30 November 2008

[30] finale

The Town Bar, Southern Sudan, 2007

This posting every day thing has been really hard this year. It was much easier last year, in Southern Sudan, when all I had to do was open my eyes and write about what I saw, because everything I saw was new. It wasn't always interesting, being in Tiny Little Town; it was just easy to write about. I spent long days doing nothing but hiding from the sun under my porch and working on writing a training guide. It was far too hot to work in the actual office, which had, according to rumor, been designed by someone from the colder regions of Ethiopia. The office, therefore, had one window in each of two rooms. The windows faced in the opposite direction from the direction of the wind. And there was no ceiling under the metal roof. So it was essentially a box of concentrated heat under the 105+ degree sun. 

The only relief from the monotony was a walk on the airstrip at sundown, with a snake or two thrown in on particularly exciting days, or a trip to the hospital with a stool sample, or a ride into town to sit outside the tiny grocery store, drinking whatever cold beverage they happened to have that day. The grocery store was a container. You know, one of those containers they use on ships, to carry goods across the seas? The ones that fit on a flatcar of a train, or on a tractor-trailer base? It was the short length, the half-size. No one builds permanent structures in Southern Sudan. Everything is a mud tukul or a container or a prefabricated metal box that must be air-conditioned in order for human beings to survive inside it. It's the first question anyone asks when they hear about a new hotel or business or project: "Did they build a permanent structure?" The answer is almost universally no outside of Juba, and it's usually no even in Juba. 

The biggest excitement of a week in Southern Sudan, if you could get it, was a drive to Bigger Town (the state capital, three hours away) or to the Nile. Of course, that depended on the road being okay (i.e. not flooded) and no one flagging you down on the way and saying, "Maybe you don't want to go there." If there is one thing I have learned in Liberia and in Southern Sudan, it is that when someone says, "Maybe you don't want to go there," down that road, along that beach, you really, really do not want to go there. No, really. You do not want to go there. There are guns, most likely. 

People in the USA sometimes ask me if I'm scared when I'm in Africa, and the truth is that I have very rarely been afraid. I was far more afraid of bugs and snakes in Southern Sudan than I was of any human beings. (Although we did joke that my headlamp was a perfect target should someone want to get me.) I was scared momentarily in Liberia when it seemed that expatriates were being targeted, but just for a moment. One night I stood on the balcony at work, looking out at the ocean, listening to the night sounds, and I tried to be afraid, but I just couldn't manage it. It was so beautiful. And I was never afraid in Rwanda. In fact, I used to forget to lock my doors at night. 

29 November 2008

[29] fashion

I no longer have a functional television (the infrared sensor broke, so I can't change the channel, so I can't get it on channel 3, so I can't use cable, so I get no channels clearly). If I want to watch television, I have to go down to the little gym room in my building. If there are few other people there, meaning no guys who have taken over all the channels for sports, I can watch a show for a little while. Yesterday I happened upon an episode of Wh@t Not to We@r, which I used to watch sometimes back when I had tv.

Fashion has been bothering me for the last two years. Why must women's clothes be so unflattering? You know it's bad when the skinniest person in the room looks bad in the current fashions. (I know, I'm totally buying into the current Western perception of beauty here. I don't actually think the skinniest person in the room is the best looking - often that person is not - but I am trying to make a point.) Those babydoll shirts - not okay. Those shirts that poof out right on the bust - not okay. Those shirts that look like a bubble with a band around the bottom - not okay. And no, pairing it with skinny jeans or leggings does not make it look okay. It still looks like a bubble on a stick, not a human body.  

Why is it so unacceptable in current fashion to have shirts, in particular, that actually fit and flatter? It is downright annoying. It's so difficult to shop, because there is nothing normal in the stores, plus I have to actually see all these women wearing terrifically unflattering clothes, and I want to pull them aside and tell them to change, but that's rude, of course. I'm ready for some new trends. 

28 November 2008

[28] this post is about underwear

My mind is a very unfortunate blank this evening. This is the apparent result of too much play and too little work. A four day weekend is turning my brain to utter mush. 

I have resorted to blindly glancing through photos on my computer, hoping to find something, anything, of interest. 

There wasn't anything, really. I did find this:

Okay, that is perhaps interesting only to me. That is my tukul in Southern Sudan. I lived in that miniature house for three months. I would show you a picture of the inside, but 1. there is a logo that would give away who I worked for, ruining my pleasing fantasy of anonymity, and 2. there is nothing to see. This tukul contained the following things, while I lived in it: bed (with mosquito net), two plastic chairs, one teetering camping table, one fan that kept breaking, and two suitcases, in which most of my stuff stayed. It felt like a major life-enhancing change the day I got around to hanging a clothesline so I could dry my underwear somewhere other than on the arms of the chairs.

Here's a thing about Africa: you wash your own undergarments. Everyone does. Underwear is dirty, so you cannot ask someone else to touch it. It would be terribly rude. In Southern Sudan, we had women washing our clothes by hand, and they washed everything but the undergarments (they were not pleased with the shorts I wore to bed, either, thinking they were underwear despite some ineffective cross-language attempted communication). I washed mine in the shower, and then hung them about my room, a strategy that only took me, oh, two years in various countries to figure out. Always before I had a big underwear-washing party periodically. Except in Rwanda, where somehow I managed complete oblivion to the whole concept. The lady who helped me keep my house and myself in some semblance of cleanliness (more than full-time work and hand-washing clothes are incompatible occupations) was kind enough to wash my underwear as well. I'm not sure if she did it because she figured I was clearly completely inept, or if she was just incredibly nice. (I was completely inept, by the way. I still have not figured out how that weird mop-substitute floor cleaning mechanism they use in Rwanda works. It's like a big rubber squeegee that you use on your windshield. Only for the floor.)

27 November 2008

[27] last minute Thanksgiving post

It is 11:42 p.m. and I am barely making this daily post thing. I have just been having far too much fun in a world without internet. I went over to my friend S.'s house last night, she of Dutch-family-that-has-taken-me-in fame, and we baked far into the night, in preparation for oodles of eating. We walked into her parents' house this morning with armloads of sugar and carbohydrates in cooked form. My pumpkin muffins were raved about, as was the beer cheese bread that I read about somewhere on the internet (I cannot for money remember where, and I have neither time nor internet speed to google it).

