Wednesday, May 30, 2007

where is my umbrella?


Flanked by paradox.

Monday I ended my day excited about a new endeavor - after hours Arabic lessons. Just last week, Sharon and I resolutely decided (over a glass of Pastis I might add) that fluency in Arabic would do wonders for us if we hope to have job security in the field of international disaster psychology. And, although like many Western women, I have negative associations with veiling – I (a recovering catholic) still miss the overt passion for religion, poetry and tradition that I encountered while living in a Muslim country.

Infected with a fatal case of wanderlust, learning a new language felt like an appropriate undertaking for two contemporary nomads. Sharon, a third generation single woman (with both a single mother and grandmother indicating a genetically transmitted flare for independence), and I, a transitional nester and relationshipphobe, felt like the main characters in the movie Chocolat. Two women, suitcases packed next to our bed, waiting for the wind to direct us to our next destination.

On the first day of our lessons, Musa arrived fifteen minutes early. Earnestly awaiting our call for him to enter the office, he sat under the shade of a mango tree. A young boy, sixteen years old at most, dressed in simple African Muslim attire, waiting patiently. With a gentle disposition and playful aura, Musa was accepted readily. He was referred to us by his father who was referred to us by our housekeeper’s abusive husband.

Once called upon Musa entered shyly with a simple piece of paper folded four times. The paper was filled with beautiful Arabic writing. “Good evening Musa” we say in unison. “Guud evening” we get in response and then quickly a sharp “Salaam a le ku. Wa a le ku salaam." That much we understand – the classic Arabic greeting and response. Musa has started and we were ready to follow.

Musa quickly moved on as we took ferocious notes. “we in al bu un su amiszeldt” he says. “we in al bu un su amiszeldt,” we repeat. Although our diction was poor, we were parroting him loudly and for one simple minute we were eager students dreaming of communicating in new lands. “A bu un su eesme.” “A bu un su eesme.” Wait wait wait!” We screech and ask him to stop. “Musa you are going too fast, What do all these things mean and can you please slow down so we can take notes?”

Musa looks up from the paper with a slightly perplexed look and says “now I continue?” And we say, “But, Musa we need to know what it all means and how to write it.” He replies, “Oh, ok, a bu un su amiszeldt means, where is my umbrella?” We giggle and look at each other, “Where is my umbrella?” Interesting starting point, but hey the rainy season is coming, lets be practical.

“Musa please help us. Can you do us a favor and write down how you would say these words phonetically, preferably in English, so we can practice.” “No, I can’t,” he replies blankly. “But what do you mean you can’t? “ He proceeds, talking quickly and in poorly articulated Liberian English that is being affected by a progressively more evident speech impediment, “I’m surry but I do not write in Enklish and I am just learning to speak ick, I cannot do the thinks that you ask.”

What a conundrum – our very sweet, very eager and very timely Arabic teacher could barley speak English and could not write English at all. It also became more and more evident that his increasing anxiety levels were activating his speech impediment, making it more and more difficult to pronounce the Arabic words he was trying to teach. Questions about grammar and syntax were simply out of the question. Dallas, I think we have a problem. But, did I mention how sweet Musa was?

Because we did not want to look rude or ungrateful we continued. However, we quickly realized that it was useless and no one, not even Musa, was benefiting from this facade. We tell poor Musa that it will not work and he tears up. He was going to get paid five US dollars an hour for this venture and it was clear he had already formulated an investment plan.

Sharon and I pack our bags, pay the poor boy and decide to go home to do some Pilates. Later that night we discuss alternative plans. Interestingly, French lessons by our three French neighbors who dog sit for Pappino when ever we are out of town was never tabled as an option.

The next morning I arrive at work fresh. Although I did not know what we were going to do about our language lessons I was excited to begin the day because I was starting two new trauma survivor support groups and felt a strong desire to engage in some clinical work rather than teach about it. Why? For one thing, psychotherapy consists of a gradual unfolding process wherein the therapist attempts to know the patient as fully as possible. Given my recent experience of not knowing anything including the languages, cultures, and interpersonal nuances of the people that surround me, getting to know a few real human beings by simply relating to them sounded refreshing.

But of course things are never that easy here in West Africa. I was scheduled to first attend a focal point training for the prevention of SEA (sexual exploitation and abuse) within international humanitarian organizations. I had already attended a two day training on this very topic earlier this month and my staff and subsequently selected me as the focal point for the organization. Given SEA is a serious problem in post-conflict/refugee environments where power means everything, I was passionate about the topic and honored to be selected. I was told this was a follow up training to the one I already attended.

Down one vehicle I was dropped off at the training site 45 minutes early which, here in Africa, means I was approximately an hour and 45 minutes early. Sitting patiently on a small bench in the shade, I watched two small men work on the engine of a UN Land Cruiser while a goat stubbornly played with the front wheel. The most interesting part of this visual was that the men were actually squatting on the front rim of the hood. They were able to do this because of their small statue (and flexibility I might add); the goat sounded like a small child chatting away, gnawing on the front tire.

At approximately 9:30 people started arriving and I entered the makeshift training hall. A small pad of paper and pen was handed to me along with a pre-test and an agenda for the three day training. I take one peak at the agenda and pre-test and I realize that this is the exact same training I attended three weeks prior. This was not a focal point training for selected focal points but rather a focal point training for organizations who had either missed the first training or who had not yet selected a focal point. After acing the pre-test (to help bolster our reputation or maybe to show off a little) I quickly called the office and told our administrator that he should send over the first PSC that arrived on scene to take my place. It was three days of interesting material and free lunch and I didn’t want my counselors to lose out. Approximately 10 minutes later Anita arrived on the back of a motorbike. The bike quickly took off and I am forced to chase him down the road screaming so that he would return me to the office. The office is about an hour walk away, something I would willingly do if it wasn’t for the hundred degree heat and lap top I was carrying in my satchel.

The driver and I safely arrive approximately 15 minutes later and I thanked him profusely. Given my recent run in with a fatal motorbike accident, even I, a former Harley aficionado, was a bit panicked to be on the back of a motorbike with a helmet that was so lose it spun around on my melon whenever we hit a bump.

Later I was informed that the driver was one of our security guards, Peabody. Interestingly Pea Body only has one functional eye and is unable to make eye contact with his other wondering eye. Why the office selected the only visually impaired individual on site to do all the transportation is beyond me, but I arrived safely and was forced to once again laugh at the irony of it all. A stuttering illiterate language teacher and a one eyed motorcycle driver, flanked by paradox, I look forward to what surprises lie ahead.

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