Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Merry Christmas!!

Celebrating holidays in a foreign country is always special.  For example, Thanksgiving is always in adventure in finding the right food and sharing this American holiday with locals.  Christmas is a wonderful holiday to celebrate abroad because each country has it's own special traditions, but the center of the holiday remains the same.  Here in Congo, I had a wonderful experience for my first Christmas.  

First, of course, is the weather.  Even though I spent last Christmas in Guam basking in the 80 degrees heat and humidity, I still am not used to the idea of Christmas being so WARM.  Everything feels different, even the traditional music sounds different (maybe because they sing in Lingala here...).  Another major difference here is the lack of twinkly Christmas lights.  Or any lights at all.  On "store" at the market had some tinsel and a small Christmas tree and the nuns went all out at the convent with Christmas decorations, but other than that, there is very little in the Christmas decoration vein.  But still it is Christmas, and a beautiful one at that.  

Sr. Angela (the VOICA director) and Diggy (a VOICA volunteer at the office in Rome) came to visit us to see how the Congo volunteer site is set up and their visit just happened to coincide with Christmas.  It was actually very nice to have these visitors because it added to the holiday air...and they came laden with gifts from Rome (including nutella!!).  

Christmas Eve started bright and early with me mixing up a tasty batch of Brownies to bring to the sisters for Christmas day.  I had to bake them bright and early so they could be put in the oven at 7:30 am.  Why the early baking hour, you ask?  Well, we don't actually have an oven, so we rely on the kindness of the bakery for our baked goods.  And the best time to bake in an over that is busy with bread all day is before it's busy with bread all day.  And that is at 7:30.  I dropped off the brownies with the baker to be magically baked and went on my merry way.  Everyone went about their business with a jolly air saying "bon fete" left and right.  Everything closed early too so we had the afternoon to cook and prepare for our Christmas Eve feast.  We all (and by we all, I mean practically all of Aru) attended "midnight" mass at 7 pm.  It went on for about 2 hours and included copious singing and dancing.  The altar servers did a jaunty little jig during the gloria and kept of the dancing for most of the service.  At the end of mass, the entire church erupted into a joyful dance hall with people dancing in the aisles.  We danced our way out the doors and over to the convent where there was even more joyful dancing and singing.  Eventually we made our way back to the volunteer house where Lydia, Tomas, Diggy, and Sr. Angela enjoyed our feast (including my family specialty of Grandma noodlies, brought all the way from Denver).  We really went crazy for the feast and made some instant chocolate pudding adorned with the edges of brownies I couldn't get out of the pan in one piece (apparently making brownies in industrial bread ovens requires some finesse).  Since it was a holiday, we also sampled some of the local beer.  As for how the beer tastes, think keystone light, but not as good.  The water, I mean beer, was made up for by the rest of the feast, especially our brownie-pudding, and the good company with which it was enjoyed.  After our feast we followed a more European tradition and opened presents beneath our tiny Christmas tree.  By the time we were finished it was nigh on midnight, by far the latest I have ever stayed up in Congo!!  So we went to bed, but of course we were not expecting Santa to come because we don't have a chimney or cookies (although we did have some floppy carrots for the reindeer).  

Christmas morning dawned bright and early and thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in past 8 (o, goodness, what's wrong with me, I can't believe I'm excited to sleep in past 8!  8!  I used to cry when I had to be up by 8 and now I WISH I could sleep so late every day!!)  Well, anyway, I slept past 8 and then we had a community breakfast of pancakes.  Although, as it turns out, leavening IS an important ingredient for pancakes, so we had crepes.  Which were quite tasty if not quite so fluffy and not quite so good at absorbing our precious Aunt Jemima syrup.

Lydia and I brought a local girl with hydrocephalus to mass at 10 so she could participate in the Christmas festivities.  And as a side note, it is not unusual at all to attend mass twice on Christmas.  In fact, most people who went on Christmas eve went to the 7 am mass as well.  In typical African fashion, we were about 20 minutes to late, but no worries, we didn't even miss the opening prayer.  After mass we headed over to a big party with both the communities of sisters.  The feast included rabbit, fish, potatoes, legitimate American catcup, a number of other vegetables, cake, and of course, some tasty brownies.  After dinner Sr. Annemarie started the stereo up for some dancing.  And when Sr. Annemarie starts the dancing, you better gear up to be there for awhile because she can dance all day and all night long.  After our dancing it was time for Christmas nap.  Then back to the sisters for more eating, more cake, and a little more dancing.  After a strenuous day of sleeping, eating, dancing, sleeping, eating, and dancing I was ready for bed.  

Sharing this Christmas with my new community, both VOICA and the sisters, was really wonderful.  Everyone was filled with joy and celebration- I didn't even attend 7 am mass where I told the dancing was even more exuberant than at the vigil.   It was a day to really enjoy both the communities I feel so blessed to be a part of.  It was difficult to be so far away from home and I missed all the my Christmas traditions with my family, but I also discovered the joy of participating in the traditions of others.  

