Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sssh, Don't tell Peace Corps...

But sometimes, I'm not the sharpest tool in the tool shed.

I can picture my bonus dad laughing, slapping his knee, nodding in agreement, saying, "Boy, I'll say!" He doesn't do this maliciously; he is, in fact, one of my biggest fans. It's just that since he's helped raise me, he's had a "front row seat" to witness some of my duller occasions.

This characteristic evidences itself mostly, I think, in my missing the obvious. I come around eventually, but sometimes it takes me a while.

Take, for example, how I've bought fresh vegetables since arriving at my permanent site. I've been patronizing a local, village grocer and have regularly bought cabbages, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and fresh fruit. But I've often shook my head in dismay at the quality of the produce: it isn't very fresh.

One day returning from the market, I noticed a local woman carrying a bag of Swiss chard that had obviously been harvested from the community garden; the same community garden that lies very near my front door. (Swiss chard, by the way, is called "spinach" here. Regular spinach can be grown here, but regular spinach is very sensitive to the heat and doesn't grow well when the months turn hot. Swiss chard is much less fussy of the heat.)

So here I am, trying to "buy local" by patronizing the village's grocer when it never occurred to me to patronize the community gardeners.

In my defense, I was never invited to buy produce from the garden, never saw anyone buy produce from the garden, and thought maybe the produce was grown for individual family use or for selling locally to generate income.

I think I may have too, been a bit put off by the gardeners' use of chemical pesticides. There is something off-putting about actually seeing the farmers sprinkling poison on the plants that will soon be consumed as food. But I'm deluding myself if I don't think commercial growers aren't using them as well. You can't grow flawless produce without it. When I pick up the perfect apple in Kroger, and put it in my cart, I shudder to think of the growing process and the multiple chemical washes it has taken to grow the perfect, Snow White apple.

In any case, the obvious, more preferable option of buying locally from the community gardeners, had escaped me. Duh.

But I've finally come around. Just look at the lovely, lovely food available for purchase from my door stoop: fresh Swiss chard (which can be grown year-round), beets, (ditto), onions, and (not pictured because I'd already eaten them) carrots and cabbages. Planted, and soon to come, are tomatoes, potatoes (regular and sweet), squash, peppers, and eggplant. I can hardly wait!

This Swiss chard I bought yesterday. The woman hand picked for me while I stood nearby. I paid her what I would have paid the local grocer (she asked for much less), and carried my bounty home in my arms like a bouquet of roses. The bunch overnighted nicely with its stems in a bit of water. I will cook it up for today's lunch and dinner. Yummy!

