Thursday, February 17, 2011

The bobos of Dabola

Hey amigos!

Here’s some random updates from Dabola—odd and entertaining things I’ve seen while wandering around town.

First, we all know that the baby on the back tradition is alive and well in Africa. It is the way to carry your child— from the age of an infant to about a two-year-old. Little kids often imitate their mothers doing this, tying little dolls or other random things onto their backs. But one kid, who looked about three, took the cake. The doll he had tied onto his back was SO big that from a distance I had know idea what it is—all I saw was a jumble of different-colored limbs. It was a white plastic doll that must have stood about 3 feet high, when not strapped onto an even smaller kid’s back. Its big white plastic arms were sticking up above the kid’s head at different angles and its plastic dolly legs were jutting out in front. Needless to say, it looked ridiculous and adorable at the same time, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud as I walked past the oblivious little boy (and kept laughing for about the next 100 meters too!)

Additionally on the subject of piggy-backing, I saw some young girls accomplish an impressive feat that in my childhood, I always wanted to attempt but never quite had the prowess to pull off—the double piggy back. They were standing only about twenty feet from where my colleagues and I were sitting at the village bank one day. Our heroine was about twelve years old and she already had a girl who looked about eight on her back. Then she managed to bend over, and a ten-year-old climbed on on top of that! The ten-year-old had long enough arms to be able to reach around the eight-year-old and they all proudly (and noisily) took off to show some grown women. I was massively impressed! I’ve never seen anyone else manage that! (Any volunteers want to try when I get back?) I made sure all my colleagues saw, but no one seemed quite as thrilled as I was. :) Oh well, there are perks to being easily entertained.

One thing that seems somewhat universal is high school girls being high school girls. I went to a soccer match—apparently a big deal of a soccer match—that featured the 11th grade vs. the 10th grade teams from the local high school. It was the final of some tournament and I and everyone in Dabola under the age of twenty were present. The field was pure dust, and everyone crowded the sidelines sucking on oranges and cheering. I found myself surrounded by high school and middle school-aged girls. They seemed to be all dressed in their best pagne—matching tops and wrap skirts, hair freshly braided, proud and ready to show off. I’d say about zero of them were actually paying any attention to the game, yet somehow, they all seemed to know at exactly which moments to scream and jump up and down, when their team would shoot a near-miss or perform an awesome save. It seems to be a high-school-girl sixth sense. It felt like Friday night football in America.

Two other cool things I got to do recently: hold babies and look at electric dams! (Random, I know!) But first I should explain that an ongoing form of entertainment for me is finding the smallest babies I can, silent sleeping bumps fastened to their mother’s backs. The mothers go about their daily business in the market and at home, seemingly not even remembering the baby back there, but I’m just fascinated—the tinier the little human, the more I have to try not to stare. And sometimes I’m too tempted and just have to pat the little baby butt. (Boy, I sound like my mother there.) Anyway, a colleague and I recently visited his sister, who’d just given birth. The baby wasn’t even a week old. I’d never seen such a tiny baby! (I should also note that typically, African village women eat less when they are pregnant, because a smaller baby is that much easier to birth.) So this one was miniscule! I even got to hold it. They asked me if I wanted to throw it on my back; I declined. Maybe it was because I’d asked at what age they start wearing babies on the back and they told me at about this age—one week. Wow! Floppy heads and everything. “Baby” didn’t even have a name yet—that happens at a baptism ceremony when it’s about eight days old. Until then it’s just “Baby.” Even better is the Pulaar word for baby, “Bobo.” (Drag out the first syllable and make it long.) I love that word and it is definitely coming back to America with me. :)

And lastly, not involving small children, or any children at all! I got to see where my town’s electricity comes from. The local hydroelectric facility was put in place by the Chinese in the 1974 and refurbished in the 90s. In America, you’d never be able to stroll into a major electrical plant. But here, I just did. A lone guy was sitting at a table in the middle of a huge room with high ceilings. He had his feet propped on the table and was gazing at a wall-full of flashing lights and buttons. He stood up and shook my hand when I came in, and then I got to look at all the flashing lights and buttons myself! Everything was labeled in Chinese! Most knobs and buttons and dials also had a French translation printed in small letters, but not all of them. … And now I see why things don’t get fixed when there’s a break down!

Hope everyone’s doing well and life is happy in America!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bonjour de Dabola!

So I’m here at my post! Back to the world of trash fires, errant goats and cows, dusty roads, and enthusiastic toothless old men greeting me in languages I don’t know! I’ve taken these first few weeks to do a lot of exploring. Dabola is laid out along a main road, and loosely bordered by “mountains.” It’s got lots of trees! There are endless footpaths that make for great rambling and exploring. Somehow, I feel like I’m noticing things in different ways than I did in Cameroon.

For example, I am obsessing over the mango tree outside my window. If I remember right, mangoes were ready and waiting for my mass consumption by about February in Cameroon. Here, the rainy season is shifted later, and thus, I have to forlornly stare at my mango tree… and wait. Let me assure you, watching mangoes grow is only minimally more riveting than watching grass grow. But I never even noticed the itty-bitty baby mangoes in Cameroon! (Maybe it’s the five mango trees in my compound?) I never noticed when the trees flower, and then the tiny mango, already perfectly shaped, first comes out as small as the nail on your pinky finger. Fascinating. Even if slow-moving.

