Monday, May 19, 2008

Camping in the City

Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Camping in the City

Dear Everyone,

Greetings, Friends! Did you miss me? The Esalas and I have returned from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and now, after well over a week back in Nasuan, I’m ready to make my report.

After ages of preparation and packing and loading the car, including a brief but thorough—and, happily, not needed—How to Change a Flat Tire tutorial for Sarah and me from Nathan, and armed with our stack of passports and almost no knowledge of French, the Esala women and I began our two day journey. Our trip through customs was long but not unpleasant. When Baby Aili began to cry, the Ghanaian customs official informed her sternly, “If you cry, you don’t go to Ouaga,” and she stopped and pouted at him. Sarah handled the paperwork to take our car across the boarder while I waited by the car with the kids. I suppose there’s nothing like standing by an SUV full of little white children in car seats to make you look married; the men selling sunglasses and general toiletries asked me to let them marry my daughters. “Give me one of your daughters to remember you by,” they said. Oy. Karissa, naturally, didn’t like that idea and announced a few times, though they didn’t hear her, that I wasn’t her mother. We had a little chat about that in the car, about how I will not give her away and how she will please not tell people I’m not married. She quickly saw the wisdom of this plan and is on board for next time. Karissa is a team player.

In Ouaga, we stayed in a little mission compound. My room was very much like a dorm room: 2 small beds, 2 little wardrobes, a desk, and not much floor space. I shared a bathroom with my neighbor to the left, and we both shared a kitchen with our two neighbors to the right. My room assignment had been changed from the room the Esalas had reserved for me, such that I was no longer assigned to use the kitchen that stinks so bad the flies come in and just die. I did visit that kitchen in the interest of seeing this strange phenomenon, but found the stink negligible and the flies very much alive. The Esalas stayed in a two bedroom half-a-house and shared only a front porch with their neighbor. So while my room felt like a dorm, theirs seemed more like camping in a cabin. Actually, the mission compound, while lovely, seemed to offer all the hassles of camping without any of the perks. Packing, dirt, bugs, packing, communal bathroom, dirt, packing, unpacking, repacking, dirty bathroom; but no quiet or campfires.

It takes a lot of stuff to sustain a family through three weeks of pretend school and an Easter holiday, and that’s why the top of the Esala SUV was loaded with large tubs covered in a tarp and tied down to the luggage rack. Ordinarily, Nathan would’ve unpacked them (“man work,” see?). As he was still in Nasuan (he didn’t come to Ouaga until midway through the second week), I had the great privilege (and fun) of climbing onto the roof myself—in my skirt; I felt like Wilderness Woman the Competent—and hauling down the tubs. I had just gotten everything untied and was trying to decide how to hand the containers down to Sarah without falling off the roof or smashing her flat when God answered Nathan’s prayer of the day before by providing two tall men to take the tubs from me as I lowered them over the side of the car. It was quite fantastic because the top of the car was easily and quickly unloaded with their help and I still got to climb it without their help. And Sarah and I shared the happy feeling that comes inside having accomplished “man work” mostly on our own.

At Pretend School, I taught the second grade class for language arts and math. For language arts, I decided to read the class the book The Boxcar Children with the help of a readers’ guide I borrowed from Marvelous Mona. Since the boxcar children have good values and nice manners, the guide highlights a “virtue” prominently exhibited in each chapter. The problem was, well, I think of “virtues” as qualities that are necessarily good, such as gentleness and honesty. Qualities such as alertness and orderliness seem more neutral; they could lend themselves equally well to goodness or evil. So. I decided to call these “qualities” rather than virtues, and I’m glad I did. The first day, our quality was Alertness. I asked for examples of when it might be a good idea to be alert. While I was anticipating answers like “When driving a car” or “When crossing the street,” or even “When we play outside we have to watch for snakes,” their first three responses were “When eavesdropping,” “When spying,” and “If you’re a thief.” Perfect.

