Saturday, August 14, 2010

PACE is hard to Change

Can you believe it's august already? I've been out of country for nearly 5 months, longer than I ever have before in my life.

Living in New Xade, one's life develops into something different. It's slower. It's a little more hardworking. It's honest. When you work here, you work. When you don't, you don't. Fridays, you'll be hard pressed to find people in the office. But on busy days you'll also be hardpressed to find people in the office, for other reasons. I hope I'm understanding things here better. I don't feel guilty anymore if I have nothing to do because I know that I'm trying, for the most part. The people I work with, they know it too. They are observant people, the people of New Xade. And they like to talk and share. If I make one new friend, I actually make five new friends. If I send home food with one colleague, I end up feeding three. Living in this place has its ups and downs, though. Nothing is a secret and everything is scrutinized, but if you're very very careful and you earnestly try your hardest, people will start to respect you, even if it is one at a time. I am developing a new rule though: don't go outside if you're in a bad mood. But if you have to be outside, just smile and look non-threatening.

After spending so much time here, where the only sounds at night are the sounds of diesel generators and donkeys in heat, and the only light comes from the full moon, I feel a little strange returning to New Xade from my bustling soirees into Ghanzi. I come home around nightfall, the sky is darkening, but the children are still outside playing games. Their version of jumprope is like limbo and they play dodgeball, except with a plastic bag instead of yellow foam; they sing and they dance, and they do it in the sand right in front of my house, loudly. Sometimes I think they are singing my name, taunting me to come out and play, but when I look up, I don't see anything but the bush on the sandbanks.

Oddly, I don't want to be around people after I come back from Ghanzi. Instead, I sit in my house and unpack my food, contemplating my purchases and recording my budget, regretting that extra chocolate bar or that box of cookies. I think about the rushed conversations I've had in Ghanzi, in person, over the phone, through sms. I make faces when I remember things I wanted to do or funny or thoughtful things I could have said, but it's too late now. I'm alone and the next time I get the chance to say them, the thoughts would be long forgotten. It's a shame 'cause at the time, I think some of them are pretty good.

I sit and read my mail, being careful to set some aside to rediscover on days when time seems to lag. As sunset shadows make the inside of my house darker than the outside, I draw the blinds only half way so the children won't come bother me and I read by the last dying rays of heat. Soon it's dark and calm, if not a bit melancholic. It feels real though, the lighting echoes my mood. I think better in this light, I always have. Dusk is the same everywhere. I think it's magical, the moment between day and night. I used to sit on my front stoop in Chicago and watch the neighbors at this time. At school, I did my best writing and cooking at dusk. In Xade, I read and write letters by lamplight until the night takes over, the children are gone, and the darkness becomes so scary that every noise outside is a stranger and I have to draw the blinds and turn on the overhead lights to keep myself from getting goosebumps.

The time for thinking over, I watch TV, pour myself a small cocktail, and eat whatever comes into my mind. Tonight, it's leftover potato salad and lots of peanut butter and jelly and tomato juice, a weird combination, I know, but it hits the spot and it prevents me from breaking into my snack stores, which I hide in the corners of my pantry and my fridgerator. When I ran out of food yesterday, those secret snacks were the only things left on my shelves, staring at me and daring me to break down. They call out to me at night.

I wish my friend the German Doctor the best as she takes her leave today. I realized while she was here how far I've come from the wide eyed visitor I was when I first arrived. She says Dumella, but knows no other words. She thinks the children are delightful and feeds them peanuts. She calls my friends, "the africans," and invites them over for foreign food which some of them love and some of them just eat politely. I explain to her the origins of some words, the projects in Xade, the food here, the jewelry, and the social customs. Together, we tread new ground, having conversations with people I never would have had otherwise, seeing how my colleagues respond to other mohkoa, watching and learning and trying my best to be a good African host, and a good Asian-American host. I explain the origins of how I came to be, American born American raised. But then I turn around and confirm the doctor's praise of "my ancestors" and their ancient philosophies and medicines. I tread the water between seven different cultures, German, American, Asian, South African, Botswana, San, Herero. And now that the visitors and their guests are gone, I'm glad there were no Kalagadi people present. I'm tired and yet still awake. Full, yet longing for something else, something I can't quite put my finger on.