Another thing I’d failed to notice as closely in Cameroon was the moon. Maybe it’s because my old house had a tin-roofed overhang so I never really saw the moon and stars? And in Dabola, there’s that much less electricity, so when the moon is out, you notice. It is so bright you’d think you could read by its light. And when it is not there, wow, I can’t remember the last time I’d been in such darkness.

And speaking of electricity, I was spoiled in Cameroon. Here, we get electricity starting at about 2pm, in spurts. So I’m learning to adapt my work schedule and entertain myself otherwise!

One thing that’s great for entertainment is that Dabola is so much more open than my part of Cameroon, where everyone lived behind walls, in compounds. Here everyone’s huts are out in the open and it’s fascinating in that just walking around town I can see so much more of people at work and play—women pounding grain, kids running around, men watching TVs that are perched on a stool in the dirt. It also means it’s that much easier to enter into conversations with people, exchange greetings, and just be visible in the community. Oddly (or at least I’m still getting used to it!) so many of the footpaths run straight through people’s compounds—and in this sense, I mean just a family’s grouping of huts. So you troupe right past women cooking, naked children running from their bucket baths—it’s accessible in ways it never was in Cameroon. This morning I walked past a guy eating his morning serving of rice. I greeted him, and he shouted out, “Invitation!” Every one does that here! Any time you’re eating, you’re expected to at least offer to share it… even to strange white people wandering past! (And no, I did not have any, but I have taken other folks up on that when their sauce looks particularly tasty. :)

I live in one of few walled-in compounds (and really I don’t mind the minimal privacy that that affords. And not having to offer my food to every passer-by. :) But another big difference from Cameroon is that in Guinea, the volunteer’s host organization provides your housing. So you really do live like a Guinean, in ways some of us didn’t in Cameroon. There were so many safety regulations in Cameroon, (like you can’t have a thatch-roofed hut cause it’s easier to break into) that a lot a lot of us PCVs lived in the nicest house in the village, just to meet those regulations. (Again, I was spoiled and had a faaat house!) Not in Guinea! Bring on the thatch roofs. It’s pretty cool. I don’t have one, but my closest fellow volunteer does. Although it looks charming, she says that snakes have fallen from it, and it leaks during the rainy season—not fun. As for me, I live in the same compound as the office of my host institution, along with a few other co-workers. I have two small rooms in a row of little apartments—one for the bed and one for cooking and working and everything else. Privacy is not a big part of my life these days. People are always around—so at least on the flip side, it’s good for socializing and easy to hang out with Guineans. And lucky for me, my colleague who is right next door (and whose every word I can hear through the wall) is a really nice single young woman. (She’s my age and not married yet—quite rare by Guinean standards!) She has a TV too, so sometimes in the evenings I go over and watch the Guinean or Ivoirian news or the Latin American imported soap operas, which are just as revered here as they were in Cameroon.

I’ve been able to start my work, visiting village banks and preparing training modules to hopefully help them with some of their operations. The local village bank is open every Wednesday and Friday, is completely volunteer-run, and consists of a table under a veranda on the side of the road. All transactions are recorded manually in a variety of ledgers. When business is slow, there’s always a steady stream of high-schoolers walking by that I can watch. One of the “responsables” of the bank runs a local omelet and tea shack, and he brings us tea and coffee in plastic bags to sip on. (real coffee!! whoa! never saw that in Cameroon!) It’s really pleasant and the folks are very friendly.

And lastly, I’d forgotten to mention I’m named—fully! I took a week to pick a Guinean last name because I wanted to get a feel for the town and the different groups and not pick any name that would label me as the town crazy or reject or anything too offensive. But you’d think my not having a Guinean last name was catastrophic! Guineans I’d meet in town were always asking me about it, and my entire first week, it was a constant topic of discussion among my colleagues. Nabou, my Guinean first name, got turned back into the full Djénabou, yet another version of that name. That’s fine with me— Djénabou is a great name, not too common but everyone knows it, and easy to pronounce (jen-a-boo). So, that first week, it was a constant battle for who would bestow their last name upon me—everyone wants you to give you their name. Mr. Sow would call out, “Djénabou Sow!” And Mr. Coulibaly would say, “Djénabou Coulibaly!” I’d just smile and nod at anything. My counterpart, like everyone who works at my host organization, is a Diallo, so he was all for Djénabou Diallo. It’s a little too much alliteration though and I’d rather add a little diversity to the group instead. When Mr. Diallo saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere with the Djénabou Diallo suggestion, he also proposed the name Sock. He said Sock is a last name that’s from all over Guinea, and it could include people of any tribal group, which is important here! When I explained just what “sock” is in English, holding up my foot as I did so for emphasis, he burst into laughter and it was clear that Djénabou Sock had gone by the wayside. Additionally, I had to tactfully explain why I was not interested in being a Sow. So finally, there’s a name I like, which in Malinké means “take hold of your heritage.” It’s Keïta… pronounced Kate-uh. :) So I’ve gone from Kate to Fleurange in Cameroon to Djénabou in Guinea, now back to Kate…uh. :) And it’s doubly cool because Djénabou is a Pulaar first name, and since Keïta is a Malinké last name, that covers the two big tribal groups in town, so everyone is happy!

More updates from Dabola soon! My love to all!