The Authorities (Saturday, 3 July 2010)

July 6, 2010

I met Jean-Claude at a carrefour (intersection), and the first thing he did was invite me to sit and have a soda while he got me some bread to eat, and then another bread after I told him I was milk-allergic. Then we sat in a bar and he talked in the local language with the lady who was running it. (We were the only three there.) That basically sums up J-C this visit — honestly, sometimes stunningly hospitable and gracious, even generous, but with a startling proclivity to lose track of other people, drop into "patois", etc. The local language doesn’t even have a name, although J-C has tried to explain to me a little bit and I think it’s a member of the Bamtu language family? Haven’t had access to the net so I’m a little lost. Anyhow, I kind of wish I’d gotten the community host with the purple hair, she seemed pretty cool. Well, anyhow.

We parted with what was left of the bread and began visiting what authorities we could find. There’s a certain amount of "doing protocol" which means telling local authorities that you exist, and then, with all the grace and dignity you can muster, listening to them tell you that you are very welcome, how nice it is you are here, make yourself at home and if there are ever any problems, etc. Well, in theory. I still haven’t actually met the chief of the local Gendarmerie, who was absent, and in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the commander of something like that didn’t spare me six words. Most of the authorities that day were in fact absent; we left notes with seconds-in-command, decided to come back later, etc. The principal of the school (proviseur) is still absent, and will be until Monday, the morning of which I hope to speak to him/talk him into some good ideas, etc.

So instead we bounced around on motos, J-C on one moto and me with my helmet and my backpack full of crap (including my laptop! But also two water bottles, because Americans need "special water") and clinging onto the things I had been unable to pack, including the bread. The bread got a little beat up. But we (I) ate it the next morning so who’s counting.

Getting to J-C’s residence, we met an old lady who was trying to climb up the slope to the road. She seemed like a fairly sweet old lady, and I tried to greet her, but she didn’t speak any French. J-C informed me in English that she was sick. I guess I took that to mean "aged, with dementia". He fairly firmly escorted her down the ramp back to the house. I was a little alarmed, maybe even disgusted — is this how they treat their infirm here? Just leave ’em lying around and have random neighbors cart them off in anger? Hey, is this that culture shock I keep hearing about? — but then it became clear that this was J-Cs aged mother. That made me feel better. But now I don’t know if she really is his actual mother or not, because "African family" basically includes everyone; she may actually just be some old lady that his family happens to care for. But at least she’s a member of the family, so I guess it’s fine.

Besides "doing protocol", one thing I’m supposed to be doing is visiting the house where I will be living, and optimally crashing there. That was the main draw for me; I wanted to be out of the house and someplace I could kind of be alone for a while. So imagine my surprise when we got to "my" house and there was a family already living in it. In the US, it would be outrageous, astonishing, or at least ludicrous. Here it’s not even that uncommon — other Organization volunteers have also found similar situations with their houses. I’ve heard that even after service starts, some volunteers have to live with other volunteers because their houses aren’t "done".

So in the mean time I’m staying with J-C. Right now I’m in a spare bedroom, which is technically the children’s bedroom but they’re being displaced while I’m here. It’s not unpleasant, but I’m still a celebrity to this family, and their kids are a lot less self-possessed than the older-adolescents/young adults at the Alemi household so I have to be on display a bit more. We keep going back to the house and seeing that it is still not done in one form or another. Today the family is gone, but so are all the furnishings. I have with me a sleep sack, which is nice, but not really enough to "camp out" with. (It might be enough back in training, which is in a town that is always hot, but here it gets a bit colder.) There are still a few things that need to be done for me to feel optimally "safe" (read: personal space), and each time we find they aren’t done, J-C flips out at whoever is handy in a blend of the local language and French. This is the one time that it is awesome that he loves to talk in patois — he can really chew someone out. And I’m really grateful he does this; I really feel like he’s going to bat for me. But after the first few minutes it gets boring for me, since it’s already obvious I’m not going to be staying the night there. Last night I spent some time looking and feeling bored (but in pitch black, since the power was out) before deciding that perhaps it would support J-C a little better if I looked incensed, and then after that I tried disappointed. But I still felt bored, possibly because it was still pitch black.

J-C himself is still kind of a tool. Sometimes he’s liveable, but other times he can be overbearing or a little flaky. Example: last night, walking back from "my" house to his, we walked a dirt trail down a hill. J-C was carrying a flashlight; I had one in my backpack, and said maybe I should stop to get it out, but he said "No, if you can see, it’s fine." So off we went. He was in the lead, and when he turned on the flashlight (not always), he tended to hold it in front of him, occasionally flashing it behind him too so I could see a little bit of where I was going. So we’re walking along a trail that I’ve been on only one time (by my request because at least it isn’t frequented by motor traffic like the other road) and I’m trying to follow J-C who’s kind of clomping along, stepping over mud and minor ridges, swinging the flashlight to and fro, which gives me basically no idea where I’m walking. I could probably write another 500 words about walking back last night. It was a little trying because I was fairly certain I was about to tumble into a ravine. I tried stepping where I thought he had stepped, I tried using my tiny little solar flashlight which was mostly discharged but was at least handy, I tried shielding my eyes from the flashlight so I could try to retain a bit of night vision — but to no avail. And then as we were walking, we wandered into a fog bank, and I begin to worry that he is going to vanish into the mist. It gets foggy here. J-C: "It’s hard to see where we are walking." Thanks, asshole. But somehow I guess we made it here OK.

It’s hard to tell if J-C maybe just hasn’t decided whether I’m his student, child, or friend, or if there’s something else going on like maybe he’s bipolar. I guess it’s hard for me to pick one of those places because I’m in a limbo between wanting to go crash at a nearby volunteer’s house, wanting not to offend J-C’s sense of hospitality, wanting to stay at his relatively furnished place without actually having to interact with anyone, wanting to go "home" but wanting also to stay to talk to the administration at the Lycee..

J-C’s family tends to be pretty shout-y, which isn’t my preference. It’s a little unnerving between J-C and his wife, and when he chews out his kids (not his by birth; but culturally they are living with him, so they are "his", and he is not supposed to discriminate against them), I kind of don’t like it, even when he’s doing it nominally for my benefit. ("Leave him alone! He’s in his room! Let him rest!") The kids definitely get a "we’re about to be in trouble" quietness when he raises his voice, which IMHO supports the bipolar disorder hypothesis.

OK, battery is too low to spend time sitting here thinking about what else I’m going to write. I better sack out, and this time put the computer away before I sleep so that one of the kids doesn’t see it lying out like they did today. Tomorrow: more about the town itself.

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