Friday, December 16, 2011

Balancing Sotuba Camp with a Metronome

Until I was able to pick up a trumpet in 5th grade, I loved playing the piano. Never too fond of the houses/classrooms I took lessons in, I did enjoy the feel of the long, slender keys and the beautiful sounds that human hands could make. To this day, I relish in musical interludes when a piano solo balances out a good beat. I'd also say that other than hearing two or three people weave their voices together, or hearing a great percussion solo, hearing a piano hits a special chord (no pun intended).

A custom-engraved bracelet from a silversmith in Tombouctou (Timbuktu)!
Being in my host family's house here in the Sotuba area of Bamako produces a lot of feelings that bring me back to my younger years. I had a great upbringing with 99.9% positive memories, but the feeling of mixed sadness and anticipation of being left at a Lutheran bible summer camp when we were about eleven years old is one that I recalled recently, here in Bamako. Back then, I knew deep down it'd be fine in the end, and that I might even enjoy it at times. I really did. But I was never one for programs or what felt like dorky group things were being forced on me.

A few other examples of this feeling...

1) Talahi Elementary's after school "KidStop" program. I know for a fact I went on only one occasion. I cried the entire time. They had to bring me outside in the cold, drizzling rain to watch my brother play flag football instead of cut out an owl in the cafeteria.

2) Daycare - Also a one time event. I was younger, probably 7 or 8. We went about six houses down, at Beckman's. I walked in circles around the play area watching toddlers play and cry, not engaging with anyone. As soon as my mom got there, she knew it wasn't our thing.

3) Anything that involved trying to be insta-friends with a bands of kids who knew the world of uncomfortable socializing all too well. ie: Ringette: a "new sport" that was like hockey for girls, except without hockey sticks and pucks, you had a ring thing and a pole with a round end on it that shuffled the ring around ice. Haven't heard of it? Most haven't. It was season one, and season end.

Here in Bamako, I get these feelings every Sunday night when I'm dropped off here. Does this make me anti-social? Introverted? Maybe both. I try really hard to be upbeat in my role as an English tutor, so maybe it's the pressure of this new role along with being a foreigner where my actions are observed and many times, questioned.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I feel a strange sense of calm when I'm in my bedroom here. It's a simple set up, with a bed, chair, armoire, nightstands, an exercise ball and a bathroom connected. Lovely, right? I think so. When I first moved in, Laura told me that the air conditioning is not to be used during daylight hours since there isn't enough electricity for the kitchen. The a/c can be used for sleeping at night. Daytime hours use ceiling fans that are set up in most rooms. Completely used to the heat while living in my uptown, non-air conditioned apartment this past summer, I have no problem with this.

The ceiling fan in my room acts as a metronome. Supposedly, it was poorly installed. After the initial danger of it spinning off completely and landing on my bed, I realized its just an imperfect install. And now, I'm in love with it's ability to drown out the shrieks, arguments, television theme songs, and the sound of large trucks that pass by every couple hours behind the house. Although I've been told it is obnoxious during skype calls with family and friends, my Solstar fan metronome is the perfect rhythmic connection that brings my central Minnesota piano-playing past into the present, wherever that is.

Oh, and Christmas is in a week? I want snow, but I've heard it's not even white in Minnesota yet. Is that right? Maybe I'll watch Love Actually (thanks Liana!) while indulging in a few pieces of Phemie's lefse with brown sugar with Mia's biscotti.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dusting Off Mid-December

It's been difficult to come up with a general theme for this blogpost which is quite overdue. Partly because I've had malaria and ate something wretched two weeks ago, partly because I'm busy (yeah we all are, I know. blah blah blah) but largely because the daily explosion of random events make me think they each need their own post if not for the sensitivity of the subjects. That said, I'll write this up as a rough outline of major activity.
There is absolutely nothing unusual or ridiculous about this image... in Mali.
The part that I get stuck on here in Bamako, Mali is that there is little which makes any sense at all. I can't exactly speak for outside of the city - as I've heard life is quite different there and obviously, in other parts of Africa - but within the madness here, I find myself shaking my head a lot at people who risk their lives without batting an eye. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the most prudent law abiding citizen, but I do think I want to live. I don't want to turn right from the left lane in front of a large SUV, for instance, while on a scooter with no helmet. I don't want to cross the highway at strolling speed. Now multiply this by ten. Half on your left, half on your right. Your eyes dart between the two before realizing it's safer to look at nothing too carefully. Sort of like looking through blackness at night which becomes clearer if you don't focus. It's had me honestly wondering where on earth the phrase "common sense" ever came from.

I've struggled to define the days here as part of a culture shock. Of course the nuances hit me hard sometimes as I long for a day where I can go outside without being stared at incessantly for exercising, but it feels more like us Westerners get stuck in a crossfire of irritation, sickness and the upheaval of random adventures. I'd love one day without streets teeming with potholes and people wanting to be given money or things. Let's face it: I feel more foreign here than I did in all of California (laugh as you may, this had honestly been a huge culture shock for me at first!), Latin America, Canada and all European countries combined. Yep, I'm living in a massive dusty, dirty African village complaining. I sometimes get my head stuck on that weird Baz Luhrmann song from like senior year of high school that talks about life where it says "live in New York but more before it makes you hard; live in California but move before it makes you soft." Cliche as the idea is in theory, Luhrman, darling, you ain't seen or smelled a hospital in Mali. Point blank.

