"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Learn Today, Teach Tomorrow"

Our school has a cool program in the village primary school where our students can go and teach short classes in English, math, and Arabic a few times a week. Here, they gain a little perspective about what it's like to be a teacher and how much work it is to prepare lessons, grade papers, and write tests.

One day, I accompanied the village teachers and sat in on their classes. This is what I saw.

"Learn Today, Teach Tomorrow," painted on the wall in Somali.

Welcome to the village school.

There is no playground, just this pile of dirt.

But the kids manage to find ways to entertain themselves between classes.

Excited in English class.

And paying attention in Arabic class.

Two good friends.

Looking out the window.

The school principal comes to chime in. I should say that he has not been paid in nearly four months.

I should also say that our village teachers were not the only ones who gained some perspective. Sure, I complain about not having books to work out of, but at least I can go to my nice, comfortable office and find materials on the internet. At least our floors are clean, and we have real classroom decorations instead of broken furniture in the back. Also, I do not have to go four months without being paid.

And finally, I don't have to hit my students. At a later date, I came back to the school, and had to substitute teach in the English class, because the regular teacher was sick. When one little boy misbehaved, a little girl made a motion that I should hit him to get him back in line. All I did was shake my head dumbly, and went on with my lesson. For these kids, this, all of it, is normal.

I learned today. Now I have to teach tomorrow.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Qat" Up in it All

Until recently, ‘qat’ was my number one favorite Scrabble word. It’s an easy way to dump a ‘q’ if you don’t have a ‘u,’ and because the other letters are easy to find on the board.

Not anymore.

Qat (also spelled khat, and pronounced either as qat or chaat), is the East African drug of choice. It grows primarily in Ethiopia, where it is exported to neighboring countries such as Somalia/Somaliland, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, and parts of the Sudan. Resembling an innocent green herb, the leaves of the qat plant act as a stimulant when chewed like tobacco. It produces a high for a few hours, displacing sleep and hunger, but afterwards leaves the chewer feeling weak, dehydrated, and unbearably cranky.

The shops with the counters painted green are the ones that sell qat.

Here, most men can be seen with chewed green mush dripping out of their mouths. In fact, it’s a rare sight to see a man in a place of authority (especially in the private security industry) without green goo caking his teeth. Apparently, guards and soldiers are allowed to chew qat because it allows them to stay awake for late night watch, but in the morning they are…tired, dehydrated and unbearably cranky. Big surprise.

Somali society, however, is not at all supportive of the country-wide qat addiction, as mind-altering substances are prohibited in Islam. Recently, I taught my students how to write argumentative essays, and the example I used was “should qat be illegal.” We had a class-wide discussion, and here were some of the impressions I received, from both girls and boys:

“Qat is bad for your health. It makes you dehydrated, constipated, and ruins the ability to satisfy your wife.”

"Qat is bad for family life. The father will only think about the qat, be angry all the time, and hurt his wife and children."

“Qat is bad for the family's money. If the father is addicted to qat, he will take the family’s money and spend it on qat instead of on food, so his children will starve.”

There was also an interesting note in a recent article on BBC Africa, about Somali pirates and qat.

"We need to bear in mind that the pirates are constantly taking a substance called khat, a drug which affects their state of mind. They mix that with alcohol and whatever medication they can find on the ship. So these are not rational actors," Source: Navfor's Chief of Staff, Colonel Richard Spencer, BBC Africa.

"Rational actors?" That reminds me of a little story.

On one fine Wednesday afternoon, I met one of my form 2 students (I’ll call her Salaama) for a short walk from our campus to the nearby village. My (male) coworker, Mike, who also has Salaama as a student, decided to join us, and the three of us set off for the main gate, where we could get an armed escort to walk with us.

Because Salaama is a girl, she must get a teacher to escort her off campus, and because the teachers are all foreign, we must have a guard with us if we leave campus. So Mike, Salaama, and I made our way to the main gate to find a hired guard to walk with us on the remote desert path to the remote village.

We arrived at the gate, and our head guard, Hassan, stopped us. “Where are you going?” he spat at us, with the ubiquitous green sludge dripping from his gums.

