Saturday, March 24, 2012

"What is the meaning of love in America?"

I’m on the internet in Madina courtesy of the catholic missionaries, crazy!

After my last blog post, it surely got wahala (Krio for “sh*t hit the fan”) over here. A few days after I returned from Freetown, I was walking home from school and as part of my daily ritual, l I walked past my principal’s house to hold his 8 month old daughter, Fatima, and do some serious de-stressing for the day. When I went to see Fatima, her eyes seemed glazed over and her skin was looking pale and yellow. Her mother informed me that she had vomited earlier in the day and had diarrhea. I didn’t think much of the sickness knowing my own bowel habits in this country (crap, TMI... again). The next day I was awoken early in the morning by one of my fellow teacher’s informing me that Fatima had passed away in the night. At first I was in disbelief – I had just seen her hours ago – this was just a minor sickness that was supposed to pass. I don’t have much experience with death and frankly, I never know what to say to the family. Their pain becomes my pain and I just become numb, but I knew that I had to find the courage to go and see the family.

I walked over to their house and immediately felt the numbness coming over my body. There were a lot of friends, family members, and people from the community that came to give their sympathies. I walked straight up to my principal’s wife, Mrs. Turay, whom I’ve become close to these past seven months. I went to hug her not even hesitating to think if this was a culturally appropriate gesture. After the embrace, I stammered that I was so sorry for her loss. She looked me straight in the eyes and in perfect English said, “Rachel, Fatima was taken from me.” It took every ounce of my being to find the confidence to tell her everything was going to be okay. With this short exchange, I continued on my way before people could see me cry. (I’m still traumatized about crying in public seeing as I’m STILL known as the white girl who cried over a dead dog.)

Little Fatima and myself

The child mortality rate in Sierra Leone is one of the worst in the world. I am constantly hearing about a child dying in my town. Even though I hear about these deaths, I still felt detached from these morbid statistics. When I saw Mrs. Turay in so much pain over her lost daughter, this child mortality rate became a reality for me and made me so sad. In America, if you know a family who has lost a child, you can easily say that it is one of the most traumatic things that affects not only the family but the whole community. I know families in Madina that have lost up to 3 children. The pain these families bear is unremarkable, particularly the grief of the mothers.

In Sierra Leone, distinct gender roles are evident in the rural areas. The women stay home cook, clean, take care of the children, and usually engage in some kind of trading of goods. I’ll refrain from what I see men doing most of the time, because I’ll end up going on a big ol’ venting session. But in a society where men and women are not exactly treated as equals, I was surprised by the amount of respect I adopted for the women I interact with daily. They are so strong, physically and emotionally. Although men might underestimate the work they do, I would like to see ONE man try to do anything a woman does day in and day out. It’s truly unbelievable and this realization was further reinforced when I witnessed Mrs. Turay’s behavior after Fatima’s death. Although I could tell she was still upset, the next day I saw her continue to take care of her other 6 children and do the cooking. Now that’s the kind of woman I look up to – a woman who can be the strength for her family no matter the circumstances.

Mrs. Turay and I

SO, unfortunately the wahala-ness (?) did not end with Fatima’s death. The next day I noticed that my new beloved pup, Rocky, was walking strangely – his two front legs were going bow legged. He started to get aggressive which I thought was from being in pain and not wanting anyone to touch him. He bit me on my leg- don’t worry, not a serious injury thanks to my thick jeans. : ) I woke up in the middle of the night and his legs were completely bent causing him to only be able to walk on his front joints. Rocky would be running around like crazy and then run right into a wall and fall asleep when he hit the wall. Then, when he woke up he would go crazy, growling and barking. It was the strangest behavior I have ever seen from an animal. I locked him out of my room and in the morning I locked him in a back room. After a couple of discussions with people from back home and our Peace Corps doctor, I concluded that it was rabies. He had a very ugly and tragic death. I felt so bad for him – you could hear in his bark how much pain he was in. After he died, the boys in my compound helped me bury him next to Shady Baby. I left first thing in the morning for rabies post-exposure treatment, yippee! The treatment was only two shots, so it wasn’t a big deal. Turns out a bunch of volunteers ended up being in Freetown and we had a good time despite some current challenges we’re all going through. Well, two dogs later I might try a cat!

RIP Rocky (He was even a Stillers fan!)

When I came back to Madina, sports were in full swing! Like I talked about in my last post, the whole school separates into four houses. Not only does the whole school get into the sports, but the whole community makes into a big extravaganza. Although I was frustrated school had completely stopped, it’s fun to joke around with my students about who is going to win and help them train for their events. My house (blue) won the soccer tournament, which put them in the lead right off the bat. Although I think we may have been a bit overconfident coming into the main events. We kicked off the first day of the sports event with a cross country race and a bicycle race starting from villages outside of Madina. Unfortunately, the bicycles aren’t in the best condition and our best female bicyclist ran into mechanical error – basically, her chain fell off her bike. We also kicked off with a little rumble between my house and red house when “allegedly” there was some sabotage on the racing road.