& just when I was getting too comfortable...

It's 7PM and dark, and I'm afraid I spent too much time in the sun today. My head is thumping, my face is glowing, and my lips are so burned that they're raw. I walked the streets of Xade for 4 hours at noon and then came home and made dinner, a reasonably proportioned feast of food that my German friend left behind for me, Olive Oil, Olives, Pasta, Rosemary. Then I sat down to enjoy a movie with a cup of hot chocolate, a shot of whiskey, and 3 cookies; half way through, "Definitely, Maybe," I hear a noise right over the corner of my shoulder, except I'm sitting on a couch in my empty house with my back to the wall of windows. I open the door and there are 5 kids, watching me watching my movie, drinking hot chocolate and whisky and eating cookies. Wame, you have a computer they say. They ask me twice, three times to bring the computer out so they can play with it. No. Wame, I am hungry the one girl, bane of my existence, says. I tell her to go home and get food. Wame, I am thirsty, she says. Go home and get water, there is water today. I know I'm engaging in her power struggle, but the last thing I want to do tonight is service her. I simply don't have the morale to wash someone else's water cup. She starts dancing, provocatively. bona bona, she says, look look. I am looking and then I look away. I hate the sight of young girls in scanty clothing trying to impress me by grinding the air behind them and making gutteral noises.

One of the younger girls says, good bye and I say good bye, relieved, but then no one moves to go. Instead, the oldest one looks me in the face and says, you are sick. Yes, I am, I have a headache I say with a smile, too much sun. I try to explain more, grateful for the chance to have a verbal exchange, but then they start talking over me. Bane of my existence tries to sidle past me into the house. No I say, with a smile. She comes up really close to my face and for a second there I'm afraid she's trying to smell the whisky on my breath, then an even worse possibility, maybe she can smell the cookies. "Uh-uh," I say, the botswana utterance for "no" and I move her a little further away from the door. How was your day? I ask. They don't understand me and my mood starts to sour. I try talking to them again, this time in setswana, and they ignore me completely, talking amongst themselves, the one boy poising himself in front of my window on his toes to get a better view of my computer. There is a shuffle as the two younger girls, banes of my existence plural, fight for better purchase on the window. No, i say a little too loudly. I startle everyone including myself. You don't do that here, I say. I don't know what you're fighting about, but when you come here, you don't fight. "Who is that man?" the older girl asks. I realize she's looking at the picture on the screen. An actor, I say. I can't remember his name. Actor? Drama, I say. Oh Drama, you are watching drama. Yes, you like drama? Oh yes. Maybe I can set up something for you so you can watch drama at school. Would you like that? After a few minutes, I tell them, thanks for stopping by! and I start to close the door. Goodnight! they say and I watch as they turn toward the gate and I turn off the outside light and head inside.

I decide to write rather than continue my movie so they won't hear the noise and come back, but as I open a document on my computer, I hear noises again behind me. They are talking, whispering. I tell them, I can hear you! Are you are still here? More whispering. Then I hear someone spitting, not once or twice, but three or four times. Followed by giggles. I'm not sure if spitting is a universal sign of disrespect, but I decide to give them a benefit of a doubt, like that one boy weeks ago who peed in my yard. You are cleaning for me? I ask. No response. Then more spitting. Finally I decide to pretend that no one is there, watching me from less than 2 feet away and I swallow my fear with logic-- what do I have to be afraid of? Even if they were malicious, which they're not, what can those kids do to me? As much as I am scared of them, they are still scared of me, though clearly they are getting more and more bold. This is borderlining ridiculous.

