Sunday, March 9, 2008

Wait for it

Although there are definitely countries worse than Sudan when it comes to time spent pointlessly waiting for things to happen, the Kenya Airways office seems happy to keep this African tradition alive in Khartoum. I have now visited this office twice and spent a total of 2.5 hours sitting in its waiting room. I know intimately the harsh overhead lighting that gives a bluish cast to the red-and-silver decor; illuminates the row of despondent-looking Sudanese men hoping to alter the family’s flight reservation to London or Dubai or Nairobi; frames the row of impassive female ticket agents garbed carefully in red suit coats and matching red print headscarves; and draws attention to the airline’s in-house advertisements, which boast of Khartoum’s apparently advantageous location near many major cities of interest...provided that you fly through Nairobi, of course.

I have contemplated this scene while waiting first for my number to be called, then for the computer system to creak slowly to my registration (“Malesh!”), then to explain the information I want or how I want to change the reservation, then to reserve it, then to go upstairs to pay the money, and finally for the printer to spit out my “ticket,” or a piece of paper with the flight numbers printed on it. I waited with “Mohamed,” our school’s liaison officer whose sole job is to deal with red tape from all sources, a late-middle-aged man who has seen a lot in Khartoum and is also some kind of chief in his village in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan. Mohamed has quite a sense of humor but not always the best grasp of English:

Mohamed (studying Kenya Airways poster): This sign makes no sense.
me (reading poster): ‘African pride is flying high.’ What doesn’t make sense?
Mohamed: ‘Pride’ and ‘flying high.’ These things, they are not related.
me: : Well, they have...much proudness...about their airline.
Mohamed: Oh! (laughs uncontrollably)
me: What did you think it said?
Mohamed: Like a bride and groom!

Today Mohamed was again inspired by an airline poster from KLM that showed a sumptuous 5-star restaurant in Amsterdam:

Mohamed: I would like to spend time in a restaurant like that. I went to Amsterdam once for 12 days when I was young. Ooh! I went to the Red Light Street. They do not have this in Sudan. You have heard of this?
me: You mean the Red Light District?
Mohamed: Yes, I went in the Red Light Street and I saw women behind glass. I did not believe that they were real. I put my face right next to the glass and stared into the woman’s eyes to see if she would move. I blinked, then she blinked, then she looked to the side!
me: So they were real?
Mohamed: REAL!

Monday, February 18, 2008

"How are you?" "Well, shitty, now that I've been forced to kiss you."

Americans aren’t big on greetings, especially we Midwesterners, who would probably meet a friend at the airport whom they hadn’t seen for 15 years with a hello that would quickly segue into “Wow, you brought so much stuff!” or “Sorry, my car is parked all the way across the lot.”

In other parts of the world, however, they have greetings, which are small social rituals in which one must engage, apparently, every time you ever see anyone whom you have ever met before. These greetings differ from place to place but are always unnecessarily long and filled with formulaic utterances and far more touching than ever needs to take place between two people who are basically strangers.

I hate greetings.

I hate touching acquaintances. I hate asking questions whose answers do not interest me. I hate circulating through crowds and making sure everyone has been greeted, or said goodbye to. So I have made for myself (and you all) a Taxonomy of Expatriate Greetings to keep straight in my head what it is I am supposed to do when I see someone I have previously met. Even if it was only once.

The French are very efficient—left cheek, right cheek, wham-bam and we’re done. I can live with this, a small and pointless social ritual somehow made comforting by the no-nonsense way in which it is carried out.

The Indians are moving targets. Two cheek kisses? Three? A hug or handshake—while kissing on the cheek? The torture is endless, and exacerbated by long exchanges of “How are you?” and “I am fine” and “How has been the week?” and “I think you have gained weight.” Grit teeth, move on to...

