Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Marrying Cousins.... AGAIN! smh

           What the heck is the rush to get married?! I know part of it is a cultural thing. Many young women my age here are already married and/or have children. But honestly the last thing on my mind at this point in my life is marriage, and somehow it keeps coming up! Yeah, you guessed it. I got another marriage proposal.
            The first time was really just amusing to me. I was prepared for the conversation, had the script all laid out in my head, I was cool and calm in my demeanor and confident in what the outcome would be. This time was not so smooth, in fact I would go so far as to call it awkwardly intense! I was completely caught off guard ( less by the content and more by the situation which ensued)
            This proposal was made by my cousin Mamudu (Du for short) who is my age.  His grandma is my grandma’s sister. At least I’m pretty sure that’s how we are related. Either way it's too close for comfort! 
            We had been in and out of contact for the past 4 months. I met him in February. He’d call to say hi and occasionally I'd catch a toca-toca (local public transport) to visit him and his two older sisters. But randomly he invited me to a local restaurant and, not thinking anything of it, I accepted the invitation.
            At first everything seemed normal. He was a little bit bossier then usual, but there was nothing drastically unusual. We chatted for maybe an hour or so about family members, family drama, our dedication ( or lack there of) to Islam, and the situation in Bissau.
           But small cues throughout the conversation were leading me to believe he was going to bring up marriage. I should have listened to my gut feeling and left before he had the opportunity to say too much. One hint  was when he when he was talking about how his older sister’s husband, who is in Portugal, will bring 5 people with there with him. He is going to take his wife, and the child they just had together, his other son from a previous marriage, my other cousins son, Cherno, and the last spot was for Du. Then he looked at me and said,”But how will I get to America?” I told him once he is in Portugal and has European citizenship its a lot easier to get into the states.
            At another point in the conversation he explained to be that him and his girlfriend of 6 years had broken up. Then he was offering to take me on the back of his motorcycle to Gabu so we could try drugs at his friends house. I was confused by his offer and even more confused by the was he was offereing it. As if it was some romantic getaway!
            I let the comments slide. I wasn’t going to confront what he was getting at out of fear he would spark a marriage conversation. And I didn’t want to try to leave because by then I could tell he was on a mission and that he would bring it up before I tried to leave. But ultimately I think I was in denial at what I was hearing, so we sat and chatted until finally he dropped the bomb.
            Now having been in this situation before, I decided that my first approach would be to shame him. I explained I was sad because I realized he was just like the rest of the family hoping to get something from me, in this case a ride into the US. I was really hoping we could have a connection that simple, and simply familial.  I told him marrying cousinsAnd I really did, and do feel this way, but I was hoping this would be a diplomatic enough way to end the conversation


            Let me explain something.  When you ask a favor or ask something of someone here, it is very rarely refused. Again, it's a cultural thing. This country is full of people asking each other for things. Its simply because one day you will have and your neighbor will have not, and the next day it could be the other way around. So when a favor is asked, your almost always obligated to do it.
            Being a young Guinean man, his logic was obviously very Guinean. He said that asked of me my hand in marriage and so I had to accept. I really wasn’t expecting this as an argument. But  he really felt like that was a legitimate reason.  I really wasn't expecting him to have this way of thinking! I guess was fooled by his youth that he would be more open minded. Despite his youth and access to ‘new’ ideas and ways he is still Fula and Muslim and raised in those cultural contexts in Guinea Bissau. Thus the argument began.
            I was surprised with how quickly the conversation took a turn and even more surprised by  how he was handling the conversation.  He was not accepting the fact that I didn’t have to marry him well. He kept repeating things like, "You are Guinean and you need to learn and adopt your culture.” or "I understand that marriage has to be mutual, but im asking you to marry me so you have to marry me " and "Whenever a man asks a woman to marry her she has to accept it so you need to just accept it." 