In their defense, it's really just one or two girls that drive me crazy. I don't know how to handle this game. In the psych ward at Children's Memorial, our strategy was simply not to engage. If they started a power war, we surrendered right away and changed the subject. We bought their trust and their respect. Here, I don't have superiors to lean on, and at the end of the day, I can't just jump on the train and go home to my sanctuary of space. Here, I am on 24/7, I am watched whether I am at home or at the office. Last week, my friend the police officer, told me he was surprised that I sleep so late. I said, what do you mean? He says, he sees my lights on at night from down the street. He watches when they turn off, sometimes ten or eleven at night. I'm so shocked that I don't have time to think of a response. In a way, it's comforting to know that the police can see my house. In another way, I'm frightened that my activities are so exposed. It's just too bad that at night, no one can see anything but a lightbulb blur from far away. No one can see the wiry, climbing, and dancing figures of those kids on my front porch or hanging in my windows. Tonight, in every black uncovered corner of a window frame is a potential pair of eyes. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I just can't relax here, not in my own home, not even after a really great day, not without locking the gate and acting like a paranoid freak, and unfortuantely that's just the kind of attitude that kids love to provoke. Don't give in, Sunny. Don't give in, don't snap. Just be the most boring PCV ever in New Xade, the most boring PCV. The PCV who was here in 2006-2008 told me that if I have trouble, I should just befriend the older kids. Well, where are they? Where is kid-sheriff? Where is my kid-knight in shining mini armor? Where is the relief?? I got a care package yesterday containing a big container of planters almonds, dried cranberries, granola, and pistacchios. It tastes amazing. And I almost ate all of it. All but a handful. What an idiot I am. I should have learned by now that they don't provide relief from fear and lonliness, just carbs, fat, fiber, and sugar. And it will always be that way, no matter how much I eat.

Going to Ghanzi is easy, Returning is Hard

It's not what one would expect, but it seems the shorter time I spend in Ghanzi, the harder time I have adjusting when I return. It's like I need to spend more time in Ghanzi to become SICK of Ghanzi so that when I come back, I adjust faster. I don't know... Last Friday I spent only a few hours in Ghanzi and now I'm still homesick and it's been a full 2 days.

I went to church this morning, returned home and painted to the sounds of This American Life, had a talk with some people, and then went to my friend Thato's for some chit chat under the stars in front of a fire. Can you believe that people here do that every night? Sit under the big wide open stars in front of a fire and just chit chat? It's like a camping dream. Everything in Xade just slows down, even the most idle of conversations reveals something I didn't know about the person. I felt like I was part of a little family, Thato and her daughter and our South African friend Andre who has been here for a while now as the foreman of our cell phone tower project ( I may have mentioned him in an earlier post). We sat there and chatted and I watched as they taught me Setswana words adapted from the Afrikaans language and talked about the cell phone tower, the water tower (thato is the water maintenance gal), construction costs of a house she's building, the problem with youth in xade climbing the water tower. I learned that all of the water for Xade is pumped from the CKGR every day into this massive tower outside the clinic. From the tower, it is distributed to the taps. Some kids climb the tower for fun and let the water out. Sometimes they climb the tower and close the valve so no water can get out. I have a feeling someone could cause a lot of trouble for us with this water tower.

At church, I saw a lot of familiar faces. Leaders of the village, volunteers, people with big visions and big hearts. I wondered what on earth I was doing here, these men and women are great and I don't know why I'm here. Am I so great myself that I have come to teach them to be greater? I guess that isn't quite the right sentiment. I can learn a lot from them, and hopefully teach them things, maybe just technical things like computer work and then run errands for them in Ghanzi. My role here is going to be different than I had first imagined, and I think I like it this way. I'm not going to call too many shots. I'm not going to call too many meetings. I'm going to take a backseat and let other people do the driving. Maybe. I still have to think about that. In any case, I'm realizing quite belatedly that my world is very very small and I still have a lot to learn about Xade. Our new agricultural demonstrator has been here for 3 weeks now and he knows more about the issues and the people here than I've managed to learn in 2 months. i console myself by telling myself that he's a tswana, so he already knows a lot and can communicate with people. I'm adjusting not just to the san culture, but the tswana culture as well.