For part of math time, each student brought work his or her parent had assigned, and I was supposed to assist as needed. One student, from Australia, had a math book from England. She was learning about place value, and the book claimed an easy way to learn this was through money. English money. Great. “How many of which coins would you need to make the following amounts?” it asked. The coin options were not listed; apparently the student should already know that much about money. Well, my student didn’t, and I didn’t either. We couldn’t switch to American money because she’s from Australia. We couldn’t switch to Australian money because she doesn’t really know about that either. And she lives in Burkina, not Ghana, so I can’t help her with Ghanaian money either. I don’t know anything about Burkina’s money, but neither did she. “My mum usually handles all the money,” she said. So much for math.

Karissa’s class was just across the room from mine, so when I wasn’t busy with my own class I eavesdropped on hers (thereby demonstrating the quality Alertness). Her teacher had them listing all the ways eggs could be prepared. It was a competition: boys against girls. Securing victory for the girls, Karissa made me proud by including “chiffon” on her list.

In other school news, our musical was a smashing success. Miss Heidi, the director, drafted help from the parents at a special parents’ meeting one evening. I stayed at the Esalas’ house with the kids (okay, I was taking a nap) while Sarah went. She came home with the happy news she’d volunteered me to do the choreography. That’s when we almost couldn’t be friends anymore. Then she explained that Miss Heidi’s list had eleven jobs, but only ten parents were at the meeting. Everyone had a job, she said, and only choreography was left, and everyone was bewildered, including Miss Heidi, regarding choreography. So I was won over and agreed to choreograph. Oy. Then Sarah described the nervous shock of the other parents when she volunteered me, her teacher, on whose good side she, obviously, wishes to stay . . . well, that was a happy picture too. And choreography was fun because, after I created it, I got to teach it too, and then I got to direct it during the performance. And this is one of my favorite parts of mission work: In America, I never would’ve been chosen for this task. But because our resources are so few, my ability, meager though it is, turns out to be our best option. Amazing.

Ouaga is definitely a land of many luxuries, internet and honey among them. Other treats of Ouaga include swimming almost everyday; milkshakes; strawberries; vegetables such as green beans, lettuce, and broccoli; ham; French bread; cheese; fantastic new shoes and T-shirts; grocery stores with real actual grocery carts; and church in English with the other families there for school. We had Easter church together Sunday morning and then a woman at the worship service invited us to Easter brunch at her house, which turned out to be a small palace. She, apparently, is not a missionary, but works at the U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso. She is not the Ambassador, but the Ambassador was there and wearing a fine, pink Easter suit. Anyway, the Easter brunch turned out to be a buffet of all the foods we love but don’t have (Did you know Cinnabun makes mixes? Amazing.), and the promised “activities for the kids” turned out to be a sing along at the piano in the parlor, a small playroom that looked more like a little toy shop, and an Easter egg hunt.

In all the fun and busyness, I will say I missed Nasuan. Specifically, I missed the darkness at night without all the security lighting of the mission compound. I sometimes couldn’t tell whether or not it was really morning, so bright were the lights. I missed my house spiders, who kill my flies and mosquitoes without me having to do anything. In Ouaga, I was without that convenience. And I missed not going places. Swimming everyday is fun, but it’s also a hassle. And the grocery shopping. Oy! We must’ve gone grocery shopping three times in as many weeks. But no worries. It’ll be at least a month before we go shopping again, so we’ll have time to recover.

Our return to Nasuan was uneventful. This time Nathan came with me to my little house to oversee my homecoming (gallant of him, I know). We found nothing more ominous than two large roaches, which Nathan killed with the poison spray, and an extra scary spider. It took me a day or two to decide to kill the spider. On one hand, spiders are generally welcome for their bug-killing tendencies. On the other, bugs larger than my big toe are generally not welcome. Especially if I can see their fangs. So after a few days, I finally killed the extra scary spider with four or five sprays of poison and several whacks with my flip flop. I’m currently deciding whether or not to kill the scary spider that lives under my bathroom cabinet—I think I mentioned before she’d allegedly killed her husband. She ate a whole big meaty cockroach the other day all by herself—took all morning before she discarded his body into my soap dish. On the one hand, that’s certainly a service I appreciate. On the other, I think she just upped her scariness rating.