“Just to the village,” Mike said.

“What for?” demanded Hassan, chomping away on the sludge.

“Sambusa and drinks,” Mike replied. Just snack food.

Hassan stood up a little straighter, his fat stomach bulging out of his Army uniform. He turned to Salaama and said to her in Somali, “You can’t go without me, and I’m not going. You have to stay here.”

Mike and I turned to each other and had a little conference. “What are we going to do?” I said. “He can’t keep us here like that!”

“I’ll call Kiette,” Mike said.

We made a hurried call to our supervisor, who, once we passed the phone to the guard, told him to cut it out and take us. He hung up the phone, slumped back down in his seat. In Somali, he said to Salaama that he would send someone along in a minute.

Ha ha! I thought, strutting through the gate. Problem solved!

We followed the meandering path through the desert, past the stunted thorn trees and 5-foot termite mounds. The wind whipped by scarf around my face, and my long dress caught on the thorny plants. Nevertheless, we picked our way among the rocks, and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. It turned out that Salaama had beaten Mike in a game of Scrabble, so he had promised to take her to Abaarso and buy her “all the sambusas she could eat.”

Prepared to stuff ourselves with the greasy, meaty things, we followed the path until it met the one paved road in the village, and then found a food vender with “all we could eat.” The vender wrapped a pile of sambusas in old newspaper scraps to absorb the grease, and we dug in. When the feeding frenzy has subsided a little, we chatted a little about student life, how the school year had gone so far, and so on. Salaama was most upset about the fact that the Parents’ Committee had recently decreed that girls couldn’t leave campus without a teacher, while the boys were still allowed to go wherever they pleased. I was not happy about the decree either, but the Parents’ Committee had spoken.

When we were full, we bought a few extra sambusas to take back to campus, and headed back, noticing that our guard had spent the entire time hanging out at the one of the qat shops. We motioned to him that we were heading back, and he grabbed an extra bag of qat and joined us, slinging his AK-47 over his arm. At least this one kept silent and didn’t bother us.

We ambled back to campus, arriving back a little late for Salaama’s gym class (she was extremely appreciative of that). Once we walked through the gate, Mike went one way, and Salaama and I went another, toward the girl’s dorms.

However, we walked right past the fat guard’s seat. He sat in the shade, chomping away on a fistful of green. As we walked past, he shouted at us from his seat. Salaama turned, and translated for me. “He says we can’t leave campus because we’re girls.”

“WHAT?” I demanded.

He must have heard me, because he pointed at us and started yelling. I should say at this point that Somali is not a soft-spoken language. Salaama started yelling back, also in Somali. Then he got out of his chair and marched over to us. He shook his finger in our faces and screamed, spraying us with qat and spit. He got right up close to Salaama, which is something I thought was not permitted in Islam. I stepped between them an motioned with my hand for him to stop, now, yelling “Stop it! You can’t talk to us like that!”

By now, a group of girls had wandered over from the gym class on the football field, along with Margaret, the P. E, teacher. Between the two of us, we got the girls back to the football field and away from the guard, but not before he said something absolutely awful about Salaama in front of the other girls. I’m not sure of the translation, because I heard it later, but it was something like this:

“Salaama went to the village with Mike and was feeding him sambusas.”

For a woman to ‘feed’ a man in this culture is about on the same level as engaging in, um…reproductive actions. Of course, I had been with them the entire time and my presence probably would have discouraged that, but my presence and authority doesn’t seem to count for much here.

I met Salaama later that evening, after her gym class. She cried about what the guard had said, and all I could do was hold her. I had asked for the guard to be fired, but the answer I received was, “He’s better, because he actually guards and doesn’t chew as much qat.”

A few days later, the guard walked into the office, and I gave him a look that made it clear that he was not welcome in my presence. My coworker said that even she was scared by the look. I guess that means I am getting the hang of being a teacher—mastering the evil eye. Anyway, I saw him a few days later, and he said, “Hey Sophia, Salaam Aleikum! How are you? Good to see you!” This time, he didn’t spit qat in my face.