In another news, I go back and forth on this me being fat thing. And I've gotten a lot of confirmation here ("Yes, you're fat, but that's ok" has been my most reassuring comment, from Thato) and a lot of consolation from home ("Noooo, you're not fat!") and then the mixed feeling remark from foreigners here ("Well, in Botswana, that's a compliment"). When to be honest, I feel that most people who say I'm fat don't mean it in a complimenting way. In fact, I know that they say it to tease me and get a rise out of me. I told a freind here that we PCV's are eating a lot because we're homesick and that's how we cope. She responded with "No, Wame, you're not sad anymore. I can see it in your eyes when you walk around. You're happy here! In fact, you're so fat that you don't know how to handle yourself and you walk funny and next year you won't be able to fit through the door." I stared flabergasted, especially since she said this to a room full of people, including my german house guest and my supervisor/counterpart/friend. As tears welled up in my eyes, I figured that the best thing to do in this situation was to shrug it off, go into the kitchen and eat. That night I ate a whole chocolate bar and tried not to imagine this person beheaded. It was ironic because while she was saying this, she was eating all of my food.

In any case, I've been thinking a little bit about what someone told me, that to be fat here is just a state of being, and to take consolation in how the fat people here revel in it. And I began to notice, she's right and it was comforting. Today, at church, one of my local heroes, the councilwoman who is not a tiny woman herself, was singing and dancing like a gumby doll and I thought to myself, this woman is beautiful and intelligent and confident and happy. To be fat here really is just a state of being, in fact, being fat is also synonymous with happiness (of course that's a bit of a childish statement as well, but I won't get into that now). Unfortunately, though, the reason I'm irked about being called fat is not because of my weight or the way I look, it's because on the inside, I am immensely homesick and I haven't been able to exercise, or eat healthy, or do the activities I used to be able to do because I'm far from home and I'm asthmatic and terribly allergic to something in the air here, and being called fat is a very unsympathetic reminder of just how difficult yet luxurious and therefore confusing my life is.

The issues I discuss with people here plague me at night when I get home. Alcoholism, defilement, sexual and physical abuse, drunken people running each other over in cars, people drinking from 6am to 8pm, people having babies on top of babies with the excuse that the government will take care of them, kids running around as young as 6 or 7 chewing tobacco and climbing water towers and spying on lonely fat pcv's in the dark... Some days are overwhelming with the amount of information I get, but yet when I get home I realize nothing I've heard is new. It's the same issues over and over and over again. The same stories, most of the same causes, mostly alcohol. At a kgotla meeting, someone said that the reason they drink is because they're sad that they were taken out of their homes in the CKGR. I am sympathetic to that, but on the other hand, it's been 8 years and they are allowed to go back now. They've been given every kind of government support that could be thought of. What else can we do to help those that stay to move on?

I'm realizing slowly that if I want to be an effective pcv here, I really have to milk every encounter for what it's worth and spend a lot of time here, even if it means downtime doing nothing but sit in the sun in someone else's yard for a lot of my precious weekends. It's difficult, it's boring, it's emotionally tasking, and worst of all, it's going to involve missing out on a lot of good times with other PCV's and being a tourist and seeing the world. It seems I'm going to have to make a big decision some time soon: what kind of PCV do I want to be?

Eight, Nine, Ten... Ready or Not, Here I Come?

It seems that once I came back from Gabs last week, my life has exploded in a flurry of information and a bombardment of faces. Maybe people missed me while I was gone, or something I did spread like wildfire across the village and suddenly people think I'm interesting to talk to, or maybe something changed in me and I'm taking more risks and putting myself out there more, or maybe I'm just trying to be coy and poetic and in actuality I know it's a combination of all 3. What's my point... all of that is not what I meant to write at all. Let's sober up a little, shall we?

