Thursday, 28 May 2009

“She feet SOFT soft like mango!”

Ashley, with my mug for scale!
Ashley graces our hammock with the widest smile, the sweetest freckles and the most fetching plaits I have ever seen. She has flopped into the hammock after sweeping the entire house, conscientiously and well. She moves shoes and stools aside, tsk-ing and tapping them smartly to get all the sand off. She is six years old. She has a temperament so sweet that after a half-hour visit, you have a headache from all that laughing. Her tiny little feet are encased in large leather sandals that she doesn’t like much because they are like 90-year-old Father Britt’s. She holds B’s boot up for inspection, at a distance, by the laces. One boot is about the size of her torso. Avoiding comment, she puts it back down. She laughs out loud when I call her slippers ‘flipflops’- she thinks I made up the name to “make my nose move funny”. She tickles my feet, and exclaims in surprise, “She feet soft, Mummy! She feet SOFT soft like mango!” Women’s feet here are tough and leathery from walking barefoot all their lives. I tickle her feet back, and they are sandy and already a little rough.

Ashley draws a picture of us in the sand outside the house. First she draws me. I am holding a large heart in my hand. Then she draws B, with his hat. She takes a measuring look at him, and corrects her drawing with leg extensions. After another serious look, she returns and draws big circular ears. He is holding a smaller heart. B comes out to see, and everyone laughs and jokes about the big ears. Ashley is not impressed- she had not been poking fun. She neatly solves the social gaffe by adding large round ears to me too.

I don’t know what to say about such grace as she has. It’s a fragile thing, an innocence bound to fall victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune someday. She has a perfection usually associated with babies, a liquid clarity found in the very holy and people who have come to terms with a disability, and a joy and merry-heartedness I encounter more in music than in people. She is like a stream over pebbles in a sunny country.

Friday, 22 May 2009

"The Janice was not Smelling Broadly"

When I was a child, my father’s consolational relish in the maelstrom of exam season was collecting ‘howlers’. I remember that our laughter was sometimes a rather ungenerous superciliousness about the plebbish children’s musical ignorance. We were pedantic both lexically and musically. But there was also a lovely warm merriment sometimes, akin to reading really good nonsense poetry, a kind of celebration.

I marked this sentence last week: “When Mr. Janice entered the living in his room the Janice was not smelling broadly”. Isn’t that wonderfully evocative? Makes you wonder if T.S. Eliot actually nicked many of his best lines from a teacher friend. It’s also prophetic- because B is away this week, I have not really “entered the living in” my new house either. Unfortunately, I AM indubitably “smelling broadly”, especially after cycling home from school at the hottest part of the day.

I also marked the following poem:
If I go away
You- the world-
Let it mourn to be sky
And together
To stop breeding
For all dying
And never find the way back,
Never find the way back.
This extraordinary offering physically knocked me back in my chair in the staffroom, I was so surprised. (It isn’t a good idea to make any sudden moves on the staffroom chairs, both because all the ‘squares’ are rhombuses, giving a seated teacher the look of a bo’sun in a Force 6, and because they must be preserved, so that the most agile child available can continue to use them as a ladder to climb into the lab over the top of the staffroom wall each period (no, the key never turned up). I fear my parentheses are taking over: I’m going to have to start subsectioning my digressions at this rate.) I handed back the books with interest, looking for a moody, disturbed young person to collect this poem, but no: it’s the sunniest, cuddliest, dimpliest girl in the class.

School continues to be grinding, poignant, mundane and worthwhile in pretty much equal measures. I carry a bit more frustration, a lot more names and a complete set of waterproofing with me this week: Thomas drawled with his slow grin when he saw me set off the other day, “You walk wid da loooooong boots today, Miss Searah”. And like teachers all over the world, I'm very, very thrilled that it's Friday!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

I should not have lost hope...

