Tuesday, December 19, 2006

fragment 5

A small, blue phrase book from the peace corps enabled me to tell them my name and  greet them appropriately, although I could never resolve in my own mind that I had to greet as elders, people who were only three years older than I, but the book ran out of content and sense when I came to the pages which elaborated on the many medical maladies we'd been told we'd inevitably encounter, and I saw no sense in telling them that I had blood in my diarrhoea when I plainly did not. And it's hard to say what is happening when you sit in such uncomfortable silence, their faces made implacable by the gulf of culture and language that separated us, but then a trick which I'd learn to employ whenever some period would pass in too awkward a silence – I'd make an entreaty to the materialism that we both had in common as avaricious, grasping, fellows, and the trick worked, because virtually always I'd have the advantage of possessing more and stranger, exotic material than those with whom I'd share the awkward silence that needed remedy. And dazzle I did, many times, though not so much on that day, and all the little trinkets I'd scrupulously packed according to the instructions on those poorly photocopied packets that the peace corps had sent us did not impress as I'd hoped, and my family was left dissatisfied as they'd hoped for more from America than a couple of Nike t-shirts and some match box cars; the Barbie dollars, I'd later give away. Who knew that there would be no daughters in need of a white role model? But at least brief distraction as they contemplated their disappointment, but I did appreciate the attempt and potential of the technique, and I'd employ it often in the future. Dazzle them with what you own. Sit the neighbours' kids down with my radio so they'll stop hovering; see my new digital camera; I'll demonstrate it so that I don't have to admit I don't know what to say to students that I haven't seen in nearly three years and whom I left behind abruptly to chase my own dreams.
Five minutes spent trying on shirts, getting bored with small metal cars that fit so easily into Alberii's mouth and it was the family's turn and they won and in the end my pants ended up spattered in blood because I stood too close as baba slowly drew the dullest knife in the kitchen back and forth across the afraid chicken's neck, and he stepped on its wings so it couldn't fight and pain and vegetarian inducing beady little eyes closed as the neck, nearly severed finally by the long piece of metal that was almost a knife spurted blood into a waiting dish and my khaki pants. We ate the chicken that night, fried with rice and chapatti, and as I chewed on what I'd just seen killed an hour before, and swore that I was eating the first documented chicken hair, I decided to tell my family that I was allergic to meat and would appreciate, please, the beans and rice that I'd expected and awaited since id' learned that it was a staple in a country where people were too poor to afford anything else. Please, I will live like you and not kill the chickens even though I grow to hate them over my time there because they live under my window, sense when I require sleep and so vocally remind me of their presence, one, with a sickly warble that grated on my unaccustomed ears and who earned no pity, only scorn, resentment, as they conspired to rob my nights of sleep.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Grenville Byford noted in Foreign Affairs, wars are more fruitfully declared against proper nouns (Germany, Japan) than common nouns (terror, poverty).

Friday, December 15, 2006

fragment 4

And the streets were only pale prelude to the dark left and right turns we'd make through narrow alleys hemmed in by mud walls, cinder blocked decay, chickens running before us, startled, unable to clear our way, and we left the electrical wires behind, the plumbing, the modernity and language that I'd always known, and passed through a tumbled wooden gate into the courtyard of our house, expectant family standing ready, alerted by the belching of our bug as it completed its struggle up the slope. There they stood, not a word of English ready to come from their mouths, beautiful elise, livingstone earnest in his pressed white shirt, and alberti, truculent and mischievous and most likely insane. An awkward pause, as the bags were set down in the dust beside the chicken coop and elise runs to hug me; she's very happy to see me and I still believe it was kindness that motivated her and not the windows and electricity that the fees they received for guarding me would eventually purchase.  The hug was over, and what was there to say, what was there to do, but bring the bags inside and briefly inspect the four rooms that were the house, and I was kept inside one of them, displaced the parents to the children's room where the four slept together on a mattress, sacrificing for 7 weeks so that they could purchase a television and never need to talk to each other again.
Enter the house, doilies, as per usual, cover every surface possible, white and coloured, the arms of the chairs had them, small tables off to the side, the backs of chairs, and occasionally children who'd been still for too long would find that they'd been marked for permanence with a doily carefully perched atop their fuzzy heads. The kitchen, a charcoal stove, and brightly coloured Chinese made buckets, used in some sort of complicated process to manage the water of which I would never be able to make any sense. The family's room was blocked by a thin white curtain, and I was grateful for it because I was not ready to find such an intimate knowledge of the family, their lives and wants so early in my time there. And to the back we went where a muddy courtyard contained the latrine and small concrete stall for showering, and beyond the gate open to a short, blasted stretch strewn with trash and fist sized rocks grey with the pervasive dust, until a small path led downward into the same ravine which had been our curb on the drive in and in the bottom more garbage, offal from the previous day's meal, a receptacle of all unwanted, and in it little girls played and through it ran our drinking water, a small stream, floating detritus on its meagre volume. And I sipped from my nalgene, pure bottled water from the training centre and the dust, cloying, and everywhere parched my throat and would the water last, or would I drink what they'd brought from the refuse and kindly boiled, though always there'd remain flecks of suspicious colour and nature floating throughout. Grand tours take time and distract from our mutual inability to communicate and empathize and understand and the ease of following behind someone's heels and smiling and nodding as each new site is presented wears off when sitting in close quarters around a table upon which were squeezed three white doilies, the centre one being larger than the rest and the one on the left with a small red stain on one edge.

