Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rotary International

            It’s the end of Januaray, marking 2 months in Bissau, and life is starting to get that routine kind of feeling.  I walk around town now and run into people I know and I can navigate around Bissau more or less by my self, and my kreole has getting a lot better. 
            I started meeting a lot more people since I started taking and French and Portuguese classes.  I’m taking Portuguese because the 4 months I spent in Brasil only gave me a speaking foundation, my reading and writing is probably at the 3rd grade level.  I’m taking French because after 8 years ( 8th grade through sophomore year of college) all I have to show for it is a few phrases. Portuguese completely took over my French vocabulary.
            I started my first day of Portuguese class and I met a guy named Abdu.  In conversation he mentioned he was the secretary of the youth branch of the club Rotary International called Rotaract Bissau.
            I had heard about Rotary international from Amy White, the Director of Land Watch which is a non-profit in Monteray County. On top of running a non-profit she also works on projects with Rotary International including a water development project in Ecuador.  In a conversation with her she mention that its easier to do something if you have a name to back it up. Meaning to say, having a non-profit or organization to represent gives you more credibility then just representing yourself.
An event held in 2011on Education, Technology and Culture
            I had been thinking about ways to give back and I thought it’d be good to connect with folks my age who are serving their community. So I checked out this meeting. Because it was late at night I dragged my neighbor Hilah along with me. We learned that Rotaract Bissau was founded 2 years ago and is for youth ages 18-30 who want to get involved and run projects. The group is small, only 5 people who attend consistently. And the organization of the Club is very Bissau like (meaning that things get done whenever they get done). But the group has alot of passion and they have done several projects over the past couple years. You can check out their past projects and read more information about them on their blog Rotaract Club de Bissau.  I hope you can read Portuguese! (Even if you can't, take a looksy just for fun!) 
            After that 1st meeting Hilha and I have continued to attend meetings. And we joined at the right time! We got to give some input since they were planning the agenda for they year. The project for the year include addressing issues like trash, sex education, and cultural promotion activities, and engaging the youth of Bissau in community.
            This has been a really cool space because I have been able to meet new people, see what projects people are working on and put my Portuguese to the test. I have also been able to connect with other young folks in clubs like Global Shapers, who invited us to attend the Bissau Economic Forum in the beginning of February.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Are you a Nigga?"

            I walked next door to meet up with my neighbor so we could walk to MELS English school together. When I approached her she asked, “ Are you a nigga?”.  I was taken back by this question.  I wasn’t expecting to hear the word nigga come out of her mouth. In the US there are multiple definitions for that word and I wasn’t sure in what way she was using it, or what that word meant to her. In my head I thought, is she calling me black, is she calling me a man, did I miss hear her and she really said “ what’s up my nigga?”, as in “what’s up hommie? “
            I asked what she meant. She said, "You’re walking like a nigga.”  Still not sure what that meant, I asked what a “nigga” was.  She said, “you know, those black guys who wear baggy clothes, expensive jewelry and sing rap music.”
            I was amused that she related how I walked to the profile of someone I obviously don’t fit. She said I walked with a little lean in my body like rappers do.  This definitively made me laugh.
            But after that experience I kept coming across people who were talking about “niggas”. Even my 5 year old niece/cousin used it to describe my step dad when she saw him sleeping on the couch with his hat turned to the side.  I would always ask people how they defined the word. People used the word nigga to descried what I would directly translate to a rapper. The word rapper exists here too so I was confused why they didn’t use rapper instead of “nigga”.
            As these encounters continued to happen I began to ask if they knew the origin of the word. The answer so far has always been no. What’s interesting is once I explain the origin and start talking about its history in slavery there is a shift in the demeanor of the person. After a brief explanation I get a “ooooooh, I didn’t know that” as a response and the conversation usually ends there.  I wonder if everyone knew the origin if they would still use it.
            I’m really curious how did the word nigga, that is still very controversial in the United States, come to be used to describe American and other black rappers? ( I say other black rappers because I have seen the word used to describe rappers from Angola and other African countries, although most of them are emulating American rap culture.)
             What does this mean for the evolution or regression of the word nigga? Could this be the next level of reclaiming the word. That it now means a black man who has reached financial surplus thru making music. Or is it a regression in that even the rich black rapper is still called a nigga. And that’s even if you would call being a rapper successful. While it surely represents financial success, what image does it place and ideals does it create for those who want to emulate them? If you look at the culture surrounding rappers in the US you see dollar bills, half naked women, alcohol and fancy cars.
            Or does it mean anything at all? It could merely reflect the fact that rappers use the word repeatedly in their music and so that culture, that life style, and that image has become defined by that term. For the sake of not over analyzing, I’ll leave you with the fact that it has surly given an interesting taste at how American rap culture is received here in Bissau. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Wealth, Cars, and Roads

