Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rice, toothless men, and malaria (or, my first month in a village in Africa)

Sent via e-mail 3/16/2008

Hello dear friends and family,

So it has been quite awhile since my last email. Sorry. I've been living in a rural African village, pulling up water from the well every morning for my bucket bath, eating rice off the floor twice a day, and going to the bathroom in a hole. Wireless technology hasn't exactly made it's way to this part of the Fouta Djallon...

That said, I am in Labe for the weekend and have taken advantage of the internet cafe to get off an email with some thoughts and experiences from my first full month at site.

This last month has been unlike any other in my entire life. I am truly, truly -- tigi tigi­ as they say in Pular-- the only white person in the whole Sous-Prefecture. I am somewhat of a local celebrity. I often catch grown men and women just staring at me as I sit in the health center studying Pular, or as I buy bread at the marketplace. Most women in town have either offered their daughters or themselves to me in marriage-- offers which I invariably accept, with a grin, and assure them that in my culture, men cook and do dishes all the time. It's like a dream come true, right? Although at this rate, I'm piling up enough wives that people might start to talk, even here in Guinea (after all, the Koran says you're only supposed to have four-- after that you're in trouble). Still, part of me wonders, isn't it weird to be offering a 20-something guy your 5-year old daughter as a wife? Ahhhh, Guinea.

The pace of life in Bouliwel is slower than Shawn Kemp running the fast break in his so-called "pudgy" days as a Cav. Most men spend the day like this:

--get up, pray
--go sit outside your house/ hut
--walk to the market
--sit there for awhile
--walk back to your house/ hut
--eat the food one of your wives prepared
--sit around and talk
--sit around and talk
--sit around
--eat dinner that the other wife prepared
--sit around, maybe listen to the radio
--go to sleep

Even Shawn Kemp might get bored after awhile with that schedule, but most men here don't seem to mind. (Women, on the other hand, work harder in a day than I've ever worked in my life: Cooking, washing the dishes, cleaning the house, getting water from the well, tending to the needs of the men... In Guinea, all men are not created equal, sadly enough-- and no one seems to question it) (except me, who receives laughs or blank stares as responses to the "why don't men get water from the well every now and then?")

There is so much more I could tell you. I taught three guys poker-- texas hold 'em, mostly-- which we play with scrabble tiles as poker chips and biscuits as money. Remember the scene from Ocean's Eleven when Brad Pitt is teaching the teeny-bopper movie stars how to play poker (Joshua Jackson confidently lays down his five cards: "All reds.")? Yeah, it's kinda like that. I got some care packages last week on the mail run (thank you thank you thank you mom and Julia Maxwell and Northfield Presbyterian Church!) and wow, an alien could have beamed down a foreign object of some sort for all the kids in my neighborhood were concerned. Fritos? Cracker Jack? The Atlantic Monthly? The likes of these have never been seen in Bouliwel, ever.

This may give you a tiny glimpse of what life is like here in My Random African Village.

On a more serious note, two weeks ago a little girl died of malaria in the health center. It was an emotional day and took some time to write down some thoughts, which I thought I would share with you here. This will make this email excessively long, for which I apologize. Still, it seems important to communicate the reality of suffering here in Guinea. Anyway, here's my journal entry (edited slightly for brevity), written that night:

