Living In The Questions

Sharing....is what its all about for me right now. This post is my attempt at continuing the wheel of reciprocity.....as my friends, fmaily and home have sent me here, to Niger, West Africa, with more love & support than I could fathom...here are my words, experiences, and heart. Read & share back. Love & Peace...Amy*

Sunday, January 22, 2006

December 23, 2005 Where is Home?

Its been a while.....
but I think I have something to share, so I'm writing. I hope this finds each of you healthy, open, growing and content with something, if not everything. I haven't written for what...2 and 1/2 almost 3 months.....for many reasons.

Last month I spent 2 weeks in Hamdallyee, at our initial training site, for an In-Service Training...where I got to meet back up with what is left of our original 39 volunteers (down to 30 now....through sickness, self-revelation and other circumstances). One morning, while I was walking alone through the bush, parallel to a dry rocky mesa on my right, and a rising sun on the left...a sun so yellow and orange that I wanted to eat it, I got to thinking about what home is...and what that word means to me, while I'm an ocean away from all that is familiar, and centuries away from my former "reality."

So I'll start by telling you a little about my "home." Although my garden began growing, thanks to an amazing neighbor who gave me 20 baby tomatoe plants, and helped me with the eggplant, onion, pumpkin, melon and zuchinni.....explaining that Islam calls him to show kindness to his neighbors...it wasn't until I got out of the garden, and house and into town that I started to feel at home. There were days there, in the beginning, when I didn't have the energy to do anything. I walked in circles, constantly apologizing for not understanding French, and hating the way people looked at me as though I was dumb because of it...feeling hot and sick...and wondering if the next two years was going to be a "get tough" camp where all I would have to show for it would be the fact that I was "tough enough" to do Peace Corps. But I sucked it up, let go and instilled a little faith the Peace Corps system...trusting that if I walked around, laughed at myself enough, and listened, I would eventually be able to speak some Zarma and French...and possibly feel a little at home, like the trainers swore I would.

So, when I almost got beat up and mobbed, I felt that I'd really made it. (Mom don't faint...I'm going to explain). The first instance happened at about 10pm when I was walking home, alone, at night. Now many of you are shaking your heads at my irresponbility, but I promise that in my sleepy little town of about 6,000 people I am 100 times safer than anywhere in the U.S. As I walked along, admiring the sky and trying to blend in with the dark (I swear that my white skin glows in the dark, without street lights I still hear "Anasara."), I saw a group of about five little 9 year old girls. Now, I must say that ususally I am able to charm the socks off of kids 12 and under, but there are a few exceptions here in Niger...and tough 9 year old girls are one of them. As they crossed the road I heard whispers in Zarma and "Anasara," so I knew it was going to be trouble.

I tried to be casual and not show my annoyance at being held up on the way home, as the little ring leader of the group showed herself and demanded a gift. When I told her I didn't have anything for her and she should give me a gift instead (I asked for her skirt to be exact...which usually makes them laugh and diffuses tension), she got some attitude and informed me that since I'm an Anasara I have money and should be giving to her. Again, I casually, but firmly told her I had nothing for her. She then spat out some rapid fire Zarma, and when I said I didn't understand she decided to show me what she meant. The little demon grabbed a huge wooden pounding stick from her little fellow gang member and raised it to hit me.

I saw red. I now understand why bulls get so pissed at little red flags, because all I wanted to do was grab her stick and smack her on the head with it. Suddenly, instinct and PC advice took over (kids here in Niger do not respond to reasoning...instead they respond to fear)...so in a matter or about 3 seconds I dropped my bag, lunged for the little girl, and scooped up her stick as she dropped it and they all ran. They scattered like roaches, and I declared the stick mine. As I tried to reclaim some dignity, put my bookbag back on and look as intimidating as possible they began pleading for their pounding stick back.

Refusing to argue with them I marched on, dennouncing the ring leader as a bandit. As I neared an even larger group of adults, and realized that I didn't have the vocabulary to explain the girls' cruelty, I flung the stick as far into some nearby bushes as possible, and told them to go get it. I walked on home, shaking I was so angry. They'd never disrespect a Nigerien like that.


I self-righteously retold the story the next day to my gardner friend. He interjected with "Boys, right? You mean it was little boys who threatened you..." thinking I'd mixed up my French..and meekly I told him "No, you heard me right. Little girls tried to jump me. Nine year old little girls."