            What does it mean when your ranked the 5th poorest countries in the world? This is based on Guinea Bissau’s gross domestic production. Guinea Bissau is actually one of the largest cashew exporters in the world.  But that might be it. In terms of imports literally everything comes from outside of Bissau because there are no national industries.
            On a global stage that is where Bissau stands. Off of paper and on the ground I have seen some of the worst and best in terms of cars and neighborhoods, houses and living conditions. One thing is for certain., Guinea Bissau may be one of the last on the list according to GDP, and the lack of development and levels of poverty are extreme, but Guinea Bissau also has a lot of wealth, concentrated wealth. 
            The country of Bissau is small, and anyone who is doing anything (working in nonprofits/business/banking/government) lives in the capital city of Bissau.  Therefore, if you are some one who is “doing something” you most likely work with or just know other folks who are “doing something”.  From what I’ve seen this is to some extent how Guinea Bissau has its class division.
Here is an example the condition of the roads in residential areas
            Here is an example: My uncle Bacar is an English teacher in Bissau and has been taking me around Bissau to meet the Balde clan. He lives with his wife and 4 kids in Barrio Misra (Barrio meaning neighborhood).  He has a very modest living and was explaining to me that his nephew, my cousin, Alfa,  is helping him build his new house which is much bigger and nicer then his home now.
            My uncle Bacar took me to meet my cousin. Alfa is one of many folks from Bissau who went to study in Portugal (The usual places to study are Cuba, Portugal, Senegal, Brazil, or Russia because Bissau for the longest time didn’t have a university).  There he met his Italian wife Martina and they live here in Bissau with their two children. Alfa works for the Central Bank of the West African States and while I was there with him he invited me to his house the following day for his birthday.
            At his party I felt like I had left Bissau and gone to Portugal. Everyone in attendance were friends of his from college in Portugal and had a story similar to his. They left Bissau for Portugal to go to college where many of them stayed and are just now returning to settle down back in Bissau. Most of these folks are 40+ and are currently holding jobs in Bissau as bankers, working at the UN office, Working for ..  Others were just in town for the holidays like one woman who lives in London. One man in particular who still lives in Portugal is in limbo between going to get his PhD in New York and waiting to hear if he got accepted to work at the World Bank.
One of the ocean view 3 story houses
            I am not even including all the people who are benefiting off of the drug trade. There is a neighborhood in Bissau where all the drug rich people have constructed their houses. These are 3 story hybrid African/European style houses with an ocean view.
            Here in Bissau the biggest indication of your wealth is your car. I have seen some of the nicest, sleekest European cars here.  My uncle who took me to Formosa is rolling in a Land Rover imported from Germany. I’ve seen Voltz-wagon beetles, Hummers, BMW’s, Mercedes. There are even some cars imported from England that have the drivers side on the right.  It’s definitely a funny sight since most drivers are on the left side here.
            All of these fancy cars are imported from abroad. To import a car you are dropping at least 5,000 US dollars in shipping, not to mention the extra “tax” or bribe you have to pay at the port of Bissau to get your car out.  That is easily 2,000 US dollars. And of course you are paying for the price of the car on top of all of that.
Nice car, bumpy road.
            But as I have mentioned, infrastructural development is far behind in Bissau. While the main roads are paved, once you turn off of them you are in for a bumpy ride, literally. It’s almost like a baby meteor shower hit all the streets except the main ones.
             To bring it full circle, there are lots of people with lots of money in Bissau. Check. There are government “taxes”, which I quote because they exist but no one pays them. Thus there is no money for the government to improve infrastructure like the roads. These folks with lots of money can afford to buy and import a car from Europe, but have to drive them 5 miles per hour around town in order to avoid damaging them.  I’m not saying the rich are responsible for paying to fix the roads for their fancy cars, but I’m curious whose responsibility they think it is. They know they are at the top of the totem pole, so the folks making less then them surely don’t have the financial means to take on that project. And everyone knows the government is a little pre-occupied at the moment.
              Imagine if all the well to-do folks got together and said, "Hey, lets pool some money together and instead of going to France for Christmas, lets dedicate this money to some local development (infrastructural (schools or roads)/economic (micro-loans)/environmental (trash)) project!” I don’t think this is a solution to the problem, because much of the problem is systemic and structural. But for the time being it would for sure be a catalyst to some development while the government sorts its self out.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