Today, someone committed suicide in New Xade. I don't know her and I'm the least qualified person in the whole village to be talking about this, but from what I hear, she had problems with alcohol abuse. Yesterday, someone had told me that "there is only one problem in Xade, alcohol abuse." Yesterday, I was mildly sympathetic. Alcohol abuse is a sad way to avoid one's problems in life. But today, after learning that every year 1 or 2 people try to commit suicide here and in this family alone, there were 4 attempts, 2 successful, I really began to give it some thought. Alcohol Abuse. For all of my 4 years at one of the top 10 universities in the country, I've learned one important thing. Human Behavior is dictated by reason, be it known or unknownst to us, be it good reason or bad reason, there is always a cause. No one drinks or attempts suicide for no reason. I began to wonder why. Could it really be that adjustment from the CKGR is the reason for the alcohol abuse, like the old man in the kgotla said?

Today, a local man slaughtered a cow and sold it at the butcher"tree" in town. The cow is slung across this tree and our butcher, a man with a knife and 2 axes sits at this tree, chops off a part, looks at it, and declares its value "5 pula, 5 pula, 5 pula" he yells like a man selling fish in NYC's chinatown. My friend tsks and tells me, they are losing money by selling meat like this. They should go to (some place in Ghanzi whose acronym alludes me) where they sell the whole cow and get a lot more money. Even here, they are not using a scale, they are just looking at it and selling. There is a scale in the agricultural department, but you have to spend 10-20 pula to borrow it and they don't want to pay. This made sense to neither of us since we could both figure out that the money they make from selling a cow piece by piece by eyeballing its value off a tree in Xade is peanuts compared to how much they could make if they sold to the industry. Why are they doing it this way? I asked her. Because they are still learning how to raise cows. She answered. When these people were in the CKGR, they ate animals in the bush. Here, they are given these animals and they don't know what to do with them. The politically incorrect image of a man dressed in a loin cloth staring cock-headed at a cow while scratching his head as the cow stares back filled my mind. At the time, I thought, ao! these people, so unwilling to pay for anything because the government has provided it all for them. But now, I'm not so sure.

Could it really be that even after 8 years or so, people are really still truly melancholy about the relocation? could it be that they are hesitant to participate in activities we take for granted because they really do mistrust outsiders? I really gave it some thought. Being uprooted from your land to which your philosophies, your childhood, your ancestors, and your lifestyle has been rooted for generations and generations of people could, I guess, wreck your life. It's not such a foreign concept, is it? I'm no stranger to melancholy or adjustment disorders. It's because I've struggled with a small slice of it myself that I've felt ok to come here. And yet, I've moved here, so far from my relatively shallow roots, far from my comfort zone, but still in a large home with a big bed, electricity, running water, and food... and I'm homesick to heck and it's been a full 5 months already. I tell myself that it's ok. I'm allowed to be sad, but at the same time I can't accept the sadness of a person who has lost everything they ever believed in 8 years ago? One of my well respected counterparts and friend was teased a few days ago for traveling to the CKGR so often because he "missed" his land. If this man, who is respected, educated, well communicated, and graduated, could still miss his land so much... I remember when I first arrived here, I would ask the children where they came from, if they lived in New Xade; they would say no, we live in the CKGR. That is our home. Maybe this alcohol thing isn't just a crock of bull. Afterall, in a village with no electricity, what else is there for a really sad person to do?

It's ironic, this woman, mother, sister, daughter, hung herself. And tonight, the owner of that slaughtered cow will probably spend his entire earnings on alcohol. And me? Le Nna? I'll be up thinking about it, writing about it, powerless to verify my theories but through conjecture alone, because Ga ke bue dipuo, I can't speak the languages. I keep thinking, I'm not qualified for this. This is beyond my pay grade. This is way over my head. But then I have to remember, Peace Corps is not for doing things on your own. I don't have to have any answers, in fact, it's probably better that I don't have any. The answers should come from the land here, it should be organically grown and not imported by some 3rd culture kid from across the world. So, that idyllic philosophy said... now what? I feel like those fish from Finding Nemo who's brilliant plan to escape the dentist worked, except now they're trapped in plastic bags, bobbing off the coast of the atlantic ocean.