Monday, December 11, 2006

fragment 3

And then, short and bald, and barely older than I, my father came and grabbed me roughly with sweaty palms and we joined the thronging circle and danced to the drums and no time, but out through the gates, past the Mercedes and other gleaming sedans, arusha's wealth parked on one street, and the cars began to thin until there were none, and still I was pulled along until around the corner, an ancient blue bug, lopsidedly parked in a ditch, rust through the doors, and me unable to open mine from the outside, and it was my way home. Did it make it, how did it make it? A relic, impossibly driven, as each bump threatened its existence as a car, but through streets wide with cars and peddlers through large avenues, teeming humanity we drove north to the mountain, meru, always there to remind that perhaps life might be spectacular, and as I began to think that the city might be left behind, we'd driven so far, the crowds off to our right parted from the impetus of our surprisingly loud horn and revealed a small dirt lane wending deep into a warren of markedly more ramshackle, confused and derelict buildings that was Sakina, our neighbourhood. He aimed his battered car into this mysterious engulfment of potholed streets walled in closely on either side by the garishly signed pharmacies, dukas, and high, glass-topped cement walls that protected the homes from the desperate crime that ran rampant soon after the sun went down around 6 pm. This near to the equator, the day always ended at 6, dusk would bring a quick emptying of the streets and families huddled around their low wooden table, scooping ugali in their right hands by kerosene lanter. And this was what I, too, would come to once we completed the maze of streets that climbed higher and less resembled roads the farther the car groaned up the incline littlered with boulders, stream crossings, and at least one dead cat. And turn right at the third butcher, "Jesus' liberty meat of cow," and then past the "third corner" hairdressers, and up and over rutted, gutted road, deep, grey dust hiding deep gullies which we'd hit suddenly and bottom out and throw clouds of the stuff into the air behind us as we came perilously close to a gorge, rusted cars in the bottom a church on the other side, and up the road climbed and narrowed as it went, banana trees replacing the lively shops of below and not miles, but seeming farther the more foreign all becameAnd finally, a left before the gorge engulfed the remainder of the road and up a steep driveway, past the house with electricity into an alley, dark even when elsewhere the hot, African sun shone and conspired to send small rivulets of sweat down the back of your shirt, for the bougainvillea that climbed high above us and scratched as we struggled to extricate bags from unwilling doors; they still bore the blue yarn then, and do now, even as one has been traded away for petrol.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

panoptic you

steven levy: newsweek;http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15994151/site/newsweek/
calls it "litttle brother" orwellian terms, but end result foucauldian when we learn that everywhere people with little prying cameras in handy plastic phones ready to broadcast your shame, digression from the straight and narrow, ready to broadcast to world on youtube, email, or other video sharing site. private communication betrays you, moments shared among few become moments broadcast when simple technology thrown into the mix, when we begin to accept the change in barriers, we'll no longer need the training of our institutions to teach us how to behave according to their norms, but we'll self-regulate according the likelihood that our behaviour will amuse, disgust, or outrage enough to merit broadcasting through the mediums to the connected. briefly, but the standards by which we were formerly driven to self-regulate, were generally created by few authorities: legal institutions - courts, enforcement, etc. - and - moral institutions - schools, church, etc. - and their norms were easily understood, the products of long traditions, and hegemonic. now, the power of seeing has been atomised to those who troll the mediums for their info and push little buttons with their fingers, and we're unsure of how our behaviours align with norms we can't really know. a new layer of monitoring and once we realize it, we'll find new caution in self - regulating and new ways to counter it, as do the cctv familiar brits and the antics they engage in for the benefit of the little man sitting in his chair in a fortified room somewhere, but most likely to quietly avoid the threat of broadcasting and will add a new layer of self regulating; they must be law abiding, moral, and discreet citizens; the failure to adhere to the last possibly leading to a uniquely public reprobation, a shift, an affront to  the public as a monitoring institution, just a brief.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Fragment 2