Well, then…

Now I reflect on some of what I’ve read about the region as a whole. Imagine, if a private security guard can lose it with a simple request for an escorted walk, what it must be like trying to negotiate the release of captured sailors for a ransom of millions of dollars. Imagine if the person spewing green sludge in your face is not your rent-a-cop, but a pirate on the high seas, who will decide whether you live or die.

Wow, now I get it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back-to-School Special

What exactly am I doing here? That is the question that is probably on everybody’s minds right now. That’s okay. It’s on my mind too.

School has been in session now for just a few weeks, and there is an unbelievable amount of work to do. What I’m doing is 12-hour workdays, from 7 am until 9 pm most nights. I am teaching two classes, 9th grade English and 10th grade writing, for 21 hours a week, plus endless hours of grading (especially writing—ugh), followed by teaching karate, helping out with various other projects, including detention time, work time, volunteering in the village primary school, helping prepare lessons for the after school program in Hargeisa, office hours, and showing up to the occasional staff meeting.

My new home.

Yeah, it’s been an adjustment.

The kids are, for the most part, pretty cool. Most of them are from Somaliland, from the major city Hargeisa, but there are also many from the countryside, including from the disputed regions of Sool and Sanaag, out by Puntland. Some grew up at the pinnacle of privilege (the son of the Vice President is in my 9th grade English class), and others had lived as nomads and had never seen a computer or toilet before coming here. It is truly marvelous to see them all learning together, and (miraculously) there are almost no fights between them.

There are also few are members of the Somali Diaspora who have returned because they feel our school can provide them with a world class education in a setting that will allow them to experience Somali culture. For example, we have a pair of half-Somali, half-American brothers who joined this year because their mother (from the area) returned home to work for a local NGO. Whenever I think I may be culture-shocked, I think about those two brothers, and remind myself that they have it much worse. There is also a pair of brothers who grew up in London, and their fabulously wealthy father occasionally treats the entire teaching staff to dinner at the swank Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa. And then there is a boy who grew up in Nairobi, who was given only a week’s notice to prepare for attending boarding school in a country he has never visited and barely understands. He handles it well, and has a great attitude, although he can be a little disrespectful at times. I like to call him “Kenyan Cartman,” because he resembles the character Eric Cartman from South Park, both in sense of humor and, um…shape.

I should say that we have an INCREDIBLY talented group of kids here. During the first week of school, we had a fundraising event, and this one girl gave the most moving speech about how our school was the first time anyone cared enough to give her a progress report. She’s one of our top students.

"Somewhere in Somaliland, there is a child crying out for attention. That child was me. That child was all of us.”

Watch out, Harvard 2016!

What else do we do besides study? We have the only basketball court in the country (although, Sheikh Secondary School, the other premier boarding school in the country, and our bitter rival) is supposedly building one. We make sure that both the boys AND the girls get a chance to play, although they cannot be on the court at the same time.

Since we live in a strikingly beautiful area, sometimes we go on hikes.

And climb trees.

And it’s windy most of the time, so we fly kites.

Or we just hang out. This must be the only high school in the world where the students actually like seeing their teachers.

More to come! Thanks for reading, everyone.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Daily Bread

Every place I’ve ever visited seems to have it’s own version of white, starchy stuff that goes with every meal. In Belgium, it was either bread or potatoes. In Syria and Egypt, it was pita bread, hot from the oven. In Indonesia, it was rice. But here, it’s called laxoox (pronounce the x’s like a heavy h, like “la-HooH”).

Laxoox is a spongy pancake thing made of a mix of wheat and sorghum. Sorghum is this plant-like material that looks kind of like a corn plant, but it has seeds instead of cobs. The seeds are ground up and used like flour.

These ones are growing in my courtyard.

Anyway, to make laxoox, mix about equal parts flour and water, and a little sugar, yeast, and salt. Let rise.

Then, heat a charcoal fire, This is much easier said than done, as I learned last week. I piled up charcoal and bits of paper, and tried to get a spark. And tried again. And again…

No luck.

