Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bakery Handover

I read an article today about a mobile TB X-Ray van that is traveling around places in Europe checking at-risk populations (homeless people, drug users, etc.) for TB. I wonder if such a tool could be rolled out here in Botswana, or more specifically, here in the Ghanzi settlements. TB is the biggest health risk for people here, as many of them are far from clinics or health posts and live in places with poor ventilation in close proximity with others.

I helped a little bit at an event in Xade this morning (and I'm likely to return in the afternoon to help break down). This event has riddled me with weariness and a little unease all week-- culminating yesterday morning, when a local government employee reproached me for not showing up at an 8AM planning meeting. The friend I was walking with and I responded quite indignantly-- how can we come to a meeting we were never informed about? I have to admit, that response was loaded with more meaning than I meant it to be. The fact is, I did not find out about this extremely important event until 5 days prior, and only when an officer from Ghanzi asked if she could stay at my place this week while she prepared. And even then, I was not told why she needed accommodation. I only found out later when someone asked "if I were going."

So all week I've been going about my regular business, checking in only at night to see how preparations were going. At first I felt guilty for not being more involved with an event that my department was helping to run. Then I was a little indignant that no one asked me for help or sent me a proper invitation, the Botswana way of notifying important people of important events. The only official invitations I've ever received here are for social things like baby or bridal showers. I guess I'm not an important person. So this morning, the morning of, I wandered the streets of New Xade looking for some way to help. I found it in the kitchen, peeling and dicing over 10km of carrots and onions. My arm felt sore and stiff after who knows how long, and, inside, my pride was hurt that this was all I could contribute. My counterparts had all but left me alone in the kitchen with boxes of vegetables, so after I finished carving up the last carrot in my possession (there were plenty more, but I'd have been darned if I were caught in the kitchen alone much longer) I wandered off muttering under my breath about "what I really came here for" and "I wasn't going to be the only one working."

Truth is, I wasn't the only one working. People all around me were working (albeit at their own paces), they were just socializing with each other too. And I, being too lazy to attempt to decipher their words, felt neglected and unimportant. I watched "Devil Wears Prada" for the umpteenth time last night and Stanley Tucci's words had been echoing in my ears ever since, "...this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work."

Do I only deign to work in New Xade, being awed by the place I am in and the people I am with only when it brings me some sort of prestige or importance? A white photographer was at the event today and I couldn't help but try to stare him down-- what are you doing in my settlement, I thought. Don't you know this is my territory? My pictures are so much better than yours. Yeah you get to sit at the head table, but I, I choose to sit with the people. And then I purposefully started a conversation with the person next to me just to look important.

At the end of the day, there was nothing that I did that made me stand out as an important person, nothing that would warrant me a special introduction to the District Commissioner or get my photo taken by the white photographer. In fact, one of the "ordinary people" even yelled at me to get them food since I was in the "important person food line." I realized then that there was nothing I really could have done to make me stand out, that I am, indeed, just as ordinary or even more ordinary than the next person. All I really did today was cut come carrots and encourage those behind the scenes to take breaks, eat lunch, sit down for a moment. I stood and smiled at the VIP's as they piled their plates high with the food that a handful of women and men have been slaving over before the crack of dawn this morning. I stood behind the serving lines as the "regular people" came for their portions, surging the serving window and then the kitchen door until both had to be closed. I nodded at those who stepped forward to do odd jobs that they saw were needed, wipe down the chairs, stack the plates, refill the food bowls, get more drinks. I stood and watched and thought about the person I used to be (the one who always had to be the hardest worker and the best performer) and the person I was today (the one who stood out of the way and avoided eye contact with intimidating-looking officials, who waited to see if someone else was going to do that first.)

I didn't come here to work someone else out of a job, I came here to help create jobs. But, odd, that wasn't what was going through my head as I helped to dice and dish and clean. I saw the privilege that comes with position in this world. Food was piled high on plates and then left uneaten moments before the everyday people food ran out and people searched the trash for discarded scraps. Even the weight differences between the first eaters and the last eaters was apparent. This must be what America looks like to foreigners, we are the head table who gets their first pick in everything from food to technology, religious ideals, computer equipment, healthcare, and they get whatever is leftover. Our excess. I'm not saying that this system is fair or unfair, or that this perception is even true. It's just the way it is perceived here. No wonder my penpal students have no hesitation about asking their friends in Spain for their old, used things.

History has shown us that progress and technology can only be achieved when there is time for luxury created by excess (take for example the industrial revolution which led to a surge in technology, arts and culture). Unfortunately, excess is not a luxury many people can afford here.

Photos from top to bottom: the "every day" people line up at the foot of the bakery doors to watch the event, a local artisan displays her ostrich eggshell jewelry craft (best quality I've seen so far), a choir team shows off their dance moves.

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