Saturday, October 23, 2010

Laundry, faith, parasites, dresses, and more laundry

As I sat through 3 hours of Kiswahili examination on Friday morning, I realized just how far I’ve come since leaving Swaziland only 7 weeks ago. I’ve said goodbye (for now) to some great friends, spent 3 weeks on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, moved into a cute little house in the middle of nowhere in southern Tanzania, and gained a level of proficiency in Kiswahili far beyond what I thought was possible in such a short time. I’ve found a grocery store selling good South African wines and butter without any ingredients derived from plastic (this is an accomplishment in Africa), established myself as a “regular” at both the local internet café and the town library, and perfected the art of haggling for things like papayas and wax-print fabric. It’s amazing how the little things in life can make me feel productive and accomplished.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me here is how much time people—and specifically women (myself included)—spend simply trying to live. After an exhaustingly busy day in Africa it’s possible to have accomplished what would have taken just 30 minutes in the US. Take my host mother, for example. She wakes up every morning at 5:00am to start heating the water for the kids’ morning baths and to get breakfast started. She spends at least an hour grinding maize kernels into a fine maize flour with a mortar and pestle, and then builds a fire in the charcoal stove to make the breakfast porridge. After sending the kids off to school, she sweeps the whole house with a bunch of grass tied together with a string, and “mops” the floors by hand with a bucket and rag, then makes several trips to the river with a 5-gallon bucket to fetch enough water for laundry. She spends several hours every day washing the kids’ school uniforms (which she magically keeps white) and play clothes and everyone’s blankets and towels by hand with a bucket of dirty water and a smelly soap that leaves her hands dry and cracked. If she needs more vegetables or anything for cooking, she walks and hour to the municipal market in town, or catches a chicken in the backyard for slaughter. When it’s time to start preparing the afternoon meal for the kids, she beats stalks of rice against a tarp on the ground to remove the chaff before she can wash and cook it. After the kids have eaten and she’s washed all the dishes, it’s time to fold clothes and then start dinner and, which means more maize grinding or wheat winnowing or picking small stones out of bags of beans. Then, after more dishes and cleaning and sending the kids off to bed, she spends a couple hours sewing with her hand crank-powered museum piece Singer machine making dresses for local women, her only source of much-needed income (about $10 per week) to pay the kids’ school fees and buy their cheap laundry soap and charcoal and support her oldest son and husband’s fondness for beer. Sometime just before midnight she goes to bed to rest up before starting the whole process over the next day. No wonder few women in Africa have jobs…they’re too busy doing work.

And, honestly, it’s not been so long since women in the US lived the same sort of life. Things like indoor plumbing and water heaters that turn bathing into a 5 minute time commitment are relatively recent inventions in human history, and anyone over the age of 40 would likely be wholly unsympathetic to my complaints about hand-washing clothes because they probably had to do it too. But now, Americans have machines that clean dishes and wash and dry clothes and suck the dirt up off the floors, and to heat our stoves we just press a button and wait. We even have slow cookers that cook our food when we’re not home, or restaurants where we go so we don’t have to cook at all. If we want to cook, we drive our cars to the grocery store to buy already-butchered meat and pre-cut and pre-washed frozen vegetables and chaff-less rice, and then store everything in our refrigerators and freezers and cabinets so we don’t have to worry about running out of food for a while. All of the things actually required to live (hygiene, food, etc.) have become something we do in addition to our “jobs” in the US and we don’t consider it work, but here just LIVING takes so much time that women don’t have enough hours in the day to do silly things like study or have a job.

I know I’ve been living like this for 2 and a half years now, but since I bought my plane ticket home a couple of weeks ago I can’t stop making comparisons between my life here and what it would have been like had I decided to return straight home 7 weeks ago. Today, for example, my “laundry day” would have consisted of dragging a bag of clothes to the laundry room, dumping them in the machine with a cup of soap, and pressing a button instead of spending 2 hours scrubbing things by hand. If I’d wanted to check my email or post a blog in the US I would have just sat down at my computer instead of walking an hour to and from town to use the internet. I would’ve just called Domino’s or stopped by a sandwich place for lunch instead of spending an hour making lunch if I was feeling hungry but lazy. When I get back to the US, I’m sure I’ll be much more grateful for things like Chinese take-out and vacuums, I’ll never complain about the $2.50 I have to pay at the Laundromat, and I’ll be just a little bit fascinated when I turn a knob and hot water comes out.