At the Dutch-American version of church this morning, we sang "Sing to the Lord of Harvest," which is one of those classics that reminds me of being little and singing around the piano on Sunday nights in Liberia. My parents favored the thankful sorts of songs, and the old hymns, and I loved the marching type songs, until about the time when preteen angst set in, when I changed my preference to melancholy songs like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."

(I knew this preteen thing had occurred due to the discovery of the ages 8-12 preteen category on the back of some of of my books; when I announced it to my mom, she said, "Well, then you are probably old enough to turn the shower on and off by yourself," even though we didn't really have a shower, we had a bucket on a hook with a spigot on the bottom. I changed my mind about my entrance into the next developmental stage, immediately.)

I have eaten until I could hardly move over and over again today, and learned several new card games. I laid on the floor and let a two-year-old crawl on my head, and hoisted him up giggling on the bottom of my feet. I heard stories and laughed, and ate again, and topped it all off with a nice little soak in the hot tub. Not to mention just a little more beer cheese bread.

And now I shall go home, and go to bed, full of the delightfulness of this holiday.

26 November 2008

[26] this is really how i think

I saw the sunset as I got off the bus coming home from work. I had expended my entire lunch break - on a day of brilliant sunshine - inside, talking on the phone to my Momma. (Good news! I have a ticket to MI for Christmas.) I wanted to enjoy the last few moments of light, so I went directly to the roof of my building without passing go (no $200, either, sadly). 

The few clouds in the sky were all in the west, turning pink and then scarlet and then lavender above the lights of the city. The first star twinkled, and I wished on it. I'm never sure if I believe in wishing, but it feels good sometimes to throw a little piece of hope out to sparkle in the air. A helicopter took off from a building downtown. I watched it, remembering suddenly how a helicopter came every morning and evening to Tiny Little Town when I was in Southern Sudan.  It landed just over on the airstrip, swooping so loudly over our compound that I thought it was going to crash on my head every single day. I was occasionally in the shower in the mornings when it came. It was the only time I regretted the open-air shower, because I worried that the pilots could see right down in there, if they flew over in just the wrong arc. 

Usually I loved showering on the concrete slab with a few little frogs in the corners. I loved looking up at the blue sky or the clouds or the stars while showering. Many days, it was my favorite moment of the day. I would hang my old clothes on one nail and my new clothes on another. The towel went over the door, and I propped a bar of soap and my shampoo on the wooden frame, halfway up the corrugated metal wall. The water drizzled out of a barrel propped up high. It even had a proper showerhead on the end of the pipe, which got clogged with lime or grime sometimes (due to the use of well water hauled from over by the hospital), but was easily cleaned by a few minutes and a paper clip.

It is, as I have mentioned, very hot in Southern Sudan. It is virtually never too cool for a cold-water shower, and the cool water in the morning is not even invigorating. It's just pleasant, because you are already sweating. 

When I looked around, I realized that I was still in Gone West, a little shivery in the wind under an indigo sky. My phone beeped a message. I picked up my purse and walked back into the warmth.

25 November 2008

[25] around town

"That's a really little bike," I said doubtfully to the guy getting on the elevator. He was normal-sized, maybe 6 feet tall, and the bike was really small. Kid-sized. Too many instances of disappearing toys and clothes in Liberia and disappearing bikes in the inner city in Michigan have made me mistrustful of normal-sized people on little bikes. 

"It's not for riding on the street," he said. "It's for BMX stuff. Dirt-biking."

"Oh, right." I nodded.

"That's a really small bag," he said.

I was carrying a little shopping bag for my library books. 

Er. Yes. Little bag. (Weirdo.)

On the street outside, a Japanese couple with a baby in a sling stopped me and asked me about the Nike store in less-adequate-than-broken English. (Nike is almost the Greek word for victory, did you know? Three years of classical Greek, and that's about all I remember.) I know even less Japanese than almost any language on earth, but I managed to convey, I think, the following bits of information: ten minutes walk, bus on next street, bus 6. 

On the corner by the park, two middle-aged men were handing out little salvation cards and one guy wore a sandwich board about Jesus. "Jesus loves you and wants to save you," one said as he held out a little card. "He will always love you." I smiled at him, but kept walking through the rain. 

24 November 2008

[24] pretty happy; slightly bitter

It is a banner day. A big, once-a-decade day. A day that I have been anxiously anticipating for at least two weeks. 

I got my new passport in the mail.

I may be mostly broke, but I could not face the idea of living without a passport. My old one expires in January and I renewed early to avoid the terror of even a few weeks without a valid passport. (I know. Most US Americans don't have one. But it makes me itchy to think of being unable to travel. I need at least the possibility.) I wrote the $75 check, and it was probably the best money I spent all month. I am actually pleasantly surprised that it only took two and a half weeks from mailing off the application to the little stiff envelope in my mailbox.

It's a dandy new passport, all pristine visa pages and stiff front pages (I ignore safety admonitions and carry my passport in my back pocket in airports, so the old one is all comfortably battered and soft like a good t-shirt).

I confess to a little bit of... um... uncertainty about the new design. It's very... active. I first saw the new passports in the visa line in Nairobi last year, where a naturalized Kenyan-American had a sparkly new passport while I had an old crumpled one full of African visas. We traded. I looked dubiously at the stylized photos - must there be fields of grain on the visa pages? quotes about freedom? - and he admired the visas in mine. I'm still not convinced. The back page has a satellite on it. That's just odd. 

But regardless of the design, I am thrilled to have a new passport. I actually look normal in this photo. (In my last one, I looked like a convict. I have seen better mugshots of drug addicts. Drug addicts who were severely high when the photo was taken.) 

So today I tore open the envelope of "official US government mail" today and snuggled with my new passport. Then I made out with it for a while. I can hardly let it out of my sight. The one single sad moment was when I noticed that the passport number is different. I will have to memorize a new one, and I was so attached to the old one. I could rattle it off in my sleep. 026...

The date is okay, though. I can remember 21 Nov. 2008 and 20 Nov. 2018 as the date of issue and expiration. (What? You actually open your passport to look at the number and dates when you fill out immigration forms? Amateurs.)