Look out the window and catch your glimpse as the city glides silently by outside your air conditioned world, one last taste of home, because here we pull through the warren of lush streets, made narrow by high walls, topped by broken glass to keep in the wealth and out the crime, the city, and we pulled into our training centre, deep within that pocket of wealth among so much want, and were ushered off the bus to the sounds of drumming Tanzanians, a pastiche, a play for the white ones recently arrived, expect Africa, we must give it to them, and then we sat nervous, expectant, examining little posters on the wall, as our country directors gaily attired and appropriately effusive, introduced us to our new home and declared the kindness of Tanzanians.
And our excitement at arriving was commensurate with theirs at receiving us, children of September 11, whose confidence had been shaken, our notion of America(ns) tested by unruly foreigners who had challenged the sovereign American bubble and its complacent consumerly path.
And we listened and felt what they said to be true and nodded our heads and recognized how lucky we were to be welcomed by the sonorous drums of our Tanzanian hosts. We wouldn't forget, hadn't our books told us that drums were African?
Their acceptance was the only justification we had for being for the next two years. Without that we were tourists and without that we did pass much time because the country did exists apart from its people and we would learn to take advantage of the animals and the geography, but as we sat, nervous and enthralled, all that existed was potential and we filled and plumped with the need to do good, were ready to seize that potential and show the Tanzanians that our presence was worth the nuisance. All these things as we sat through our first formal moments on Tanzanian soil and to varying degrees we bought into it, and it was yearning and acceptance and reluctance and all in between as we sat in the folding chairs and measured our leaders and their baggy shirts and wondered what two years in Tanzania would bring.
And the world was carefully, slowly opened up to us by those who knew better than we did what it held, and our first step into it came as we filed in line to a hotel, not quite ready to interact with Tanzanians beyond self conscious smiles as the locals stopped and gawked at an unusually long line of white people wending their way along the verdant nurseries that lined either side of the road. And twice daily for the next few days, we'd make the same trip and the fragrant smell of burning brush became one of the earliest and most lasting memories of Tanzania, evoking rich memories when the mere hint of it would be encountered elsewhere, in our journeys, mundane or otherwise, through our post peace corps lives, a time that seemed so distant as we first began to walk through the city and learn that riding in public transportation meant that a sweating mama, lap filled with child and vegetables would sit across from you, her legs fit in between yours spread wide, uncomfortably. Are we supposed to be that familiar with our neighbours? Shouldn't she keep her breasts to herself? I don't want to see them, right now, and my stop is coming up soon, and we were warned, "Tanzanians are a kind people, but there are criminals everywhere," and be afraid at night and be afraid when alone and be afraid of prison and do not sit there, and food has germs and dirt and do not eat shit, this is a foreign country and you're not from here. Be mindful. And just as the hotel and our baby steps into the world left us savouring a welcome bit of complacence, we sat down one Saturday and learned that using a toilet was more complicated than we thought and that the opaque culture would need to be pierced soon because that day was the day when we'd be sent off to various houses around the city where wealthy people would get wealthier taking care of us, and we shook our heads and yes we were ready, eager even, to embrace and take one more step away from what we'd left behind, and the drums, of course, the drums, signalled that it was time and they arrived, Tanzanians of all stripe and we all stood around dumbly waiting for the right one to pick us, to identify us from our name tags as the one who would be their source of cultural exchange and hard exchange, and we were all excited to see one another, appraising behind smiles. "I didn't expect Tanzanians would have such nice cars," "That girl is so pale, and yet her arms are hairy," "Why am I so fat?" And a parade of rich, English speaking Tanzanians grabbed us by our arms, and at least we were all equally new to the experience at this early stage, expectant of where they'd take us and what sights we'd see.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fragment 1

Rainbows crashed around us daily and then we looked up and didn't notice them anymore because they were there, had always been there, quotidian and colourful and implacable, riding, as was their wont, over the poignant and the sublime, the dusty, dusky children crying as they were held close to their mothers' backs bent low
over dry fields, sowing seeds that wouldn't grow the good life they wanted, and then, also, rising high over the hot air balloons that carried wealthy cameras far above the Serengeti, who sipped champagne, squinting to see the animated bugs below that were people distant enough to be romantic in aspect, noble savages; let's preserve their culture before they die off and we have fewer subjects for our lenses. Rainbows and albinos and Tanzania.


