Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Brer Rabbit, the African trickster

During training we were asked to do an activity that would help us learn about the local culture. Most people wove a basket or a straw mat (‘esteira’) which I thought was way boring. My friend Hans had an idea that I really liked: local stories, folklore, etc. When my project idea of learning how to play the Marimba (‘timbila’) fell through, I started gathering stories. The best, by far, were the stories about the rabbit (‘coelho’). Here are 2 of them:
There was a great drought in the land that caused all of the rivers and watering holes to dry up. Motivated by thirst, the animals convened a big meeting, a summit if you will, where it was resolved that they would all work together to dig a well. The rabbit left them to their work and did not help because he gets all the water he needs from the foliage he eats.
Upon finishing the well, the animals decided to elect a guard who would keep watch over the well and chose the monkey. In the meantime, the rabbit had thought of a way to use the well. He approached the guard and said:
‘Hey, friend. I’ve got some honey that I’d like to share with you.’
‘OK,’ said the monkey, ‘let me try it.’
‘Sure, but it’s hard to pour so just tilt your head back and lean back a little so that I don’t spill any on you.’
When the monkey did this, he leaned back on his hands and the rabbit swiftly tied them together and then, having gagged the guard, took a leisurely bath in the well.
The animals were plenty upset when they saw their guard this way the next morning. They elected a new guard and cleaned the well. Both the identity of the 2nd guard and the manner in which the rabbit outsmarts him were lost in translation, but sure enough the next day the second guard was found bound and gagged and the well had been bathed in again.
The animals now elected the snapping turtle to be the guard. He hid himself in the bottom of the well. When the rabbit arrived that day, he saw no one, and thought to himself, ‘Looks like they gave up on this idea. They couldn’t take it, I’m too smart for them.’ He stepped into the water to bath and his foot was caught fast by the snapping turtle. When the animals arrived they got even with the rabbit.

One day rabbit said to his friend monkey,
‘Hey, friend, would you like to eat some almendoim (peanuts).’
‘Yeah, do you have some?’
The rabbit, being very experto (a con artist), replied,
‘No, let’s go rob the farm. You down?’
And off they went. During the walk to the farm rabbit stopped and warned:
‘Friend, it’s best that we stay very quiet and be careful at the farm. The owner of this machamba is vigilant and does not like trespassers. If we see him coming, we’ll have to run for it.’
And they continued. Upon arriving at the farm, rabbit made short work of it and the farmer was nowhere in sight. Rabbit filled his bag with peanuts and tied it secure, and noticed that his friend was distracted. For each handful of peanuts monkey shoveled into his own bag, he shoveled another handful into his mouth. Rabbit snuck behind monkey and dug a hole in the ground behind him. He then placed monkey’s tail into the hole and buried it with dirt. Rabbit then picked up a stone and walked back to where his bag of peanuts was waiting. He threw the rock behind monkey and screamed,
“RUN! RUNNNN! The farmer is here!’
Monkey tried to run but could not get up, his tail was caught somehow. He tried again and still could not get up.
‘Friend, the farmer has you by the tail! Do something, run away!’
So the monkey mustered his effort and ran as hard as he could and his tail popped off. Monkey ran as fast as he could and managed to get away with his life. When he reached rabbit’s house, his friend offered him a bowl of peanuts since his were left at the farm, along with his tail. But before he got a chance to eat them he through the bowl to the ground in rage as the rabbit laughingly told him about the prank and how priceless the panicked look on monkey’s face had been. This is why the rabbit and the baboon are not friends.

A few 1st impressions of my site

My town of Nova Mambone is a small river town. It is not a beach town, as it turns out, since the beach here is a big unpassable mangrove of mud and such (like the Everglades). The area has a very suburban feel, it seems like everywhere you look off the main road there are identical round mud huts with thatch roofs. Most people have the same model of fixed gear bicycle. I live inside of the school compound, which is surrounded by a chain link fence. I am currently living in the school directors house but they will build me a house with walls made out of caniso (yeah, I’m talking about straw, but the walls will be reinforced with mosquito netting and something solid to prevent people reaching through the wall to grab my ipod or whatever else they could get their hands on). This reminds me, the 3 little pigs story actually means something for the first time in my life. This is cyclone territory, and from what I can gather many people opt for permanently provisional housing, since whatever they build will probably be blown over within a few years.
The only blanket I sleep under here is a blanket of sweat. It’s summertime here, and it is humid with no AC. Sometimes I think that ought to be sexy because, you know, I’m in bed and covered in sweat, but really it’s not that sexy.
There’s a tv in the house and it plays the same adds over and over, maybe even worse than the U.S. There is a Brazilian soap that reminds me of Saved by the Bell and a Chinese soap that I am in awe of, like a bad sappy yet completely entertaining romance movie about friendship and love and doing the right thing, I’m compelled to watch it.
My school director is laid back and friendly, which is a blessing. I was worried that I might end up with someone on a permanent rank-pulling bureaucratic power trip, which happened to one volunteer I've talked to. Some mornings we walk a ways to a long stretch of sand near the river and do laps. Exercising in the sand reminded me of the way the Greeks would have had it in Olympia. The river has since risen over our Olympic sandbox.
The school is a young school, just a few years since it was built and the faculty are mostly around my age. They are being friendly to me even though I still can’t understand what they’re saying half the time, they just talk much faster and with a lot more slang than I’m used to.