23 November 2008

[23] roads

Maasai Men, Longido, Tanzania (2005)

I went for a walk on Friday down along the river. At one point, the sidewalk makes a long swoop out away from the water, and the path along the water is an ancient almost-brick, with bumps and gaps all over. It's hard to walk on, even in good shoes (which I was not wearing). At the beginning of the path, there was a pine tree losing needles all over the path, and the pine smell was just exactly like the spot, high up in the mountains, where we kept the big, imported goats that my organization brought to Rwanda.

Near Otis Spot, Buchanan, Liberia (2006) 

I thought about a picture I have of the road to that spot, of the way the light shone through the pine trees and the eucalyptus, and of the rich smell of the needles and leaves when the sun warms them.

The Road to the Goats, Itabire, Rwanda (2003)

I take pictures of roads and paths. I love the idea of remembering how I got somewhere, not just what I found at the end. Back when we spent hours in bookstores "studying" in college, T. and I discovered a book called The Journey is the Destination, by Dan Eldon, who grew up in Kenya and died in Somalia. I've never owned it, but I know that she has, and that she ends up giving it away over and over. I love the photos and art, but I think the title is still my favorite part.

Tiny Little Town, Southern Sudan (2007)

22 November 2008

[22] music

I came across this video today, of Brenda Fassie in South Africa, and it reminded me of one of the things that I miss most about Africa, a side of the continent that I'm not sure the missionaries I grew up with in Liberia ever quite saw. Sure, they went to five hour church services and yes, people danced at celebrations. But there is nothing quite like a concert or a dance club in Africa. I don't mean a rally or a revival, I mean real, popular music. I am a tavern or coffee shop girl in the US, but in Africa, I go out, and I dance. I suck at it, but I dance. The music has rhythm enough to keep even me looking relatively un-stupid, and people of all ages get out on the floor. 

My favorite part of this video is the crowd just behind the nice tables, all dressed up and dancing. It reminds me of a Rwandese woman, a friend of a friend I'd just met, putting her hands on my hips and showing me how to dance, back in Rwanda. My entire unself-conscious dancing career dates back to that night. (I am still awful, but I have reached the point where people actually tell me that I look "cute." They claim this is a compliment, but I find it patronizing. In a good way.)

21 November 2008

[21] cows

I don't know why, but I always seem to end up in cow places. (Although, now that I use my actual brain, this is not that odd considering that most if not all of East Africa is cow country and I've spent quite a few of my adult Africa years in East Africa. Anyway.) I don't mind cows, usually. I can plow my way through them. I can swat at them with a stick. 

Rusenyi, Rwanda (2003)

I appreciate the fact that cows provide lots of milk and meat for a great many people of the world. And hey! I love milk, despite my vegan roommate S. in law school who insisted that milk is full of pus because cows are milked so frequently and painfully. "Yum," I would say, as she stared in disgust at my bowl of cereal and milk. Slurp

But seriously. Sometimes one can overdose on cows. 

When you can't drive your (emergency radio and ventilator equipped) vehicle on the only road through town, for example.

Tiny Little Town, Southern Sudan (2007)

Or when they block your way to the (overheated, dirty) pit latrine.

Tiny Little Town, Southern Sudan (2007)

I don't think I miss cows. Nope. I don't.

20 November 2008

[20] seriously brilliant

I hadn't noticed it sneaking up on me, but it came. The days got shorter and shorter - it's dark when I wake up and dark when I leave work - and there are no longer sunny lunch hours in the park. Even noon is gloomy and rainy, and I hide from the sky under my cheerful blue umbrella. 

My mood did the same. Soon it was gloomy more often than not, and I could rarely get myself off my couch to go to evening events. They seemed like a good idea during the day, but then the sun set before I'd even left the office and I gave up on going anywhere in the evening dark and cold. Little things seemed bigger than necessary, and brought on tears. 

Then my friend J. gave me a mood light. I used it yesterday morning for the first time. I sat in front of the blue glow for 30 minutes, trying not to look in its direction but not look directly at it so as to blind myself. 

It's actually sort of shocking. I can't make any blanket statements yet, because I have only used the thing for two days and it could simply be a fluke, but it is actually difficult to feel unhappy after sitting in front of that light. I think about things that would have made me sad three days ago, and I just don't feel it. I'm still happy. Happy skippy happy. 

The little rows of blue lights apparently work like the sun, through your eyes and into your brain, ramping up the production of dopamine or serotonin or some lovely brain chemical. J. warned me not to use it for too long. "You'll feel giddy," he said. So far, no giddy, but lots of happy. This light therapy thing is brilliant. Just seriously brilliant.

[20] little things

You know you are no longer in Africa when you leave the sugar open overnight, and in the morning? 

No ants. 


19 November 2008

[19] in which i try to fix myself, but the world is the problem

"What is that white blur?" I asked, leaning forward. "Is it a problem?"

"That's your heart," the x-ray technician said. "In people like you, who are tall and thin" - side note: this guy is my favorite! person! ever! love him! - "the heart is low down and near the center of the chest."

I finally got around to going to a doctor for the fact that I feel like someone is sitting on my chest. The conversation went like this, "Well, it started right after I got back from Ethiopia, which also coincided with starting to work in an old building. And I've had bronchitis a few times. And I test positive for tb, and my friend in Liberia had it when we were little, but I took INH for nine months in 2002. Oh, and I had schistosomiasis, as of last year. And malaria. And I was treated five times for amoebas. And the only other time I've felt like this in my life is when the harmattan would - do you know the harmattan? It's when the sand from the Sahara gets caught up into the atmosphere and blows over Sub-Saharan Africa. I used to feel this way then, like I couldn't quite fill my lungs up." That would be par-tic-u-late matter, my friends. Dust.

Good news: nothing bad on the x-ray, and my lung capacity is above average for my age and height (yessssssssss - I have no idea how this happened. I've been boycotting exercise recently out of sheer laziness). Bad news: my chest is perfectly shaped for air-trapping, and apparently I'm allergic to Gone West. It's always convenient to be allergic to your new hometown.

18 November 2008

[18] short due to computer problems

Things are oddly messed up in internet world. No google products are loading on my computer, which results in a lot of half-loaded screens.

Here is a little story:

Not long before we evacuated from Liberia, we went to a Fourth of July in February party at the Voice of America station. (I think the Fourth of July was held in February in Liberia so as to avoid the rainy season.) There were games and prizes. There was food. I, being a nerdy child, spent a great deal of the day memorizing all the verses of the the Star-Spangled Banner and the Battle Hymn of the Republic (apparently I am a scary old white Southerner at heart). ("I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps, they have builded him an altar on the evening dews and damps..." - this was almost 19 years ago and I still remember the silly song.)