           Then he switched his approach and kept repeating how it’s a beautiful thing to marry your cousin. That It's better to keep it in the family then to marry a stranger. He even tried to drop the L-word.
           It's difficult to describe how strange it was to hear my cousin tell me that he knew I the one from the first time he saw me.  I knew this wasn't true because he barely knows me! Now in other conversations with foreigners we’ve all shared experiences where “Guineans say they are in love with us after knowing us for a very short period if time.” This has led many foreigners to believe that many Guineans don't know what love is, and experience lust or passion and think it is love.  I'm not sure how much I believe this, but in my experience, Guineans are quick to drop the L word. Period. Especially if they want something from you. ( This is a generalization, because of course this is not true for all Guinean men and women. However, this what i have been noticing/experiencing)
            My first approach failed me, so I needed another. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I needed to be clear with him from the beginning there was no way I was going to marry him, which was turning out to be harder then I thought. As the argument intensified I was tempted to leave it at, “ I hear what you are asking, just let me think about it. “ But I knew very well what that saying that would think there was some hope and I didn’t want him thinking there was any chance.
          Through out all of this I learned something about my self. I have very little tolerance for  uncomfortable or circling conversations. I will stay with the conversation up until a point where I feel like its going nowhere or its so uncomfortable I cant 
          So after a solid 30 minutes of arguing back and forth trying to explaining I'm not obligated to marry him  I decided I’d had enough. Getting to a point of mutual understanding or some sort of “ let's a agree to disagree" seemed futile, and beyond my patience.
           I got up and said I was done with this conversation. I even said I would pay for our drinks.  He saw me getting up and tears began to fill his eyes. He asked me to stay so we could finish talking. He followed me to the register said he would pay then asked me to wait for him again so we could talk outside. He was struggling to hold back tears. This hole conversation was just frustrating me but I was not expecting him to be so emotionally involved. It made me wonder how though he had put into this idea. I think he was really ready to commit to a marriage and thought this will all play out like he had it planned in his head.
           I let him pay and took this opertunity to get ghost! Excuse my slang, I mean I took this opertunity to get out of sight! My neighbors younger sister lives across the street from Benfica. I put a little pip in my step and ran to her house. I knew if he saw me outside trying to catch a taxi it would be another 30mins of talking outside and I wasn’t up for that. Fortunately she was still up and I waited about half an hour chatting with her before I walked home.
          Du has the type of personality where if he wants something, he is going to get it. I think its very indicative of the fact that he is the youngest of 5 children and he is the only boy. I'm pretty sure he is used to always getting his way.
           I should have known better. Because suddenely everything made sence. He is one of my cousins who called me the most and I appreciated him reaching out because I thought, or hoped rather, that he was a family member that just wanted to get to know me and doesn’t brush me off or expect something from me ( money or a trip to America). Many of family members are like that. 
        One of my uncles explicitly told me that since I am working I need help support them financially. Unfortantaly (for him) his approach was so demanding that even though my intention was to help before he asked, I now have very little interest in doing anything for him. It's sad. Family doesn’t mean family, family means I have a right to what you have, so pay up!  And on the other hand I have my family members who are doing really well and are very well off, and they brush me off. They either never call or call and say lets meet up but it falls through.  One cousin in particular has flaked on me 4 times! 
        Since then Du has tried to call and txt me.  I haven’t responded to anything. After a conversation like that theres no going back to where we were in terms of a friendship. At least I cant go back, because I already know his intentions and Im scared out of my mind that he might do some crazy voodoo “stay in Bissau and marry me” trick. Haha! 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Let there be LIGHT!

              I’ve spent the last month and a half living in my stepdads house with out electricity or water.  I don’t recall if I explained how this transition happened, but essentially after 5 months of sleeping with Avo Alice I had to draw the line. Not that sharing a bed with her was something completely unacceptable, because I had no problems sharing a bed with her. It was more the extras that came along with sleeping next to an older womn that made it a more trying experience.
