Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Longish (and Slightly Scatological) Cathartic Rant

The last few weeks have been rough.  I have twice been totally blocked regarding projects I hoped to launch during that time frame.  The first concerned a Women's Center the last volunteer found funding for, but was unable to bring to completion. My attempts to continue her work have been continually stymied due to dirty village politics and the dishonesty of a nepotistic minor government employee, who is attempting to use the project to leverage his own petty power trip.  He is corrupt, he lies to my face, he tries to turn villagers against each other-- and the worst part is, there is no way for me to hold him accountable. Go to the chief? His older brother. Go to the mayor? His uncle. The feudal politics of Mandama mean, much like irreponsible nobles in the 14th century, bureaucrats and grands like this man can follow their own code of conduct, at the expense of the peasant class-- in this case, the uneducated women of Mandama.

The second project was a compost project. Again, it had been initiated by the last volunteer, so it should not have been difficult for the agricultural collective involved to replicate. Remember what you did last time around? Do it again. Rinse and repeat.

But here I ran into a problem I am continually butting heads with: the extraordinary lack of initiative of a group of men weaned on a system of religion, foreign aid, and ineffective government development initiatives to expect everything to come from outside or above. The men initially sought me out, saying this had worked well last year and they wanted to do it again-- so the will, it would seem, was there. The pit had already been dug.  The men knew when they should have begun filling it: during the first week of my absence for my In-Service Training.  They knew what they needed to collect: millet stalks, cow poop, and a little sprinkling of ash.  They had sheets outlining in excruciating detail and with large splashy pictures exactly how to layer these items, and how much and how often to water the compost pit.

On my return from IST, none of this had been done. The group gave vague and unsatisfactory answers as to why, but to me it was clear: I was not there to hold their hands along the way.  I tried to re-initiate it (albeit a month late for the planting in June), but again, the men's dilatory attitude crippled the project. There was no water, they said. The well handle was broken.  I asked if they could all chip in money to fix it, a recourse often used in village; they could, but refused to. It was the job of the mayor's office to send a mechanic.  These men have a lifetime's worth of experience to tell them that government money almost never gets where it is needed or asked for, but they would rather risk the certainty of failure then try to work towards success.

Much like the women who come to the health center who know what a safe pregnancy requires, but who refuse to invest even the smallest amount of money to ensure a healthy birth, these men were paralyzed by Disincentivizing Development Disorder.  If it's the will of God-- or if the government will send the money-- or if the Red Cross or UNICEF or Peace Corps will recognize our plight and come do it for us-- but if not, naught but shrugs, folding of hands, and the rhetorical question, "On va faire comment?" "What can we do?"

Following on the heels of these dramatic episodes (and with the Daba, there is always drama; for a people who live without television, it is remarkable how much everyday life resembles a daytime soap), I came down with a sudden and violent case of bacterial dysentery.  It kept me laid up for a few days on my stick bed, hourly sprints to the latrine notwithstanding.  To make it worse, there were bats in my latrine (not actually threatening, but not encouraging when your pants are around your ankles and liquid's gurgling out of your... well, you get the picture), and the ambient temperature inside my concrete solar oven of a house was at least 104.  The second and worst night I awoke from a fever dream in which Hilary Clinton was telling me I had nothing to fear but fear itself (in a Winston Churchill 1940's radio voice), rolled over, vomited into an already partially filled bucket, and vowed that as soon as I could get to a computer without pooping my pants, I was buying a plane ticket to America and going home.

Luckily, things really were better in the morning.  My cooler self prevailed once day finally-- mercifully-- broke, and I got myself cleaned up. I moodily sucked down an oral rehydration solution (Gatorade's far less tasty, all-business-and-no-fun older brother) and took a serious look at my situation.

The fact of the matter is, I've hit a rut.  It wasn't just these projects; it wasn't just the dysentery (although that was pretty bad; I'm not ashamed that I actually wept at the thought of an air-conditioned room in my parent's house, with a fan on and a washing machine to clean soiled sheets and clothing and my nurse mother in attendance. Call me a baby. I'll take it.).

This had been in the works since I returned from my prolonged absence from post.  I'm integrated into Mandama well enough to identify the things about the cultrue that I will never be able to change (misogyny, corruption, greed, casual violence towards or neglect of children; all that nonsense about "they-have-so-little-but-they're-so-happy" is utter poppycock).  I find these things morally repugnant, and yet I have to accept them and work with them.  I know people well enough to know their flaws, some of them quite serious, and have no recourse.  There is no accountability, legal or cultural, for the behaviors that repel me the most.  An 8-month-pregnant woman comes into the health center with a fat lip and one eye swollen shut because her husband beats her? Well, so does the chief of the health center, if he's in a bad mood.

And so I began making less and less of an effort to integrate (what was the point? I don't want to be like them) and started distancing myself from village (when was the last time, before the dysentery, that I ate dinner with my neighbors, instead of preparing food I like and want to eat that doesn't have the consistency of warm snot?).

Taking a critical look at myself, I rememebered a conversation I had before leaving for my service.  I got coffee with my old headmaster and former Peace Corps Volunteer and admin, Dan Frank.  He had warned-- as, indeed, Peace Corps training materials had warned-- of this almost inevitable emotional and ideological low point. I dug out the graph (really, it can be plotted) and referenced the point at the base of the parabola, which aligned with the 6-month mark at post.  I could have been reading a psychiatrist's notes about me: [and here I quote] "characterized by irritation and hostility to the host culture; insignificant difficulties become major problems; exhibits withdrawal" -- on and on it went, with me guiltily checking each listed item.  I remembered, too, something Mr. Frank had advised: "You'll get to a point where you think you're at the end of your rope. You're not. It's a really long rope, and you can just keep going down as long as you want. It's up to you to choose to stop your descent and start the climb back up."

I'm not going to claim I'm magically cured of my blues, because that would be disingenuous.  But I'm not leaking explosively out the back end anymore; I'm letting go of the compost project; I'm putting myself out in the community more, even aimlessly, and have found a few promising contacts that way.  I did a successful tree-planting project with a local elementary school.  I started giving health talks to a women's group, and have already cleared up several misconceptions (eating green mangoes leads to premature birth, HIV comes from very small worms in the stomach, homosexuality is a contagious disease).

Call it physical training for the climb ahead.