I fared less well at the games. My little brother and sister each won something in the races and games. I won nothing. I have never been very athletic. I was discouraged.

A little later, I was crawling around under a big bush/tree thing, and I found something. A golf ball! I was thrilled. A. and R. might win races, but I was a FINDER. I could FIND things. (Keep in mind that this whole event was taking place NEXT TO A GOLF COURSE.)

I had a little basket from somewhere or something, and I joyfully put my golf ball into it. This is what the picture from that day shows: A. and R. are holding their ribbons for winning races. I am just as proudly holding up my little basket with a golf ball in it.

17 November 2008

[17] rich

I have not yet turned the heat on in my apartment.

Well, that's a lie. I turned it on for about one hour one night. And then I turned it back off and it hasn't come back on. It's not yet really cold enough to need it, not when I have a white cotton gabi from Ethiopia and a down throw and a good sweatshirt. I'm sort of tempted, though, never to turn it on. I'm not sure if it will be tolerable in here, but I live in an apartment building, so I can mooch a little bit of heat from the neighbors.

I have a heating pad, and I have a real mattress now. (It is, by the way, astounding how much easier it is to stay warm when you sleep on a real mattress than on an air mattress. I underestimated how much heat I was losing to that air. I'm delighting in sleeping in this cushy, cozy, warm, real mattress. Even if it's the wrong size for my bed frame. Oops.)

The most important thing is my pure joy at the electricity bill. I paid $60 a month all last winter, which was fine. It was tolerable. But then, over the summer, I discovered how low the bill could go if I didn't use any climate control. A $19 electricity bill is pretty addicting.

Not that I don't spend that other $41 almost instantaneously on other things.

Yesterday I read an article about the difficulties of buying groceries in the "food deserts" of cities, and I realized just how privileged I am. I am broke every month, sure, but I still buy fresh vegetables and I eat a big salad almost every day. I still buy ice cream bonbons and hummus and healthy cereal. I still buy - this, this is the privilege of wealth - organic milk.

No, I can't fly to Africa when I want. But I can buy food that keeps me healthy. With my new health insurance, I can go to the doctor when I feel sick. I can get to one or another grocery store within ten minutes walking or ten minutes by train. I can heat my apartment, if I choose. I can buy myself lunch when I have nothing interesting left in the fridge. Every once in a while, it strikes me just how privileged I am.

16 November 2008

[16] grace

When I flew back to Gone West last month, I took the train into town with my two suitcases and my bookshelf-in-a-box. I sat in front of a wheelchair space, because that's where there was room to prop up my two suitcases and my long, skinny box. All the way home, I leaned forward and held the box into place, so it wouldn't fall across the aisle or on my head.

A man in a wheelchair got on the train and I looked about frantically for a place to move all my stuff (there are, after all, announcements made at every stop telling you that you must give up those seats for seniors and people with disabilities) . "Oh, no," he said, "it's fine. You don't have to move. I'm fine right here." He put himself on the opposite side, next to the door.

One stop before mine, I got up and laboriously moved each piece of luggage in front of the door. When the train stopped at my stop, I jumped out and pulled everything out, one piece at a time. The man in the wheelchair spun one of the suitcases and pushed it out the door for me.


(P.S. Happy birthday, Oma!)

15 November 2008

[15] sleeping arrangements

After several unsuccessful attempts to refill my air mattress, I resigned myself to the fact that it had a hole in it. Somewhere. Now, I could try to find this hole, but an air mattress is a pretty large inflatable object, as I told the guy at Aer0bed when I called,

"I think it has a hole in it, but I don't have a swimming pool to dunk it into."

"What we suggest you do," he told me, "is fill a spray bottle with water and a little dish soap, and spray it on the mattress, one section at a time, and then press gently on that section to see if anything bubbles out from the mattress."

... (Well! Isn't THAT helpful? Isn't that how you want to spend your evening?)

"I don't think I have room for that, either." I said. (My apartment is a little bit bigger than a standard hotel room. The kind with two beds, only I have just one, which leaves room for the kitchen.)

"Well," he said, sounding annoyed, "I guess you'll have to send us a copy of your receipt then, to show that you actually did buy it within the last year, and then I can authorize a return."

Why yes, that would be very nice, considering that I did nothing to this mattress between the night it was full and the day it started leaking. There is no way it could have been punctured. It just started seeping, as far as I can tell. Shouldn't it last more than a year? I bought the most expensive one! I hate replacing things out that can continue to be useful, but for that price, this air mattress seems like something that should last more than a year. It just does.

In addition to the eventual replacement of the warrantied air mattress (should they decide to honor the warranty - that phone call did not sound encouraging), I have inherited a mattress from S.'s parents. Now I can sleep in a real bed, for the first time in this apartment. For the last week or so, I've been sleeping on my 1kea couch that flips out into a bed. It's not too terribly uncomfortable, but it does make the apartment veeery crowded, and it's oddly hot. I wake up sweaty several times a night. I guess this is the penalty one pays for a foam mattress without a mattress pad.

(Side note: when I was very little after we first moved to Liberia, I used to sleep on a foam mattress all the time. To hear my parents tell it, they got very tired of picking up a dripping-wet-with-sweat baby every morning, so they bought water beds when we came home on furlough. I spent most of my childhood sleeping in a water bed, which was the perfect antidote to the heat in Liberia. When I had malaria, though, even that was not cool enough. I remember lying flat on the cement floor, trying to soak up the cool as my body burned with fever.)

14 November 2008

[14] things forgotten, part 4

Only big cities in Africa can sustain a market every day. Smaller towns hold them once or twice a week. My little town of Kibuye, in Rwanda, has (had, at least) a tiny daily market in the center of town every day, with a few vegetables and a stall for meat, but it holds its real market on Fridays. The real market is held on the sandy beach of the bay closest to town.

Boats, large wooden ones with motors and little dugout canoes with a single paddle, come over from Congo and from the islands in the middle of Lake Kivu. They carry people and animals and vegetables. The pineapple from Congo are rumored to be the best around, and a few merchants sell red palm oil from the far side of Congo, where the trees carry those little red berries.