In other Nasuan news, The Chief’s mother’s funeral was last week (though her death was quite some time ago—perhaps even a year ago), and I went to some of it. It was very dark—darkness frequently being a component of nighttime—and very loud with dancing and drums and flutes and horns. I couldn’t really see the dancing because the crowds were great, but it seemed to involve several large umbrellas similar to the kind Americans associate with lawn furniture. Nathan explained the dance as sort of a competition. When we arrived, a man was just lighting off some gun powder. On the one hand, I was pleased to see evidence the gunshots I’d been hearing on previous nights may not have actually involve bullets. On the other, we were so close to the gun powder I could feel the blast of the explosion on my skin. It was unpleasant. The whole time we were there, I stuck so close to Nathan he could hardly turn around without stepping on me, but I was not easy in the dark and strange environment and I was concerned about becoming lost. Not that I could’ve actually become lost. White skin glows in the dark.

I’m happy to report the Tailor in Nalerigu has altered my skirts so the elastic no longer threatens to bisect me. Sarah and I spoke to his apprentice about my elastic problem, and he agreed to see what he could do. When we suggested measuring me to decide how much elastic to use this time, he responded, “It is elastic, so no need to measure.” Friends, I think we’ve hit on the problem. So Sarah measured me and told him how much elastic to use, which he did, and it worked out well. Then last week I had him make me some pants based off a pair I already have, and he did a wonderful job. These pants, actually, are pajamas, and instead of standard pockets, they have just one very small and seemingly useless pocket in the back, which I’ve discovered is the perfect size for my MP3 player. The Tailor asked if I wanted him to put pockets in the pants (Have I mentioned how fantastic his pockets are?), and I highlighted the small pocket for him. He was slightly disbelieving and quite tickled, but he put in the small pocket perfectly.

You may also wish to know that White Chicken has gone through puberty and begun relations (in the front yard of all places) with Red Chicken and Black Chicken, who are now rumored to be sitting on eggs. Fourth Chicken, whom I may not have mentioned before, seems to be hiding his masculinity, perhaps in an effort to avoid being pecked bald by White Chicken. But I did see him posturing threateningly awhile back, so I’ll keep you informed.

Rather than closing with a list of the things I’ve learned, I’d like to instead highlight three symptoms of my growth as a person I’ve recently noticed. First, know that big meaty cockroaches have been my nemeses since I began battling them a few years ago in Taiwan. When I saw the two roaches that Nathan killed for me, however, I didn’t freak out, as has been my custom in the past. I actually thought, “Those big roaches aren’t so bad; they probably lived outside and just came in. It’s the little brown ones that build their nest in your refrigerator insulation you have to watch out for.” Also, recall that I have been unable to pee if the lizard was in my toilet. As he seems to be making his home there, I’ve grown accustomed to his presence. I still check for him every time, it’s true, but I’m using my toilet without distress whether he’s there or not. And finally, the poison Nathan put in my attic seems to be wearing off, as the mice are back and especially noisy. (Sarah suggests the extra noise is from nest building. Great.) The other night, when I usually would’ve prayed for God to send his creatures back to the field from which they came, or, better, just kill them all, I instead found myself praying, “Lord, if they could please just do something quietly,” and I meant it. Oy. Once I caught myself praying that, I also thought about the roaches and Swamp Lizard, and I couldn’t sleep for the humor of it all. All I could think was, “Next thing you know, you’ll be dating musicians.” (That’s a movie quote for my Sister. Never mind.)

This week’s Suggested Prayer Topic is Asala the House Girl (whose name I previously was writing “Esalla”). She isn’t feeling well. She was treated last week for meningitis, so I pray that all is well with her and she suffers no ill effects from that or from her current predicament.

That’s it then. For awhile, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to get you a full five pages, but looks like I did okay after all. Oy.


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