MELS English School

           A friend of mine who works at the  United Nations office here in Bissau told me that despite creole being the local language, Portuguese being the working language, and French being the West African business/finance language, everything that’s important that happens at her job happens in English. At the local level, the perspective I’ve gotten about English, as described to me by an English student, is that anyone who speaks English has no problems in the world.  English is kind of a big deal here, and the desire to learn it is even bigger.
One of the classrooms at MELS school
            Waldir is a good friend of mine and he is an English teacher at MELS English and French school.  He and some colleagues got together and started this school several years ago. They began renting a room in an abandoned house turned school building. After some time their school became so popular that they began renting the entire building. At one point they were teaching 300+ students!
            Unfortunately, they are leasing from someone who wants to leach off of their success. Every time he notices that they are expanding, he ups the rent. At one point they were paying 60,000 fc a month, per room. That is 120 US dollars per month per room! That might not sound like a lot, but for local currency its a big chunk of change. Despite the situation, they are dedicated to teaching English, not just as a way to communicate but also as a tool to empower those who are learning it.
Going over telling time with first English class
            Yesterday Waldir called and invited me to go check out the school. The school has four rooms filled with desks and a chalkboard. That’s all.  I asked what they were planning to do with the space, if anything. They would like to expand, get windows and doors, and new chalkboards.  Unfortunately, given their situation with the landlord all the extra money goes to paying rent. They are currently looking for new spaces to hold their school.
            I had a strong feeling I should mentally prepare something in the event I should get sucked into teaching. I should have followed my gut, because as soon as I walked through the door Waldir handed the class over to me.  The first class was easy. They are still learning vocabulary, so I got away with going over body parts and having them test each other while engaging in dialogue.
            The second class was not so easy. They could speak pretty well and had really high expectations of what I was going to teach them. It made me realize that even though English is my native language I couldn’t off hand teach all the grammatical elements of the language.  No wonder people who go abroad to teach English have to take a class on how to teach English before they go.
            I asked the class if there was anything in particular they wanted to practice or learn. They responded with their frustrations that I should already know because I speak English. Their eagerness to learn was both inspiring and intimidating.  I went off of my own experiences in learning a new language and the fact that sometimes all you need is a chance to talk and struggle wit the language. Since I didn’t know them, I had them present themselves to the class while answering a couple specific questions. They all went up and we helped correct their English as we went.  
            Fortunately it was a success and pretty funny to hear their similarities( like going to the club) and differences ( like reason’s for studying English).
            Since then, I have been going once/twice a week to teach the afternoon classes. Teaching is no joke! Every experience I have had teaching or facilitating is always a reminder of how much work it is! But is also such a rewarding experience, especially if those in the class are eager to learn.   

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lessons in Health and Aging

            My step dad has a Lincoln navigator that he sent here 5 years ago. It hasn’t run since it left the US (so you know it’s not going anywhere fast). In addition to the fact that it hasn’t run in years, there was a storm 2 years back that cracked the entire back window.  The shipping container we are waiting for has parts to fix it up, but that wont be here until the end of January. In the mean time, my step-dad has been on a mission to get it as cleaned up and road ready as possible.
            Enter Luis the mechanic. Luis and Serita are family friends and I stayed with Serita at her house while my stepdad and Luis went to work on the car. We sat and chatted about Cape Verde, her home county, and Guinea Bissau. Since the war for independences, they are treated as synonymous despite Cape Verde being an Island 350 miles away. I also learned random facts about Bissau, like how Chinese products coming directly from China to Bissau are of poorer quality then Chinese products that are sent to US first and then sold here. Anyways, after several hours of chatting, finally Ramos, my step-dad, and her husband arrived.  Much to my surprise they never got to look at the car. As soon as they left they got a call that Avo Alice was really sick, so they rushed to our house to see her.
            Growing up I didn’t live with my grand-parents, or anyone significantly older.  This is really the first time I’m really experiencing living with an elder. Avo Alice just turned 86 in late December and for being 86 she moves and has the energy of someone 40 years younger. She has been such a blessing because I have learned so much from her and what it means to age.  The combination of her wisdom, senility, and quick, witty tongue is constant entertainment. She has stories and advise that last for hours after meals. I think about how one day I’m going to be like that, and it puts my youth in much needed perspective. You can never start too soon to take care of your body, inevitably we all age and the care we took when we were younger will surely show once we are older.
            Back at Luis’s house, we ate a Cape Verdian dish called Cachupa (its kind of like jumbo, everything is in it and it tastes amazing!) and then finally went home to see Avo Alice.  On the way home Serita says, “ Make sure you eat well here. If you get really, really sick, that’s it.”
            Health care in the United States, despite the politics and corruption, looks like universal free health care here simply because it exists. Here in Bissau there is a free national hospital but, from what I hear, you leave worse then when you entered. There isn’t enough equipment to serve the growing population and the sterilization of medical tools is not always guaranteed. The hospitals are dirty, I’m told, because the government doesn’t pay well, so janitors and other employees do just enough to reflect their pay. (This also gets into the issue of government corruption and the fact that they seldom pay government employees.) There also aren’t enough (good) doctors. This is because most have left and created private clinics where they can charge much more for their services.  This, in turn, marginalizes those who cannot afford to visit their clinics. So not only is the the majority of the country without access to health care, but the access they do have is to below standard quality. 
            There are foreign clinics, but like private Guinean clinics, they are really expensive. If you have money, you skip Guinea Bissau all together and go to Portugual or Senegal.   
            After a good nights rest, Avo  Alice has been showing lots of improvement in her health. She had everyone in for a scare, but she’s already back on her feet and scurrying around the house.