk (somehow).

  2. Claire Says:

    Hey Steve, this was beautifully written. It’s obvious you really cared for Danni. Don’t forget to listen to her mother’s advice and go home safely, you hear? Cheers, Claire

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