Now this is not the point at which I began to feel at home in Balleyara. Quite the contrary this made me wonder if I was ready for 2 years of little girl gangs....but I tell you that not just to let you laugh at my experience, but also to contrast it to my "Women's Meeting" experience right before I left town for our training.

There is a women's group that meets each Saturday to discuss town issues. Since I'd never been to one, felt like it would be a great place to learn about the more subtle town dynamics and my "Mom" invited me, I went. My Nigerien family is wild...they have 1 Dad who is quiet and never talks, 3 Moms (Marie is my Mom...old, loud, mischevious, and smart. A business woman who, although uneducated, speaks French and has all these side businesses to make money.), and alot of grown sons (one who is Sufi is very good friend), teenagers, kids and the like. There are approximately 20 kids.....all loud, kind and alot of fun.

When I arrived at the Women's Meeting, 20 minutes late, I heard the women before I saw them. Around the corner of the house in the shade of a large tree, about 30 women were sitting on a rainbow of mats. All with beauitful outfits and head wraps, some holding babies, some young and newly married, others old and established. All loud and laughing. When I came in I got shouts and laughter, "Amy! Amina! Amina-tu! Anassara!" Two women called me over to sit with them (didn't know them) and told me I needed to "pay." They explained that each week each woman puts in 200CFA (about 40cents used to help out group members when they have problems) per week. As I got out my money they also told me I needed to pay for the 2 previous weeks, that I hadn't attended. I thought they were testing me, as they often do and argued for a minute....trying to explain that I shouldn't have to pay if I hadn't joined the group yet. They were insistent....they started the group two weeks ago, and I was a member now, so I needed to do my part. I was amazed that these women have so much backbone and "get done" power....they simply get things done when they need to.....like the group needed the money, they knew I could spare it, so they got it from me .......I coughed it up and sat.

The conversation quickly turned to questions of whether or not I had a camera, so I could take pictures of them sometime. Being the energetic volunteer that I am, I told the women my camera wasn't far...I could walk to the hostel and get it. They were ready for pictures and sent me off.

When I returned & sat down, I was handed a baby and told to smile. After about 5 group pictures, the camera was returned and the women started asking me to take individual pictures (they rarely have pictures of themselves so any are considered precious). What started as 2 women in a picture and another with her baby, ended in 2 women playing tug-of-war with my arms, and 10 more arguing over who's baby was prettiest and deserved to be photographed.

I must have looked panicked because out of no where comes this beautiful, lightskinned woman, about 40, who said "ENOUGH!" She yelled at me to get my stuff and go, swatting women's arms angrily since they'd mobbed me. My saviour, Ayisa, grabbed my hand, jerking me through the crowd. She picked up my bookbag, put my arms in it, and started pushing me through the women. I was laughing so hard it hurt, and told her I didn't have my shoes! (You take off shoes before sitting on mats). She quickly changed directions, found my shoes, and literally put them on my feet!

Then she told me to run! I told her (this is all in Zarma) that I didn't have my cell phone or money! She said "It will come! Just run!" As she pushed women away, I ran, and collapsed outside the house.... laughing so hard I cried. When she came out, laughing too, the other women told her she was crazy, an gave her a hard time since she ended the pictures. They also accused her of being a vampire, and warned me that she was capeable of eating me (a very strong animist vibe still runs through the bush and some Nigeriens swear there are vampires)!

As I collected my cell phone and money, which sure enough surfaced, I thanked them for not only inviting me to their meeting, but for their friendship. I could not have asked for a better send off into our 2 weeks of training. So walking into IST training, my heart was full of love, head full of ideas and I was curious to know about the experiences of others....


And I found that some people haven't been "home." Some have refused to become part of the process, refused the process of change, simply put. To walk into a culture and try to connect and build a home, is to offer a part of your heart...in hopes that it finds connection with the hearts of others. Upon arrival, I was in a state of shock...shock at my own distance from home (emotionally, physically, sensorally), shocked to observe a system where 2 women seem to share a daily work load and also a husband and shocked at the gross inquality we've come to know as "reality" where kids in the U.S. are surfing the net at age 6 and grown women and men here stare at me since I'm their first experience of "whiteness."