My reactions to Peace Corps cultural adjustment tips

From the text: “Being culturally sensitive means being aware of and alert to the norms and behaviors of the local culture and, as far as possible, not transgressing them. It does not mean liking or accepting all these norms, much less embracing them or substituting them for your own.” Right on, Peace Corps. I don’t know about you, but I was worried that they would be cultural relativist to some degree.
Also in the text: “The word accept is being used in a special sense here: it does not mean liking or approving, and especially not adopting, but rather accepting the inevitability and logic of a particular behavior, of trusting that, irritating as it may be, the behavior is nevertheless appropriate in the other culture.” (emphasis mine)
The worldview from within the other culture will be tinted by their assumptions about life. A European, for example, could find it hard to understand American public opinion and policies related to gun control because some of the most fundamental American values lead us to assume that an individual’s liberties should be protected to the greatest extent possible or feasible. Whatever facts might be presented for debate, this fundamental assumption will have an effect on the way the facts are viewed. The result is that someone who is not familiar with American cultural values, like Michael Moore for example, might become frustrated and even more righteously angry when Americans don’t reach what he would consider to be the logical conclusion. Granted this is a horrible example, but I like the idea of looking at American cultural assumptions from the outside. This is, in fact, step one for cultural adjustment. Step 2 is to accept the reality of your own cultural conditioning. Step 3 is to accept the reality that the others you will meet have also been conditioned by their own culture. Perhaps a more accessible example would be if your pet dog met one of Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov’s dog would be shocked to see you feed your dog without ringing a bell first. That’s just the way it is, what are you doing? Are you really going to eat that?

Notes from my conversation w/ Congressman Chris Smith

*These are notes from a conversation we had on September 25th, 2007, days before I left home. Due to the time passed and the incompleteness of my notes it’s hard to say how accurate this is and also where Hon. Smith’s points end and where my interpretations begin, but still food for thought.
To begin the conversation, I explained to Congressman Smith why I personally believe that U.S. Americans can’t find Africa on the map. Such as, education and helping Africa and Iraq.
We then discussed other, less pretty topics, including
Hon. Smith estimated that Faith-based groups like Catholic Relief Services do about 40% of the work targeted by the Global Fund, and yet receive only 4% of the Global Fund grants. The Board that hands out the money is morally opposed to proselytizing of any sort, and so they avoid religious groups. This ends up causing perverse results where, for example, the Global Fund funds the building of a new hospital around the corner from an existing faith-based mission hospital which has already been serving the community for years. Faith-based groups have access to an often more dedicated work force willing to work on lower salaries because they are there TO SERVE. When the personal moral beliefs of someone hung up on freedom of religion ends up wasting resources and COSTING LIVES, something is wrong with the evaluation system. This is something I definitely agree with Hon. Smith on. In addition to faith-based orgs being better run than suitcase NGOs, I’d like to add that atheists should not complain since religion is opiate for the people anyway. I say give it to them!
I really wanted to talk with Hon. Smith about China because he is a huge defender of human rights and China is a huge offender of human rights. For example the UN Human Rights Council, which remains stymied on most issues on account of an agreement that sounds like this: “If you don’t show them mine I won’t show them yours.” So the democratic defender of human rights conspires to stay quiet.
Hon. Smith also discussed a peripheral consequence of China’s growing influence in Africa. Just as USAID provides countries with “Roadmaps to development” China is exporting its own roadmap, including the notorious one-child policy. Rwanda apparently has a 3 child policy. They also have a tendency to promote dictatorships with centralized government and a lack of free press since that makes the international trade negotiations easier (fewer people to corrupt), something which directly counters our funding efforts for free and fair elections. Violence begins when opposition groups feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no other choice. There has also been some forced relocation of Chinese into Africa, much like in Tibet. The Chinese have bragged that they are helping Africans by bringing Africans to university study in China, where they are being schooled in the Chinese way of doing things.
One of the advantages that China has is it’s nack for populist PR. Whereas the US invests heaps of money into public health in these countries (I have been behind the scenes and have seen how it is done at the Academy for Educational Development and on the whole it seems to me that the programs are very results oriented and are not designed to buy grassroots goodwill toward the U.S.), China will just build a soccer stadium as a gift to a city. Which do you think holds more sway with the average African? Which does the most good for him/her?
As for my proposed career tracks, he recommended that infrastructure will be first and foremost in improving health care here (so much for health insurance schemes?) and also that the rule of law will be very important for increasing transparency and fighting corruption. Ways to track who owned what and hopefully ways to watch banking practices.