Friday, November 9, 2012

Rain and Time

        When it rains, the snails surround my house. They scale the thatch and concrete walls, traverse the mud, and brave the pelting storm in search of food, friends, life, etc? Unfortunately, my knowledge of snails is limited to fragmented memories from a biology class years ago, little of substance. Fortunately, however, a lack of knowledge means a blank slate to observe and learn. The snails of Tandjoare keep shells in a variety of arresting colors: swirled mahogany browns blended with a creamy white, dreamsicle oranges giving way to deeper reds, and dusky blacks meeting gray. Some are as big my palm, while others remain petite. There’s a measured grace to the snails movements as they glide across soaked terrain, slow but almost effortless. It’s as if they have all the time in the world to find their destination and simply live, there, complete. My life flows similarly now, amidst the rain and settling in, with time moving mere inches while watched, but still somehow slipping away.

        Wake up, clean (the compound and myself), and prepare / eat breakfast. Walk outside with a simple goal, such as greeting potential work partners or buying produce, and hope to discover more along the way. Some days, my excursions end early: the sun and heat being too intense, the sociable people being too few, and / or meeting only Moba, the local language, speakers. Other times, a string of events falls into place and I return home near dusk, tired but satisfied. Maybe my meeting leads to drinks afterwards, or one person I’ve met has a lot on their mind. Conversations and happenings are never too involved, if only for my French’s weakness to penetrate deeper subject matter, but anything that makes me feel integrated or more at home seems worth celebrating. Each befuddled conversation may lay the foundation for future camaraderie and work.

        One afternoon, while wandering through our small market, an old woman gets my attention. Waving me over, she’s wearing a satin pink nightie, with white lace frill to match her cloudy eyes. Her near toothless smile spouting Moba, she seems unsatisfied with my basic greeting and thanks. Gesturing towards the nearby drink vendor, she becomes more and more serious. Apparently, I’m thirsty and now’s the time. I follow and sit beside her while two bowls of Tchapa, a frothy local beer made from sorghum, are passed our way.  She continues talking, pausing only to drink and make sure my bowl is emptying, with others nearby laugh at our odd couple. A few men alternate sitting next to me and practice their best-intoxicated French. Where are you from? Why are you here? How’s the Tchapa? We talk as best we can and laugh, with my older companion nodding at my social and boozy progress. Tchapa stands dominate the markets of my small village and are an essential means of socializing in the community. Young, old, male, or female, everyone’s drinking there at some point. Until that moment, I’d been naively reserving my first visit for a stand that seemed unique. I hadn’t taken the time to notice that each drinking crowd, despite enjoying the same thing and similar scenery, is made unique by the people involved. Every frothy gourd carries the potential to connect with someone new, preliminary integration by the gulp.

        Returning home, I dread and look forward to night as a time to reflect. The cool quiet offers peace, just as my thoughts move to end it. It often feels like I’ve done very little with each day, moved mere inches with miles left to go. I try to remain hopeful about the future and optimistic that, with each little encounter, I’m laying the foundation for something great. I try to channel those rain soaked snails in my insecure moments; gliding, naturally, as if an eternity’s offered for wherever they choose to go.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


        Nights in Gpatope are incredibly rich. Sans moon and streetlight, one can wander into areas of perfect, deep darkness. It’s easy to let the moment consume you then, lost in the sea of stars overhead and the aural euphoria of insects singing in the brush. Breathing slowly, in sympathy with the plants savoring a photosynthetic break, you can become the darkness: absent body, fading into humid, thick air. As the moon returns, building to a luminous crescendo, its creamy light chases black to shadow and carves a silhouette world echoing the day. Nature and construction are soft in such light, as if the sun’s pass eroded any jagged edges.  My nightlife shifting to soft focus, my host family’s many palms, sharp, surprised me one evening: cutting the haze, it seemed they could peel back the night itself, could crack open the cosmos. Their expanse of shadows, like so much of this new culture, an ocean I admire. Waiting to dive in.

        Training speeds past with hours immersed in French, cultural, and safety / security related lessons everyday. Time off just usually means practicing what we learned in real world settings at our training sites. Every trip to the market, a boutique, or a bar becomes a lesson in and of itself: vendors don’t like giving change, speaking local language always earns a smile, being out alone after dark isn’t wise, etc. Our group of almost forty Americans band together in the face of new surroundings and everyone becomes closer; our excited English conversations often drown out the first few attempts to start each lesson.  After visiting our posts, these group sessions take on a sense of urgency as, apart, there will be no regular English escapes. Preparing for independence and savoring time with friends, moments with my host family become harder. I’m ready for independence, as they seem ready for me to go. These problems are compounded one afternoon.
        Returning home for lunch, I noticed many men surrounding the palm trees in our compound. They appeared to be sizing each up and surveying the surrounding land, a noteworthy sight but one that delayed my room bound retreat only momentarily. My afternoon rest ended shortly thereafter with several successive thuds, and I walked outside to see the last palm, nearest my room, having it’s roots ripped before being pushed to the ground. Moving through the compound, all of the trees lay dying on the ground. A taller man, shirt half buttoned with a decaying smile, asked if I wanted to take photos and show Americans what they do. I struggled to respond, politely smiled, and slipped away. It was hard to imagine it being more difficult for them to push the trees than it was for me to watch them fall.

        Avoiding the topic and the same men who hovered around the palms during the week, I tried unsuccessfully to forget the occurrence. Stepping over and around the trees, I noticed yellow jugs placed beneath the sheared crest of each and fluids leaking out. A parade of goats continually made rounds to eat the browning foliage of their suddenly accessible smorgasbord. Finally, I asked my host brother why they’d been felled. He explained each would provide the family with money via the palm wine draining out, and that the visiting men are community members who sell it at bars and boutiques. Each tree had been planted to eventually generate money the family needed. I’d been ignorantly sentimental and blind to the truth; they were planted with a more important purpose than landscaping lovely nightscapes. Without it, they never would have known life at all. 

        At night, I walk among the dead. I wonder if the palms knew only a half – life before and, with their cause bubbling to the surface, they rest in triumph. Broken open, their truth spilled forth. Training is over soon and I’ll be moving to the far North, away from my host family and these trees. Lying down, I imagine myself like the palms. Doubt and hope are swelling inside and, broken open, I wonder if both will seep out in equal measure. Empty, this new world could rush in and make me something more for my service, my community, myself. Maybe I’ll cut through the night sky one day, touching stars to cast a shadow sea uncharted.