The two days consisted of 100 m, 200 m, 400 m sprints and relays, long and high jump, climbing a greased pole, an eating race, the “tug of peace”, and rice sack races. I know what you’re thinking… those all don’t seem like sports. I think the competitive nature of the activities is what brought them to our sports agenda. My favorite part of sports was watching the baton exchanges – the best approach was throwing it like an American football to the next runner. I also enjoyed the running attire of the participants. Some of the girls would run in clothes that they would wear out in town (aka no bra) and heavy wool socks. Ohh my. Another entertaining aspect was the amount of drama. I have never witnessed so much drama over high school sports in my life – maybe on MTV but not in real life. I saw every combination of students, teachers, officials, and spectators arguing over rules, event parameters, and points awarded.

This was a special time in the town too, so everyone was trying to “bluff” aka look their finest; therefore, I saw mounds and mounds of fake head twisted in the most intricate braids on the girls and boys walking around with their pimped out sunglasses even when the sun was going down. With all the time away from school and a lot of twiddling my thumbs, I ended up getting sports fever. I painted all my nails blue and had my neighbor braid blue ribbons all through my hair. Stylin! Now I officially have two reputations in my town – the white girl who cried over her dead dog and “Yainkain of Blue House.” I prefer the second and will respond to the latter over the first. At the end of the second day, the winners were announced and *drum roll please* blue house came in second. I was anxious for a riot that I was sure would follow, but everyone went about their business peacefully. Luckily, there’s always next year for blue house!


After all of this mayhem, there was a jam of course. I went to the jam at about midnight, because that’s when things really get bumpin’. I was amazed at the scene when I first arrived. There were people everywhere! It was easily everyone in Madina and every surrounding village making an appearance at this jam. When I was trying to desperately enter the town hall to get to the dancing (didn’t need to get closer to the music because the volume could even be considered excessive from the outside), I was reminded of my days in Makeni when I would try to get to a bank teller. I miss organized lines in America! After a few elbow jabs and some toe tapping, I managed to get inside to the madness. Luckily it was dark inside and I wasn’t too embarrassed to show off my American dance moves to my entire school. It was interesting dancing with my students and hearing “Ms. Rachel sabi dance.” According to these reliable sources, I know how to dance despite some haters’ opinions in Pittsburgh. I left at 3 AM when I was too exhausted to stand, but things were still kickin’ and they probably didn’t stop until the sun met the sky again in the early morning hours.

Since sports, school has luckily re-opened. We’ve had a few day of hiccups due to the voting registration dates being extended and school being closed so almost every student can register (even if they aren’t even close to the voting age, 18 years old). Oh, third world politics! I went away for a weekend to Pujehun District (in the very south of the country) to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We celebrated this American holiday the African way, in other words, we didn’t play beer Olympics but we did play poyo (palm wine) olympics. It sounded like a good idea in theory, but poyo is filling. After drinking an excessive amount, I’m sure you can imagine how it ended… the only winner was the poyo. Well, life’s about learning, right? : )

Soon it will be the end of second term and we will have spring break. Cancun hear I come in my best Africana garb! OK, I might not be boozing it up with slammin’ hunnies (as my pal Julia would refer to that youth), but I have big plans in Salone. I’m going to meet up with some of my friends in Kono District and then we’re going to head to Mount Bintumani. Yes, you guessed it – the highest mountain in West Africa! And we’re not just going to look at it, we’re going to climb that mother of a peak. After that excursion, we’re going to head to one of the slices of heaven, Banana Island. I’ve heard some whispers of scuba diving, but no promises on that one. Then, I’ll make my way to Freetown for some 1st world luxuries (ice, internet, and cheeseburgers). I’m also attending a Peace Corps conference at that time. The main aims of the gathering are to talk about different life skills that are particularly useful to youth and how we can implement them in our respective communities. I’ll be leading a session with my counterpart, the vice principal of my school, about decision making skills involving delaying sex. It should be interesting, so I’ll keep you posted.

Today I will leave you with two quotes from my students…

One day the students were reminded that in school they should only speak in English. When I went to one of my JSS 2 classes, I noticed all of the students were speaking in English and not chit-chatting in Krio and Limba like they usually do. They kept on asking me questions of how to say things in English. This question was my favorite, “Ms. Rachel, how does one laugh in English?” To that I laughed and the student immediately received his answer.

Another day I had a double period of Biology with my SSS 1 class and we were getting a little off topic. The students were asking me about life in America and were wondering about the differences with dating in America and Sierra Leone. My student then asked, “Ms. Rachel, what is the meaning of love in America?” To that I laughed and the student did not receive her answer.

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