I began this blog post wanting to write something about a recent article I read on bad ideas in international aid. A few paragraphs in, however, I looked around my glass house and decided to put the whole thing aside. For now. Someday I'm sure I'll rant about reading another hero story.
Instead, I want to tell you about my afternoon. For the last few days, I've been passing by a little lean-to coming and going from my lodge, casually nodding to the owner and looking at the woven baskets he has hanging. This afternoon, my last day in town, I decided to go over and buy a basket that I really don't need.
|He also sells cigarettes, shake shake, and candy. Naturally.|
I have a thing for woven baskets, it's turning into a collection. I promised myself to only get the smallest one but then there I was, haggling over a large grocery basket. After settling on the price, I asked if I could take his picture - he immediately stood up straight and gave me a huge grin, ready for his photo. After explaining that I had to go get my camera first, I quickly stopped by the lodge as he started in on the finishing touches.
Coming back, I took pictures as he wove the straps on. We chatted a bit - his name is Moses, he comes from the northern part of Zambia but ended up down here for work. He learned how to weave in school. Writing this, I realize that I was never meant to be a journalist. Too quiet, never enough questions. Moses asked me if his baskets could sell in America, if I could help make it happen. I came up with polite but non-committal responses and took some more photos.
After a bit, his friend came over to say hello. The sweet, earthy, definitely not tobacco smell of his cigarette wafted over. "Whatcha smoking there?" I asked, smirking. He grinned. "Want some?" I turned him down but he apparently decided I was cool enough, promising me a bracelet by tomorrow. That's about when Moses handed over my basket, and I paid him a little more than we'd settled on (he was just so nice). As I walked away, a man passing me in the street told me I had a nice basket. Maybe he was trying to get a rise out of the mzungu, but I responded with an enthusiastic 'thanks!' There isn't a point to this story, no lesson learned. Just a nice hour spent with a basket weaver.
I've perfected the bored pout, the distainful once-over claimed by women the world over. They're put to use at the bus station, waiting in lines, and walking through market. I check my outfit before going out in public in Kalomo, preparing for the stares and rude comments. I've taken notes, done my research. Jeans and a t-shirt, I'm greeted with "heyyyyyy mamahhh!" and men who step directly in my path, hips first. Slacks confuse the gamet of loitering men, and my ears are filled wtih a mix of 'mama!,' 'honey!', 'oh miss?' and 'excuse me.' Skirt and dress days (conservative, mind you) are the best. The looks could be categorized as glances, and it's all 'How are you miss?" and "Hello, madam." It's almost enough to make a girl throw out her jeans. But not quite.
I wonder at how normal this has become, that I can discreetly observe all of the men I'll walk by and, without stopping to calculate, know which will be trouble, which are harmless, and who I'll respond to. This all may have become blatantly obvious while living in Africa, but it's taken more than just 3 years to hone these skills. Waiting in line at the bank or the grocery store, I'm no longer surprised by the many men who smile and try to strike up conversation; the audacity of 16 year olds doing the same still leaves me slack-jawed. Days that I've put myself together, I can convince myself that it's something about me. But getting the same smiles and nods when I'm at my worst, I know it's not me, just my foreigner status.
I don’t think I’ve told you yet, but I reuse my tinfoil. If it can still be classified as clean, I’ll fold up a sheet of tinfoil to use later; this type of thing has become routine for me. But when I was home over Christmas, I started washing out a plastic container from some sort of dip. The container was flimsy, lacking a lid. After a minute, Travis was like, “…Elyse? What are you doing?” Followed by my mom and sister chipping in with, “Oh honey, throw that away.”
It was embarrassing. I was reminded of it yesterday (a few weeks ago, now that I’m actually posting this) when a stack of plastic containers (with lids) collected from grocery store lunches over the week were thrown out by the woman cleaning my room. I was pissed. I debated running after her, demanding my containers back, but I resisted (something I’m regretting now). Being in Peace Corps changes you in monumental ways. You become more confident, more patient, more je-ne-sais-quoi. You will also most likely become a hoarder.
While in Mali, I came home from the city one day wearing a new pair of flip flops. Upon showing them to Djelika, she asked what I did with my old ones. My response was a simplified version of “Oh, those year old falling apart Old Navy flipflops? I gave them to the woman who sold me these! They were broken. Useless.” Wagging her finger at me, she admonished me, “next time, you bring those to me.” Peace Corps and Africa have taught me that almost everything can be used again, that throwing something out is often a waste. My trash in Mali consisted almost solely of thin plastic wrappers and broken bags – everything else was saved to become something else. I then burned my trash, because if I gave it to my family to get rid of, they’d pick through it. A week later I’d see a child licking frantically at an old gummy bears wrapper.
But I digress.
I’ve decided to embrace the hoarder in me. It may mean that I end up collecting useless old olive oil bottles (it’s a nice glass bottle, it has to be useful somehow. I’m not about to throw away something that sturdy), but it also means that I’m buying less and creating less waste. In America, it’s easy to forget about your waste – how much of it there is, and that all of that trash has to eventually go somewhere. Like so many, many things in the land of plenty, out of sight, out of mind. Here, my garbage is collected in a corner of the compound yard to be burned. I may not need the old yogurt and peanut butter containers, but I feel better filling them with leftovers than tossing them in the burn pile.
I want to note that this, like the rest of my blog, is not intended to come from any sort of soapbox, it's just something that I've been thinking about recently. And that container I was washing back in the states? It really needed to be thrown out. You've gotta draw the line somewhere.
Peace & Love