So, I carried it outside and set it on the porch, in the path of the wind. After several more tries, and after a hot coal blew out and set my shirt on fire, it caught and stayed lit. Success!

Once the coals are hot, heat a cast iron tablet over the flames. Spread a little oil on it.

When it’s hot, take about a quarter-cup and spread the batter in a circular motion, like this lady is doing here.

Then cover it and let it cook for a couple of minutes.

Take the cover off and, using a knife, loosen the laxoox and take it off the hot metal. Only cook one side.

It’s absolutely heavenly when hot off the griddle, but gets softer if it sits around a while.If it’s hot, fold it over and its “crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside!”

Somalis usually eat laxoox with a mug of tongue-scorching sweet tea with milk and spices. A nice way to start the day!

Monday, October 4, 2010

How to Dress for Success

Everything you ever wanted to know about Somali fashion!

Start with your basics: tank top, trousers, and shoes...

Next, put on your petticoat. They’re usually made out of nasty synthetic fabric, so that’s why I wear pants under it. Also, they usually make them way too long, so roll it down a little.

(Yes, I am wearing a petticoat. Takes ya back about a hundred years, doesn't it?)

Now get your moo moo. The louder the color, the better. I’m going to go with the red one.

(Ha! Moo moo. I can't believe I just wrote that.)

Make sure you tuck it in a little to show off the edge of the petticoat. It’s the current fashion.

Now, let’s headscarf it up!

Pull it around the back of your neck and tie it around the back.

Geez, this is complicated!

Ah, there we go.

No, we’re not done yet. Still one more step.

Wrap the other layer around so it drapes over your shoulders and arms.

Up, up, and away!

Now let's go teach some English!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eid al-Fitr

Abaarso Village, celebrating the end of Ramadan.

Quite a spectacle.

Children often receive new clothing as gifts.

The village only has this one giant swing.

Selling fruit.

Good friends.

A familiar face...

Thanks for viewing!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

My First Week

I never thought Africa could be cold. It was really quite pleasant to step off the non-air conditioned plane at Hargeisa Airport and feel a blast of cool wind on my face. We arrived in the midmorning, before the sun had gotten a chance to bake everything in the afternoon. Then it cools off and the wind picks up, until the its so loud it sounds like a hurricane and it’s hard to go to sleep at night.

Everything here seems built for extremes. There are only a few acacia trees that dot the rocky, desolate landscape. People build huts shaped like igloos out of scrap metal and rags.

The language sounds like rocks hitting against each other (I’m sure it will make more sense once I begin to learn it). I have heard that the words for “please” and “thank you” are rarely used. I guess when life is harsh and short, there is little concern for those things.

Nevertheless, there is much to see and do. The market in Hargeisa is a real treat.

One of the first things we did was buy cloth to make Somali outfits (which are rather involved—women have to wear a petticoat, a moo moo, a head wrap, and a cumbersome headscarf/wrap to be worn over it). But people really seem to appreciate it if a Westerner assumes the local fashion.

Of course, while we were combing the market for women’s clothes, we had an armed guard following us the entire time. The rule is that any Westerner traveling here has to be accompanied by an armed escort the entire time (and there’s no getting around it. Believe me, I’ve tried).

I wonder how many Americans would be comfortable being followed around by a black guy with a gun…

Of course, they are helpful too. We went on a nature walk one day and Kenai (my coworker’s son) got tired, so Axmad Farah gave him a lift.

Kenai is so excited to be here, especially about the animals. We have baboons, camels, little mini gazelles called tik tik, hyenas, giant tortoises…

And, of course, goats…

Workwise, the kids aren’t here yet, so there isn’t any teaching to be done. But we’ve been hard at work cleaning up the school, organizing the library, playing with the village kids, and working in the garden. One day I taught the cooks how to make pizza in the outdoor clay oven (even in the pouring rain, it still tasted pretty good). The kids keep texting us to say they can’t wait to come back. I think it’s infectious, because frankly, it’s the first time I’ve been excited for a school year to start.

Thanks for reading, and take care!