Friday, July 4, 2008

Gi ga li a Gobaru

There is a rain here which does not cease. In English we sing “rain rain go away.” In Mende, it is also a rhyme, “Je je ba nya va way.” I guess I am just lucky that the literal translation is effective in both languages although more applicable here. There are buckets that rest on our front porch to catch the water so we can use it for washing. The women gather on small stools and concrete ledges sitting in silence, mostly, braiding each other’s hair and listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof. We squeeze through with our box of books for our students, opening umbrellas in the small space and sending the women so that they back to corners and flatten themselves against the walls. An army of middle and high school students await us in the court barry (the town pavilion) to pick up their class schedules and materials.

On registration day, we were greeted by a mass of youth waiting outside the center for us to arrive. They came in droves, from Yoni, Pujehun, Massam, some from as far as twelve miles away. If there is such a thing as over publicizing, surely that has been our greatest fault. After a seven hour marathon of taking down names, grades, ages, and class preferences, the ache in our hands was nothing compared to the knowing reality that we were to plan a full-fledged summer school for 400 people.

Orientation, however, turns out to be very similar (It is not an easy task to cram 400 students into a five day week!). After a week of determining class schedules, writing them out for every student, and making books, Maryama and I are exhausted and very tired of our room, which is where we sleep, work, eat, and entertain guests of all ages. The place is beginning to look like the Lost Boys’ lair. There are pieces of printed cloth, and an assortment of damp clothes which hang from wires extending across the open spaces. It is impossible to walk across without getting slapped in the face with a pair of wet jeans (which never do manage to dry in this humidity), or a dangling sock which retains, relentlessly, the smell of must. Even to sit on the bed is a challenge- fighting to hold down the corners of our green and red sheets and find space amongst the piles of paper, books and this mosquito net which sags under the weight of our drying clothes.

Classes commenced this week, and we have started with computer, photography and the peer health mentor trainings. Our biggest challenge has been getting the students to come to class on time, as schedules here (we are learning quickly) can be fickle and entirely unpredictable. At the 1pm photography class, only one student had arrived on time. By 1:15, two others sauntered in. The rest came after forty-five minutes, making it pretty difficult to teach. This realization has been remedied by our new system of visiting students’ homes before class times. This is the greatest benefit of a small town- we walk up to people on the street and in the market, ask for the student, and we are lead directly to their house. I have tried to get more girls involved in the classes, but for now, must of our registrants are boys. One of the greatest frustrations for me has been that the people who I think will benefit most from the classes are the least able to attend. My beautiful neighbor Kadiatu was signed up for the 3pm photo class, and, although Maryama volunteered to watch her three-month old child, Bill, he started whimpering a few minutes into the class and soon they had both disappeared from the room. As I walked home past the youth center, I saw Mohamed, who is also supposed to be in that class. He has been working from 8am to 6pm on the construction of the center, and when I questioned his absence he explained that he cannot leave work. “Why then, did you register?” I pleaded. He shrugged and went back to smoothing cement onto the wall. I thought he should be first pick for the class since he has been so active in the creation of the center, and Kadiatu, I thought, could benefit from learning how to take pictures, especially those of her baby. Alas plans like these are broken so quickly. It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that sometimes those most in need of outreach are the least likely to access it, be it free or seemingly accessible.

When we teach, we don’t just teach our students, but a cohort of unintentional guests- primary school boys who come to the barry to plan soccer with a small gourd, a woman with a baby who sits on the edge, watching, before she returns to selling okra, a group of youngsters who are complacent to stand behind me, hands on knees, and look on, learning what they can from my difficult accent. They ignore my attempts to shoo them away with various, “Li’s, and ba nya va way’s,” and a flicking motion of the hands. Yesterday the first classroom in the youth center was opened, and has been adorned with a 2-foot fluorescent light, a single outlet, a chalkboard, two long wooden benches, and the curtains that Maryama and I hung in the doorway and windows. Although it provides the illusion of privacy, when we teach, it is impossible to prevent the small fingers and eyeballs which poke through the edges, eager to absorb what is going on in this place. Our scare tactics are as useless as they were in the court barry.