And we sat, and stood, and formed a long line that snaked through the terminal, our 2 large bags each tied with light blue yarn to signify that we were together, the ones beginning our long journey, and we waited as slowly the bags with blue yarn were taken away behind the counter, some of us reluctantly emptying them of their carefully considered contents when they were deemed to weigh too much, and others looking on, knowing that their lone sacks of books would not come close to pushing the limit. And who knew what of their 70kg would prove invaluable in tanzania and what would be discarded as superfluous when it was time to really live the place? But we'd talk and debate and smugly reflect on the moral superiority our preferences indicated, and we'd all be honest and right, the packing of the bags the last step on our distinct arrival at the journey. We left our bags and settled into the uncomfortable chairs of the waiting lounge, and began to know each other and the like and dislike and he was a rock climber, she a pig farmer out in the Midwest somewhere, and he would never a month in the bush. And all there for different reasons, shall I save some heathens for Jesus? Collect my one adventure before settling down to my aspirational trajectory? Find something in myself?  Whichever, not bad not great gets the job done and then you go and figure it out later and sometimes it's something worth doing and sometimes not, but he didn't worry too much; he was there, nodding his head, ready to follow the line to the grand adventure that waited an ocean and a continent away. We had tickets; we were going to fly.  And our sore arms showed us how valuable the expensive vaccinations had made us.
And the airport, our last taste of Americana, a mailbox where our stamps would hold currency, the familiar food, California pizza kitchen, second time in two days; they don't have pizza in Africa, and that's where we're going… Africa. Sometimes just saying it makes it a little more real, bursts the little insulated bubble that 40 other fresh faced American youth can create, and we sit around severally, opening travel books, their spines already well worn as they made their rounds justifying the elegance and magic of our experience to sceptical relatives and friends, nurturing our own expectations and wonder at what an amazing thing we were beginning. And already had it begun? The anticipation, and "where do you want to live" "I've been there already, and the people are beautiful and kind below skies that are blue without end." "But, I heard that some houses are built of dung, and anyways I need electricity for my laptop." Such a foreign experience, with only a glimmer of what might await, pictures in a book, sage words from previous volunteers handily transcribed in poorly photocopied induction books, and the company of so many others like us equally unsure. And much easier to imagine the safaris, the adventures, than to understand what it might mean to live with them, Tanzanians, learn their names, and problems, and ideas. The pictures are shiny, seductive and calming.
And he would mail his last letter on American soil, probably the first letter he'd actually written, and it would be to his girlfriend, the one he's chosen to leave behind even though one time emotion overcame her and she did what she vowed she wouldn't and asked him to stay. The last letter, and then on the plane, time to make new friends.
Five hours to Amsterdam, the airport shiny, cosmopolitan, with chairs too uncomfortable for sleeping; thence to Nairobi, over the Sahara, he looking out the window, the Sahara, complacent in limnal opportunities of the journey.  Twenty hours and finally, abruptly: Africa, the smell of body odour searing sensitive nostrils accustomed to the sterility of  the West, and jovial men greeting us outside the airport teasing us for our Lion King knowledge of Swahili and with the promise of a real bed in Nairobi university.
Sleep.
The next day's breakfast, our first taste of the institutional cafeteria style meals that would be the hallmark of organized PC events and would find us all shuffling up in line, dispersing to our tables where cliques had already begun forming. After breakfast a bus ride to Arusha, savannah as far as the eye cold see, views of Kilimanjaro, ostrich eggs for sale by the side of the road, and local music to emphasize that we were no longer in America, but that our adventure had really begun. And we were ready to assert our readiness, sniggering knowingly when a monied blond was fleeced at the first souvenir stand he encountered, smugly, too eagerly hoping/knowing we'd never let ourselves be taken either by unscrupulous traders or by the urge to so conspicuously consume as the other Americans were wont; don't forget how few embrace the noble challenge of Peace Corps. Heroes are not tempted, and would never lose in the struggle against the avaricious African peddler. But, forget schadenfreude, hustle back on the bus, Arusha awaits, and the training centre and the smells and crowds and sights of our first African city.

dusty, dusty it chokes you

This blog will include sundry and desultory entries, but also a serialization of a narrative, unedited, written at various stages of lucidity and including incoherent transitions, but tell a story of more than a year in Tanzania, doing some things and not doing others and it's all just as well.