             There’s one particular incident where she was taking natural medication to help her regulate her bowl movements. ( She mentioned going an entire month without having one!) She already gets up in the middle of the night to pee in a bucket on the side of the bed. But tag that laxative on to her midnight pee sessions and it ended up being a big mess in the middle of the night.  I wont go into to much detail just because I don’t want to relive it. But it was ugly, and I had to
            My step dad's house has no water, electricity, furniture, appliances, nothing. It’s an empty house. I bought a bed, moved in all I things and called it home. 
            Its by far the best decision I’ve made. I was waitning for my step dad to move, since its his house, but my circumstances were a little more extreme then his and thus created more urgency. He said he was right behind me and would move in soon. All I would do is sleep there and then go back to alices house to shower or eat or hang out.
             As I began working, I began spending less and less time at Avo Alice’s house.  She made it pretty clear that if I want to eat there I have to jump through some hoops. Not that I wasn’t ok with the hoop jumping, it was just that I didn’t have time to do it, which might have been received as me not wanting to do it.  But she is a complex women and is very good at getting what she wants. (Im being vauge here but essentially she wanted me to pay more money for food on top of the money may dad was already paying her. She was using the money we gave her to feed the 6 other people who live there even though we were only eating 1 meal a day). So I bought a little gas burner and began cooking little meals for my self at my house.  
            The only catch is that is are no lights, so cooking with a laturn on my little gas burner began a classic way for me to spend my evenings. Its like camping indoors!  But I guess I made it sound really enticing because several of my friends wanted to come have dinner at my place anyways!  Haha
            With my first paycheck there were a hundred and one things I needed to pay for, but high on the priority list was getting electricity in my house.  I had the electricians come and they said it would be 400 dollars to pay for the cables that would connect my house to the power line that has the most consistant lights. ( Check out my blog entry on Lights to explain why you can be paying for electricity but not always have electricity)
            The price tag was huge! And that didn’t even include labor. I was daunted by the price, so even though I had the money I told them I and would call them when I was ready. 
            I went another 2 weeks without lights. I was already used to it and was just being cheap. But then I woke up one day and thought to my self, why am I living without lights when I could have lights?!
            So today I bit the bullet (as in dished out the cash) to pay for the local utilities company to come and set up the lights at my house.  Its’ rough because
you never know if your getting cheated, which happens a lot!  We did the math together and the price ended up being 300 dollars (so they were playing with me there the 1st time).
             I was there as they begin the installation but had to go back to work by the time they finished.  When I got home that evening I noticed the little electricity meter had a red light shining, which meant I had lights! I wasn’t expecting to have it so soon because I still needed to finish getting the contract together. I bought a lightbulb and tada! Lights!  
            Having lights is such an amazing feeling!! Now I can read before bed, charge my cellphone and computer, walking around my room with out a flashlight! Being able to do these things now is like a dream come true!  Granted I only have lights in my room, but it feels like the world has been lit!
            I guess its appropriate that I would have a living experience without lights since I’m working for the Solar Power company whose goal is to fix the energy problem here.  I have a sense, to an extent, of how most people live in the dark. I was or I am ecstatic to have electricity, I can only image how everyone else who have spent years living without lights will feel once they have it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bruno's Farewell

            If you are not working in Bissau, life can begin to feel stagnant veeeeery quickly.  At least this is what my friend Bruno said. And I would undoubtedly agree with him. If you don’t have something to keep yourself busy, you life easily becomes a routine of eating showering and using the internet (If you have access to it).
            After much debate and consideration, Bruno decided it was time to say goodbye to Guinea-Bissau, mostly due to the reasons mentioned above. He got here maybe 2 weeks after I did, though I only met him 2 months ago, and is now heading to Morrocco for 2 months before going back to Brazil. (He is very fortunate to have the parents he has to support his travel whims.)  But he said after 4 or 5 years of studying in Brazil he wants to come back to set up his own business and school in Bissau. None of us believe he’ll ever come back, but none of us believed him when he said he was leaving for morocco either. Only time will tell.