The market is crowded with industrious boys who offer to carry your bags and wash your car. Every week, I had to choose two or three for the tasks, and the two in this photo (plus the one below with the cloth) were my favorites. After a few months of weekly bag-carrying, we knew one another well enough that I would give them each a few hundred francs and instructions to look for passion fruit or pineapple ("maracuja?"* "ananas?") and they would disappear for a few minutes, only to return with either the requested fruit or an apologetic, "maracuja, no," as they handed back my francs.

You can't quite buy everything in this market, but you can get staples like "Irish" (potatoes), sugar, and flour in the open center. You can get goats up on the hill behind the photo. You can get tomatoes, onions, and green pepper in the stalls around the edge. You can get batteries, flipflops, and padlocks in the stalls by the water. You can get bananas in piles down by the water.

You can get second hand clothes along the upper road, or beautiful cloth at the stall down in the corner. You can even get it sewn up right outside, by a man with a treadle sewing machine carried laboriously from his normal shop in town.

I tried to go to the market every week. I walked sometimes, and paid the boys to carry my plastic bags home up the hill and down again, offering them a cold Fanta on my patio after they set everything in the kitchen. I took the Prado sometimes, and inched slowly down through the crowd so as not to hit the wandering children or the slow-wobbling bicycles.

I bartered, sometimes, and sometimes not. My friends who worked for volunteer organizations would be annoyed later, complaining about the price of tomatoes rising to 100 francs (20 cents) per kilo (from 80 francs - which no one ever had change for anyway, since the smallest bill is 100 and the coins are rare), but I didn't see the point of complaining about spreading a little wealth around. Anyway, my bag-carrying assistants would nod or shake their heads at the price, letting me know that yes, 100 francs was the new price or no, it was the muzungu price, keep talking.

* I just looked up maracuja in my French-English dictionary** because I'm unsure of the spelling, and apparently this is not a word that appears in Quebecois French, because it's not there. When I look it up in the English-to-French section, it appears as "fruit de la passion." Helpful.

** I also found, in my French-English dictionary, the following list:
UGANDA: gum, financial papers, card for D's car, laptop, reports from 3 partners, shillings, USD.
My life is so boring now in comparison.

13 November 2008

[13] %(*&^ movies

I intended to stop for a drink after work with a few girls from work. I suggested the place I always suggest, which I suggest because of the amazing soft pretzels with cheese fondue, with which I am obsessed, and my suggestion was accepted. I left work a few minutes early because I had to make a stop on the way, and eagerly headed to the pub.


Not just closed but, to add insult to injury, closed for the filming of a movie. If there is anything I thought I had escaped when I escaped New York City, it is movies filming in the exact locations where I want to live my life. Ethiopian restaurant just south of Houston? Prevented due to movie filming. Playground where the babysittees loved to play? Banned due to movie filming. Walking one block down the street to the grocery store? Again, blocked due to movie filming. It's all exciting the first five or six times, and then it just starts to get old. Are there no other coffee shops in Manhattan they can use for movies? For that matter, are there no other pubs in Gone West?

We relocated to another place, which was fine, although pretzel-less and therefore inherently disappointing. But it was delightful to sit and chat with some very pleasant company. It's been a long time since I laughed until I couldn't sit up straight, but I did tonight. I certainly did tonight.

12 November 2008

[12] conk conk conk/here and now

There are really very few things in the world that make me want to burst into tears as instantaneously as getting conked on the head. I stood up on the bus today and conked my head on the mirror right above me, and the guy sitting next to me asked, "Are you okay?" I wanted to say, "No, I just hit my head on the mirror and it really hurt. How could I be okay?" and start crying, but bursting out crying on a crowded bus is really only acceptable until the age of about 6 or so, so I smothered my bursting and just said, "Kind of." I miss being little enough to cry loudly when things HURT, like it HURTS when you catch a hard object on the flat of your head.

(I also miss foot-stomping. Wasn't foot-stomping fun? I can do grown-up and it even feels more natural now to hold back on the foot-stomping, but some days I miss being little and having fewer internal censors.)


I spent hours today looking through photos on my computer. I wanted to change the background on the desktop. It has been Rwanda and Liberia, but never Tanzania or Sudan or Ethiopia. I am feeling further and further from being able to go to the places my heart craves, and so it seemed appropriate to choose one from somewhere different. Anyway, the Rwanda photos especially were all too brilliant and colorful (see examples here). I needed something to match the constant rain outside, the inertia of days whose light is gone by 5 p.m.

I chose this photo of barren mountains in dry season outside Lalibela, Ethiopia. I took it from the back of a mule on my way up to a cliff church. It is not bright and colorful, this photo, but there is beauty in the starkness, and a great span of sky, and it seemed right to acknowledge the most recent visit I made to Africa, to a whole new country that I barely began to know.

11 November 2008

[11] things forgotten, part 3

Around Kilometer Marker 38 (or is it 48? I think it's 48.) on the drive from Gitarama to Kibuye, there is a waterfall, just a single cascade of water next to a scenic turnoff.

The valley beyond is beautiful, though, even in dry season, when all the squares of crop-land are empty.

This boy plays his stringed instrument for anyone who stops, in hopes of amafaranga (francs) or some other gift.

I so rarely stopped. I was only 20 kilometers from home, and I wanted to get there.

[11] cars and trucks

I have a bizarre fascination with knowing the makes of cars. Not all cars. I used to be primarily interested in minivans and SUVs as a teenager, for some reason. Not that I wanted one, or that we owned either one, just that I wanted to be able to identify all of them. It still bothers me when someone says something about "that Chevy Astro," when it was clearly a Ford Windstar.

Now I am primarily interested in the types of vehicles used in Africa. Not the little Corollas and Coronas, but the trucks and SUVs. There is a big difference, should you care to notice, between even the engine sound of a Nissan Patrol and a Land Cruiser.

The first thing I thought when I saw this article: Terrorised in Congo, was not the natural reaction, "Oh, how horrible for the IRC workers." It was, "Those are not Toyota Land Cruisers in that picture. They are Mitsubishi Pajeros."

The second thought was, "At least they have the right license plates." I am also bizarrely fascinated with license plates. It bothers me in those movies allegedly set in certain countries, like Hotel Rwanda, when the license plates are wrong. Fortunately, those NK license plates are, in fact, license plates from North Kivu Province in Congo.

