Sunday, May 1, 2011

Killing Chickens, Newborn Babies, & Child Labor

I came home from vacation and met Diana, a Peace Corps Trainee who
arrived for service only 3 weeks ago. Diana, a.k.a. Mpho, is one of
around 30 new volunteers who are currently undergoing the 2 months of
grueling language and culture training that me and my friends went
through exactly 1 year ago. I still cannot believe it's been a full
year already.

Diana came home with me to New Xade to see what it's like to be a
Peace Corps volunteer. In keeping with the tradition of shadowing, I
gave her a full tour of New Xade, introduced her to my friends and
counterparts, ran her through a quick synopsis of my weekly schedule
(Uh… I spend a lot of time working from home…) and then had her kill a
chicken for dinner. Though… we didn't exactly kill it. One of my
little friends Bilal (16 y.o. but is so small he could pass for a 10
y.o., when I met him he had dropped out of school and was running
around the neighborhood with a wheelbarrow collecting water and
firewood for his family. Since then, he has reentered school and is
now speaking in broken English.), ran into us at the local bar and
sold us a P25 live chicken which we brought home and tried to butcher
for dinner. After several pictures and many unsuccessful tries, I
realized that we lekhoa are just incapable of killing our own food. I
asked Thato for help. Thato introduced me to Qaasi, a san lady with a
small child on her back who came over and killed the chicken

Batswana style is the most terrifying way of killing an animal I have
ever heard of. Qaasi grabbed our poor chicken (who already had minor
cuts on its neck due to our unsuccessful attempts to give it a quick,
merciful death) by the head and swung it around and around a few
times, like a key lanyard on a college campus. But the chicken didn't
die there. Neck broken and dizzy, it lay there in the dirt opening and
closing its eyes and refusing to pass away peacefully. In the end,
Qaasi had to do this twice before I gave in and cut its throat. The
chicken lay there dying and bleeding as we watched in horror for
nearly 10 minutes. In its final moment, it spazzed, throwing itself
into the puddle of its own blood before finally expelling its last
breath. All the while, Qaasi had a newborn baby tied to her back,
cooing softly. It was the oddest irony I've experienced in a while.
The baby watching us and the chicken with her big eyes the chicken
blinking back, staring at its killers, trying to deny death. The old
cock gasping its final breaths, neck broken. In the end, I told Diana,
I think every American should at one point kill their own food. If I
really took the time to think about it, I probably would become a
vegetarian after this. But no, instead, I took a long time butchering
the animal with Qaasi, defeathering the chicken, cleaning out the
guts, and making chicken fajitas, chicken soup, and roasted chicken.

That afternoon, when Bilal came to drop off the chicken, he and the
chicken's owner a man whose sobriety was slightly questionable, asked
to be given the peace job of cleaning my yard. Alas, after spending
over P500 cleaning my yard this year, the damned weeds are back. He
and Bilal offered to do it for P150, which is P50 less than my last
"employees." Sure, I said. Bilal then tried to bargain with me, "P60,
P60" he said, motioning to him and his older friend. The man made a
look like "Oh my god… no no" he said, "P150". I clarified to Bilal
"P75, P75." And he nodded, thrilled to be given a real job.

Come early tomorrow morning, I told them. Bilal came at 7AM and woke
me up with a gentle call of my name, saying his older friend was out
"drinking tea." Sure, I said. I'm going to clean here, he said,
dressed in an oversized trench coat that reached the ground. Sure, I
said. He confirmed the price, "P75, p75" Sure I said, and went back to
sleep. Bilal woke me up again at 8AM asking for matches. I gave him
some matches and some candy and he disappeared again. At 10:30 AM, I
came out of the house matchless and no one was around. The old man
never showed up. I wasn't surprised, I was actually quite relieved, I
didn't want to pay a man just so he could turn around and drink it
off. I like the young kid and I didn't like the influence these
alcoholics might have on him.

At 12:30 Bilal showed up again with another young boy, this one didn't
look like he could be older than 12. "2" he said, "P150, P75 P75
each!" He said. Sure, I said, and remembered to smile at the kids, and
then went inside. Twenty minutes later, another knock. This time 6
boys at my door. "4!" Bilal said. This one this one this one, not this
one, not this one, he pointed to the youngest boys. The youngest boys
yelled out "5! 6!" in protest. "ok, 4," I said. "You're in charge."
Bilal nodded and then pointed to the boys and motioned to the areas
they were in charge of cleaning. Sure, I said.

Ten minutes later, Bilal again. "I am going to get my wheel barrow."
Sure. 5 minutes later, "those boys are fighting." I came outside, and
the boys argued in mixed Sesarwa and English in front of me. "He wants
to go home!" the one pointed at Bilal and accused. "No, I don't" Bilal
said. They looked at me expectantly and I just stared back. "Aren't
you going to get your wheelbarrow?" Bilal didn't answer. Instead they
two started arguing again, taking the argument out onto the lawn. I
played with the youngest ones until Bilal came back and motioned to
his friends, "The guys are sharp" he said, "Sharp guys! Sharp guys! I
am coming." And he started walking to my gate.

I called after him, sure. Then I reminded him, "You're the boss. You're boss."

"I am boss" he said. "I am working" he said, pounded his shirtless
chest and puffed himself up.

Yesterday, Diana and I went to visit the school. Classes are still in
session, but the teachers are no longer teaching, since they're on
strike. The students are just sitting there, I'm told. As we walked
through the school yard, the kids screamed and poked their heads out,
yelling my name, yelling out Lekhoa and pointing, and asking us for
sweets. As I entered the school office, I caught a glimpse of the
teacher I'm working with. She was at school! I was so thrilled. Last
time I talked to her she said she was on strike and we couldn't do the
program we wanted to because of it.

"You're not on strike!" I said, coming into her classroom with the
wide-eyed Standard 1 students, happy to see her, giving her a hug. The
hug felt natural, it felt right. "I decided not to strike anymore" she
said, "I realized it was useless. We're not going to get anything." I
was so proud of her for working when everyone else wasn't. My old
counterpart, Ntamo, also is refusing to strike. Quality people,
quality friends, I thought to myself. I sure do know how to pick 'em.
As we left the school, we were stopped by a small mob of young girls.
"Wame!" they called out. And we talked in Setswana, me, Diana, and the
girls. I was so proud of my girls, proud of Diana even, proud of
myself for knowing Setswana. They gave us hugs and held our hands and
for the first time since I got here, I didn't feel like they just
wanted something from me. It felt nice to be hugged. It felt nice to
see their smiles. Even the shy ones spoke.

Cough it up to the one year mark, to Diana's presence, to a nice
Easter vacation… must we really ruin things by trying to identify the
cause for this sudden pleasantness of life?

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