Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Blog of Blurbs

Here is a blog of little blurbs- stories that are not long or important enough to warrant their own blog, but are not insignificant enough to be left out of the telling of my experience in Africa.
• I used to think of myself as half Dutch, half Italian, with a little Spanish thrown in for good measure. I have come to realize over the last month that the former description no longer characterizes me in my new life in Africa. Here, I am 1/3 Peace Corps, 1/3 Plan Rwanda, and 1/3 PAJER (Parlement des Jeunes Rwandais). What that means is that I feel constantly torn between three organizations and must allocate my time accordingly. Sometimes, managing my time between organizations and ensuring that I meet all their needs and requirements can be overwhelming. What this also means is that I spend a large part of my time informing my team members on my current activities and plans, instead of actually realizing them. As a result, projects move at a slower pace than I would anticipate. See blurb number 2.
• One of the more interesting, but not immediately apparent, legacies of international development, and I suppose you could argue colonization, is the effect of international non-governmental organization management on business practice and conduct in developing countries. This realization only came to me after months of working in the shadow of the INGOs. The consequences of these INGOs on business in Rwanda are not really bad. In fact, many of the practices they introduce are actually quite positive, such as accountability for funds and recording practices. But some have been introduced and let out to wander on a long leash that has become so tangled up in itself and wrapped around obstacles that one can no longer see the beginning or the end. At first, I became frustrated by the confusion and my inability to untie the knot that has been tied over time, but then I traced the line backwards until I was able to make sense of the chaos and reach the beginning. What I mean is this. Take the practice of reporting, for example. Now, let me walk you through the scenario. A group of foreigners representing some INGO came to work in Rwanda for some cause. They introduced the concept of reporting and emphasized its importance to the nationals hired to implement and manage the project in the field. Then, these foreigners left to supervise the work of their INGO from abroad. How were they going to supervise? Well, by demanding and requiring that the nationals send progress reports back to the foreigners at regular intervals. This, in and of itself, is not a problem and is actually quite beneficial in that it establishes a means of communication and a sense of responsibility for actions taken. But then, the act of reporting is let out into the wild, of course on a leash because it is guided, but for the most part unregulated. Here is where the tangling and wrapping begins. People quickly see the benefit of the act and begin adopting it. Adopting it and overtime, changing it. Then, over another time, becoming so comfortable with it that is becomes the answer for everything. You want to change that light bulb? Better report on it. You want to ask me a question? Write a report about it first. Perhaps you want to use the bathroom? I need a report on my desk by morning. Suddenly, the objective of reporting is no longer in sight and there are so many reports coming in, the conclusions of these reports can no longer be managed. The organization and its employees are stuck in the thick of the reports with no clear path to either end. It is not the fault of either organization, but perhaps another example of language and cultural faux pas. Here, an organization introduced a practice that is culturally accepted and understood to a new group of people, in whose culture reporting is not common practice, with no proper guidance and management. In their best efforts to please the foreigners and in light of the enthusiasm they had in the promise of their country, the people took off running with the idea and have not slowed their pace since. Today, I work in the context of local organizations and businesses influenced by the recommendations and practices of INGOs operating in the country and it is difficult to be stuck between these two worlds, where I recognize the intentions of the INGOs, but at the same time am critical of how their recommendations are implemented and managed.
• Speaking of tangle and disarray, who guessed that living in an African village could parallel suburban living in the United States? People living in suburbs in the United States are commonly commenting on the pressure and expectations they feel from their neighbors and friends to have the perfect house, maintain the perfect yard, manage the perfect family. The popular image of suburbia is of a two-story brick house with white shutters and an apple tree in the front yard, perfectly cut grass, and a family in suits, shirts, and cardigans perched on the front steps or laughing in the backyard. And the watchful neighbor peering over the fence. Well, I already told you about the children who are constantly lying on their bellies to peer under the front gate and watch the strange muzungus go about their day. Sometimes when I am walking home, the children come running up to me and inform me that Jessi is already home and is doing her laundry in the back, so I am fully aware of her activities before I am home and get the chance to talk with her. For a while, whenever we would open the door to go out, a parade of children would push their way in through the door and run about our yard collecting and brushing all the leaves that had fallen from the avocado and mango trees. At first, I thought it was cute that they wanted to help out a couple of helpless muzungus. Then, women started showing up at our gate asking for money if they swept, cleaned, and tidied our yard. We refused politely. Besides, we could collect all the yard scrap for our compost one weekend when we had some free time from work. Weeks slipped by, and no such free time came, so the yard scrap just kept piling and the bushes just kept growing. Well, in my opinion, yard scrap is yard scrap for compost no matter how long it stays on the ground. And the more the bushes grew, the better. It was my secret hope that by the end of two years, the bushes would be tall enough that people on the outside could no longer peer over our fence and see the people, also known as me, on the inside. It would make a kind of sleeping beauty barrier that would allow me to do my business in peace, hopefully not for 100 years, but at least for the two I am here. Then, our landlord came to check on the property and was appalled by the state of our yard. (I know my telling of the story is making our yard sound so much worse than it really was. In reality, the yard was not bad. Okay, the bushes were allowed to grow higher than a foot off the ground and the grass managed to become a little bushy. Not that bad. Which is why the story is so funny). After he left, he called our counterpart and told him that if he did not do something about the state of our yard that he would call the cops and get us in trouble for some sort of health violation? That is the first time I have ever heard of a person getting sick from their yard. We eat tomatoes that sit on the muddy and dusty and… probably very germ-covered ground at the marketplace, but our long grass and bushes are the real concern here. Not wanting to cause any trouble, we cut our grass and bushes. Crisis averted, thank shears and machete. From this experience, I became so much more aware of the suburban pressures we are living under in a small African village.