I've not yet seen anyone drop bundles four times this size (we're talking folded mattresses tied with twine).
4th graders.
Onto other topics...

I really adore the American International School of Bamako, or AISB. The two days a week I spend there are filled with art, ESOL and outdoor gym classes - with small class sizes of 8 to 15 kids - and really interesting young people from all over the world. (Literally, 200 students from over 30 nations.) Beside the younger grades where paper cutting, glitter, and pastels are popular, I also teach a few tech-savvy kids in the high school class about graphic design. The school director asked if I'd lead the creation of the new school brochure and literature for potential students and teacher recruits with them, so we're going nuts for Photoshop's less fortunate half-sister, a free program called Gimp.

Since I'm only at the school on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:25 to 3:30pm, I do my writing on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and as necessary on Tues/Thurs after tutoring my host sisters, Laura (12) and Iría (10), when they need help. Or maybe it's more like when I need entertainment. They're crazy cool chics, really smart and really confident.

Outside of AISB.
To make it even better, Laura and Iría are enthusiastic about learning English. Although the banter in the household remains in Portuguese and French (about 70/30), they explain things quite well to me which makes for good practice (I pretend I can't hear the latin roots).

Laura loves to help cook food in the kitchen, do her homework right when she gets home, and pick my brain about interior design and architecture. She's a gentle, thoughtful older sister but, like all big sisters, has her patience tried enough to bust out the discipline when necessary. Laura seems to be somewhat quiet and mellow with her classmates, and is very well-liked. But I love her ability to question everything. I could see her doing something in academia someday - challenging professors so much they'd need her to get on their team. She's going to be very tall too. Maybe I can convince her that sports aren't so bad...

Iría has a different personality than Laura even though they get along flowingly (when she's not singing at the top of her lungs). She bubbles over with so much infectious energy that she ignites a room. In public, she's quiet and polite, but at home, her laughter erupts at the dinner table on a nightly basis as she throws wigs on her dad and sings the latest LMFAO song while pushing the meat and vegetables around on her plate. I sometimes wonder how her huge personality got wrapped up into her tiny little frame...then you see her on the soccer field and it all makes sense. She's a spitfire and should be run nonstop. Before or after not eating dinner, she sneaks into the kitchen to make sweet treats, like crepes with globs of Nutella or lemonade with spoonfuls of sugar.
My host family: Laura (back), Emerithe and Iría (front). Not pictured: Mario.

I brought my yoga dvd to the house right after moving in and have done it a few times with Emerithe. The girls hated it. They said stretching hurt too much. Emerithe hits the gym each morning after dropping the girls (and I) off at school and somehow still has energy sometimes to do my 71-minute power yoga. If you met her, you'd understand how. She's a strong, gregarious, tall force to be reckoned with. A woman who loves to laugh and wear bright colors makes me adore this lady. A couple weeks back she fired their household help, Sali. Since the incident, all of her friends tell her they'll hire her to come take care of any type of issues that require "a firm backbone" since they're likely aware of the volume and opinions she has no problem sharing.

Fresh air but uninviting appearances - the outskirts of Bamako. 

Last week there was some confusion about if and when the family would be leaving Bamako for good, for a holiday vacation, or not at all. I had spoken with people about finding a new homestay this week since they'd be flying out late on the 14th (Wednesday). But as soon as I informed Mario and Emerithe of my finding a more stable living situation, they said only Mario and possibly Emerithe are now leaving. We shall see what happens. Clearly I wouldn't be able to act as head of household in their absence - driving, grocery shopping and managing the place while they're gone - and also, that is not the reason I am staying here with them in the first place. Needless to say, I've maintained sanity being as flexible as I can with the seesaw of staying and moving, as well as the hit-or-miss understanding of mixing languages.

Besides this, I'm getting very excited for the holiday season to come! The school has a break from the 23rd of December until classes begin again on the 9th of January. I look forward to relaxing a little, focusing on my writing and enjoying the time off before I get the students as a full-time art teacher for the month. I'll likely work day and night for those few weeks, but that's okay in the short-term.

I wish I could talk more about everything - since there are plenty of great stories, great kids at AISB, and memorable experiences that surround my weekends with American folks in the ACI 2000 neighborhood - but I'll leave those to emails and skype sessions. For now, know that we miss the snowfalls and holiday decorations that are light the chilly U.S. skies and wish that snowboarding, cross-country skiing, lefse-making and thick sweater-wearing coffee mornings would be in our cards so badly. But alas, it's still 90-100F... and I'll never complain about not shivering, promise. 

Thankfully, we're feeling all powered up by the incredible goodies from the care package that came over the past couple of weeks (you know who you are!). There is nothing better than knowing there's a piece of home in my back pocket as I start each day in this faraway land.