Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Just enough science to keep from saying ‘***k it’ “

“But they left out the sisters / I’ve been prayin’ to a Father God so long I really missed her / Good old goddess of benevolence / And you should listen to your momma if you have a lick of sense left.

“Pushed under by the main thrust / Buried under the photographs / Relegated by the Vatican / But you can’t keep a spirit down if it wants to get up again.

“It doesn’t come by the bullwhip / It’s not persuaded with your hands on your hips / It’s not the company of gunslingers / The epicenter of love is the pendulum swinger.

“ If we’re a drop in the bucket / With just enough science to keep from saying ***k it / Until the last drop of sun burns it sweet left / Plenty revolutions left until we get this thing right.”

--Indigo Girls, Pendulum Swinger

Peace Corps continues to be incredible, infuriating, and all-around conducive to getting to know myself a lot better. And, as it says in the song, what I’ve been doing most of lately is feverish “wanderin’ ‘round and wonderin’ how it oughta be.”

Two Thursdays ago, my neighbor Katie woke me up by tapping my foot in the not-to-be-mistaken-for-cool-fog-because-it’s-actually-just-not-painfully-hot-and-also-very-hazy morning. “KC, do you want to go up on the Luomo Car? We have to go put our stuff on.”

“Uh…okay. Yeah, sure. Let’s go.” I gathered up my massive shipments of books and food (THANK YOU Lindsey, Maddie, Dad, Mom, Andrew, Andres, and Ari!), hopped on the bike and off we went. The Luomo Car (actually of a giant, lumbering truck) is the cat’s pajamas as far as I’m concerned: you get a ride all the way to the Luomo town and your bike, too, for about $2.50. So much better, on those days when it’s more than I can deal with to both go back to the land of possibly-no-water-and-definitely-no-English AND go up the mountain. I’m learning to choose my battles, and last Thursday, it was hard enough to just go back up there.

But when I got back, my hut floor was done, and lacking only painted walls and a backyard before it’s totally done (the floor is pretty dang cracked, which is too bad, but I can live with it for the duration). More excitingly, they were nearly done re-digging the old well, so I did not have to walk all the way to the river to get my bathing and drinking water. That was the good part of the homecoming. The bad parts, though, were a lot more harrowing and engendered a lot of soul-searching and tears on my part. The first thing was that everyone was so excited to tell me that my tokara, my 17-year-old sister, was getting married off on Wednesday (NB, I realize that “off on” is a really terrible syntactical thing, but she was married OFF and it was dissonant enough that it merits the horrible prepositional structure). She and I were the only ones unhappy about it; seeing her face and asking her how she felt about it when we were alone was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do since coming up the mountain the first time.

I also had my first total breakdown that afternoon, influenced by being totally powerless and bereft about my tokara. Before he left for the Luomo, Tamba pulled me aside and explained that the well-digger was sort of high-maintenance and kept asking for money, that he’d already gotten an advance, as well as a lot of special treatment, and that I was not to pay him, no matter what he said or did, until he, Tamba, returned from the market. I thought this was unusually emphatic in this culture of accommodating and turning a blind eye to the faults and foibles of others, but figured, okay. I told him I wouldn’t pay the guy until he returned, and he and my dad/older brother (I still can’t figure out what to call him, but I usually just say “Dad” here…) left.

No sooner had they left than the well-digger started a theatrical complaining and production about how the work was too hard, the pay was too poor, and how nobody would help him. I couldn’t decide whether he (a) had an apprentice who’d left (b) had an apprentice who was to arrive soon or (c) had no apprentice, but he was really laying it on thickly about how lazy the village was. And how, if Tamba and the Toubab (sounds like a great band name, right? Tamba and the Toubabs) wanted a well, they should pay for it themselves, since they’re the ones with money. And the village felt the same way, that’s why they resented being made to help pay for the well and being made to help pull the dirt up out of the well. He ran through this production once, largely for the benefit of his captive audience (the women of the family). I was about to cry in anger at the injustice of it (they asked me for the well, they were happy to contribute the pittance, he was the one who set the price for his work, he does it for a living, so if it’s “too hard” perhaps he should find another vocation), but then my Dad called me and pointed out that what a man says in front of a group of women (when he’s clearly angling to get more money out of one of them, moreover) when the men of the family (who are normally in charge of the money) are not present cannot be trusted. I calmed down, went back to the compound, and kept reading my book.