• Speaking of pressure, the pressure to dress smart is also very strong. The first time I heard the expression, dress smart, I smiled. I still smile every time I hear it, and I don’t know why. Perhaps the expression. Perhaps the accent that is used when Rwandans say it. I can always tell when my co-workers think I am wearing something nice, because they always say, “Ah. Today Arielle, you look very smart.” And I can definitely tell when they don’t think I am wearing something nice enough for work, because they don’t say anything at all. It is very apparent because four days of the week, I am smart, and on that fifth day, well, it makes logical sense to say that I am stupid, in clothes that is. And I am fairly certain they do not just forget their daily mantra. The other day, my co-worker approached me and said, “See, Arielle, this is how you should dress when welcoming guests.” He was dressed in a full suit with a long sleeve shirt and pants, tie, vest, and jacket. Well, first of all, I would look pretty ridiculous in a man’s suit. Secondly, what was wrong with my outfit? I had on a nice skirt and shirt. Thirdly, I get what he was trying to say. I should wear a women’s business suit to welcome guests. If I had on a full business suit in this blazing sun, I would be melting away within minutes. In fact, seems to me the act of melting all over our guests would be much more embarrassing and impolite. Plus, I am saving my suits for special occasions. It always amazes me how clean and tidy Rwandans are able to keep their clothes. I put something on and turn around and there is already a streak of red dirt across my front. No idea how it got there. I go about my daily activities and I come home with a wrinkled shirt and a large patch of dirt on my butt from sitting on anything in Rwanda. Rwandans, on the other hand, always have shirts ironed stiff and pants without a spot. And shinny black shoes, which is probably the biggest mystery of all. I must walk down a red dirt road for 20 minutes before I reach town. The road is dusty, especially during the dry season (which is right now, by the way, and I have no water), and by the time I reach town, my feet, shoes, and the hem of whatever I am wearing is lightly sprinkled with red dirt. On that same walk, I see men and women emerge spotless from the doors of their mud huts (again, red dirt mud huts), and begin walking towards town. Same road, same dust, same destination. However, when we arrive on the edge of town, where the road turns to pavement, their shoes are still shinny and black and their hems undusted. Will someone please explain the magician’s trick? I know there is something that I am just not getting or seeing.
