Saturday, 27 June 2009

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people"

I think this is a slogan for the pro-gun lobby. I was extremely amused to have it quoted at me in 'persuasive writing' class, in the following memorable ditty:

"Gon don't kil people
People kil people
It just skeard people
For a time
Gon is just for style"

What a testament to testosterone! Romario got his best mark ever for this one, which flanked an excellent line drawing of a handgun.

People here are not used to advertising. This has the Janus effect: they are extremely gullible, but believe themselves immune. They are an advertiser's dream. But the best part of the class was that people here do not use blandishments. Say it how it is. "Colgate- it cleans your teeth". "Pens- useful for writing with". And this, the best of them all. "Have a gun, tell people it's not irresponsible, scare them into submission, and best of all, be REALLY, REALLY COOL". The trickle effect of peer advertising here in the 21st century Wild West.

Monday, 22 June 2009

All Covered in Cow Slabber

Another normal day. I come out at 5:45, to watch the hindquarters of a large horned cow trotting away from the washing line with my bread cloth. I give chase. The cow speeds up. I shout "Give that back!" and it wags its horns at me and heads across the playing field. I shout in my teacher voice "Don't even THINK about it!" The cow turns, looks at me, flicks the cloth over its shoulder where it hits the ground with a wet gooey smack, gives me a dirty look and keeps trotting. It's so slabbery and yellow that I pick it up by the clothes-peg, but my hands still feel besmirched for the rest of the day.

I go to school for Exam Day 6, and watch 75 children wilt and lie on desks. Some are trying to write well, some to think at all and others aiming to survive the afternoon in 32 degrees at 94% humidity under a zinc roof. The two last arrivals have only a stool to use as a desk. I stand throughout.
I come home in time to mash chickpeas into peanut butter and call it hummous. I notice while I'm kneading dough for flatbread that I've slowed down. I'm kneading gently, more in the spirit of Mozart and less the frantic Led Zeppelin of last week. I sift through the rice for the three resident types of grub: the black ones, the orange straight ones disguised as rice grains, and the tiny brown worm types.
We're asleep by nine. In honour of San Juan, tomorrow night people will be getting extremely drunk (starting early afternoon) and then walking on burning coals. The party is RIGHT outside our house. We're getting the sleep stocked up in advance!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Twiglet House

We live in a Grimm's fairy tale. One of the Gothic ones, with its triad of fairytale loveliness, surreality and nature's blind harshness.
I lie in bed. It's late- 9pm! I look up through the gauze of netting. We live under a roof of twiglets, knobbly knitting. I now know what it feels like to be a tiny doll in an oversized garter-stitch mud-brown jumper. We are pet fleas in a matchstick dolls-house. The borrowers, playing at real life. (I've never been self-sufficient, but the sensation of wimpish uselessness is different when everyone else is). Our little house feels safe, finite, gingerbread. A child's house.
I go out to the toilet before going to sleep. Tiptoe through the cowpats. Juggling an umbrella and keys whilst winding a wind-up lantern in the dark over rough ground is no mean feat, so I'm happy it's stopped raining. My feet are soaked through by the time I get there, though. Tonight the big beetles are flying, and they are in love with my white skin (the light bouncing off it, to be precise), so they butt me playfully. I'm feeling unplayful and vulnerable (they do, after all, bite), so I'm afraid I swear back at them. The mosquitoes nibble on regardless.
I stumble back in starlight. The planets wink gently. Aishalton's stars effulge and glimmer, diamonds that do not permit envy or ownership, assured in their gorgeousness. Fireflies cruise past with their lovely trajectory- I wish for a vehicle that could emulate their quiet transports of flight.
There is always a strong moment of relief, of protection when I climb back under the net. Sleep holds out its familiar arms and I walk on in, not knowing what I will find but trusting it because I have never had a choice.

Monday, 8 June 2009

And the dragonflies moved upon the face of the water

Yesterday Edgar, a foursquare friend who combines Dickensian dignified portliness with a droll storytelling humour, waterproofed our roof. He climbed a ladder on to the single layer of thatch and clambered around shoving ite leaves into suspicious gaps, while I winced beneath, feeling the roof shake and shudder. It all looked even more precarious from outside, as the whole thatch twitched like a bad toupe. But last night, when the rains came a’knocking, for the first time the roof stayed shut.

Today is a proper rainy season day. I wake to pattering rather than hammering. Morning prayer at 6am up the hill is dark, sparsely attended and everyone is cold (it’s about 23 degrees). On my way back down, the rain-pace picks up, and my coat is drenched through before I head for the well. There is a tautological frustration in struggling to pull up water when it’s descending with such purposeful aplomb, but I need a shower now, not in half an hour. Nevertheless I put out all our empty buckets under the roof eaves, and by the time I leave for school we have twelve gallons of heaven’s water, unlaboured for.