But to adapt is not simply "getting over culture shock." Yes, there is a measure of comfort now I find from eating Nigerien food (at home it was usually starchy bread and chocolate...here its howru & sauce or Cokes), long running jokes I share with friends in my neighborhood and a bit of forgetfulness of the fact that I am never quite as clean as I was in the States. But I am still shocked daily by 2, 3 or even 4 women sharing a man, children who sit and wait on me to finish at restaurants so they can eat from my wastefulness, and the fact that I actually hear some Zarma.

Adaptation is changing....letting go of some of my Americaness, my whiteness, my capitalist sense of who is deserving and who isn't and so much more. I have to look people in the eye when one of their children or siblings dies and tell them I'm sorry, have patience. I have to say hello to every damn person I pass on the road, and ask about anything from their health to family to work. I have to recognize the fact that they don't just ask me for "cadeaux" or gifts because I'm white, but also because they give freely to each other when they ask for something. Allot of people don't know how old they are here, don't use literal hours to set appointments (done by position of the sun and one of the 5 prayer calls of the day), and they constantly ask where I'm going and where I'm coming from....not out of nosiness, but because they are being polite and curious.

I cannot be closed here. In Asheville, I couldn't tell you the names of more than 2 people who lived in my apartment complex. Here, I have held strangers' babies, been invited to share the lunch of market vendors, and have learned (Am learning).....to relax.


This experience engages everything you've got....from problem solving skills, to academic training, to muscle or lack thereof, to emotional resources.....and its hard. Old insecurities I was able to distract myself from in the States with my social life, my work or my hobbies find a way to the surface here. I have to answer deep and often painful questions dealing with what I believe, how I am going to live, self-esteem, ethics, sexuality, love, and what it means to be a human and co-exist with other humans on this planet.

Some of my peers have risen to the challenge...some are working out responses to these tough questions. They are loved by the Nigeriens they live with, and have connected across cultural and language. By being willing to grow in their villages, their villages are becomming their homes. Their hearts have touched. Yet others have refused to change. They see any change as loss rather than growth, and have turned opportunities for introspection and growth into habits of substance, distracting sex and hurtful gossip. They describe feelings of a dual existence, with only one home...the States.

My most disappointing and difficult interactions have not been with Nigeriens, but other Americans. I am sad to sometimes see peers without patience, and gaping holes where humility and respect should be. And I've been disgusted at my own tendency towards stinginess. I've caught myself numerous times, measuring how much I have or receive against what my peers have...or working hard to get to the front of the line of Americans at training dinners so I get dessert. Sounds silly, but why is it that someone who lives on less than 2 U.S. dollars a day can insist that I sit down to share their dinner, but I have a hard time sharing one of the many bags of MnMs my Dad has sent? I have a feeling these problems affect allot of us, and are a symptom of something much larger in our daily lives...

I ask these questions and one more....I now can say that if asked what a "home" is I would answer that a home is somewhere you've allowed youself to really "Be" and you've done some learning/growing. The type of learning that enriches your personal story and changes your life. I now have many homes....a highschool about 10 minutes from the beach in Daytona, a college circled by blue & purple Appalachian mountains, a little farm in France, a bay in a small Spainsh village, and now a little desert town in the heart of Africa. What is it about my home, the home we share over there in the West...with so many cars and T.V.s and books, that we can make better....more connected to history/herstory/ourstory, to siblings of different skin tones, to the idea of sharing resources and what is fair? What do you think?


So I write to say hello, to share some stories and to ask some questions. Please, talk back. I am "home" and feeling that my service isn't just a "2 year commitment." My life will be about this place, this continent, its stories, its people and how we live together. I miss all of you terribly and speak honestly when I say, "I wish you were here."

Always,
Amy*

2 Comments:

At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Molly Bryant said...

Hey Amy, One thought came to me while reading your newfound sense of home and your description of where "home" resides in each of us. Do you remember the picture that hung in the girls' room in the cabin of the little girl walking out the door obviously in the morning and waving to a kindly-looking lady? It said "Home is where one starts from". To me, that meant that the physical location of "home" can and does change for each of us....but I also believe that "home" actually should reside inside each of us and that we then can carry "home" with us. Remember how I said that all the "things" in my house are important to me only because each carries an important memory...well, my "home" is a corner of my heart comprised of pieces - memories - of all the people and places, music and words which I love and I am truly at home wherever I am. It sounds as though you have independently begun to work out your own philosophy...spiritual statement...about home. Let me know what you think. M. Molly

 
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