The fresh onion is quite good and remains fresh for some time. I'm not sure what to do about the beets and carrots: I thought they would hold well, but they didn't stay firm like store-bought ones and were quite limp after only a day. I'm not sure if there is something I can do to keep them firm.
I think I'm becoming more comfortable in my new, African surroundings. School is out, everyone is leaving to go on a holiday, and I'm frequently asked: are you going home for the holidays?
And the other day, much to my surprise, I replied, "I'm staying here. This is my home now." :-)
People are aghast when they learn that I will be staying at the college, which is somewhat deserted now, alone. They seem to think I'll be bored. Being an avid reader and a writer, I can't recall the last time I was bored.
In my teen-aged years I practiced two hobbies: sun-bathing and growing my fingernails. (Yes, I was pathetic, and this is probably the last time of my life I experienced boredom.) The later prevented me from learning to fret a guitar well and the former caused skin damage.
Not cancer-type skin damage (yet), but the kind that has me waking to a new batch of dark patches on a daily basis. Ick!
I came to my senses in my 30s, (too little too late, I'm sure) and have fastidiously kept my skin covered from the sun and slathered in sun screen. And now I find myself in the hot sun of Africa. I haven't trusted sun screen just yet, so Africans find me walking about, in oppressive heat, in pants, socks, long sleeves, and a hat. And their consistent comments are: "Aren't you hot?" Well, yes I'm hot, but this is Africa. I'd be hot in short sleeves and pants too.
But I am trying to come out of my sleeves and pants. I wore the blasted skirt yesterday in sandals. This means that my horrid tattoo (on my leg) has finally been exposed. I've been horribly worried that my colleagues would be offended with my tattoo (which offends me), but only one person commented on the tattoo, and the comment was affirmative, at least to my face. And everyone seemed greatly relieved to see me finally coming out of pants.
I am, astonishingly, thinking of donning a swimsuit tomorrow. I'm invited to my primary school's end-of-year celebration, and it is held in a park-like setting with a pool. I know this, because I went there last week, with the college's end-of-year party.
I love to swim and play in the water but I can't imagine that I'll expose myself in such a revealing way. Also, the water in the pool seemed a bit cloudy, which makes me think it is not very clean. We'll see.
Yesterday, I attended "Parent's Day" at the Primary School. It was great fun.
Peace Corps does this lovely, helpful thing, I think, of giving us "assignments" over the course of our first three months to help us learn about our community. Designed as a "practicum," we are given different tasks each week to meet and speak with the various community members we will be living with over the course of our two years: educators, administrators, department heads, learners, health-care workers, community leaders, the police, etc.
The questions we're to ask are very good and great care has been taken by our supervisors to compose such assignments to help us on our way. However, it is has been my experience, over these last several weeks, that when I show up with my list of questions to ask, people run in the other direction. In hindsight, I can see how my tact (or lack of tact) was intimidating. After a while, too long of a while, I realized that I was waiting for these appointments with people to answer my questions that would never come. I was put off, again and again. After too many weeks, I changed my approach. It was very similar with how I showed up at the community garden: How can I help?
In this way, I showed up at the primary school asking, How can I help?
This approach has worked beautifully, especially with the women in the school. With my request, I've been put to work grading papers and the like, but I've also been given work in the kitchen, with the real women of Africa. I think my willingness to help in the kitchen: chopping and cleaning vegetables, serving, doing dishes, etc., has helped me most the most with my integration. I wish I had taken this approach all along.
The women are simply delighted that I'm willing to help in such a way. I think they feel less intimidated with me in my willingness to work along with them in "women's work." The parents of the school, too, were impressed with my willingness to help in this way as well.
One of the ways a person can earn my undying love is to inquire about the well being of my children. There are few people in my life, and one of them only an acquaintance, who hold this special place in my heart: one is my massage-therapist, Anne, another the other aunt I lost this year, Aunt Susan, another is another aunt, my Aunt Bea, and the other, an acquaintance that I rarely see anymore: Julia.
These people, every time I see them, will ask about the well-being of my children: "How are the boys?" With these inquiries, there is never the subtext of "what kind of trouble are the boys in now?" These people genuinely delight in the existence of my boys and delight in knowing that I love them so.
They are consistent with this enquiry, even though they have not, or may have not, seen my boys in years.
These women have taught me an important trick: the true way to a woman's heart is through her children. (Well, at least for women like me.)
It is with this knowledge that I'm trying to wiggle my way into the hearts of women at the Primary School: through my concern for their children.
It's been a bit tricky though. Since I am the foreign white woman from America, coming to their school, and since the school hasn't really known what to do with me yet (since the regular school year has yet to start), I've not yet developed this opportunity to prove that I genuinely care for their children.
I think helping in the kitchen has paved a way for this capacity to develop. I'm counting on it. And feel like I'm well on my way. In fact, it is only in doing this "women's work" that I've truly felt comfortable here in my new African home. I hope to get to do much more of it, in addition to my "professional duties" as a teacher.
I have more to say but think this is enough for today.
Soon, Karen
PS. Since the school is officially on holiday, my access to a computer and Internet may be cut off. I'm promised a key to the library, which is where computers and the Internet live, but with the practice of indirect communication here, I'm not counting on it. The short of it is, to my worry-worts: do not worry if I do not post until January!! Or late January!
PPS. My Internet addicted insides have just clinched at the thought of this! It wouldn't be that long as I'd surely make a trip to town just to post, but please don't worry if there are long lulls between my posts. LOVE TO ALL!

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