I’m not so good at keeping in touch this year, and I’m feeling a little guilty about it. I’m more than halfway through my first year of teaching, my first year of independent living, and my first year (well, most of a year) abroad.
There’s a lot to say, and there isn’t. While I am growing mentally and emotionally by leaps and bounds, I am not sure if you all want to read much about my inner thoughts and preoccupations. And as for what I do every day: while I love living abroad and fear returning to humdrum life in the U.S., my life here is admittedly not very exciting. Studying abroad in Uganda seemed to bring an adventure every day, but now I work, and the possibilities for travel around Sudan are extremely limited. Regular updates would involve my weekly rounds: teaching and Arabic lessons with my Sudanese teacher at his home; teaching and running the hash; teaching and playing poker; teaching and playing touch rugby; teaching and barbecue; camping in the desert...and doing it all again the next week. I have fallen into such a routine that it seems difficult to mine for interesting tidbits that the lot of you might enjoy. But maybe I should try a bit harder :)
So a snapshot of life in Sudan: Sunday nights find me walking the dusty walk out to the main road in Garden City to catch an amjad to the Arkaweet neighborhood. My Arabic teacher lives here with his family near Africa International University, where he teaches Arabic. While I have heard that this university is host to the small group of radical Islamists in Khartoum, my teacher’s family is extremely open and actually has a Canadian couple currently living in their front room, who my teacher tutored last year before they returned to Canada to have their daughter. “We just fell in love with this country and the people,” the woman told me last week (as my teacher’s 4-year-old daughter Ghola tried to jam a pacifier into the baby’s mouth). The couple plan to move soon to Kassala, a city in eastern Sudan near the Ethiopian border, to work with an NGO there and help deaf people—a job for which the woman is learning Arabic sign language! I impressed her with my knowledge of the Canadian provinces and I got to explain to her why I would be so excited if Barack Obama were elected president. Score one point for fruitful intercultural conversations and for me in representing the U.S. well while abroad :)
I always have my lessons in the sitting area of my teacher’s home. The TV is usually on, visitors are always passing through, six children plus the neighbors’ children are tumbling all over, tea and coffee and water are shoved into my hands, and at the end we usually eat with our hands a communal meal of kisra (a spongy bread, kind of like at Ethiopian restaurants), vegetables in peanut sauce, spicy potatoes and bony fish that I usually pass up. “Oh no, I am too full!” I have to say. Though the environment doesn’t seem conducive to learning, my Arabic comprehension is improving drastically thanks to these lessons—I can understand my teacher’s wife as she complains to the cell phone company about her minutes, and his daughters when they demand “shokolata” (chocolate) and wave “foloose” around (money). I felt vindicated last weekend when I had an amusing exchange with an amjad driver that went something like this:
Driver (in Arabic): Where do you live?
Me (in Arabic): I live in Garden City.
Driver: How long have you been in Sudan?
Me: Six months.
Driver: How do you find the weather in Sudan?
Me: The weather is hot!
Driver: How do you find Sudan?
Me: Sudan is beautiful!
And so on, in textbook-perfect fashion. I almost felt that my tutor had planted this guy as a test!
Snapshot two: social life here is alternately lively and full of friends, and then suddenly stilted and lonely. I make a friend and see him or her several times a week for a while, and then suddenly the person will disappear for weeks at a stretch, either on vacation or because her or his work schedule has gotten in the way. Even worse, some friends leave Sudan forever a month after I meet them. Though it sounds bitter and Darwinian, a lot of my social energy ends up being put into people whom I know superficially and for a short time and then never see again.
On the other hand, it is so much fun to look around the poker table and realize that the eight people are from six countries; to be barbecuing next to a lake created by a Nile dam and be the only American of almost 40 people; or to run the hash every Monday and realize that the participants speak, among other languages, French, Arabic, German, Hindi, Afrikaans, Swahili and Tagalog! I may not be learning as much about Sudanese culture as I would like, but I am learning almost as much about Germany, India, France, Austria, South Africa, Kenya and Britain. I am getting a different kind of cultural education than what I had planned, but it’s an education all the same.
Final snapshot: teaching. Oh, right, my job, the reason I’m here! :) It has gotten a lot better since those early days of hell last September. My students and I know each other much better, and I now know their limits (sometimes sitting in assigned seats in rows is okay) and mine (I HATE keeping track of homework and dealing with lost pencils!). I am grateful for the small class sizes and generally well-behaved students here. I enjoy playing music for my students as they do their creative writing and dreaming up exciting lessons to “hook” them into new books we’re reading. For example, to start off The Giver
I pretended to be a teacher at a school like Jonas’ school. (This really freaked the 5th graders out). And to start off reading Hatchet
we had some high school boys show us how to make fire by rubbing sticks together.
In some of these moments, I can see myself teaching for at least a few more years. However, I still teach without any grounding in theory and with very few ideas about how to solve the problems I encounter. Without training, every snag or snafu seems like the most confounding problem known to humankind. This is why I am (mostly) excited to return to the U.S. this summer to join Teach For America and teach special education in northwestern New Mexico for the next two years. I’ll get more experience and some ongoing professional development that will hopefully make me feel a little more independent in my job than I feel right now!
I’ll try to update this thing throughout the spring. Here’s hoping.