Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On the edge

It's September and I am back to teaching.

As you may know, since we returned to the US, I have had to work. I mean, do a job that actually pays me. Life here is simply too expensive for me to spend all my time volunteering on SHONA for free. So I work 25 hours a week teaching here in NY, and spend my remaining time on SHONA.

Other than the fact that it is somewhat impossible to balance these two tasks, and find any time left to breathe, I love it. I love my job teaching English as a Second Language to adults. I really love my students, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. Having also taught high school in the public schools here in NY, I greatly appreciate how hard my adult ESL students work...and the fact that they don't throw papers across the room! :) Many of the people I work with live on the edge of society here, much the same way that the SHONA women live on the edge of society in Congo. Sometimes people ask how I deal with the contrasts of my life, working with disabled artisans in Congo and Spanish speaking immigrants here in NY. But to me they seem more like the common threads woven throughout. It's true it can be hard to go from life in Congo to life in the US. It can be hard to go from the poverty and insecurity in Goma to the relative comfort and security we live in here.

But its the people who keep me sane. In Goma I was asked the famous question at least once a day "why don't you have kids?" Of course most people here in the US, would never dare such a question, we love our privacy. But my Spanish-speaking students have quickly taken up the slack, same question, same laughter when I respond in an exaggerated tone "But kids are sooo much work!!"

When I was living in Goma, nothing crossed language and cultural barriers faster than food. Ugali, a common staple, is a kind of sticky paste that you pick up with your hands and dip in sauce. Meals centered around a big pot of ugali and another of sauce, with everyone digging in. Nothing seemed to make my friends in Goma sadder than if I refused a meal, and such a refusal was usually followed by the SHONA women eyeing me up and down and discussing why I needed to gain wait (I really don't!) and why I might not be eating. This discussion would of course take place with me standing right there. Likewise, my students here feed me all the time. They bring me coffee in the morning, with a Mexican roll. They bring me tamales and mole and guacamole. All homemade. Neatly packed for me to take home to my husband. Clearly, while they think I'm a good teacher, they are not so sure about my talents as a wife! This too is a common theme from Goma! Let's just say I'm not really the "home-maker" type.

My students declare parties all the time. Another favorite activity in Goma. And those parties are a big deal, involving intense negotiations and secretive plans. And most of all, lots of laughter.

My point is that if my students here, and the SHONA ladies ever met, they might not be able to speak a word to each other, but they would have a rocking party. They would love each other. And so I switch from Spanish to Swahili, making a fool of myself in both languages, but knowing that underneath there is a common language. There are people in all societies who live on the edge. And, I, for one, believe they throw the best parties.

Note: Don't get me wrong. Life's not easy on the edge, and people work incredibly hard. Harder than I'll ever know. But consider the music. Much of the greatest, most exuberant music in this world comes from the poorest, most difficult places. Have you heard Congolese music? The music and laughter doesn't erase the hardship, but neither does hardship erase a person's capacity for joy. In fact to me, it seems to make it greater.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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