Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finally Home!

After more than a week of transport, I have finally reached my village, Gobaru. It is smaller than I anticipated, but to my delight is connected to three other villages by winding dirt roads and small footbridges that lead to the other sides of the dividing rivers. We came to Gobaru on Monday evening, and were greeted in the darkness by most of our neighbors (including a large group of eager toddlers who were crawling over each other to meet their new friends). Our home is next to the Youth Center, and is shared with a large family, which includes Moniatu (age three), who likes to sneak into our room at all hours of the day and observe us, giggle, and crawl under the mosquito net with us when we take naps.

I share a room with Maryam Janani (class of ’09), who has been renamed Maryama (the Mende version of Maryam). My naming was a bit more difficult, as Elizabeth is long, hard to pronounce, and doesn’t have a Mende counterpart. However, as part of our project, we have been visiting the schools in the area, and it was a great honor to receive a naming ceremony from the ladies of the Holy Rosary Secondary School in Pujehun. We have been speaking at several school assemblies, but it was at this particular school, beneath a cotton tree, that the audience voted, decided, and proclaimed my new name. I was made to stand and pronounce in Mende, “Nya bea mia Yaima!” to a crowed of young girls who erupted in cheers. Now, when Maryam and I walk through the villages we hear the cries “Maryama and Yaima!” from front porches, backyards, windows, and passersby. It is quite a warm welcome to our new home.
It is definitely an adjustment living in the village (as opposed to the cities we have been in so far), but one that I am starting to love. Our access to internet, electricity, and running water is fairly non-existent, but the pace of life here is slow, and we spend hours on end just visiting people and enjoying these friendships. There is a warmth and communalism here that is difficult to find elsewhere.

During the evenings, the young women in the neighborhood cram onto our bed and share the light from our single, forty-watt bulb which hangs limply against the concrete wall and casts an orange glow around the room. Like moths, they have followed us to the light. Our small, lackluster space is filled with vibrant, studious women, smiling and giggling in spite of their exams which will commence with the dawn. The peace and stillness of Gobaru is infiltrated by the cacophony of this generator, installed (much to my dismay) on our second day in the village. The result is this light bulb, and a noise that rumbles like a jumbo jet that is perpetually in take-off next to my window. I am angry at this generator. Angry at the dust that it kicks up in my nieghbors’ faces. Angry that it makes it impossible to speak and congregate outside our home. Angry that it draws so much attention to a lifestyle I try my hardest to avoid. It does, however, provide a much-needed resource for these students who need so desperately to study in a village that has no other power source, and for that, I must be thankful.

Our second night in Gobaru, Maryam and I woke in terror as we heard feet shuffling through our house and outside our window. Cell phones at bay, we attempted to call everyone we knew to come save us from the thief and murderer who had broken into our house. Why didn’t we change the locks sooner? Why didn’t we learn the number for the police office? Is there a police office? We realized after a forty-five minutes of nauseating fear, desperate text messages, and silent prayers that there was light streaming through the cracks in shutters, and it wasn’t (as we had assumed) the middle of the night, but six in the morning. The noises we were hearing were normal, because this is when people start the day in Gobaru. For those who do not have the luxury of a generator, days begin and end with the sun. That means people sleep by 7pm, and wake up by six. This schedule will wreak havoc on my circadian rhythms. Nonetheless, we have learned to take the noises of the morning as an alarm clock instead of an intruder alert.

Most of this week was spent settling into our house, meeting with village chiefs, publicizing the project (including a radio interview!), meeting with community members, and listening to their ideas, questions and concerns. I have never met a chief before so I wasn’t sure how to approach that particular circumstance, but the chiefs we have encountered thus far have been kind, insightful, and very helpful for the project. The Chief of Gobaru has even allowed us to use the community pavilion for our classes until construction on the youth center is finished. The students we have met are also very inspiring- so full of hope and ideas for partnership.
The realities in this place, however, remain daunting. As we drive slowly down these jagged roads, Auntie Umu points out every home that was burnt down or destroyed during the war. The Youth Center itself was formerly the Ministry of Education, but has been completely gutted by the rebels (leaving gaping holes where the wrought iron windows were pulled from the walls). It seems that every day, there is a new funeral procession which passes by our house on Yoni Road, and just yesterday an infant died in the compound next to ours. In the Holy Rosary Secondary School, two hundred girls enter the middle school, but less than twelve graduate from high school every year. I write these things not for sensationalism, but because these are the overwhelming realities with which I am coming to terms.

I am still searching for comfort and familiarity in my new home. This process is not at all aided by the fist-sized spiders which seem to fancy my bedroom (and send me shrieking for help when I find them), and the rice and stew (which is a little bit more hot pepper than it is stew); but on a whole, I am inspired every day by the students and community members I speak to, and I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to learn and work here.