He went through the same spiel again, and this time I thought, “Well, maybe I do just not understand what he’s saying,” so I asked Aissatou what he was saying. She looked really uncomfortable, and said, “Well, Mariama, you know…the people here in the village, they’re complicated in the head…” in short, I was right. One of the women asked Aissatou, “Does she understand?” Aissatou looked at my face, and said, “Yep. She does. She understands.”

I still wouldn’t have totally lost it then, although my hold on dignified behavior slipped a bit when the well-digger came over and started shouting his piece into my face—again. I shouted back, “STOP! STOP! I understand! Stop talking!” No, I lost it after he went back to sit down and I decided it would be better to spend an hour or so in my hut alone with my journal. As I walked away, he said in a crowing, loud announcement, “Touuuubaaaaacooooo”.

Before he was finished, I’d grabbed the small handful of pebbles on the ground near the door of my hut that I kept there for chasing the chickens. I whirled around, and threw them as hard as I could at his bare back. While he turned, surprised and taken-aback, I shouted in a voice torn ragged on my tears, “DO NOT SAY THAT! DO NOT SAY THAT—YOU ARE IN MY HOUSE! WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS? YOU ARE ENTIRELY WITHOUT INTELLIGENCE!” As I went into my hut, I could hear Aissatou explaining what I’d meant. I cried for an hour, and I can’t remember feeling so completely at a loss for something I could do to fix my life. (NB, I do realize that my repartee is somewhat limited in its acerbity and fluency, but honestly, I’m just impressed that I reacted in Pulaar rather than English or French.) I think my conclusion was something along the lines of, “Fine, they don’t want water, they don’t want to work, I won’t work, either, and I’ll tell them why, too. Jerks.”

Later that night, I told my [Senegalese] mom that I was too angry to eat, and it came out that it wasn’t that the villagers thought that Tamba and his whitey should dig their own damn well…it was that they resented the well-digger telling them that they should stay home from their market (the social event of the week) to pull up heavy buckets of dirt in the hot sun. I’m still not sure how all of that reconciles with the things he was saying, but then Tamba came and he spent about 10 minutes explaining that people ARE happy that I’m there in the village, and they do know my name, and they’re really happy about the well, and so forth. The well-digger apologized, and said he was only joking. My family told me I shouldn’t listen to him, because even though he’s a good worker, “his head is unfull of water.” (To have a head full of water is to be intelligent, but also to be sane.)

Over the next few days I had an interesting sinus condition (my nose dripped bright orange liquid, resulting in my, yes, fourth course of antibiotics), cooked macaroni and cheese for some of the women of my village—a big hit—and painted and moved into my hut, so that we could use the small one for guests for the wedding.

The wedding was two days, but I only took part in one day of it. People from all over, family and not family, came to see us, hang out, and everyone in Aissatou’s women’s group brought some rice and oil and onions to help with feeding all the guests. That night, some neighbor women came over and cooked huge pots of oily rice seasoned with the goat they’d slaughtered (I’m serious, I could sit in one of those pots with the lid ON and you wouldn’t know I was there). My sister went over to her friend’s house while, between 11pm and 3am, there was a dance party with traditional Pulaar musicians, called Ñaamakalabe (NYAM-uh-kah-LAH-bay). All the women formed a four-or-five-deep ring and took turns dancing in the moonlight. Yes, I was pulled into the circle. Yes, I danced a little bit, but seeing those grandmothers and mothers celebrating the (what to me still smells of) oppression and subjugation of a young girl was not something that made me really feel like cutting a rug. My mother in particular danced with a wild kind of triumph that deeply bothered me: I wanted (still do) to ask her, “Over what do you think you have triumphed? Your granddaughter’s slender but nevertheless heroic attempt at self-determination in the face of her family and her culture? You celebrate that? Do you not remember what it was like when you were young and married off against your will?”