            When he told me he would be leaving and I took the news in stride. New about something that is going to happen generally doesn’t hit me until it happens. And I didn’t realize the impact his absence would have on me.
            We had created a cool little community of friends. Bruno was always free to hang out, so I regularly called him after work to grab a bite or a drink. Bruno had a friend named Josa who he had met at the church he was volunteering at. Once Bruno stopped volunteering for the church and moved out Josafa would come by Bruno’s house when he was done teaching music lessons.  But since Josafa is living at a church he has a curfew, so once it got dark he usually made his way home.
              Then there is Rui, a Portuguese guy who has been here for the past year working as an overseer and trainer to elementary school teachers in a small city called Buba. Rui just moved to Bissau a month ago and in the last 3 weeks began moving into a house near Bruno’s. He quickly got plugged in with us.
            Franciso is a Guinean who also lives in Bissau Velho and comes to hang out with us often. He is an interesting character to say the least and much to my annoyance was emfatuated with me. 
            Anyways, it was normal for us all to go and hang out at a restaurant and share stories. Everyone has a interesting up-bringing, very different personalities and very different cultural valu
            So it was as if he with no work life had the time to create a social life. Us with only a work life used him as a means to a social life.
            On the 7th of June he bought his flight for Morroco which was scheduled to leave the following day. None of us believed it even though he kept saying he bought his ticket.  A one way ticket to Morrocco from Guinea-Bissa is 500,000fcfa!! That’s 1,000 USD!! And a flight to Portugal, which is even further North is half the price. So he bought a ticket for Portugal and just planned to get off the plane at his layover in Morrocco. Haha! That’s how we beat the system!
            I guess I’m writing all of this to explain how deep of connections and friendships are made abroad. Not that it doesn’t happen in the US, but situations here, learning together about the host country and learning from each other and our different cultures make for a special kind of bond.
            I told one of my Guinean friends that Bruno was leaving and he shuttered at his name. ( I think this is mostly because he was jealousy, but that’s a separate issue) He didn’t understand how we got to connect so quickly. I tried to explain that foreigners are like cousins. You might not know them very well, but you still have some kind of connection. In this case the commonality is not family, but the experience.  As a foreigner you have a different worldview from the people who live here, and not that your worldview matches another foreigners, but it’s the fact that you are learning and experiencing something new and different together. I have many Guinean friends, but I see why I needed other foreigner friends too, and how it is easy for those bonds to become deep very quickly.
            So we went out to eat the last supper at a Buffet that is like nothing else in Bissau. I felt like I had been transported back to a middle upscale restaurant in the states.   We ate and laughed and talked without ever letting the conversation get too deep or acknowledging the fact that Bruno was leaving. After the meal (which was amazing btw) we stopped by Papaloca, another restaurant, to grab a drink and wait for Bruno’s ride to the airport to come.  Bruno’s flight was at 3 am, but had a midnight check-in. Rui and I went with him all the way to the airport and waited outside while he checked in his things so we could say a proper goodbye. I say silly things when the time comes to say goodbye.  Rui’s goodbye was a lot more suave. In retrospect I should have just seconded what he said. Lol  
            On the taxi ride home Rui and I talked about making plans to go see him for the World cup. I kept saying it hadn’t hit me yet that he was leaving, but I knew the next morning I would realize it when I couldn’t call him to hang out.
            Bruno was our social hub. I anticipate(d) a great drop in my social life after he left. I knew all the others through Bruno, so it will be strange without him. Conversely, thanks to him, I have met some great people who will also be here for another year or so, and we have begun a friendship that can only grow deeper.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My cousin from Dakar, Senegal is in town!

