"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

Friday, June 17, 2011

Field Trip

Recently, we took all of the students to the beach for a day of swimming and fun. After a four-hour trip on bad roads, on a bus packed with kids singing at the top of their lungs, it was really pretty great to arrive at the searing-hot beach town of Berbera.

Berbera is awesome, no question about it. Even though it has a fairly active port, the city feels like a small town, with crumbling Italian villas next to makeshift shacks belonging to fishermen. As the waves hit the stunning beaches, mountains rise up sharply from the horizon. It is quiet, peaceful, and ruggedly beautiful.

And don’t forget the camels plodding along the beach.

When we arrived, the kids piled off the bus and we separated: the male teachers taking the boys to a spot on the beach, and the female teachers took the girls to a secluded spot FAR away from the boys. It would have been absolutely improper for the girls to be seen swimming (without headscarves!).

We set our things down and got ready to swim. I wore a one-piece swimsuit and the girls all wore long shorts and t-shirts. Most of the girls had never even tried to swim before, so we had to coax them to even try. Mostly, we just hung out in the shallows. At one point, a group of dolphins swam right up to us. I actually had no idea they were grey; I always thought they were blue like in the cartoons.

While we were trying to help the girls get comfortable in the water, we always had to keep an eye out for men who would be lurking around. Some of them, I suspect, were just curious about the white teachers, but others, I’m sure, wanted to harass our girls about swimming and taking off their headscarves. One man started to make his way over to our group, and I stopped him before he could get too close. In broken English, he asked me what was going on, and I told him we were on a school trip and that he needed to leave us alone. Then, he grabbed me and tried to hug me (totally did not see that coming!). I pulled away and told him to leave us alone. He sauntered away and I went back to my group. I told the supervising teacher that we needed to be careful of lurking, lascivious men, and she said to me, “Oh, you must just seem nice to them. They would never done that to me.”

Undermining, much? I bit back about half a dozen curse words and went to tell the other chaperones to watch out for stalkers.

We spent the whole morning in the water, then took a break for lunch, and then went back to the waves. At one point, the supervising teacher disappeared and the girls were asking where she went. We sent another teacher to find her, leaving two teachers with the girls, including myself. Ok, fine.

Until a gang of about ten teenage boys showed up.

They walked over to our spot on the beach and started pawing through our stuff. The other teacher and I charged out of the waves and yelled at them to leave us alone. They wouldn’t budge. By then, the girls had begun to gather around. The boys didn’t speak any English and refused to listen to the girls, so I went to one and shoved him hard, thinking there was no other way to communicate to them that they weren’t welcome. They had no right to make the girls uncomfortable and should not be poking through our stuff.

Shouting ensued. Girls and teachers alike started screaming at the boys to get away. One of them grabbed a handful of sand and chucked it in my face, screaming a curse in Somali, while his friends gave us the middle finger.

And then, I did something I never thought I would do. I picked up a rock and threw it as hard as I could at the leader. That made them step back a bit. We charged forward and unleashed a hail of rocks on the boys, screaming and cursing at them. They responded with their own curses and stones, but turned tail and ran. The beach spot was ours.

Later, a guard from nearby Maansoor hotel came to us and asked if we were okay. He said he had seen everything, and then said “Don’t worry, I took care of them.” Whatever that means. Also at that point, Supervisor reappeared, acting like it was no big deal that we were harassed and almost robbed.

My thoughts: Is this normal: to have to engage in low-level violence in order to have a field trip? If throwing stones was going to be the response of the community, why did we even do this? Given the state of most educational institutions in this country, field trips are probably not normally done. So why did we have to do this, if we would be putting the girls in danger? I mean, how many teachers and field trip chaperones would be comfortable with having to physically defend the students’ right to a field trip? Why would we ever put our kids in that situation?

On the way home at the end of the day, one of the girls said to me, “That was the best! We just took a day to have fun and not think about work. I loved it! Thank you.”

Ah yes, that’s why.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Portrait of the Copy-Machine

Think about how important a copy-machine is. Now, think about how important a properly functioning, regularly working copy-machine is. Please enjoy this guest post by our dear friend, the copy-machine.

My Life, by: the Copy-Machine

My life is hard. I spent my days churning out copies of books, lesson plans, homework assignments, and the occasional handout, which makes me believe I’m working in some kind of school or something. Sometimes, I pity the poor suckers who have to do the work that I copy. They probably have even less free time than I do.

That isn’t the worst though. I came here around the end of September, and it has been downhill ever since. I’m not quite sure what it is I copy, but whatever it is, it must be pretty important because not a day goes by when some stressed-out teacher doesn’t swear at me at least once. I seem to recall copying some stuff on intransitive verbs, then some math problems, and then some epically long readings about accounting or something for some university class or whatever. Whatever it is, copying is usually accompanied by some kind of swearing or screaming fit. All this, of course, happens in the school office, where there are little people who come in and pester the big people, who then inevitably scream “Detention!”

The thing is, I get sick constantly. Because they expect me to work all the time, I am always tired and keep breaking down. When I break down, they open me up and poke around in my insides and make jokes of a sexual nature. If I’m really sick, they send me to town, where they fix me temporarily and send me right back to the salt mines. Then. I break down again, and the process repeats itself.

The other problem is the power. We get our electricity from diesel generators. Yes, generators, plural. In the morning, we run a small generator what doesn’t provide enough voltage for me, so I only work at night when they run the big generator (which provides enough power for lights, which have to stay on so the kids can’t sneak around at night). However, it doesn’t work perfectly and the voltage is sometimes irregular, which really messes me up. But everyone still expects me to work all the time.

If there were a prison for copy-machines, this is sure it. I really hope they fix the power soon, and send the students on vacation ASAP so I can catch a break!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bathroom Sign

This picture was taken at a seaside restaurant in the port city of Berbera, Somaliland. I've seen some odd bathroom signs, but this is definitely the best. Is the concept of "woman" here just a pair of eyes in a lump of laundry?

Not necessarily. Like most things, the question has a complicated answer. There are many women here who wear the niqab, the strip of cloth covering the face as well as the hair. Not everyone chooses to wear dress this way, though. As a parallel, think of the sign on most women's bathrooms in the US: a person wearing a skirt shaped like a triangle. We don't all wear triangle skirts.

Here's an odd nugget: It is absolutely non-negotiable that I cover up my hair, neck, and chest but it's okay to show my arms (for a full discussion on what I have to wear to work, see my earlier post on 'How to Dress for Success'). Why, exactly? I have no idea. When I was traveling in Syria and Egypt, it was definitely more important to cover up the arms than the hair.

It goes to show that the issue of covering hair in other countries is definitely more nuanced that it may seem.