How does one get a cat around here, anyway?

So, this is the possibly expected/somewhat obligatory culture shock post. Last week, I woke up around 2AM to a distinct and very loud crunching sound. Still kind of groggy and disoriented, I didn’t think much of it, figuring it was probably the goats who spend the night outside my house. But then it sounded awfully loud, and I thought, “hmm, the goats don’t usually eat at night like that…let’s just make completely sure that it’s outside.” And so I groped for my headlamp and shined it around the room, which resulted in furious scurrying in my ceiling (which is composed of woven straw mats suspended by wires running from one wall to another), and then a small, furry creature with a tail ran right across the top of my mosquito net and out the door. That was my first encounter with the mice. Since then, I’ve woken up every night to them either eating my ceiling or running around my house. We have also surprised each other occasionally during the day when I have switched rooms or entered the house quickly. I feel like a total wimp, but I have to admit that they are really getting to me. I feel particularly vulnerable at night since my bed is on the floor. Even though I tuck my mosquito net under the mattress very tightly and I know they can’t get in, I still get very startled every time I wake up to something padding across the floor next to my head or shaking the mosquito net as it traverses the top or side of it. As much as in some ways I already feel at home here, I’m not sure if I’m going to ever be able to feel totally at home in my house if I’m sharing such close quarters with a family of mice.

Then, just after the discovery of the mice, I had a run-in with another thing that can make one feel pretty homesick: illness. I think it’s par for the course when one is living in a developing country to get sick from time to time, and it wasn’t even anything serious–just a 48-hour flu-like virus that I self-treated with the help of my PC med kit and medical care manual. But still, as I was lying on my mattress sweating and shivering, listening to the mice running around above me, wishing I could just hop in my car for 2 minutes and pick up some juice from the grocery store, in between dragging myself out of bed in my pajamas to open the door when concerned work partners and neighbors stopped by to see how I was doing, I found myself wondering, “Why did I want to do this, again?”
Right…I thought I could make a positive change in the world.
Yeah, but it’s so difficult!
Of course it’s difficult, silly. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy or fun all the time. And it’s probably precisely because it’s hard that it is important.

So those were some particularly bad days, which have now passed. But I’ve realized that even ordinary days can be pretty tough right now, and some days when I get home, I am so exhausted that I can’t even believe that I haven’t actually done any real work during the day. But just living life is a lot of work right now; there are so many new things to figure out.

There are simple, daily life things, like how to get water from the pump (First, where is the pump? Then, as it turns out that it is not actually a pump but a faucet that needs to be turned on by someone with the key…who is that person? Where are they at different times of the day? If I go through the trouble to bring my empty water jugs to the faucet, will I be able to find them? Then, how to I carry the water back? People here carry the huge jugs on their heads…am I strong enough to do that? If I’m not, think of how much of a fool I will look like. Children of 6 and 7 years of age can carry those jugs…you get the point), how to cook for one person with unfamiliar ingredients (because of the lack of refrigeration, I can’t keep any leftovers. The other night, I accidentally cooked about 4 times as much boiled yam as I could possibly eat. Luckily I was able to give the extra to my neighbors so it didn’t go to waste, but I felt rather silly), and where one can buy eggs or phone credit or kerosene for a lantern (just today, I took my empty kerosene bottle to get it refilled only to discover that they don’t sell kerosene at that particular stand–it’s only gasoline. How one tells the difference between the oily liquids in the bottles is still a mystery to me).

Then there are the socio-cultural things which are a bit harder to figure out and are probably more important. These include things like determining which people one should actually stop to talk to on the way to work and for which people a greeting called out while walking suffices, figuring out how to tell when an invitation of various sorts is serious and when it is a joke or you are expected to say no, learning which clothes are acceptable and proper to wear to work and other places, and figuring out when one should stop the children when they’re singing the yovo song because they’re trying to be obnoxious and when one should just let it go because they mean no harm by it.

And then of course there is the language thing. While everyone around me is very excited about teaching me Fon, and I’ve mastered a few greetings and responses, I’m still at a total loss in most situations. I can’t understand conversations between other people and when I’m talking to someone, if the conversation deviates at all from a specific script that I know, I have no idea how to continue. It also just takes a lot of energy, patience, and humility to learn a new language, and some days I just want to interact in a language I know. But then sometimes even when people are speaking French to me, I still don’t understand, because after all, my French is not great. It’s good enough to get by in most situations here, but I need people to speak slowly and clearly and to speak a kind of elementary version of the language rather than academic French. So sometimes they speak to me in Fon and I don’t understand so they switch to French and I still don’t understand, and it’s a frustrating encounter on all sides. And I’ve found that especially in situations where I am a little upset or angry or frustrated, my ability to speak French decreases significantly and the only words that come to mind are in English, which of course only makes the situation more upsetting or frustrating for me.