... there is now some doubt that it was suicide. It is beginning to look just possible that it was a freak accident.
Two days ago, I would have been horrified to hear of a freak accident. Now I'm desperately hoping there was one. The strangest feeling. That the mother will be relieved if a gruesome fatal accident took away her youngest child. Pray for her, Genevieve, in a turmoil of feelings not to be imagined, crashing and bumping over the ruts to Lethem with her dead boy to a non-definitive autopsy. Pray that the rains will hold off for the return journey, because decomposition is quick here, and there are no cold vans, no hearses, no dignifying paraphernalia. I am sorry to be graphic, but somehow I want us to try, to at least offer, to share her pain. What else can we do?

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Another kind of death

One of our third year students, Jude Antone, hanged himself yesterday.
The headteacher asked me whether it would be appropriate to make any gesture, such as a minute's silence, because it was a suicide. Swallowing my incredulous rage, I suggested that we should, and that the flag should be lowered to half-mast.
I sat beneath the eaves of school this afternoon, supervising Jude's class at P.E. Everyone was laughing and relaxing. The boys played football. The girls talked about brassieres (pronounced the American way). The flag flapped idly at about two-thirds-mast over our heads. Five vultures circled high up on the thermals.
I was so determined not to impose my Western ethics here. But I find myself bitter today, judging everyone. Some very inward, woundable part of me believes, too strong for me to question, that suicide should shock us. I am biting my lip not to scream "Why does no-one care?" It isn't reserve- the girl in 3A I asked about Jude sneered at me. Yes, people are more au fait with death. But don't tell me that accepting the inevitability of death is the same as holding life cheap. There is no consequence to this- no counsellors for the boy's family, no bereavement group, no investigation to speak of. Forget forensics, forget leaving the scene untouched until the police get here, forget school counsellors. The funeral has to be today, in this heat, with no morgues or refrigeration. Let's ignore it until it's dead and buried and then move on.
I have had a good life. I have never considered suicide. But this lack of ripple, this seeming indifference to the most extreme scream a boy can make, is one of the most disheartening things I have ever experienced. The loss of hope is more imaginable in the witnessing of this.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

And lo! The heavens opened...

Rainy season arrived yesterday. Just like that. Suddenly the sky was filled with rain, from top to bottom. It hushed and rushed and shushed, a constant static movement that is much harder to conjure up than stair-rods or cats and dogs. Today is different- it hurtled pokers, stabbing at the zinc roof of the school. No classes took place after 1:10 because even the most stentorian tones were hammered into oblivion by the vociferous voice of the rain. The school has no windows, so the sideways pokers gobbed all over my marking. Poor Polycarp is going to think I wept over his grammar. I tiptoed home through today’s deep mud (yesterday’s skidding sandpits). My expedition hurricane umbrella was great. My one smart pair of shoes is ruined. I disgracefully neglected to pack shoe polish.

When I got home, the flying ants were just beginning to swarm. Poor old Pharaoh, those Israelites with their insect plagues knew what they were about. Ant wars of attrition. I buttoned my shirt to the collar, but my eyelashes, ears, and dinner were all richer in protein than usual. I retired, sore beset, to the mosquito net. Now they’re nearly all dead and I have a memento mori gathered in the netting over my head. And no, I’m not getting out to brush them off. Would you?
Rainy season lasts from now to September. Let’s hope I develop Miss Smilla’s feeling for rain.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Our New Home

(excuse the rosettes- centenary celebrations, not political campaigning!)

Four months and nine different residences later, we have finally unpacked all our bags. We have a home in Aishalton! It is the village house, made of local bricks and ite leaf thatch. Soon we will name it.
The house looks like a child’s drawing, with its steeply pitched hairy roof, door in the middle and two windows eyeing you from either side. Its inhabitants are redolent of Grimm brothers. The bats and the frogs seem to have moved out, at least temporarily, and now a wren resides in one corner. (It poos on my kitchen, but somehow wren guano is more romantic and forgiveable than bat guano). Our geckos are tiny, extremely cute, and eat flies- my new favourite creature. Every morning I sweep up another crop of dead cockroaches that have fallen from the thatch on munching our insecticide, and make the local chickens’ day. They come running when I open the doors. They wander into the bedroom (bad) and eat dead spiders, live cockroaches and whatever else they find (worth it). All the insects apart from the ants have one common appealing characteristic- they run when they see us coming.