I cannot consider cycling today, so I set off early in B’s coat (mine is beyond “soaking” and in to “pouring”), waterproof boots, my hurricane umbrella and a backpack in its own cute silver mackintosh. A plague of flying worms rises in wafts, drifting like ash, giving me compelling reason to keep my mouth firmly shut. When I reach the road, it is a red river with a clearly discernible current. I have to leap the torrent six or seven times on the walk. At the largest dips in the road, lakes have formed with greenish edges. Here the dragonflies hover scarlet and gold, greeting my bleary incredulity with a darting, nonchalant indifference. Contrasting children pass by; the dragonfly children in normal uniform, carrying their ‘slippers’ (flipflops) and wading, and the anxious-parented children in ankle-length non-breathable macks, creating the moisture inside to complement the outside. A tall girl in tiny shorts hurtles by, sheltered under the umbrella of her passenger balanced on the crossbar.

When I arrive at school, the children are mainly sheltering under the eaves, but nothing else is different. Life continues as normal. I remember London’s six inches of snow in January and chuckle.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Words are deceitful and desperately wicked- who can understand them?

An old friend got in touch the other day, after a long silence due to excessive brain usage (intensive Arabic studies). She had seen this blog and commented on the ‘very lyrical language’. That made me smile and grimace at the same time. I do not mean to be lyrical; I’m trying to be exact, truthful, and unmisinterpretable (is that a word? It is now!).

It’s a losing battle of course. As any avid reader knows, good words are gorgeously woven but empty sacks that we fill with our own ingredients. Posh painting by numbers. And as language learners discover, translation is a search for metaphors, not a set of matching equations. As soon as you read these words, they are your words, not mine. They fill up to the brim with your history, your life, your faces and places. Let’s play a game. I’ll tell you about my rather uneventful day, you visualise it, then I’ll describe it in a bit more detail.

Version 1: I went to school. The education department delivered some books. B did the washing today. A friend dropped by for a cup of tea, and brought a little smackerel of something to have with it. It rained and then the sun came out.

(A pause while you visualise- I shall imagine YOU now, making a cup of tea, sitting in front of a good computer in a well-lit room at a comfortable temperature, being bitten by nothing except possibly pets or relatives).

Right then: Version 2.
I went to school. i.e. I trot off to the outside loo (we still haven’t sanded it, so it’s got a natural exfoliation effect) before getting on my bike for school. The ride up the hill takes about 7 minutes. It’s deep, skiddy sand. I once fell off, to the ecstasy of passing students, and it took days for people to stop approaching me delightedly to tell me all about it- a kind of “Where were you when Miss Sarah fell off her bike?” vibe. I arrive without incident, sweating like a cheese sandwich left out in the sun.
The education department delivered some books. At lunchtime, the fourth year boys are sent off on their bicycles to hurtle and skid their way across the valley to the education department building. They wobble and creep their way back with 40lbs of books each, in cardboard boxes, balanced on their crossbars as they negotiate the steeplechase of sandpits, ruts, rocks and rivers that make up the ‘road’ back to school. I have never seen them concentrate that hard for lessons.
B did the washing today. When I got back after a full day’s teaching, B was just completing the week’s wash that he had started before I left. Step 1, haul buckets and carry them a few hundred yards. Step 2, fill laundry bowl with cold water and soap powder. Step 3, leave to soak. Step 4, haul more buckets for first rinse. Step 5, haul more buckets for second rinse. Step 6, start on a second full laundry bowl. Step 7, curse. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5, with copious quantities of step 8. (Step 8, sweat two full bucketloads but reject them as too salty for rinsing with). Step 9- hang out the washing and hang out the flags; it’s over for another week!
A friend dropped by for a cup of tea, and brought a little smackerel of something to have with it. Ashley’s mum, Alison, stops in. She accepts a coffee tea (‘tea’ means hot drink, so you can have tea tea, coffee tea, Nescau tea etc) with milk and three sugars. She is miniature, like a hummingbird, so she probably needs the sugar to survive. She brought a sugar cane her own height for us to chew on- she says “just chop it with a knife” but she means a machete, which they call a cutlass here. Our knives won’t do it.
It rained and then the sun came out. The rainy season arrived with panache two weeks ago. It skulked away two days later, and hasn’t returned. People are beginning to speak of drought. The vegetables are dying, the trees are not fruiting, and the wells are getting low. It is frightening- when the well runs dry, and the coconuts are all drunk, what then? People drink creek water and get sick. We, who would simply leave, dilettante with the fear but carry a little guilt of irresponsibility. The semi-solidarity of the spoilt. So today when it rains during second period, the students get restive. They jump from their seats to look. They fidget and joke. It stops almost immediately, the air is heavy and turgid with moisture, gloom and dishcloth air descend on the staffroom.

The gap between the first and second version is no bigger than the gap between the second and reality here. Photos suffer it too- the rubbish pit not taken, the filthy sullen child who isn’t photographed, the National Geographic glamour filter on Amerindian wrinkles that doesn’t ‘take’ on our own unfit or exhausted populace. Sometimes I think I will give up on writing this and let B’s photos speak for both of us, but eyes and ears both have their suitable moments. So I shall carry on fighting the losing battle, and enjoy the many consolations of defeat!