2/27/08 Dr. Diallo's Porch
'It has been a crazy past couple of hours and I wanted to get down some thoughts while everything was still fresh. I spent nearly four hours today at the stream washing clothes with Rugiatu and Lazare. It is amazing how long simple stuff like doing laundry takes here! When I came back, I ducked into the Health Center to see what was up there, and I found Dr. Diallo and Mr. Sow tending to a young girl, who was lying on the cot with her mother. She had an IV in her arm and was moaning and moving around. I didn't think much of it for whatever reason-- I may have been more worried about acquitting myself for spending all morning at the river (or perhaps, I was wondering about lunch)-- and I was told to go next door and have my rice. I ate and then went back to the house and laid down for a nap.
When I emerged from the house after an hour and a half with my National Geographic, I noticed a small crowd of men in boubous and women in headscarves gathering outside the Health Center. Sow walked by and told me that the girl who had been in the Health Center had died.
"La petite fille-la est morte," he told me. [the little girl is dead]
"Morte?!" I asked, surprised.
"Oui," he said matter-of-factly. "Palu grave." [serious malaria]
"Oh, wow..." I said, somewhat stunned.
"Tu connais le palu?" he asked. [do you know about malaria?]
"Ouais, ouais," I responded, dazed. Of course I know about malaria.
The next hour and a half or so passed by slowly, crawlingly, confusingly. The whole village seemed to turn out, men lining one side of the dirt road, women on the other. I sat outside the health center for awhile, the young white Westerner dressed in slacks and a button down jostling for position on the bench next to old gray Africans in their boubous and skullcaps.
One of these things is not like the other.
Sitting there, I listened to the women across the way wailing and crying, performing their all-too-familiar ritual to mourn the passing of a child of God. Soon enough I noticed the sages of the village gathering, talking lowly and rapidly and exchanging money, and I immediately went to ask Dr. Diallo if it was appropriate to give some. He said sure and I grabbed a wad from the house-- 50,000 francs-- and went over asking what might be an appropriate amount to give.
"Deux mille. Donne deux mille," he said, [give 2,000 francs] looking at my wad of 5,000s. I wonder what he was thinking, really thinking, at that moment. I gave him 10,000. A little more than two bucks.
Upon delivery of the money, all the old men of the village came up and shook my hand. Maybe I imagined it, but it even seemed that their eyes were wide; In surprise, in thanks, in scrutiny; I couldn't tell.
I received their thanks ungraciously, shaking my head and frowning.
It's nothing.
De rien.
No really. It's nothing. Two measly bucks for a woman who's just lost her ten-year old daughter to malaria--a preventable disease-- when I've got a stack of bills just sitting in a trunk in the house.
And it was probably the largest contribution of the village.
And "I'm not rich."
Je suis pas riche.

After they loaded the body (wrapped in a prayer mat) onto the roof of the bush taxi (5 men sitting on the roof flanking it as they drove off), I went inside and ran into Dr. Diallo.
"Merci." he thanked me. "Vraiment, merci. T'as vu, tous les vieux sont venus pour te saluer." [Did you see, all the old men of the village came over to thank you]
We went into his office; he closed the door.
"Vraiment, c'est gentil." [seriously, it's very nice of you] The man just watched a small girl die in his hands--in his care-- and for some reason he thinks I want to talk about my contribution of two damn dollars.
This is not about me.
"Docteur, vraiment, vraiment, c'est RIEN. C'est deux dollars americain." [it's nothing-- it's two American dollars] I could feel the flood of emotion welling up, the tears beginning to flow. Couldn't help it. After all, I was lying in my bed reading Nat'l Geographic-- reading about oil, and pygmies, and AIDS-- when next door a little girl died of a preventable disease.
"Il faut pas faire ca," he said, [you shouldn't do that] and I couldn't tell if it was with reproach, or compassion, or condescension. Perhaps a little of everything.
"C'est la volonte de Dieu," he went on [it's the will of God], "Il y a beaucoup de gens-- beaucoup-- qui meurt tout le temps du paudisme grave, du malnutrition, des choses comme ca. Personne peut savoir pourquoi Il fait ceci ou cela." [lots of people--lots-- die all the time from malaria, malnutrition, things like that. No one can know why God does what He does.]
Hmmm. It's the will of God that children die of preventable diseases? It's the will of God that here in Africa, people die all the time, whereas back home, in the world of stuff, children get sent to hospitals to get treated by real doctors with real medecine in real facilities. We don't even have malaria there.
Yet it's the volonte de Dieu.
I don't know. Is it God's will? Or was He with weeping with those women, wailing at the injustice, the suffering, the heart-rending normalcy of it all?
Does God dream of something different?
If so, I want to be a part of seeing that Dream come about. God, make manifest your dream here—on earth—as it is in heaven.'

Well, that's the whole entry. A bit emotional, melodramatic perhaps, but it's what I was really thinking and feeling at the time.

And with that, the only people who are left reading this are either my mom or people with way too much time on their hands. But seriously, thank you so much for taking the time to read about life here.

Til the next time,
Much love,

1 comment:

Liz Roderick said...

ANDRE! Just read your description of a typical day for a Guinean man and laughed outloud. So funny. Miss ya like crazy and hope all's well out in Fouta. 36 days till IST!