            My grandmother had 4 children. One is my uncle Saleu who now lives with my family in the US, another passed away many years ago (I don’t know his name),  my dad, of course, is one, and the youngest is my Aunt Maryama, who passed away last year.
            Now I want to talk a bit about my aunt. Since 2002 she was living in Dakar, Senegal with her 5 children. I didn’t know any of them, or anything about them for that matter, until 3 years ago when my cousin Kuta, my aunt’s middle child, moved to the US after marrying a close family friend. That in its self is its own story, but even I don’t know all the details.  
            Kuta is my age, but there was such a big language barrier that I didn’t get to know her that well. I was also away at school most of the time. When I came back from Brazil with a little Portuguese under my belt I was looking forward to getting to know her better, but by that time she had taken off to Senegal to visit her family. When she came back from Senegal I was only weeks away from coming to Bissau. As you can tell, our paths haven’t crossed much.
            Fast forward to last week.  I got a visit at work from my 12-year-old cousin and some young women I didn’t know.  To my surprise it was my cousin Sali, Kuta’s older sister and my Aunt’s second child.  I was really excited to finally meet her! I had been mentally planning since I got to Bissau how I would be able to get to Senegal to see her and my other cousins. Meeting her here saved me a trip and inspired me even more to go to Senegal.
            She said she was here because my dad had called her and told her to go to Bafata to try and take her brother to a Moor, or a spiritual healer. Her older brother, my cousin Oumaru, is not doing well.  He has a psychological problem that most of the family believes was caused by excessive drug use. So can a moor cure that?  I’m not sure. But she came anyways and has a big job ahead of her.
            So I went to Bafata to see her and also give some family members money that my dad had sent.  Bafata, even though there is nothing to do there, is such a cool little city. I always eat really good food while I’m there, so I think that’s part of the reason I enjoy it so much.
            I caught the 7am bus and arrived around 11am.  I immediately offered to accompany my cousin Sali to the Market where it’s live, vibrant, and full of smells and colors. To her surprise I knew my way around pretty well since I had spent a week in Bafata in April. 
            But while walking back from the market I got my monthly dose of harassment. Someone who I thought was Mauritanian, but must have been a fair-skinned Fula, was walking towards us and speaking loudly. It didn’t occur to me until my cousin responded that he was speaking to us. He was asking who I was and where I was from. My cousin responded with,” she is your kin, she is Fula.”  But he didn’t seem to believe her. As we approached each other he walked straight towards me and grabbed my arm, still asking where I was from. I looked at him told him to let go and tried to keep walking by. He tightened his grip and kept me from passing. Struggling to get him to let go, I used my other hand to remove his arm and then he grabbed the front of my shirt, pulling me towards him. Then he let go and walked away laughing.
            My cousin didn’t say a word, just shook her head and changed the subject as if nothing had happened. But I was livid!! What the hell was that guys problem?!  I yelled that at him, but I really wanted to punch him in the face. But what was I going to do, go and chase him down?  Having been robbed not even two weeks before I wasn’t up for another physical altercation. I walked the rest of the way back to the house disheartened by the harassment and violence that I was experiencing.
            We got back to the house and Sali made Cheb, a traditional Senegalese dish. Holy guacamole is it delicious!  It's simple, rice with fish and veggies, but the flavor is out of this world! 
            We spent the afternoon relaxing at the house. I was very entertained by Sali because she kept commenting on the fact that I was wearing shorts. To give this some context, you have to understand that my dad is an Imam, an equivalent to a priest or pastor, and so he has very high expectations for the way his children ( my siblings and I) dress, behave and  portray ourselves as Muslims.  ( Just so you know, women aren’t allowed to wear anything above the knees) This was a big struggle for me growing up because I mostly lived with my mom and didn’t have to follow his ‘rules’ while I was at her house. As i got older i learned to become adaptable to the 2 different ways of life.
