23 October 2007


Someone reading this blog while I’m here in Tilt, if they have been reading for long and have seen the way I have written about other places, even other places in this same country, might think to themselves, “Hm, I wonder if she might be experiencing some CULTURE STRESS.” DING-DING-DING! That person is 100% correct and wins a prize! (A prize of nothing, but a prize nonetheless.) The fact is, yes, yes I am experiencing some culture stress here. (This used to be known as culture SHOCK, but for some reason circa 2000 when I took Intercultural Communication, they had renamed it culture STRESS, I think so as to indicate that it was natural and one could survive it. I really prefer SHOCK, because that’s what it feels like, but I will go with the less pejorative term.)

I wasn’t expecting to feel this way here because I have never before felt culture stress in Africa, other than occasionally and transiently and usually related to things that would also stress me out in the US, like having guests in my house for extended periods of time, so it’s hard to tell if it’s just stress or if it’s culturally related. And because I wasn’t expecting it, I think it’s hitting me harder here. This place is different from any place I’ve ever lived. I expected it to feel instantly like home, like East Africa did, like Liberia did, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t feel like home at all.

Part of the reason that it doesn’t feel like home is purely physical: it’s very hot, and very flat. I am a tree girl, and a mountain girl, and a water girl. My favorite house in my life so far was my house in Rwanda, nestled among tall trees between a mountain and a huge clear lake. There are none of those here, not trees, not mountains, not water. There is unending flat, nothing for the eye to catch on, and the water is only dirty puddles large or small that dry slowly, turning into gray marsh between the grasses. Kids play in them and spear fish, but they are not a lake or a river. They don’t flow.

Part of the reason is cultural. I come from farming people. My ancestors were farmers, and although I’m somewhat citified and I can’t keep plants alive, it is farming that we idealize: the fresh corn in the summer, the round ripe tomatoes, the green growing all around. I’ve always lived in at least mostly farming cultures, in the US and abroad. (Except for that horrible stint in New York City. LET’S NOT TALK ABOUT THAT. There is no culture there.) Even in Rwanda, where cow ownership is idealized, most people are farmers by necessity. Cows are a luxury.

This, however, is a cow culture, probably because things don’t grow very well in the heat and the marsh. Cows are everywhere. You cannot drive without long periods of very slow inching through herds of them (you can’t hit one; the owner would demand payment). A wife is purchased with cows. Cow dung covers every path. There are flies everywhere, because they love cow dung.

The problem is that even cows have a hard time surviving here. In the rainy season, they are sickly. In the dry season, they are hungry.

I have a very hard time with the whole thing. I am culturally stressed. I feel mostly at ease about the fact of my culture stress, though, because one of my Sudanese colleagues, who is from near Elsewhere (where there are trees and mountains and rivers, with less heat and few cows), also finds it stressful. He told me yesterday that if anyone ever tried to make him stay in this town for two months straight, he would quit.

It’s not just me.

I was starting to worry that I’d lost it.

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