So here’s our comedy movie moment of the week:
Our Capstone team is working in rural East India on water with a local NGO. We have been cooped up on the NGO’s main campus/compound for roughly a week now. We have not even stepped foot beyond the entrance gate, and we are all starting to get a little stir crazy. We have been reading a lot of papers and checking our emails a lot,yet aren’t we working on Capstone in the summer to actually go to the field? But a day anywhere off of the campus would be a blessing.
We were given hope at the beginning of the week of leaving GV for a few hours, on Saturday night. Bus leaves the campus at 4pm to go to Berhampur, and returns by 9:30pm. FOUR HOURS OF FREEDOM! That meant different meals (which was very important for most of us, because the slightly bland Indian meals with rice and daal were starting to become a chore), REAL FOOD (we could buy coconuts, and mangoes! and other joyous things!), walking around in newer areas, and the potential of purchasing some cheap bangles and sandals!
We began the countdown to Berhampur a while ago.
It started with just ideas of eating Chinese food. Then pizza. Then mangoes, and bananas, and coconuts. Then we could go shopping! And so it became a daily game of imagining what this marvelous, elusive Berhampur would bring us. We even planned our trip around our tastings. We talked about trying to get one meal in every hour while in Berhampur, just so that we could revel in the diversity of foods we’d find.
Every meal, every break, we talked about, "Just two more days until Berhampur!"
So last night, we were walking to the mess hall and ran into the founder & Executive Director, Joe. (Very sweet guy, very lovely, and he rides a bike everywhere. He is the leader of this grand pack, in every possible meaning of the term. He’s kind of like a swami or royalty. He is the man of this post’s image.) And we chit chatted for a little while about how our project was going, how the heat was, about the snakes and scorpions on the compound, and so on.
We said goodbye, and the team started jovially trotting again towards the mess hall, with relieved thoughts of Berhampur in our strides. Yet right away, Joe turns around on his bike and says, "Oh, before I forget, you are all invited to my house tomorrow night for supper."
A quick note before I continue: Awkward silences. They seem to be the standard conversational garnish in all of our interactions with Indian locals, particularly with GV staff members. I can’t tell if it’s language barriers, cultural differences, or what, but there it is.
And so, after the whole teams’ hearts stopped while Joe invited us to dinner, and there were no words to use, we experienced yet another awkward silence. Only this time, it was a silence brought on by mixed emotions and internal screaming, not just the standard awkward sincerity that we usually have in our talks.
We all eked out some, "Yeah, sure, great, thank you…" remarks.
Joe looked at us, and with an awkward "Ok…." biked away from us. We panicked after his leaving, worried that our week-long dream of Saturday’s ice cold drinks and different foods had come crashing down. What are we going to do?! All of our talk of Berhampur for nothing?! Both honored at the privilege of dinner with Joe & heartache from the idea that we were still stuck on campus, we brainstormed what was the best way to go about the situation. And so, we decided to eat 3 dinners today (Saturday): 2 in Berhampur, and 1 after coming back at Joe’s house.
A few minutes ago, Joe’s wife came to us and offered dinner tomorrow instead of today, so that we could paint Berhampur red tonight. The news couldn’t have come in any better form.
July 10, 2009
Here in Meheba Refugee Settlement FORGE employess about 30 people to manage and coordinate our various projects. While FORGE sends new project managers every year–and the occaisonal consultant like me–the regular employees provide all our institutional knowledge and really run the day-to-day operations. In addition to our employees, there are a number of refugees in Meheba who have adopted FORGE into their extended families and look out for us mzungus to make sure we’re ok. There’s Minos, the bike repair man who can build a reliable mountain bike from spare parts; “The General,” the Don Corleone of Block G who operates daily transport to and from Solwezi and knows everything that’s happening in his community; Boas, the bartender who sells no alcohol (a good thing) but always has cold sodas; and the spiritual leaders: Isaac (the imam at the local mosque) and Boniface (the pastor at the largest church in Meheba). Then there is Bridget.
Bridget is Boniface’s wife and she is an expert tailor. All you need is to show her a picture of a dress and provide the fabric and she can pretty much do anything on a hand-cranked sewing machine. She is also the type of woman that every community needs: welcoming, friendly, motherly, and all-around nice. Whenever I am in her area I always try to stop by her house for some gossip.