In addition to the mandatory hours of chores and classes I did this week, I also visited a local children’s home with my teacher Upendo as part of a “language out” (field trip) for Kiswahili. Daily Bread Life Children’s Home on the outskirts of Iringa is home to 36 boys and girls between 9 months and 13 years, and it was started in 2006 by a husband and wife team of Tanzanian pastors. It’s an incredible place. They’ve got two big dorm-style buildings for the younger kids (one for boys, one for girls), and a big house for the high school-aged kids that is comparable to an American home. Several house mothers take care of the kids, plus a full-time preschool teacher, a cook, and volunteers who help with homework and things. They’ve got showers and a modern kitchen and school-like cafeteria hall, a library where the kids do their homework, and a preschool for the 12 kids under the age of 6. They also have a small infirmary with a part-time nurse who takes care of the kids when they’re sick, and skills training courses in metal work and sewing for the older kids that double as a source of income for the home. It’s an incredible operation, well-run and done for all the right reasons. I was VERY impressed with the home (and with the home’s ability to raise money from American donors…) and also with the woman running it, with whom I practiced Kiswahili conversation with for about an hour.

One of the things that always amazes me about places like Daily Bread Life Children’s Home (and Pasture Valley in Swaziland for that matter) is that somehow witnessing the misery of children strengthens their founders’ faith in God. Example: The head matron of Daily Bread Life told me the story of a little girl they took in last summer. Her mother had died during childbirth when she was very small, leaving her alone with her father who molested her from the age of 4-6. When she was 6, she almost died of TB, and the government removed her from her father’s custody when she was 7. Now she’s a malnourished 8-year-old HIV-positive orphan whose mental development is so far delayed that she’s ill-prepared for pre-school. For the matron, this story was an example of God’s incredible compassion: He had sent this girl to her so she could live a better life, and so that everyone at the home could be touched by her story. This girl’s suffering had actually strengthened her belief in God.

And then, on the other hand, there’s my reaction to this story, which is basically the exact opposite. When I hear stories like this I’m pretty sure there’s no God. If there was, wouldn’t He prevent things like this from happening? Would He really let poor women die during childbirth just because they don’t have the money to go to a hospital? Would He willingly let a 6-year-old little girl suffer and eventually die from an incurable virus given to her by an evil man? If He really existed, couldn’t He punish the HIV-positive father who molested her instead? I’m pretty sure the all-powerful, all-knowing, all good God that Christians put their faith in and praise every day wouldn’t let things like this happen. It’s stories like this and all the human suffering I’ve seen in the last 2 and a half years that make me think that either He doesn’t exist, He doesn’t care about people, or He’s just plain mean.

Still, if someone is doing something good to reduce the impact of HIV or to improve the lives of children living in poverty, I can hardly criticize them for the root of their motives. After all, her faith is what drives her to work so hard to improve the lives of these kids and what gave her the confidence to start the home in the first place, and that’s a GOOD thing from any perspective. I just happen to do things for a very different, even contradictory reason. I do it precisely because I don’t believe there IS a God looking out for us. I believe we have to take care of ourselves and each other because nobody else is there to pick up the slack if we don’t. The only thing that makes me think that MAYBE there’s a God is that women like the head matron (and Peter and Michelle at Pasture Valley) exist, but if bad things weren’t happening to good people all the time there wouldn’t be any NEED for people like her, right?

Anyway, that’s what I think.

In other news, I learned yesterday that I have Schistosomiasis, a disease also known as Bilharzia or Snail Fever, that's caused by five types of parasitic flatworms or blood flukes (also, snail larvae) called schistosomes that set up camp in your spleen/liver and reproduce until you kill them. It's a mostly Africa thing, I think, and it comes from contact with freshwater, which probably means that there were snail larvae living in my bathwater in Swaziland. Cool! There are no symptoms or anything, and if I never treated it it probably wouldn't be a problem for at least 10 years, but I think it's kind of funny. There are parasites currently living in my spleen/liver/kidneys! It's a pretty unique souvenir of my Peace Corps service... (Maybe I should go to the pharmacy and get some Praziquantel to kill them.)

While I'm in town I'll also be searching for some ridiculous African wax-print fabric so that my host mother can make me a dress in the style of a picture I stole from the J.Crew website. It seems a little funny to use brightly-colored fabric covered in pictures of lipstick or skeleton keys or spaceships or something to imitate a $225 dress, but I’m a fan of dresses and I’m prepared to pay her more than the market price to make it for me, so everybody wins. (Excluding, of course, the people who will have to be seen in public with me when I wear my awesome African dress…)

So, until next time…

Justine (and her schistosomes)

PS: Sorry I’m picture-less yet again today. I’ve developed a pretty boring daily routine so it’s rare I see or experience anything photo-worthy, unless you think the inside of the library or the internet café are exciting (which they aren’t, I assure you). And I hate drawing more attention to myself by pulling out a camera in public, and think it’s rude to take pictures of people without their consent. But I’ll try to do something exciting this week.

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