I need some help.

(P.S. I wrote this all after seeing the photo and before reading the story, which is actually quite scary. I have the natural reaction now.)

09 November 2008

[10] things forgotten, part 2

Another thing I had nearly forgotten about the Rwanda years is the drive to Kampala. I drove that road five or six times in my two years (I also flew a couple of times). At the beginning, I always made the trip with my colleague D., but by the end I drove it alone or with a few friends.

The drive from Kigali to the border with Uganda is all tight curves through green mountains, like most driving in Rwanda. The road runs along a valley, and the hills rising in front are round and full. Uganda begins the same way - the southwestern corner of Uganda is all rugged deep-green mountains blending into the volcanoes it shares with Rwanda and Congo. The mountains ease into rolling pale green hills studded with cattle, and then flatten to dry plains covered in thorn trees, with long, flat, empty roads where you can open up and see how fast a Prado really will go. And then, before Masaka, the bulrushes creep closer and closer to the road as things get wet again near Lake Victoria.

Don't ask me about the Masaka - Kampala section of the road. It's all a blur at the end of a long day of driving. When I drove up with S. and E., in the left-hand drive Prado on the left-hand side of the road, having driven all day, I got snappy by the end. Driving that road is difficult, especially when your driver's seat is over by the curb and you can't see how far your bumper extends on the side where passing vehicles are cutting too close. In Rwanda, a drive to and from Kigali was not complete unless you thought you were going to die at least once. The drive to Kampala is far worse. The tar road in Uganda is crumbling at the edge, making it too narrow for cars to pass one another in some places, and you share it with enormous vehicles: buses and lorries overloaded with people and goods. These big vehicles stay in the middle of the road. They do not give way for anyone. The only thing you can do is keep your eyes on the edge of the road and stay as far off the edge as possible without losing control in the crumble. If you dare look at that huge intercountry bus, or that lorry piled high with sacks of grain, passing three inches from your inner bumper, you will lose your sh1t.

I mean that literally.

The towns in Southern Uganda are short rows of colorful shops set back a dusty span from the road. They would flash past, except that each town has huge speed bumps before and after, and a few in the center of town for good measure. Humps, they call them, and if you drive with a Kenyan friend or colleague, you will hear the joke that they call them "sleeping policemen" in Kenya. (You will possibly hear this joke multiple times, depending on the particular colleague.) The humps in Uganda are gargantuan. Not even the largest of lorries can take them at full speed. Little cars inch over them as if up and over a hill.

My colleague D. had particular stopping points in each major town: the hotel up on the hill in Kabale if you are already tired enough to need chai after two hours of driving plus the border crossing, the hotel next to the lake in Mbarara when you are desperate for lunch, the rest area at the turn in Masaka for some samosas midafternoon. He knew people at each of them, and every stop was prolonged while he greeted them. He would talk, and I would wander off to look at the view, or to watch the music videos on the tv, or, in Masaka, to carefully hold up the legs of my trousers while I used the porcelain squatty-potties.

On my own, I rebelled, and I stopped in a tiny town in the middle of hours of nothing to buy a Ugandan sim card (to get a Ugandan phone number) for my mobile. The man behind the counter in the tiny green (I think it was green) shop looked up at me, the unexpected white girl, in surprise.

"I could live here," I would think, every time I drove through the light green hills. "Maybe I could buy some land, and some cows, and run a little school. I want to move here, and own a house."

Several police officers flagged me down on an unpopulated stretch of road. "Where are you going alone?" the nearest one asked, from under his helmet. "And why?" They ignored the sheets of paper I had painstakingly procured from multiple offices on each side of the border, permission to take the Prado out of one country and into another. "Why must you go alone? A woman, driving alone? It's good that you drive, you a woman, but not that you go alone."

I smiled, and drove on.

[9] things forgotten, part 1

(Pre-P.S. It is November again, and I, along with many cool people whose blogs can be found by clicking on the last word of this sentence, am writing something every day during NaBloPoMo.)

Many, many are the times that I wish I had a blog when I lived in Rwanda. There is so much that I have forgotten because I never wrote it down.

My friend S.'s car has no dashboard lights and last night, as I was designated-drivering her to her house and wondering aloud on the highway just how fast we were going since I could not see the speedometer, she told me that there is something wrong with the wiring, not the fuses, and I remembered how my Prado's electrical system went batty a couple of times. I was driving through Gitarama once, on my way to Kigali, when the fuel gauge suddenly plummeted. I had two tanks on the Prado, so I flipped the tanks, and the second one plummeted, too. I assumed that the car was leaking fuel (which, when I think about it, is silly - it's unlikely that BOTH tanks would start leaking at the same time on a perfectly smooth tar road), and turned around and went back to the nearest petrol station, where I added some diesel to the tank, which was not, in fact, empty.

By the time I got to Kigali, the entire truck had gone insane. Not only was the fuel gauge vacillating wildly between empty and full, the lights on the dashboard were not working, nor the radio. In addition, the blinkers did not work (the headlights did, fortunately), and the horn did not work. These dual losses were a near-disaster in a country where blinkers (they are called indicators in East Africa) and horns are the primary method of communicating with the cars, people, and animals with whom one shares the road. Car wants to pass you? Indicator, on the curb side if it's okay for them to pass; on the inside if not okay for them to pass. Person or animal darting in front of you? One little hoot of the horn will do it.

I generally drove with my right hand over the horn when it wasn't in use shifting gears. One or two little hoots to politely alert someone that I was coming, sustained hoots to warn that death was imminent. Without the horn, I felt totally vulnerable, especially driving in Kigali-ville. I took the back way out to a restaurant that night, 'round past the Ministries and up the back side of the central hill, hoping for fewer pedestrians who I could not warn of my passing.

The Toyota dealership (on speed-dial in my phone by the end of my two years) fixed things the next morning. Whew.

08 November 2008

[8] unsustainable living arrangments

So... remember how I have been sleeping on an air mattress for ten months?

That air mattress is, um, deflating. Throughout the day, I have been hearing it crackle, and I just went over there and put my hand on it, and the whole thing is considerably lower than it ought to be.

I am about to go investigate - I hope that the cap is somehow joggled off or something. If it has a hole in it, I am in so much trouble. What will I sleep on?