             Sali had only seen photos of me coming from my dad’s house in which I’m covered from head to toe and wearing a Hijab, or head scarf. Then there I was in person in shorts and with my hair not covered.  So all the comments on the shorts was her trying to figure me out and in a subtle sense almost shaming me for not being more conservative in my attire.  But after I asked if she used to wear shorts before she got married she stopped commenting. We both knew the answer was yes.
            But even now I struggle with how I should present my self to my Muslim family members here. Part of me just wants to be ME, the other part is conscious of the expectations placed on me by my dads family and my dad to behave and dress like a Muslim woman. Sali wasn't the only family member to bring something like that up to me, but she was definitatley the only one who kept bringing it up.
            In the late afternoon we went to see my cousin Oumaru.  When we arrived he was seated on his straw mat, his clothes were filthy and tattered as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks. Sali’s project, as I mentioned, is to get her brother to see a Moor. It hasn’t been easy because he refuses to go anywhere with her.  It’s strange because one minute he seems completely ‘normal’ (whatever that means) and the next its clear his mind is on another planet. 
            We tried to get him to come back to the house with us to shower and change clothes. Again he refused, but accepted to join us when we offered to buy him food.
            He accompanied us back home and out of nowhere he grabbed my hand so we could hold hands as we walked. My eyes widened as my germaphobe past life came rushing into existence. My mind was screaming “OHHHHH MY GOD… OHHHHH MY GOD.... HIS HANDS ARE SO DIRTY AND HE IS TOUCHING ME!!!”
            Sali looked at me, wondering what I was going to do. This entire time she hadn’t come closer then 2 ft to him.  As we walked things would happen that were an excuse for me to delink arms with him, but he always came back for my hand.  By the 2nd or 3rd time I calmed down. Then I was disgusted with my self for being disgusted by my cousin holding my hand.  
            I can always wash my hand, I thought,  and at the end of the day, we might not be able to communicate clearly ( he speaks english and I, creole, but its more the fact that he wasn’t mentally present) but we are family, and if this is the moment we share, then let it be.  We held hands for 15 of the 20 min walk. Eventually he said he needed to get home so he left us to walk the rest of the way our selves.
            We got back to the house (and immediately washed my hands) and we heard that 2 incidences of violence had occurred. One was a bar fight that happened across the street where one man stabbed the other with 2 broken beer bottles.(They were fighting over 2,000xof or 4 dollars) The stabbed man was rushed to the hospital.
            The other incident was my Aunt Aissato!! She had over heard the neighbor's daughters bad mouthing her daughter while she was taking a shower.   Naturally, she asked them to stop. They stopped, but also launched a rock and a piece of wood in the direction of my aunt. The rock missed her, but the wood piece pegged her right in the head. She ended up needing to go to the hospital to get 5 stitches. ( Bathrooms aren't inside the house. They are usually a designated section outside of the house where there is a hole in the ground to handle business and another space where you take your bucket of water to shower.)
            When my aunt got back to the house there was alot of drama and people crying and yelling. From my understanding there were already past issues with the neighbors but this incident was the icing on the cake. The next morning the neighbors and the city's cheif came over to discuss what happened and in the end the neighbors offered to cover all my Aunts medical bills.
            I left my cell phone in the car I took to get home. That's 2 cell phones in 2 weeks! im really hoping this doesn't keep up. But Hilha made me feel a little better when she told me how in February of last year she lost 6 cell phones in one month. haha!
            It was a fast trip, but filled with, well, let's just leave it at filled.  On the way home I kept thinking about how I thought i knew some things about my family, but i really had no idea. Six months ago the fact that My dad is from a village in a small west African country just about summed it up.
             But its trips like these that remind me why I even came to this country.  It might not be fun filled with family parties and hugs and kissed. And I know some family members look at me as a ticket out of Guinea-Bissau. And I know every time I visit family there is an expectation I will give them money. But these are real experiences about how raw life is here. There no sugar coating it and there is no faking it.