Let me be really clear, here. I do not think that the Pulaar culture is unsophisticated or primitive: I think it’s a beautifully complex way of living, and there are many, many times per week that I look at something and feel nothing but appreciation, awe, or delight. But that night, with the men smugly asking me whether I was happy, clearly believing I should be, because my sister was getting married and that is clearly the culmination of every woman’s life: getting a man, with the women celebrating the anguish of their daughter…the only adjective I could feel or think of was “barbaric”. They are not barbarians, not any more than we are in the USA, or the French, or the Chinese, or the Aztecs. But in every culture there is barbaric behavior, and that night I saw it in the Fulbe’s.

When they were finished dancing, my sister’s age-group sold her to her family (they let her out of the house) for about $6 (a very high price), and they took her to my mom’s hut, where, if I understand correctly, the children sang outside while the male friends of her nearly-husband wash her and dress her in white. They then carried her to her husband’s house, where she sleeps in a room with her father’s younger sisters. They won’t have children until she goes to live with him in his house in Tamba, a year from now, so for now, she trades off weeks at our compound and at his mother’s. There, she cooks, cleans, pulls water, and is basically the general factotum. It’s hard to see.

I did not go to the second day of the wedding; I told everyone I was too tired and would just growl at them and make them all unhappy. And, for the most part, it was true. Two days later, I spent the day at my sister’s mother-in-law’s house (whose husband shared a father with my mother; my mother is also the mother of my sister’s new husband’s father as well as being my sister’s direct grandmother. I’m not sure what percentage of DNA that makes my mother have in common with his makeup, but I think it’s more than the average grandmother has with her grandson…someone do the math, am I right?), my sister’s husband had gone to Kedougou to get treatment for a snakebite…my mom was really worried about him, though.

But, the next day was a lot better, because they started digging the new well! Originally, the village Matron (like a nurse) had seemed to think she could hoodwink me into putting the new well really close to—or even in—her compound. But although she tried to bully me, I successfully put her off, and then Tamba stepped in and explained to her that if she wanted a well in her own compound, the digger would be happy to discuss prices with her. And we all know she can afford it, as the chief’s wife and a member of the family that owns possibly the most cows in the village…so she had no recourse but to stop dogging me.

Monday, I went to Katie’s village to spend the day and charge my phone at the tower; the guy who runs the tower messed something up in my phone, though, so now it’s locked and may have to go to Dakar before it can work again; this is not an optimal situation, but tomorrow may bring a miraculous hacking-into-my-phone. And if not, I may just spring for a new phone and wait until I’m actually IN Dakar and get this other one unlocked. Then I’ll have a spare phone…

Today I rode to Ashley’s old village to talk with them about doing seed extension there, and they were really excited and supportive. I was going to fill up my water bottles at the covered pump-well in the village (I trust that water mostly, because it’s covered, and really, why not)…but there were a lot of bees, so I didn’t. As a result, the subsequent 90-minute ride into Kedougou really hurt; when I arrived, I chugged two liters of water, an hour later, two more. I think it was around 100 degrees when I rolled into town. My trying to play basketball later did not make it hurt less (sorry, Mom, but I’m fine, if exhausted, now).

Overall, a stressful but productive two weeks. I am sending concrete and rebar up on the Luomo Car this week if things go according to plan, then in a week-and-a-half, I get to go up to Kaolack for a conference. I am pretty proud of working on this well, though, so that plus noticing another step up in my Pulaar has helped me get through, as have all the phone calls from my parents. Thanks, you guys.


canyon wren said...

OK, you've convinced me at last, there is nothing glamorous about being a peace corps volunteer.

What's more, it brings to my mind the line from Terms of Endearment: "as hard as you think it will be, you'll wish it was that easy". Just turning that a bit to say that as hard as i understand it to be, if only it were that easy.

I salute your courage and strength of spirit, and the resiliency that allows you to stay, and all the while maintain some shred of a positive attitude.

Same part of you perhaps that inspired you to see your balloon flying off to balloon city.


Boydo said...

So will you be the lead mandolinist for Tamba and the Toubabs? I'll play the finger cymbals and the slide whistle.

Miss you lots, and hope you're well (and without orange snot)