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!! 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

You Will Go to the Source of the Nile and You Will Eat Goat

Sunday we were invited to join the secondary girls’ school end-of-year outing to Uganda. It all came about on Saturday morning when we were told that we could go on the trip to the source of the Nile in nearby Uganda and that we would have goat for lunch. Surely, that was all the information I needed! Which is good because that is literally all the information we were given.

The bus was to leave at 6:15 am, African Standard Time. And so, right on time at 8 am, we were off with 40 school girls to explore the Nile. We made it to the entrance of the national park in just about 4 hours. We were all excited by the sight of monkeys in the tree at the entrance, it seemed a sure sign that there would be more animals to follow inside the park. Lions, hippos, elephants and more!! Oh the excitement was ripe. Then we turned around and left the park. It turns out there is a complicated set of rules that one must follow if one is going to be allowed into this particular national park in Uganda. And we had not properly followed one or more of these stringent regulations. Rumors flew left and right speculating the exact reason behind this trip’s quick demise, but since most were flying around in French, I can’t really say what the reason might have been.

The day was not, however, a total disappointment. The bus took us back to the nearby town where we had a lovely picnic of goat and potatoes overlooking the Nile river. Actually, the goat was quite tasty. It may have even been delicous had there not been several goats bleating for thier lost breathern 10 yards away. But no matter, because there is simply no more pleasant way to spend a Sunday than feasting on goat and potatoes on the edge of one of the grandest rivers in the world.

Teaching Woes

People assume because I am able to speak English I am a qualified English teacher. The truth is far from this. In fact, I have no idea how to teach English. I know this is true because I have now been an English teacher for one week. I have been assigned to teach 5 classes at 3 different levels at 2 schools here in Aru. I teach the first class (which I believe to be somewhere around 6th grade) at the Cannossian run girls’ school, and the 4th (maybe 10th grade) and 6th (12th grade, I think) at the other local school.

My first lesson was with the 1st class on Monday. It should have been easy since this is the first year they have taken English and their level is very basic. And since I am taking over in the middle of the term, the former English teacher even shared his curriculum plan with me. I was supposed to teach the girls how to use this, that, these, and those. So the first thing I did was get out a book for teaching English, incidentally it is for Italian students, so much of the explanation is in Italian, and taught myself how to use this, that, these, and those. Unfortunately, I did not entirely grasp the concept of these tricky words until half way through my first class. First note to self for teaching English: make sure I understand the English grammar myself before trying to teach it!!

On Tuesday I was to begin at the other high school with a 2 hour lesson in the 6th class followed immediately by a 1 hour lesson in the 4th class. I had briefly met the former English teacher of these classes, but I did not have anything so handy as a curriculum, a book, an idea of what level the students are at, what they are supposed to be learning, or where, exactly, the classrooms are. And so I was filled with dread. I learned that it is actually possibly to make yourself sick with fear. Indeed, sick enough for several people to ask me if I might have malaria. Although, sadly, not so sick as to have to stay in bed and miss class. Sr. Daniela took me to the school where I met the teacher again and he gave me a book (a miracle!) and I was even shown where the classroom is. My students were very polite and kindly showed me in their notebooks what they were learning. Then they were very patient as I flipped through my newly acquired book in confusion desperately thinking about what I should do next. Truly, I’m not exactly sure how the next 2 hours were filled with English, but eventually it was time to leave and meet my next class. They too were quite polite and patient with my utter confusion and lack of anything to teach, other than jabbering on in English about anything. With a mere 20 minutes left and me really out of things to do with these attentive students, a torrential rain storm came in saved me. For, I learned, it is impossible to teach when it rains. Because it is dark when there is no sun, so no one can see, and it is loud on the corrugated metal roof with no ceiling to insulate the noise so no one can hear. As soon as it stopped raining enough, I fled the classroom in jubilee. And that was my second day of teaching.

Luckily, the situation improved throughout the week as I was able to look through my precious book for teaching English and come up with some kind of lesson plan. I also learned that the students here are really very good and quite different then in America. They are all quiet as I stand for 20 minutes with my back to them writing text on the board and diligently copy everything down. They politely stand up when called upon and do their best to speak English. They run and fetch me chalk from the office when I break all my pieces in the first10 minutes and erase the board for me so I have enough room to write their homework on it. In fact, they don’t even laugh at me when I trip over the holes in the floor. Now it is Christmas break so I have 2 weeks off to regroup. I hope I am able to gain some understanding of the system and curriculum so that I can actually be of some use to the students and really improve their (and my own) knowledge of English.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Les Yeux!!