• The other day, I was waiting for a bus when I struck up a conversation with a girl sitting next to me. She was actually pretty cool. She was a secondary school (high school equivalent) student, a singer, and on her way to interview for an internship at a local radio station. Just the type of youth I wanted at the youth center. Our conversation progressed well as I told her about the youth center, what we were doing, where we were, and she said she would come visit me there. However, there are two conversations that I commonly have with people that cause me to go into a temporary case of culture shock. The first is this. People are initially surprised that I speak any Kinyarwandan and they immediately exclaim, “She knows Kinyarwandan!” Then, as our conversation progresses, they begin to see the limit of my language ability and they ask me how long I’ve been in Rwanda. “Five months,” I answer. (Five months already, I know! Time flies when you are happy and having fun.) “Oh,” they say as they shake their head, “If I were in America, I would know your language perfectly in three months. And English is very hard. Kinyarwandan is easy.” Whoa there Nelly. First of all, three months. Okay, I’d like to see you try. Unless you have a genie and three wishes that is next to impossible; first wish to wish that English were harder than Kinyarwandan, second wish to wish that you were in the USA, and third wish to know English perfectly. Three wishes you don’t have. Kinyarwandan is not easy or easier than English. In fact, it is one of the hardest languages in the world. So don’t tell me you could learn English in three months and don’t tell me that Kinyarwandan is easy. There are 16 noun classes in Kinyarwandan and a single word can change 16 times depending on the subject or object. One verb can hold the clue to who, what, where, when, why and how, and be a single, complete sentence all by itself. Do you know how much thought goes into formulating one Kinyarwandan sentence on the spot? First, you must identify the verb, then the noun or subject and/or object, then the conjugation, then the verb replacements and substitutions. You get the point. The second conversation is this. People I am talking to will stop mid-conversation and say, “You are fat.” The girl waiting for the bus to get to her interview took it even further. Not only was I fat, she said, “But I was nice and balanced. Fat on the top and the bottom. Men like that. A girl that is fat and balanced.” Hmm. Now, it is a huge cultural taboo in the United States to comment on someone’s weight and appearance. The first time I was called fat to my face, I was shocked. Now, I have come to expect it and understand it. Being called fat in Africa is a compliment, much like saying, “You look healthy,” and “You have enough food, or money, to eat.” In Africa, being healthy, having food and money, are very positive aspects in a land in which people commonly face poverty and disease. The waiting girl and I also discussed skin color. She complimented my light skin and I admired her dark skin. They are both cases of the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. I have always been puzzled by the grass-is-greener phenomenon. In America, we regulate our weight, subject ourselves to constant diets, and exercise to keep ourselves skinny like the girls we see on TV and in the magazines. Here what you are eating doesn’t matter, because what matters is at least you are getting something to eat. In America, we slow roast ourselves in the sun to get a tan. Sun-kissed is perceived as healthy, sexy, and desirable. We have even created a manmade version of a tropical environment in a tanning bed, where people can lie to absorb their desired amount of these golden rays. Here, people apply whitening cream and avoid the sun. They awake early to finish work before the sun reaches too high in the sky so when it does, they are already safely in their houses. Point is, we struggle at all costs to be skinny and dark skinned; they struggle to be fat and light skinned.
• I have come to realize that my initial expectations about African weather were not correct. The wet season was not as wet and the dry season is much more dry than I was led to believe. Right now, we are in the middle of the dry season and you know what that means. No water. Not a dribble, sprinkle, or drop coming out of the spigot in our backyard. The water level in our buckets is creeping lower everyday. Today, I managed to wash my hair with only a small pitcher of water. Now that, my friends, takes skill. It has been brutally hot this past week and I can’t even remember the last time it rained. The plants in our yard are beginning to dry up and turn from rich green to faded brown, and the red ground is beginning to crack. What was once caked dirt is becoming loose and dusting everything with a fine layer of red dirt. Every time a car passes as I walk down our dirt road, I must shield my eyes and turn my head away from the dust that is disturbed in the aftermath of the moving vehicle. As I walk, I can feel every drop of moisture from the earth and from my own skin evaporating into the dry, hot vacuum of the atmosphere. For a girl who grew up on an island, surrounded by water, off the coast of Seattle, the city of rain, this lack of water and moisture is a new experience. I have never felt so suffocated by dryness and heat. I remember reading before I left for Rwanda that the country is greener and wetter than other African countries. Not during the dry season. Which begs me to wander, if this is Rwanda, what is the dry season like in those other African countries. Now about the wet season. When people said wet season, images of monsoon-like, never-ending downpours came to mind. That is far from an accurate description of the wet season in Rwanda (Seattle, yes; Rwanda, no). The wet season in Rwanda can better be described as constant cloud covering and an hour of heavy rain at least once a day. It almost seemed like the clouds allowed the water to collect and build up until it overflowed onto the earth below. It is true that the heavy rains were some of the heaviest rains I have ever witnessed. And the water mixed with the red earth of Rwanda created a thick mud substance that stuck to every surface it came in contact with. When the mud on shoes dried, it fell off in large chunks and traced a path of guilt to the culprit responsible for the dirt. I have been thinking hard about the wet and dry seasons and been faced with an impossible decision. Which season do I prefer more? Is it the time of dusty dryness, heat and no water, or the time of rain and wet, greenery, and sticky, red mud? I can not make up my mind. Because we have had no water for a week, I would probably say the wet season, but that is only to avoid the inevitable next step, which is progressing to full on mirages of oceans in the middle of the desert (I must constantly remind myself that Rwanda is a landlocked country). In many ways, the decision is a choice between two evils, with each season having its very own troubles and annoyances. The question of seasons is probably going to be one that plagues me for the duration of my stay in Rwanda.
Finally, I have blurbed a blog of a blog of blurbs. Blurb blog (Thank you for reading) in the language of blog, or is it blurb?

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