At the end of the day, when we return home, we are greeted by Ramatu, bent over pot in the cooking hut and shrouded by a thick layer of smoke. If I am lucky, she will allow me to help. She teaches me, day by day, and somewhat impatiently, how to cut the krin krin, and how to peel the gourds (I am not yet ready for the weighty task of peeling the yams). She speaks to me only in Mende, although as a 13 year old I’m sure she understands my English. When she sees that my technique is poor with the peeling, or the washing, her face crunches up into a tight scowl and she tells me to go away. I usually refuse, and we continue as such, insulting each other in our respective languages. Ramatu will pull her finger across my shirt, lick it, and spit in disgust, telling me that I need to do my wash. She will point to my feet indignantly to demonstrate just how dirty I am, and try to pin down my hair behind my ears, chastising me for my lack of braids. The only time Ramatu smiles is when, after much chiding, she gets me to sing and dance her favorite pop song, which, performed in Krio, I am fairly terrible at.

The town of Gobaru is currently buzzing with the excitement of elections, and we frequently receive politicians campaigning in our home, view billboards supporting democratization, and hear advertisements and songs on the radio promoting specific candidates or parties. I used to think that Sierra Leone was unique and exceptional for its slew of pop songs which reflect political themes, but my opinion has since been altered. I have come to discover that these themes and songs are written because they have been sponsored by external (and to the extent of my knowledge, only US) organizations vying for specific candidates. What is USAID doing in rural Pujehun supporting “democracy” when what the district really needs are basic things like a clean water supply? We met with the USAID representative in Freetown at the beginning of our stay in the country and learned that the organization is absent from Pujehun altogether (which is one of the poorest districts in the country), aside from its democratization projects. The representative blamed the lack of budget money. I wonder who decides how to allocate this money, and although I cannot claim to know the precise needs and desires of the community, I think I would focus first on water, agriculture, and healthcare before sponsoring events and campaigns for a democracy which will inevitably falter in such a resource poor setting.

I still cannot reconcile my life with these giant critters who inhabit our room. They have launched a full-fledged attack. Our host brother, standing over six feet tall, can deal with most of these creatures by daylight. But after night falls Maryama and I are left to our own devices. Two nights ago, we stumbled upon a foot-long centipede (or millipede?) making its way down our wall, and as we struggled to formulate a game plan for how to deal with the beastie, we came across a man-eating spider on the opposite wall. This one was fast, and Maryam went to war. They danced around each other, the spider fleeing under the table for cover, only its long curled legs indicating its presence beneath the cracks. Maryam forced its exist with the broom and some permetherin spray (note: not convinced that permertherin spray has any potency against man-eating spiders) and the creature darted past her in a fury. But she was even more furious. They battled it out, and eventually the whack of her broom won all. The spiders’ body curled into a ball while it lay motionless on its back, and its carcass was left to the flesh-eating ants which occupy our foyer. This place has abnormally large beasties.

Still, every night, even those in which we must partake in a war of the bugs, is followed by a morning wake-up from the three-year-old Moniatu, who, screaming from behind our door, ends our slumber with “Myima, wa! Lizbet, wa!” Who created this child and who is her keeper? She giggles and screeches at any facial expression, any sound- someone so eager to laugh that you have to but make a noise and her whole world will erupt in brightness. She frolics between Maryama and I, whispering Mende (is it Mende?) in a sweet sing song voice, pinning down our messy hair and trying to feed us her food. Perhaps she is a Sierra Leonean pixie, arising from the dust of the Earth (to awake us in the morning) and returning there to sleep. Why else would this child, who is so often without clothes or braids, be so jubilant, so concerned with our welfare instead of her own? We do not know to whom Moniatu belongs, but we are learning very quickly that in this place, such information is irrelevant. In this home, she has five mothers, three fathers, and at least ten siblings, and that, I am sure, is enough.