The British and the Germans. They pick up on my body language that screams “Don’t touch me”—torso turned to the side, crossed or loose arms, tense shoulders. The emotional reserve kicks in and they back off. Thanks, guys. I think I understand my Anglo-Saxon roots a bit better. Then there are the...

...other Europeans and the South Africans, who pick up on my body language too but decide to ignore it and forge ahead with the greeting anyway. This creates for me a miniature daytime nightmare of awkwardness in which stalks all manner of gruesome half-sideways-hugs and aborted cheek kisses and weird little leans toward and away from each other that end in an abrupt pullback and nervous foot-shuffling and a doubtful sideways glance. But worst of all are...

...other Americans. We’ve all been away from home so long that we have forgotten how to execute the proper bone-crushing handshake or bear hug. One exchange involved an attempt on my part to shake hands, which turned into my attempt to hug, during which it dawned on me in horror that this American was trying to kiss my cheek—but I was not properly positioned, so we broke off the exchange. I continued to feel socially awkward for the rest of the party.

Just promise me that when I see you all again, we can have a simple handshake, or a joyous hug, and get right down to talking without endless formalities. I think that’s my birthright as an American :)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

4 months later...

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.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Settle, o dust

The last few weeks have been a nervous breakdown averted, a gradual routine established and a grudging resignation accepted. As for the breakdown: I learned to (kind of) manage my daunting workload and begin to (kind of) enjoy my 60-hour work weeks. The routine: I have figured out (kind of) how to arrange my time, how to get the things I need in Khartoum without a car and the best days to get them. Resignation: I have accepted that I will work all day every Saturday and part of each Friday, all year.

It really helps that I get to flee Sudan in two weeks for a weeklong visit to Jordan. Fab vacation and legal alcohol, here I come!

At least teaching is important, right? When you're exhorting children to submit their reading response journals, hauling them off the playground to spend 30 minutes sitting in the office at lunch because of bad classroom behavior, breaking up fights, or answering the same question for the sixth time in five minutes, that's hard to keep in perspective.

(Then there are the times, like yesterday, when I watched an 11-year-old standing on desk chair try to scoot the chair 15 feet across a "toxic bog" while his classmates cheered him on. Or the time I discovered two boys taking turns reading in reading every other word. So cool when you are 12!).

Okay, I will cease with the teacher stories. They really aren't funny or relevant if you don't spend all day with "tweens." Other points of possible interest:

The expatriate community in varied and curious. I have met British, Canadian and Australian teachers, Norwegian and Croatian soldiers with the U.N., South African pilots, Spanish and American aid workers, Ugandan police officers, Indian businessmen and even Pakistani "house-husbands." People are in Sudan for all kinds of reasons, and in Khartoum you would almost never know that Darfur is stagnating/worsening or that relations between the northern and southern parts of the country are worsening except for reports from the BBC. (Okay, I admit I haven't started reading the local papers, even the English-language ones). If you want more opinions on such matters, I would prefer you e-mail me :)

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Gettin' around is hard to do

Travelers, visitors, erstwhile wanderers, listen up:

Twelve Things Not To Do In An Amjad*
*Sudanese mini-buses for hire

1. Do not flag a driver on an emptyish street around 6:30 p.m. He is probably on his way home.
2. Do not tell said driver you know your destination when, in fact, you do not.
3. “It’s just down there!” does not constitute “knowing.”
4. Do not tell driver that your destination is near major landmarks if it isn’t.
5. Do not rely on passersby for information about your supposedly prominent destination.
6. Also do not rely on supposed friends whose cell phones are turned off.
7. Or friends who give crappy verbal directions.
8. Do not encourage driver to drive recklessly past armed men down a closed street.
9. Do not make driver turn around more than once.
10. Do not give too many backseat-driving orders.
11. Do not insist on being driven still farther when the driver is visibly angry.
12. When your goal is to see a speech by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (at the International Friendship Hall, no less), don’t rely on public transportation in Sudan!

