Monday, January 30, 2006

Grab your Days

Betembo's rice
Originally uploaded by mchughtie.
There's an Aussie film called "Bliss." Have you seen it? In one memorable scene our anti-hero follows his love interest, Honey Barbara, a country lass, to a noisy city hotel, where she forces him to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to find the city quietly waiting for the day to begin. Then she looks over at him, the camera pulling back to reveal a romantically pink and orange painted sky, and she sighs and says to him, "yo-wa alahm clock is yo-wa key to freedom."
I don't have a lot of time in my life. Days, minutes, writing time, thinking time, eating time, they are all too short. When it gets dark I am limited to squinting by candlelight, squishing ants and pondering why my London produced shampoo bottle omits the Oxford comma.
But in the day there is potential on every front, home office, world, language, body, mind, connections. There is more swimming through my mind than I know what to do with, more things added to the list than one uncloned human could ever accomplish. I don't know if I came here for learning, for experience, for escape, for kudos. I'm also not sure if it matters in the middle of the day when I'm trying to create resources out of thin air, make sense of these surroundings, do meaningful work and still get home in time to pump some water and boil a potato. I've never been a big fan of artificial means of waking the life back up each day, viewing alarm clocks as relatively oppressive little dieties. But something's changing here for me. Personal leisure time doesn't feel so necessary, sleep is only possible when I'm too worn out to do other stuff. And I'm usually trying to solve problems in my dreams anyway, so it really isn't wasted time, but quite justifiably used in the scheme of things. I don't know if I should thank the Imam for waking me up with his call to prayer every morning, but I don't want to pound him or throw him across the room, so that's a start. I can't say the same for the donkies, (why do they make that sound?) but I can feel their urgency too. It's time to get shit done. This is not a feeling I expected to have in West Africa, where the answer to "how's is work?" is "I'm on it slowly slowly."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dreaming of connectivity

Muso and I
Originally uploaded by mchughtie.
When I get home, or to Europe, or to some place with a power grid, I'm going to buy the fastest internet connection my readjustment allowance can buy. I'm going to get something that plugs directly into my brain stem, something where I can google my every whim and download Don Quixote read by Cheech Marin in five minutes. I'm gonna have a hard drive comparable to most universities to store the contents of my entire life. For now, I'll try to find the joy in washing my clothes in a bucket with a bar of soap that smells like old butter, but when I get back, look out Best Buy.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Let's dole, baby!

When I walked out of the compound where the WFP workers were toiling away, sorting the many generous donations sent to them from former volunteers, a teenage boy who was looming around, hoping for his piece of the action tapped my shoulder and said, "Hey, give me a pen." Maybe because I was out of energy for lecturing, or because I'd had enough of the "you owe me stuff" begging routine for one day,or because I was feeling pretty tired of being mistaken for (yet another)white visitor come to feel good about myself by handing out stuff, I just shook my head at him and walked away. It's not as though people don't ask for things, but after six months, I'm still not comfortable with it. It often isn't even the people who are in the greatest need asking, but rather the people who have benefited from this routine in the past. Every walk to the market is punctuated by various children calling, "toubab, give me Minty, pen, five dalasi, bottle, etc." I don't blame the children for one second, because that fire gets fed from many directions, and I won't pretend that even pious Peace Corps with all our talk of sustainability and transfer of skills doesn't play a small roll in this dynamic. I don't blame NGO's for supplying badly needed resources to communities. I don't even blame tourists for hiring bumsters to carry their grocery bags and do God knows what else. (Okay, I do blame them.)Honestly, it just shakes me, this idea that I can't undo a long-established perception of what I'm here for, that as soon as I leave the respectful shelter of my working community, I'm instantly reduced to refusing to give shit out. I'm a teacher here, I want to say, and where I'm working, that means something. Unfortunately, ten feet from there, I'm just a Toubab, and as a very charming bumster reminded me on the beach today, "You people all look the same."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Not surprisingly, there is no Mandinka word for Maintenance

Donkey rubble
Originally uploaded by mchughtie.
It was a good showing. Even the chief, rockin’ a purple tie and die Kaftan, showed up for the “sensitization” campaign on school maintenance. The social development fund has established a program that will help communities with the upkeep of their school grounds and buildings, which are often left to be digested by natural forces. While the objective was clear to me, it seemed there was a lot of confusion and disagreement in the crowd. So much of the agenda was impossible to translate that a ten-minute discussion broke out on how to explain “maintenance” in Mandinka. It was easy to react callously. Anyone who has loaned their Mandinka friend a deck of cards and gotten it back with 37 remaining wouldn’t be surprised that no word exists to explain the preservation and care of things to prolong their life. On the other hand, Mandinkas will give you the shirt off their back, quite literally I realized, when I complimented my neighbor on his colorful Kaftan and he proceeded to remove it and hand it to me. In any case, the matter was finally settled when someone at the meeting suggested a proverb to explain the word maintenance. After some murmuring, the crowd agreed emphatically to this, ready? "Lamna Siraha bamba dasitirang mantah baato mumeke wole koyta" which translates to: Rather than say the (koranic verse) that protects you from being eaten by a crocodile, don't go to the river at all. That's safer."