Last Monday, the village called a Work Day to build our toilet. It is about 100 yards from the house over rough, tussocky ground. It is a deep hole with wooden seat, splintery so far, three-quarter walls and a tin roof. We padlock it. The same goes for the “shower”- four three-quarter walls with a tilted roof and a door that leaves a nice gap for prying eyes (and swings open unpredictably during bathes), and a raised plank floor. The walls are reclaimed zinc roofing, covered with nail holes, giving the whole cubicle a whimsically wartime air of having been violently strafed with bullets. The well is about 300 yards in another direction. We are getting good at only needing one bucket each per day. I chuckle to remember a day at Titanic Spa with Ange when I had my first ever bucket bath- ah, the glamour of bucket baths every day! For the millionth time, I congratulate myself on the short hair choice.

The house has a fringe that needs trimming. Sitting in the hammock looking out the back door, tendrils drift and puff in the wind that breathes out of the hot ground. One of these days I will give it the haircut I badly need myself, take a saw to it and smarten it up. This is a world to gaze in, muse in, watch instead of analyse in, fall in, swing swing swing in the hammock in.

Lying in bed at night, sucking at the air to try to wring a little oxygen out of it, I gaze through the gauzey haze of the net at the strong leaf-stems that hold the thatch firm. This flimsy net protects us from so much; clumsy bumping moths, purposeful mosquitos and all the other voracious little bloodsuckers, cockroaches and 4-inch spiders falling and climbing, climbing and falling, scuttling greedily, bossily all over the un-netted world. Perhaps our amulets against cockroaches literal and metaphorical are always this flimsy. Aren’t they lovely, the filmy gossamers that give us an illusion of safety?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

“I can see what B's been doing- fantastic photo journal, but you Sarah, an awful lot of linguistic doodling going on- where's the bloody work!?”

Thus Cath (for any of you who haven’t met her, think one part Lamborghini, one part caterpillar tank a la James Bond driving through Leningrad in Goldeneye) gently reminded me that I have not said much about work. Since her message I have started teaching full-time- You might have read about my first day of school already- but I'm only filling in between Jesuits-in-training: another should arrive in time for next term.

Rather than trying to describe the hallucinogenic patchwork quilt that is my evolving job, I shall let events tell their own story, and just describe three meetings that have taken place so far.

Meeting 1: planning group for the school fair

“I’d like you all to meet Sarah and James, who have kindly agreed to come along and help us plan the fair”. We went on to assess how many cartloads of firewood would be sufficient for the catering, who had the contacts to hire a tractor, and whether enough warishis and matepis would be on the craft stall. None of these are exactly our strong suit. There were already twenty games in preparation. The ladies had worked out how much profit they would make out of the foodstuffs they could transform into snacks (38,755 dollars out of the 70,600 total value).

The fair went on to make $220,000, up on $150,000 the previous year. Our sole contributions were B's raffle suggestion, and my abject begging for prizes from Georgetown friends. We were about as much use as the berries on the Whitey tree!

Meeting 2: inauguration of the new Toshao

We arrive at the old community centre at 10:05, hot (both) and flustered (just me). The meeting had started on the dot. The old Toshao, in a striped football shirt and trousers he made himself, is handing over leadership of the village to the new Toshao, in his Ralph Lauren chinos and polo shirt.

