Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Life's little tools

He still has the citrus peeler, this little plastic doodad that mom bought in like 1985. It's like a crochet hook you pull around the edge of your orange. He said it was from a Tupperware party. You can vaguely recall the sensation that was Tupperware, just as you can imagine a time when this kitchen wasn't built yet, that where you stand now was a bunch of air in the air. One thing you didn't like about that orange crocheting tool was the way it tended to send these little micro-mists of orange peel oil, the most stingy sort, straight into your eye. Now you realized, today in fact, during your awkward stop at that giant country store on 5&10, that they still make those things. But now you put them on your finger like a ring and sort of fondle the orange while ripping around its skin ala Christopher Soprano on collection day. It's an 89 cent pleasure you'll forgo for now. The 80's version was a lot less intimate, but maybe 80's people were a lot less desperate to commune with their fruit and a lot more anxious to store it in plastic. Perhaps some of these memories will come like psychotropic flashbacks, but now that stingy oil taste is in your mouth as you recall biting directly into the orange, ripping off a section and pressing the whole damn thing into your face while sucking it dry. You left a lot of violated fruit out there on dusty roads, while here in this kitchen, a little waxy coil curls politely on itself next to the compost bucket.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Getting a Lift

Photo from 2005, Lower Basic School WFP feeding program. At least a few of these kids got food before their headmaster sold 80 bags of the donated rice and beans in the open market.

Let's call her Marcia. She has graciously offered me a ride to the other apartment I'm looking at today despite her being a tenant here. At this point I'll be late and I can't figure out how to start the car I've borrowed. (It turns out it was the other key.)

On the way Marcia wants to discuss how to feel good by donating to some organization in Africa. She's heard a lot about corruption and NGO dollars being wasted on overhead and doesn't want her bucks to get eaten before they have a chance to help some weaver woman get a head start, or a school-aged child have a chance at an education. There is limited time on my part, one ride across town and she wants a website I'm sure. I'm wading through the swamp of acronyms I've encountered or worked with, CCF, CRF, UNICEF, WFP, FAO, BESPOR. There is humanitarian aid, microfinance, she could donate a goat, a bednet, a bicycle, her own luxurious hair even. She, meanwhile, announces her disgust over organizations with religious affiliation, because who are they to push their values and agenda on people from other cultures.

Memory one comes into focus. I am holding Sibo's hand (almost 5 years ago) as she tugs me along to her nursery school at the Korean Christian Mission. From what I can see, it's a relatively engaging day of coloring, singing and eating snacks. The children are kept busy and not beaten, a distinction I cannot make about many nurseries I've seen. The education is not particularly deep, but neither is the religious indoctrination. Sibo's parents regard her singing of incomprehensible Jesus songs with the same indifference as her rendition of Turn Me On, which she's heard playing on a neighbor's tape deck and which she executes with frighteningly perfect pitch and timing. She will continue to go to Koranic school after this, no beats skipped. The one offending point of the mission might have to be the annual giving out of random donated crap from the sister church in California, but Sibo surely prizes her one-legged blonde Barbie and her Stitch Toy and ties them both to her back like babies as she wanders through her day.

Memory two is Mr. Ceesay. He has just been promoted to Deputy Headmaster, he says. He was just a mere teacher the last time I came by. He is holding a piece of rubber tubing, which seems to be edging out the traditional stick for classroom discipline tool of choice. Technology is amazing. Suddenly a bell rings (is being rung by a little boy standing in the schoolyard) and Mr. Ceesay announces that the kids receiving food may go eat. Four of the thirty seven students leave the room and the rest continue to be ignored by Mr. Ceesay who's intent on describing his instructional methodology rather than demonstrating it. I question why all the students are not receiving food and he assures me it's only for the ones who pay. I am then invited to partake with the teachers, for whom this food was never intended. The World Food Program likes to take credit for the correlation in increased attendance with their school feeding program which is offered to every lower basic school student, regardless of whether they are able to make a small contribution towards additional condiments or not. Schools exploit this donation on every front, with headmasters inflating their enrollment (on which donated portioning is based) and often feeding only the few who pay. At one school, the headmaster had 35 first graders listed in his roll, but the teacher's log contained only 8. WFP supplied enough food to the school to feed those 35 each supposed day of the school year, which is severely shortened by the epidemic of extended holidays. In a school where 4 out of 37 in Mr. Ceesay's class got fed, the same headmaster had his storage inspected one week after receiving a supply of 96 bags, where suddenly only 16 remained. The beans were also mostly gone, along with the oil. WFP food is a powerful currency, and communities fight over it with headmasters taking the lead in deciding how it's used. Mr. Ceesay thinks I'm stupid, and I am for even saying anything, because a volunteer some years back tried to blow the whistle on abusing donations and got moved to another site by angry administrators accusing her of not understanding what was going on.

I tell Marcia that Jenna Bush had her name on these reusable bags you could buy at Whole Foods that would contribute to WFP donations. She likes Trader Joe's and is excited to show it to me, even though I tell her I've been there many times and that I love those peanut butter filled pretzels. There's another memory tucked inside, of one of the regional education officers complaining that WFP no longer supplies fish and other foods to Gambia, only unpalatable rice, beans and oil. I try to gently explain that there are countries of greater need and limited donations but he remembers fondly his school days of eating sardines on the WFP dole. Of course now the program is so successful that the majority of children are in school, and sardines would break the bank. That is memory 2.5.

Memory three is me, standing in front of some fifth graders after their teacher moves to the back of the room. He's attended a workshop we recently ran on making teaching aids, and he wants to show off the fancy poster he's made of healthy preventative habits and it correlates to their social studies unit on endemic diseases, namely malaria. He has a grasp of participatory methods and asks the class how to prevent malaria and they cite bed nets as an example. "Yes," he encourages them, "and you all received bed nets from UNICEF this year, right?" Most of them nod their heads in agreement. UNICEF had given mosquito nets to school kids in the region and talked to the kids about the importance of sleeping under a net.
"How many of you sleep under a net?" he asks, once in English and then in Mandinka when he sees no hands go up. 2 tentative hands go up and then come back down. They are not using the nets.
It is still me but now I am jogging out in the rice fields and it is early morning. I spot three women pulling up crabs and small fish from the muddy banks beside the path and I greet them with a typical joke about where my breakfast is. One of them pulls up her net, it's a bed net, and shows me the small fish she's caught in there. "It is not enough for you," she says and laughs.

Marcia has waited too long for me at this other apartment. I've had a beer, appreciated the potential housemate's enthusiasm and her bacon tape, ached a little for my home in Gambia. When I get back in the car I am sorry I have made her wait, and any errand she wants to run while we're close to town is fine by me. We go to Trader Joe's, but they don't have those pretzals any more. On the way home we talk about how cheap it is compared to Whole Foods.