And finally, just getting used to the speed and realities of daily life at the health center is also a challenge. Work there seems to involve a good amount of sitting around, which I’m trying to accept while also trying to figure out ways to make good use of that time. Essentially I am looking for a balance between the American attitude in me that says I should be doing something productive all the time and the more foreign (to me) idea that it’s OK to just “rest” sometimes. And then I’m also working on finding another kind of emotional balance and learning how to work in a place like this where one sees so many heart-wrenching things. Even in the two weeks I’ve been here, I have already seen a lot of things that make me cringe and things that make me sad. And obviously I have faith in my ability to improve things here in some way, but I know that I won’t be able to change everything. In the middle of rural Africa, there are just so many things working against the survival of children and mothers, especially. I know that even if I pull off the most awesome of projects, children are still not going to get enough to eat, mothers are still going to die during pregnancy and birth, etc. And those are the realities that I need to get used to. It’s a delicate balance that I think involves thickening the skin a bit so that one can exist without being debilitated by how upsetting it can bee, but not so much that one stops caring. Because not caring can be a defense mechanism–it can help you feel less pain because you can tell yourself that the pain of others is not your burden to bear–but I think you need to feel a certain amount of pain and have a certain amount of anger and indignation to be motivated to try to tackle massive problems like these.

So, those are some of the challenges. I don’t mean to sound like I am complaining. I am still overwhelmingly happy to be here; it’s just that just like at home, there are good days and bad days, and bad days are I think a bit amplified by a smaller support system and a lack of knowledge about how to ameliorate problems when they arise. And as I’ve said all along, I want to write honestly for you, to take you as realistically on this journey with me as is possible through words and photos transmitted over thousands of miles. And as such, I feel that I shouldn’t remove negative feelings or experiences from the narrative, even though I am tempted to do so sometimes, mostly because I don’t want to worry people at home. All by way of saying, in this post I have laid out some of the difficulties of life here (for me–the difficulties of others are still being discerned and explored and will be discussed at length later), but even in the days that it has taken me to write and edit this draft, the feelings of shock and “what the heck am I doing here?” have subsided and my confidence is returning. So don’t worry. Life isn’t easy, but I kind of like the challenge; it keeps things interesting. So, until next time, eyizande!

6 thoughts on “How does one get a cat around here, anyway?

  1. Like this post???? You must be kidding. This post is the perfect example of ambivalence.
    I have contradictory psychological/emotional reactions to the post. On the one hand, it is crawling with creepy images and I can’t say that your neighborhood is inviting, nor can I say that I wasn’t really worried about your virus. Yet, on the other hand, I am filled with awe for your ability to tolerate the conditions — more than tolerate– and to find joy in your continuing belief in the great worth of what you are doing. So, as a person who both loves and admires you, I want to encourage you to stay as strong as you are and to continue in your important selfless endeavor. Much love, Carole

  2. I can only second what Carole said so well. I have unending admiration for you, not only for what you are doing, but for your willingness to share your experience with such candor. I hope that your language facility improves quickly, and that you either get used to sharing your quarters with the mice, or find out how to evict them. I look forward to following your progress. Meanwhile, stay as well as you can, and keep in mind how much you are doing to restore our faith in the goodness of people.

  3. Stay safe! Get two cats! Your blogs are wonderful but in part scary. I write to you regularly but am not sure you get the mail! I’ll send you letter #8 tomorrow. Now I know about the water, I want to know about the gates. Are they locked at night? As for mice, they have to go and soon. You are an amazing woman, having an experience that reflects the difficulties of being sensitive and moral, trying to effect change in a society with deep defaults. There are parallel problems in the US but you are confronted with them in a way so intense that it is almost impossible to maintain your equilibrium. If you ever need a reprieve, don’t hesitate to ask for a leave of absence. Meanwhile I send you all my love. Granny Kathy

  4. CATS…!
    guess what i just finished?? I am going to attach it to a pigeon and maybe it will get to you quicker than the post. I dont know what else to add besides I second your Granny Kathy ( sorry for taking your thoughts- you just worded it so well)

    Love, miss and admire you.

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