They have begun by introducing the Peace Corps volunteers who arrived a few days previously. We missed it. We arrive just in time to ‘say a few words’- about what I still don’t know, but I wibbled and B smiled and no-one booed, so that’s good enough. Next we’re on to the main business of the meeting: handing over. I expected ceremony, but in fact it’s inventory. We start with plant- one village council office, containing the records, library, insecticide sprayer, 2 large cooking pots, one chainsaw and 6 machetes. One library, containing guttering, 20 bags cement, 4 large water tanks, 1 plane, 2 hacksaws and 5 chisels. One large zinc-roofed community centre, unfinished (to be completed with the fittings in the library). One small thatched community centre, in which we are holding this meeting. One women’s centre with gas stove. One community kitchen without. We then move on to other assets. The village cow man was asked to bring the herd for the outgoing Toshao to count this morning- 47 of the village’s 52 cows were present. (We know from a previous meeting that the village’s herd of pigs was driven out because they were making a nuisance of themselves, eating people’s vegetables and getting drunk and disorderly on the rotting mangoes. Unfortunately, they have either been pig-rustled, eaten or sought better prospects, so none remain to speak of). Three cooking pots, of which one has been borrowed and not returned- a plea is made. Two cassava graters, currently on Beverley Winter’s farm. A tractor with broken arms which belongs to the whole region.

[Sorry, I just have to interject at this point. I am watching in horrified fascination as a moribunta over an inch long grooms itself fastidiously on the end of my bed. I can see its leg markings, the gradation of thickness on the wings, all its MANY joints. Eugh. It looks like it could take me down in hand-to-hand combat without batting a well-groomed eyelash. I could write a whole new Gulliver’s Travels, entitled ‘Pygmy in the Giant Zoo’ or something. Let’s have the Lilliputians’ perspective for a change. Life here is a constant swap between ends of the microscope.]

After a few more intriguing items are listed, we have the treasurer’s report. He lists all assets, starting from the smallest (a fund of $12,000- about £40). As each is listed, it is produced, either in a plastic bag, an envelope or a rubber band. The largest is the recent government grant of $1,446,950. (It cost the outgoing Toshao $53,050 to collect it). Even in thousand notes, that makes a large block. The village decides that the new Toshao should count it on the spot, along with the second-largest chunk, a fund of $120,000. The large sum is right. The smaller is not. Discussion ensues. The matter of the discrepancy is left to the council, the treasurer persuades the Toshao to keep the large sum in his (concrete) house, as the treasurer (in his wooden house) fears for its security, and a strong consensus emerges to get access to a safe to deposit the money. The nearest bank is 5 hours away in good weather, and often completely inaccessible in the rainy season. Someone stands to say that the government office just opposite the village council has space in their safe.

At this point everyone’s bum is completely numb from nearly three hours on low hardwood plank benches, and some of our brains are numb from all that Wapishana, so the meeting proceeds around town to check the assets visually before the new Toshao takes over. The day ends with a cook-up for the whole village provided (and paid for) by the new Toshao. It runs from 5pm till the wee hours, and we see everyone we know there except the priests.

Meeting 3: Bid-writing for the Nursery School

Nursery Schooling is compulsory in Guyana. Primary schools receive money to provide a hot meal to the children each day, but nurseries do not. So the Nursery PTFA (parents, teachers and friends- I love that!) is taking matters into its own hands and seeking external funding. We spend two and a half hours together filling in a loooooooooooong form with narrative and broken down costings. James and I meander, charmed, round the school.

I find myself strangely moved by the Big Books, many of which are hand-drawn. B is particularly taken with the alphabet- ‘A is for armadillo’- that classic way of mapping the ordinary which is such good shorthand for cultural difference. I type, while May, the headteacher, answers the question ‘Why is the project necessary?’ as follows:

“The children at this nursery school live as far as 6 and 7 kilometres away. All the children walk to school. Many have eaten their snack before they arrive. They currently have nothing to eat between arriving at school and reaching home at the end of the day. Very few of their parents have formal jobs, and therefore cannot provide more food for their children. This project would ensure that the facilities exist to give them a more balanced diet, and enough nutrition to perform better in their schoolwork."

Her tone is matter-of-fact. The big books had already softened me up- my eyes fill with tears.