07 November 2008

[7]b - I can't resist today's election post

I cannot imagine reading the news, looking at the jubilant faces, and not being moved. I am still crying daily with joy.

I have made it clear on here that I don't like the current presidential administration. I've been realizing, in the last few days, that one of the things that bothered me most was that I didn't feel heard. I didn't feel like anything I said or did - or even anything that an entire coalition of people said or did - would make any difference. That absolute certainty that I saw in the outgoing president, that he is right, that everyone else is wrong, terrifies me. I feel the same way about James Dobson. I am scared of anyone who claims that he or she has the one single answer or, worse, the truth of what God wants.

Because here's the thing: what if you invoked the name of God to justify your policies, but you were wrong? Who could tell you that you were wrong? To whom would you listen? And how would you ever know? Because I have very different opinions about the heart of God than this on-the-way-out president or, in fact, many of my family members.

I am willing to accept that I may be wrong. I don't think I'm wrong, of course. I hold these opinions for a reason; I have thought them through and they make sense to me. But I am willing to accept that I may be wrong. I am willing to listen when someone tells me that they reached a different conclusion and gives me the reasons why.

What I am not willing to do is be dismissed for having my opinions. I am not willing to accept having my opinions silenced. I am not willing to stop thinking because a pastor says this or a leader says that.

And what I hope more than anything for the next four years, what I hope for all of us and for our new President, is that the unity to which he calls us will mean that we can hear one another without anger, without defensiveness, without dismissal. What I see, on the faces of US Americans and on the faces of people around the world as they greet this new Presidency, is hope that this time, this time, even our contributions, even our ideas will be welcomed. We may still have different conclusions, we will not all be satisfied with the outcome of every discussion. But if we can open ourselves to different reasons and ideas, we might actually be one nation again.

We have been dividing ourselves long enough.

[7] field trips

When I was little, I went to school in a house. Every school year, a teacher or two would come out from North America and teach a group of us with US American curriculum. Five, ten, however many of us there were in town that year who did not fit into Liberian schooling or LAMCO schooling, sat at desks our dads made (I had the coolest one) and worked on whatever grade level we needed.

We went on the most interesting field trips.

One year, we went for a ride on a tugboat in the harbor. I sat at the front of the tugboat on a metal post that looked something like an H. I sat on the crossbar of the H and pretended I was riding a horse as the tugboat tugged up and down in the waves. (I was a little horse-obsessed at the time.) If I recall correctly, this tugboat actually did not TUG boats. It pushed them. Years later, in 2000 and again in 2006, I saw this tugboat, or one very like it, beached and broken at the edge of the same harbor.

broken LAMCO tugboat

One year, we went to a Chinese restaurant, where we learned to make spring rolls and the woman who owned the restaurant wrote our names in Chinese characters on the backs of menus.

One year, we went to a pig slaughterhouse.

For crafts, we tie-dyed. No, I mean real tie-dying, like they do in West Africa. Not silly rainbow-colored blotches, but tie-dying with designs and purpose.

A man came to show us how to weave traditional Liberian baskets. We sat in the carport watching him entwine the grasses and form a sturdy round base, then build up the sides. We all took a turn, clumsily.

Can I just say that I think I had one of the most interesting childhoods ever?

06 November 2008

[6] wide open future

Someday, I'm going to stop writing about this election.
Someday, I'm going to stop crying every time
I see a picture of the Obama family on that stage,
or hear the President-Elect speak.

A friend said to me today,
"For the first time in eight years,
I feel like I have a president."

I am living with the vastness of possibility these last few days.
Anything seems possible this week.
We could cure cancer, or AIDS. Cancer and AIDS.
We could end war.
We could end hunger.
We could end pollution, and reverse global warming.
We could save lives.
We could heal hearts.

Oh, I know.

I am too idealistic, and I will be disappointed
100 times
in the next four years.
I know that.

I'm just overwhelmed at the idea of a President who says,
"We need change."
(We do need that.)
A President who says,
"I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."
(We need that, too.)

I've been disillusioned, these last eight years.
In 2004, I could not imagine
that anyone would think
another four years of the same
was a good idea.
Environmental destruction.

I was disappointed,
and I've been disappointed,
every day since.

But I'm coming alive again.
I'm daring to hope.
The future is wide open,
and anything is possible.


"This is our time,
to put our people back to work
and open doors of opportunity for our kids;
to restore prosperity
and promote the cause of peace;
to reclaim the American dream
and reaffirm that fundamental truth,
that, out of many, we are one;
that while we breathe, we hope.
And where we are met with cynicism
and doubts
and those who tell us that we can't,
we will respond with that timeless creed
that sums up the spirit of a people:
Yes, we can."

~ President-Elect Barack Obama, 4 Nov. 2008

05 November 2008

[5] we did it

I didn't cry last night in the first excitement, but give me the Yes, We Can music video or a slideshow of people all over the world reacting to the news of President-elect Obama's victory, and I cry over and over again. The little part of me that thought that the Republican establishment would still steal it away by fraud or deceit (witness: Florida - 2000, Ohio - 2004) is finally starting to rest.

"We did it." I keep thinking, "We did it." Even though I personally did very little, nothing but believe and cast one single vote and write a few posts here that most likely changed no one's mind, because most people have pretty strong opinions about things like this.

We did it - we elected a black man to the highest office in our country, not another old white man.

We did it - we elected a president who calls us to unity, instead of a man whose campaign told us that we were not "real Americans" if we disagreed with him.

We did it - we elected a president who reminds us to hope when things look difficult.

We did it - we elected a president who has lived overseas and seen the world, and who will govern, of course, for this country, but also for everyone else.

They told us that we were too young, that we were too inexperienced, that we were too hopeful. They told us that our candidate was the wrong color. But we did it.

One man cannot change everything, but this man can change some things, and for the first time in eight years, I can believe that the changes our President brings will make things better.

We did it once, yesterday. We have four years to do what we can.

"Yes, we can to justice and equality.
Yes, we can to opportunity and prosperity.
Yes, we can heal this nation
Yes, we can repair this world.

Yes, we can.

We know the battle ahead will be long,
but always remember
that no matter what obstacles stand in our way
nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices
calling for change.

And together, we will begin the next great chapter
in the American story
with three words that will ring
from coast to coast
from sea to shining sea.