We learned today that her father had passed away yesterday. Because he still lives in Eastern Congo there was no hope of Bridget or her children attending his funeral so a grieving ceremony began at her house. In Meheba, mourning lasts for 3 days during which friends and family gather at the home and provide support. At Bridget and Boniface’s this meant wall to wall people sleeping in their home and a large gathering sitting outside under tents. The family is expected to provide food and coffee for all the mourners. Those of us at FORGE provided some food and spent about 3 hours at the house today.
I haven’t known Bridget too long, but in a short time she has become a good friend and it’s been hard on all of us at FORGE too. I never know what to say when someone has lost a loved one, but I like the Meheba way of mourning. Sometimes all that’s needed is a hand to hold and some solidarity.
July 4, 2009
If I was in another place and another time, that title could mean something VERY different. Here in Meheba Refugee Settlement it means that incredibly mean and nasty ants are headed towards the house with the intention of devouring everything in their path. This is where I need to digress and note that when living in a refugee camp it is necessary to listen to the refugees for the best way to stay alive and protect your property. For instance: Doom, Raid, and most other industrial-strength insecticides do absolutely nothing against Red Soldiers. The only reliable weapon is fire. So, while our guard, David, began raking up the brush to build a fire break we started pouring boiling water (luckily our coals were still lit to make bath water) on any scout that dared get to close. Then we lit the match and went back to sleep. Pretty eventful.
Ants aren’t the only pests that refugees know how to fight better than we do. There are also puntsi flies that like to lay eggs in wet laundry. So, you think your jeans are dry and pull them off the line only to end up with larvae burrowing under your skin and making a nice home. The remedy: a little vaseline over the opening and then popping the largest, most disgusting pimple you’ve ever seen and watching out for the bug that emerges. Thankfully, we were given a charcoal iron and the heat kills the bugs. Only one employee has ever gotten puntsi flies, but he swears that it is not an experience to repeat. I’m not sure what a doctor at a fancy hospital back home would do with a person presenting with weird bug-boils, but I’m pretty sure it would involve a quarantine, expensive meds, surgery, and a hefty bill.
Finally, most refugees believe, really believe, in witchcraft. We were warned against using a particular building for an computer education project as the people living next door were “wizards.” It has actually worked out well for us as the “wizards” keep potential scavengers away from our solar panels, but they also are ostracized in the market and sometimes people throw stones at them. Also, I’ve learned that a witch can fly a person from Meheba to America in two hours!!!! I’m trying to find the correct person so I can maybe save some time on my return trip.
I hit a teeny-tiny wall today. I have to renew my visa every 30 days while in Zambia and since I was in town today and it expires next week, it seemed like a good idea to stop at the immigration office to handle it. I’m a horrible procrastinator, so I was pretty proud of myself for being so on top of things. Uh huh…I should have known better.
Apparently, there was some confusion as the immigration officer couldn’t figure out why I was there today when my current visa was still good for another week. I explained that I didn’t know if I would be back in town before it expired so I wanted to be safe and do it now. This caused lots of confusion, and led to a diatribe about how I was unprepared and should know my plans better. Also, there was a discussion about how I would not get locked up for coming in a few days after the visa expired to renew it. I was later assured by friends that preferring to do something later rather than early is common in Zambia. Who knew?
All’s well that ends well, but it was a definite lesson in patience and knowing when to just give in, apologize, and wait for the stamp.
Before leaving for Uganda, I read a piece about what to bring when you are going to a developing country for an extended period of time. One of things mentioned was a suit because you never know what you’ll be invited to. Thankfully, I took heed of that advice and brought a suit.
Last night, while chatting with some Ugandans I have befriended, I was invited to an “Introduction Ceremony” scheduled for this afternoon. Luckily, I had my suit, otherwise I would have stuck out, not only for being one of the few mzungus there, but also for being underdressed.
An Introduction Ceremony is the formal engagement of couples in Uganda, where families come together and the groom’s father offers the dowry. I’m not sure exactly what the dowry was since the ceremony took place in a tribal language, but I’m told there were, in fact, cows involved, and there were two goats present.
The bride’s guests are able to enter the house immediately, but those for the groom had to wait outside until the groom’s father asked formally asked permission for them to enter. The formality of the event was evident even though I couldn’t understand what said and only was given brief summaries of what each exchange was about.
Two lessons come from this. Always bring a suit. And, never decline an invitation to celebrations.
For more on Uganda, please check out my personal blog.