So there’s the bloody work. Sorry this entry is so long, but I wanted to answer Cath’s question to her rather exacting standards! We’ve spent 20 days in Aishalton so far, and I haven’t told you half of the work we’ve done. I’ve just written a term’s scheme of work and planned all of next week’s lessons, so the Smugness of the Swot is Settling upon my Supercilious Bonce. My pre-arrival question, ‘is there a role for us here’, feels farcical now.

Friday, 8 May 2009

How do you know you’re used to Aishalton?

When you turn your head contentedly to watch the first flock of parrots hurtle bullet-headed by at 6:30am. When the great treat you indulge in at the end of Friday’s schoolday is a bucket-bath (cement bucket for bath, cinema-style disposable Dr Pepper cup for jug). When you don’t need to think to remember to shake your shoes for cockroaches and scorpions before putting them on. When the roosters no longer wake you. When listening to the violins in Borodin’s second string quartet transports you to another plane that overlays on the palm trees and thatches to make a planet that doesn’t quite exist. When 6:15 is a lovely lie-in. When you stop noticing that everyone calls a personalised greeting wherever you go. When you start daring to wear flipflops despite the lepidopterous horror stories. When headtorches feel normal and electric lights do not. When one small beer feels like a wild night out and, frankly, profoundly risqué. When four days working away from your husband feels like a yawning eternity.

Monday, 4 May 2009

My first day at school

The school is a long low concrete building with a zinc roof that bakes and crackles. The teachers and students are the bacon, curling limply at first until they begin to crisp (or wilt, if it’s cheap bacon) by early afternoon.

As you enter through the two-inch-deep sand at the back, there is an illusion of cool for a moment from the shade. Right and left respectively, facing each other, are the headteacher's office and the staffroom. The next pair is resource centre (donated 1990's American textbooks, punctured footballs and one warped and cracked cricket bat) and the lab (desks, bunsen burners with no gas, a few beakers with no water supply, and the teacher has to climb in over the wall as someone stole the key). Next pair is the first year A and B classrooms, then second year A and B, then third year A and B. Only two rooms remain, so fourth year A and B have been merged, and they study in the hallway. The last pair is fifth year (only 15 students because it’s public exam year), and the storage room, piled high with broken school desks.

The school day is four seventy-minute periods with a break between each. We begin the day at 8:30 by raising the flag, saying the pledge and the school prayer, and having announcements. I am introduced. I fidget and sweat in the morning sunlight. The children squint and grump, I can't tell whether at me or the sunshine. That is my induction- I am given the school manual to read later. It is handwritten, and rather good. Only two copies exist.

I start teaching at 8:40. Since I received the textbooks at 8:25, I had prepared an introductory lesson to use with each class. They stand up as I enter. There is no chalk, so I have to send a pupil out to find some. We're off- I draw a map of Britain, I draw my hobbies, I draw conclusions about how badly I've pitched this lesson. The children are used to rote learning, writing from the board, reading aloud together. I am used to reaction, individuation and activities. The next lesson I will shift pace. My Grade 2 class is 27 students for whom I have 8 textbooks. Children are never permitted to take a textbook home.

Later I ‘teach’ P.E. The school has one football and a volleyball net. There are no courts, and the children mainly run barefoot round the sandy schoolyard. Long jump suggested itself to me, in a schoolyard full of natural sandpits, and the students humour me until I allow them to go off and play football.

The day ends with a stern talk from the headteacher. This shocks me, after a day with disruptive, bubbly, but mainly sweet-natured children. One boy is called up for using primary school children as runners to break in to a shop and steal alcohol for him. Two girls are called up for disappearing all weekend, almost certainly to a brothel. Papayas and smiling children and macaws and mango juice all sound wonderful, yes, but it’s nobody but a fool’s paradise. ‘Sweet’ and ‘innocent’ do not always occur together. Brazilian miners’ camps nearby, goods to buy but very few sources of income, a tough schooling with so few job prospects at the end of it: what are the students to aspire to? No wonder the school takes its moral and formative responsibilities so seriously.