Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Context Matters

2/17/2011 Being out of context
It has now been six months since we arrived. One of the best
indicators that the "living in rural Africa" novelty has worn off is
when the opposite of what was novel becomes novel. For example:
staying in a hotel and delighting that you don't have to walk 100
meters to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. And, well, the
novelty has worn off. I saw my friend Ken, the Maybe But Probably Not
Murderer yesterday and it barely registered. The constant presence of
lizards, spiders, et al for even the most private acts (like
defeating) is assumed. Even the 105 degree heat doesn't faze me any
more than the average Joe. There are rhythms and patterns of
familiarity that typically govern the day.
My role in the lives of the children is as the provider of things -
school supplies, medicine, food, soap, games, bandages, the occasional
smile/hug/word of encouragement (wouldn't want to be too generous with
those, though). And someone always needs provision, and someone always
has a complaint about what has been provided. And it's exhausting
sometimes, which is why I wasn't particularly excited about the
prospect of taking a group of kids to the market to buy sandals
A brief but relevant digression: I have come to recognize that every
relationship can benefit from a change of context (digressions from my
digression: this may be why romantic relationships need dates. Triple
digression: please, people, don't call it "a date night." It is a
date. You might designate a specific night for a consistent date, and
that might be "date night," but please don't use an article with the
As a teacher, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to
go to as many extracurricular events as possible. When I didn't have
to be the warm yet strict, extremely focused taskmaster and could just
be present and enjoy myself and take pride in my students, my role as
an educator was strengthened not undermined, because I wasn't only an
educator, and I wasn't an adversary (which I often was in the
classroom) - I was a supporter with no other agenda.
As the provider of all things, my relationship with the children is
pretty strictly limited to our home. It's about four acres, so it
encompasses a whole host of different interactions, and I tend to
escape from the compound for exactly three reasons: going out of town,
going out on a date with Sarah (to one of three restaurants), or going
out of my mind (this tends to involve a long walk in which I mutter to
myself and try to avoid the various crazy people who have recognized
me as one of their own).
Funny things happen on the way to the market: instead of sixty
children, I find myself with only three, and suddenly we're having a
prolonged conversation (about why I don't cook for Sarah and whether
she will one day beat me because of it. They, of course, would never
want a man to cook for them). There are no chores for me to remind
them to do, and no supplies for them to request of me, so instead we
talk and laugh. It must be appealing, because soon three other
children join us.
In the market, I make the children at first pretend like they don't
know me, so as to avoid paying the white person price for their new
sandals. I pretend to shop for myself while keeping a distance of
about 50 feet from the kids, and when they've found the sandals they
want and settled on a price they come to me for the money. This works
for about 15 minutes, but the market isn't huge and it's hard to
disguise six children coming to the white man to get money from him
and then returning with the balance (which makes me feel a little like
the Artful Dodger).
Girls of a certain age want to see every pair of sandals being sold by
every vendor before they make a decision, so shopping takes a long
time. I am greeted by approximately one thousand people (the novelty
has worn off for me, apparently not for them) while I wait for them to
find just the right pair and haggle it down to just the right price
(they know that if they can stay under the budget I have laid out for
them, I'll let them buy sweets with the balance. This makes them much
more discerning shoppers).
We push ever further back in the market, but by the time we find our
way out all of them have new sandals that they picked out themselves
and - if the smiles on their faces are any indication - that they
love. What they don't have is a remaining balance, but I find myself
feeling unexpectedly generous and unhurried by the slowly setting sun,
so we stop at the various storefronts along the way looking for
something called Super Dip, which the children love and which I
suspect might be one of those Chinese candies laced with cancer that
the FDA forbade in the US. But, again, the children love it, and I'm
feeling particularly indulgent toward the children, so sugary cancer
it is! And again, we find ourselves in a prolonged conversation (this
time about eating pig - which they all claim they have done and
liked...until I say we should buy one and eat it, then their story
quickly changes).
We arrive back at the compound in the twilight of the day, and the
children rush off to show their new sandals to their brothers and
sisters. Twelve-year-old Kasara looks at me and says, "Seth, I also
need sandals." Two others immediately echo her refrain, and a third
complains to me that Sarah told her she couldn't get new sandals yet.
Then she starts crying, and a too brief step out of context comes to
an end.

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