This week at lunch we were served locusts. Sr. Angela, an Italian nun who has been here for over 40 years, forced me to eat one. Literally she picked one up and told me to “Put it in your mouth.” Since I was unable to voice my objections to locusts in French, I had to obey. It turns out that locusts are not so bad after all. Really it was just like a potato chip. With eyes. And not the kind of eyes you find on potatoes. Real eyes. Looking at me. So I ate my one locust and continues on with lunch. Then, Sr. Angela, who had a BIG pile of locusts on her plate (She thinks they are “tres bon”) picked one up, stared it straight in the eyes and said “Les yeux” (meaning “the eyes” in French) and popped into her mouth. Now I honestly admire Sr. Angela’s ability to stare down the thing she is eating. Me, I prefer my food to be sans yeux. It makes it much easier to ignore the fact that it was ever a living, breathing, hopping thing. But this city girl mentality is quickly changing here. In fact, if we ever want to cook meat for ourselves at our house, rather than mooching off of the sister’s meat, someone is going to have to take a living, breathing, clucking chicken or living, breathing, bleating goat and kill it. But that time is not yet nigh, and indeed, I hope it never will be.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Sunday Bike Ride

Lydia and I went for a bike ride around town on Sunday. She thought it would be a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. So we went into our storeroom and brought out the bikes. Our community has 2 bikes. One full bike, ¾ of one bike, and ¼ of another bike. One bike is great, it has all it’s parts and works very well, although the bell is broken so that’s disappointing. The second bike doesn’t have any breaks and it’s bell is also broken, which is more of a problem then with the first bike because it’s nice to alert people that you are coming when you don’t have breaks. It’s name is Top Gun. The third bike has one wheel, so really it’s not a bicycle, but a unicycle. But it’s supposed to be a bicycle so really it’s just wasted storage space. I didn't check, but I would be willing to bet that it's bell is broken too.  After about an hour of fixing up our bikes, which including removing brake pads, pumping wheels, and lowering seats (all made more complicated by the curious assortment of tools) we were on our way down the main drag of Aru. We have city bikes, but the terrain is more of what you would find on a mountain bike track, but no worries, our little bikes (or bike and ¾ as it were) did just find. We rode for a bit, but realized quickly that we had not brought water and so were ill equipped for more than a quick outing because apparently the sun is intense at 2 degrees north of the equator.

It was really great to see more of the town. Aru seems very small, but it actually goes on for quite a ways in many directions.  It is also surrounded by beautiful countryside.   Everything is green expect the red dirt so it's a little like Christmas all the time, except there aren't any reindeer.  We hope to be able to bike around some more and really explore our surroundings.  I anticipate many pleasant Sunday rides about the town.  

Since our first bike ride went so well, our next project is to get all 3 of us on a bike. Many of the locals are able to load their whole families on their bikes, kind of like a Conoglese mini van, so we are hoping to do the same with our community. Top Gun has a rat trap to sit on in back and a bar in front of the seat, so we think it’s possible. Although 3 people and no breaks might not work out so well. But we will try anyway!  

Monday, December 7, 2009

Travels to Aru

December 1, 2009
12:05 am: I am departing for the first leg of my journey to Congo. Oh wait, I’m actually not because the Ethopian Airlines airplane that is supposed to be flying me to Africa has not arrived yet. So I’m just sitting in the Rome airport in the middle of the night. 

Eventually the plane came and Lydia and I were on our way to Africa. After a brief layover in Adis Ababba we flew onto Entebbe, Uganda. Once there, I figured that there is really no better introduction to a county then a visit to the airport’s lost luggage office so it worked out quite well when 1 of our 4 suticases never magically appeared on the conveyor belt in Uganda. Truthfully, I felt a mix of relief that is wasn’t mine and sympathy for Lydia, who, of course, lost the bag with all her clothes and not the one full of books in French. However, since Lydia and I checked in together, all the luggage was put under my name so I still got to experience the joy of filling out paperwork for an airline. When we finally emerged from the baggage claim, Sr. Imelda, one of the Canossians from Kampala whisked us a way and plopped us at a local hotel. Then she left. Then she came back and gave us a little money. Then she left. And we were on our own in Uganda until 5 am the next morning when someone would pick us up to take us to the bus. So we ate and slept and walked around the market and felt white and then ate and slept and then it was 5 am and time to go catch our 7 am bus to Arua. We climbed aboard our super-nice-first-class bus and settled in for the next 8 hours. By super-nice-first-class bus I mean that it had wheels, and seats, and only made scary noises every once in awhile. But really it was awesome. My favorite part of the bus ride was the speed bump section when there were speed bumps every 20 yard for about 5 miles. But really it was awesome. At 3 pm, sweaty, dusty, and tired we arrived in Arua to be greeted by two Canossian sisters, Sr. Annemarie and Sr. Carmela who whisked us to Aru. As we were driving along I realized that in Uganda they drive on the left side of the road (being formally British and all), but in Congo they drive on the right. I figured it might be tricky to make that transition and remember to change sides of the road at the boarder. But it turns out in Congo they actually drive on whatever side of the street is most passable. Actually, street is a bit of a strong word, more like road. Or better yet, giant pothole. So after a bumpy 1 hour long ride and over 36 hours after we left Rome we finally arrived in Aru to be enthusiastically greeted by the Sisters, the girls who live at the Canossian boarding school, and Thomas the VOICA volunteer from Czech who has been here by himself since September. Later, when we were settling into our house, our neighbor girls came over and drummed and sang us a welcome song. After all the travel I was tired, but seeing the enthusiasim and joy with which everyone greeted us made me feel so welcome that all my tiredness was replaced with excitement to be in this new place with these new people.  I will try to write again soon about my first few days here!!