Addendum: If you miss Ban Ki-Moon by 15 minutes, just say “fuck it” and instead attend expatriate-laden party at the embassy of a European country.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Like monkeys in the garden

A negative HIV test being a requirement for working in Sudan, today was the special day we overseas-hire teachers were supposed to report to the "Aliens' Registration Office" downtown. We had been warned: it will take hours. Bring a book, and water, and even food. The Sudanese bureaucracy is inefficient, they told us. Just be patient.

So we were ready at 9:30 a.m. for our bus to pick us up, and we get a call from the school that it will be 20 minutes late. Twenty minutes come and go. At 10 a.m. we confer with our colleagues at other buildings. The bus is now coming here first, rather than last. They decide to drive/public-transport it to Garden City and meet the bus.

Two of them arrive by car. We wait under the trees, pee again, speculate about monkeys and communicable disease (not in that order). The bus arrives, an hour late. We wait some more for the others to show up by public transport. We get another call: they're already downtown. Shit. We decide to get on the bus, with two cars following.

We leave our street, make a left and a right and another right, and stop, at 11:15 a.m., in front of the Aliens' Registration Office...only 300 yards from our building.

We file inside in silence. Our colleagues have come and gone. I struggle to breathe evenly and eventually get my arm stabbed behind a dingy curtain by a guy with a box of disposable needles and a rapidly filling cardboard tray of foreign blood. We leave the office at 11:30, about 10 minutes after we arrived.

Yeah, the HIV test took a few hours - but Sudanese bureaucrats had nothing to do with it!

Afterwards, in a room darkened by lack of electricity at the gym in Khartoum's only mall, I lifted weights and worried that blood might start spurting out of the needle mark on my arm. Nothing happened. I guess I got lucky this time.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

The kids are all right

I've just finished my first full week ever as a teacher in the midst of Sudan's
  • worst flooding in 20 years
  • . We had a massive rainstorm on Monday around 2 p.m., just as school let out for the day, and parts of campus are still covered in inches of water. Khartoum is completely flat, the Nile is at its highest right now, and Khartoum's infrastructure is, uh, not that great, so there is no place for all the extra water to go. Apparently even some of our school guards have lost their homes in the flooding. I myself have only had to "suffer" some dirty water on the floor and in my sink and, yesterday, a smashed window in the 4th-floor laundry room during yet another rainstorm. (Good thing I didn't go up there to view the storm!)

    The rundown on my job: there are about 30 teachers at my school, and I am part of a 5-teacher middle school team. I teach 5th/6th grade English (plus a high school journalism elective), my colleague teaches 7th/8th grade English (and high school electives), and there is one teacher each for middle school math, science and social studies. Yes: my colleagues teach grades 5-8 every day, one class per grade!

    My students are from all over the world, and I actually do not teach any white Americans, my own demographic and the one predominant in the places I grew up and went to college. Instead, my students represent a delightful mix of cultures and ethnicities: Sudanese, Sudanese-American, German-Sudanese, Dutch-German, Dutch-Korean, British-Sri Lankan, Korean, Chinese, Indian and Afghan. The downside for me as a new language arts teacher is my students' wide range of English language ability. Some are native speakers while others have only recently attended ESL classes. When I asked my 6th graders what made good writing, they responded not with "exciting details" and "juicy words" (as my 5th graders did) but "spelling," "good grammar," "punctuation" and "correct verbs." So I see my (monumental) challenge this year as making English less of a source of rules and anxiety and more about accessibility and creativity and FUN.

    My weekend plans: $12 Thai massage this afternoon, get government-mandated HIV test tomorrow morning (fun!...not), go to gym, attempt to enroll in Arabic language classes. Between planning for school, lacking a car, the difficult travel in Khartoum after the rains and the generally remote location of my apartment, it's hard to get much done around here after school hours. I have to keep reminding myself that I have the entire year to take language classes and explore, but I am impatient.

    Cloudy and humid in Khartoum,


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