Saturday, July 19, 2008

Classes, life, etc.

The rainy season brings with it at least one small joy- the image of three year old Moniatu, donned in her pink bathing suit with the glitter stars, standing and screaming on the front steps while Sylvia scrubs her down and rinses her off in the downpour. Her face, normally glowing with happiness, is dark and intense with the anguish that coincides such a cleaning, and although this may be cruel, I find it unbearably amusing. Moniatu is not the only one enduring some rough times.

Our classes are in full force, and Maryama and I are usually working from 10am until at least 8pm, leaving space for lunch breaks of course. The photography class is the best part of my week (and probably the best part of my summer). Oh how to make shutter speed and focus stick into my students heads’? Sometimes when I try to explain things they nod in agreement, but do they understand? “Your photos are too dark- more light!” I exclaim. Nods of agreement. In the background I hear Abraham’s voice, translating everything into Mende for little Justin. He is the only elementary school student in the class, and although he is young and exceptionally little for his age, he has the biggest smile on Earth, and an eagerness to learn that is unparalleled by anyone else in the class. As Abraham teaches, Justin picks up the camera and gingerly adjusts the aperture ring, looking at the light meter, trying with all his might to understand this translation of a very technical language. Sylvester is curious and attentive. Sheku is quite and thoughtful, always the last to volunteer ideas and answers, but probably the most competent. Swadu skipped classed this week. Oh why!? As one of three girls (out of fourteen students) she in an endangered species of sorts. Tomorrow I will go on a campaign to save the Swadu. Ansumana is the laughter and light of the class. We high-five after he gives my favorite response to, “how do we make this picture better?” “Move closer!” (High-five). I would not trade in these students for anything, and this class has been a learning process on both ends. I am really proud of not only the artwork produced, but also the teamwork and reflection (on both lives, and communities) that have resulted.

For the second half of the class the students wander around the community; some go to Yoni or Pujehun (nearby villages), others stay in Gobaru, usually visiting their favorite section, Old Town. I go on a scavenger hunt to try and find them. It’s one of my favorite games. I set off in some direction, and when people see me coming, they hold up their hands to signify a person taking a picture and point me in the right direction. These hints can come from an old lady sitting on her front porch, or a small girl pumping water, or a group of teenagers, doing nothing but causing trouble and of course, aiding me in my treasure hunt. When I find my students shooting in someone’s kitchen, or wandering through a church, they are always shocked. “How did you find us?” they exclaim, convinced that they had buried themselves in the ends of the earth. I usually check in for a few minutes and make sure they are following the assignment, and then set off to stalk another set of students. No one wants to take photographs with me around because I always manage to make them break the number one rule (no pictures of people who are looking at the camera!) When I hover, it is impossible to prevent the stares, the “Bowa (hello)!” and eventually, the lengthy conversation which always ends in “God cannot be blamed,” from my end (this is most of what I know in Mende). And hence, when we determine that shutter speed, aperture, and light meter are all understood, I find my way back to the main road, and to the various people who helped me find my target (still holding up their hands up to their faces, in snapping position, when they see me).

The youth center is growing closer to completion every day, and as we occupy these rooms with our classes, we form relationships with the workers who are piecing it together. Francis is the lead contractor, and is a native of Ghana, transplanted to Bo. Because he is not from Pujuhun, he lives, eats and works in this building. After I let on that I know a bit of Twi, he has continued to greet me in his mother tongue (every time I turn the corner), with a joy and charisma that I could not have anticipated. The other workers are younger, mostly my age, and they come to our computer room after class ends at 8pm to listen to music on the computers and enjoy the light from the generator. Mohamed shows us his latest dance moves, while Mustapha is more inclined to seek help answering the multiple choice practice questions for his upcoming national examination to pass middle school.

On weekends, we go to Bo. Our host brother went with us this past weekend. We sat at the taxi park in Pujehun, waiting for a vehicle for over two hours. While we baked in the hot sun, a commotion started and an old man began beating a young boy with a stick. In the next few seconds all I could catch were images of this child, eyes round with fear, fingers extended, reaching with every ounce of strength for a moment without pain, legs searching for solid ground, screams of terror filling the marketplace. I cannot tell if this drama was the cause or result of the scene which played out next, but they are inexplicably connected. Attention drawn away from the screaming boy, our gaze turned downward to a small girl picking up tiny brown nuts from the ground, tears streaming down her face. She placed each one meticulously on top of the wax paper, protecting from contamination those that remained safe from the spill. We stared at her as she reached and placed, gently, with anguish. Our host brother, from his spot on the bench next to me, called her over to his side. She rose slowly, summoned from her sorrowful task for an unknown reason. He asked her how much she was selling the nuts for, and, granted a response, he reached into his pocket and proceeded to purchase the quantity of the ruined produce. Tears drying, she dug through her tiny purse for his change, but was only able to pull together 200 leones. Without hesitation, he offered his newly purchased nuts up to a slew of youngsters who looked longingly at the snack; a group for whom we could say the “ten second rule” is an understatement. He then went back to reading his book, and I was left to ponder in silence the intense generosity and thoughtfulness of the people with whom I am so blessed to share a home. The rainy season is a time (Auntie Umu reminds me), during which almost all people struggle to find food. Everyone is hungry. And yet, one will without question, give family, friends, and even strangers everything they have. I come from a world where such inclinations are not the norm but the exception, and I find that I am learning more every day about the power and importance of this virtue.

When we reach Bo we spend time fulfilling our craving for Internet, and the delicious cassava leaf and rice of Ngo Lizzy (our host brothers’ mom). If we are lucky, then she will take us with her to town. In the market, Ngo Lizzy is Queen. I never realized how vast and extensive it was; in fact, if I didn’t follow her then I would probably never even find one of its many entrances, and I would certainly never be able to find my way out again. The openings are concealed beyond curving alleyways that appear to lead to nowhere, and then open up to an exploding world of vibrant moving colors, fabrics, umbrellas in stands, and roaming animals and children. I keep my eyes on the ground so I don’t step on anything I shouldn’t. I find my way by glancing up occasionally, making sure Ngo Lizzy isn’t too far head. There are smells and noises and sounds I have never encountered. In one section, Ngo Lizzy purchased a white dough substance; the area smelled like rotten fish, and I could hardly breath except that I was trying to dodge the puppies a man had pulled out of the bottom of his bag to show us. The space is too close and claustrophobic to avoid brushing up against people. We become equal in our inability to move quickly, though not equal in our purchasing power (I buy nothing, but instead leave Ngo Lizzy to do the bargaining, because I will never get a fair price). I am bothered by the people who reach out to grab my arms, and snatch the soccer ball I carry for the youth center. There is a whistling and a smacking of lips which echoes from vendors and from behind windows as we pass. We look like ducklings following our Mother Goose. When children see us, they scream and run to hold their mothers’ legs. Plastic bowls, baskets, bags of okra are shoved in eyesight to coax a sale out of us. We deny all offers, but instead follow the curvy maze of lines Ngo Lizzy has set before us.