Yes, we can."

~ Barack Obama, 8 Jan 2008

So here it is, once again:

04 November 2008


There is cheering in the streets here in Gone West, and T. tells me there is cheering in the streets in Detroit.

I knew not whether to laugh or cry when they called the election - too soon! what if they were wrong? - and McCain conceded. Jesse Jackson was crying. Oprah was crying. And Barack Obama, our next President, the man who carries a Kenyan name - the word baraka in Kiswahili means blessings - the man who speaks like a black preacher, the man who brought hope back to US American politics, spoke to the nation.

His speech was humble, and uniting. I wanted to cry with joy, and instead I laughed with relief, that our next president will not be one who tolerates racism and bigotry and division at his rallies, but one who promises that we, together, can make things better.

Yes, we can.

Congratulations, President Obama.

[4] on tenterhooks

Someday, I want to be able to tell my grandkids that I voted for the first black president this country has had.

Someday, I want to hear them say, "Grandma, how was it possible that the country had never had a black president?"

Someday, I want to tell my grandkids that this was the day when things started getting better.

Go blue!

03 November 2008

[3] one more day

The rain and cold are setting in. The air last night, in the dark, had the bite of fall. The leaves are plastered flat against the sidewalk.

I'm nervous about the election. I pour over maps on the internet, willing more states to turn blue, even though what is blue already is probably enough.

It gets dark at 5:00 p.m., now, and I keep thinking maybe I should buy one of those full-spectrum lights, although I think an Obama victory tomorrow could carry me through many dark evenings.

I'm arranging a steady stream of activities to keep me from chewing my own fingers to nubs tomorrow night. Free Ben & Jerry's after work. More people to meet later.

"They'll call it by 9 p.m.," my mom tells me, as I rant on and on nervously.

"Eastern time?"

"Yes, Eastern time."

I can make it until 6 my time, right? Maybe?

I dropped my ballot in the box today, bubbled in and sealed and signed.

02 November 2008

[2]b - presidents

When I was small in Liberia, we did our grocery shopping at a couple of grocery stores in Buchanan proper, and one in the LAMCO compound. None of the stores were very big; maybe four aisles at the most, but it seems to me, thinking back, that we somehow managed to get quite a few things at them. Okay, not everything. There were some things that had to wait for Harbel or Monrovia: almond butter, Honeycomb cereal, gummy worms - those things were only available in more kwi places. But we had bread and cheese every night, and any town that has cheese is good in my book. (Side note: I doubt that you can buy cheese in Buchanan now. Unless things have changed dramatically in the last two years, since I was there, the town has shrunken down in on itself. There are no longer any real restaurants or supermarkets.)

Sometimes my mom would buy us a treat at the supermarket. Sometimes Smarties (the real chocolate kind, not those little chalky tablets). Sometimes Pastilles (gummy fruity things).

One day, for a reason that I can't remember, my mom had to talk to the Lebanese owner of the LAMCO store, and we were ushered back into his office. While the two of them discussed whatever needed to be discussed, likely the lack of something, I stared up at the photo on the wall. I must have been not far into the world of reading, because I was proud of myself for being able to read the words underneath it for the first time. It wasn't that it was new to me - every office had it. It was a portrait of Samuel K. Doe. I was just excited, for the first time, to be able to read the words, "His Excellency, President Samuel Kanyon Doe." He was the only president I had ever known.

I've lived under a few more presidents since then (four in the US, one in Rwanda, one in Tanzania, one more in Liberia - Ellen! - if you don't count the two weeks I was there while Taylor was president, and one/two-ish in (semi-autonomous) Southern Sudan). As I rode the train today, I passed a small crowd of people waving Obama posters. "Hm," I thought to myself, "even though I no longer live in a place where one is required to put the president's portrait on the walls, I would put his up. I would proudly put his photo up on my very own wall in my very own apartment."

I wonder if it will be hard to get one of those red-white-and-blue shaded pictures of Barack Obama once he wins the election...

(Yes, I just said that out loud. I don't want to jinx it, but I almost start to hope.)

[2] runup to election 08

I'm just going back to this, over and over:

"We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

~ Barack Obama, New Hampshire, 8 Jan 2008

01 November 2008

[1] Halloween

(crystal ball)

I wore my long skirt, made in Yei, in Southern Sudan, and tied an Ethiopian scarf around my head, and people got it, right away, for possibly the first time in my adult costuming life. "Tell me the future! Who's going to win the election?" they said, and I sighed and peered into my (Christmas ornament) crystal ball. "I can't see anything about the election," I said, "the ball is too clouded with my own emotion about it. I can only see things further away from myself." But I didn't like the ball, anyway. Not for fortune-telling. I pulled an old deck of cards out and used those instead, because the numbers give me ideas. "Six means that you are above money, but four means that money is below you. You don't have to strive for it. It will come to you."

The scarf on my head started to itch my forehead, and it felt very, very familiar. When I was little in Liberia, we wore scarves on our head to church, my mom and I, little squares of fabric, and they had to be tied tightly to stay on my slippery white-person little-girl hair. They dug into my head, and they itched. (As a result, in later years, I just ignored that head-covering rule throughout Rwanda and Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania and Liberia and Sudan. I figured my skin made me a weirdo regardless, so my lack of headtie would not the noticeable feature. Educated African women, anyway, who get their hair permed and such, often don't wear headties to church.) My fortune-telling headscarf yesterday wasn't so tight, not like those long-ago Liberia headties, because it was long enough to stay in place. But it still began to itch on my forehead.

I shared the back seat of the car with a robot and a sea captain. The front seat held Hans Solo, a flapper, and a gold-digger, and they dropped me off by the library. A Joker walked past me at the train stop and said, "Don't be afraid" with his wide red mouth. "Oh," I told him, "I'm not."

On the train, four girls were a bee, a devil, Supergirl, and Sigfreud (of Sigfreud and Roy). They tried to take pictures of the Joker, but he turned his back. "Joker!" they called, "Joker, we want to take pictures of you!"

"Some people think I'm Beetlejuice," he said, his back still turned, holding the bar above his head. "I'm not Beetlejuice."

A teal and pink Spiderman got on, and the girls took pictures of themselves with him, instead, until the Joker got jealous and turned back toward them, "Okay," he said, "the Joker is ready for his paparazzi now."