Buzz Lightyear

I know that I've changed since I've been here quite a bit. Over the course of the past 2 weeks, I've become more confident, less self-conscious, and in a way, a little more foolish. I've said a lot of things that pop into my head without worrying about the consequences, knowing that if I make a mistake, I can quickly take it back by pretending it was a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding. but in a way, I've also become quite pompous and self important walking around this village. It's a paradox of sorts, I know I understand little to nothing of the kind of pain that so many people here go through, in fact I'm reminded every moment of every day when I hear people speak in this foreign language that I don't understand, and when I hear children's voices outside and my initial reaction is to duck. But at the same time, I feel like the king of my own little world. I am my own boss here and a lot of times, I'm under a deluded self important power trip: I am THE New Xade PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER, I can do ANYTHING here. I will do EVERYTHING here. I will cure alcoholism and melancholy. I will empower youth to pursue education. I will even construct a building here with my own bare hands and it will be a wonderful place for children to come, work, learn life skills and ownership, watch tv, read books, and relax. Yet, who am I kidding! I can't even speak with the kids let alone figure out if this is something they would want or even need. In fact, at this very moment, I am sitting in a dark corner of my house with the shades drawn and the lights off because I'm scared that if I turn on the lights or open the shades, people (shiver) will come. I'm quite a turd when I get into these self-important moods. I annoy myself.

Today I came out of the clinic and was confronted my 2 elderly san women who spoke to me in //gana. We had a long conversation which went something like this: elderly person number one says something I don't understand. I respond by repeating the last 2 syllables that she spoke, which sounds to me like a word. She responds by saying another thing I don't understand. I respond with a question consisting of the last 2 syllables that she spoke. She realizes that I don't understand a single thing she says and blows a very wet rasberry at me and turns to walk away (yes, a very wet rasberry). Elderly person number 2 then tries to talk with me. The same conversation commences, this one ending with her grabbing my hand and shaking it and laughing. Ha ha ha, I say, sounding like Buzz Lightyear. Goodbye (in Setswana)! And we part. The turd that is my asshole self-important self views the interaction as a victory when in reality, it defeated all purposes of any real conversation.

8-12, Thursday
1-Day to Ghanzi

If you know me, you know that I'm a kind of person who is secretly really lazy but likes to keep busy to make up for it-- so I constantly busy myself with work or cleaning to allow myself to get busy with eating and watching TV. Here, I'm surprisingly busy. My kitchen oscillates between very dirty from being overused to very clean from being overcleaned. The files in my “office” have been read and reread twice over, making more sense each time I read them. The floors in my house have been swept every day. And I still have plentiful things to do-- rake my yard, clean my bathroom, plant my garden, type documents up, check in on people or progress, read, read, and reread. I'm so used to working all the time that I've created a huge task list for myself that I hang on the wall and write on in big markers. Everytime someone comes over they read it out loud and sometimes laugh.

But I fear that I'm lapsing into a bit of laziness now. There's so much to do that I have “things to do” written on scrap papers all over my house, in my bags, and sandwiched in my folders from the past few weeks. Things I've never done, but promised people I would do. Things I need to do but can't figure out how. Things I need to do but don't want to figure out how. Things I should do, but are almost impossible to do given how difficult it is to get things done here in a timely manner. Well, today, I went into work for an hour (and by work, I mean I went to my friend Lulu's tuck shop and watched her make chips (aka fries) for an hour). I grabbed some reading and bolted because it is blustering wind and freezing cold outside. I've been home ever since and even now, after I've written letters, compiled reports, and revised my next “Things to do” list, I don't want to do anything else. I'm tired. No one else is doing work... Me Fears Me Laziness is going to take over soon. Ke batla go phita gompieno...

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