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July 20, 2005

Feeling at Home

There are days when I don't really feel like I am in Africa. At least I do not feel like I am in the Africa I imagined.

Well, these days, I certainly have felt like I have been in Africa.

When I first got here, Gildo and Paulino, two of my students from 2002-2003, pleasantly surprised me by turning up in my life again. They told me that they were working for TCE, the community HIV/AIDS project affiliated with ADPP (more info is on this website here). They asked if I would come to visit them in the field to see what they were doing. I instantly agreed without fully knowing what I was getting myself into. The plan started coming together when Rachel, a volunteer with TCE, told me that she would be going to Tcheadea, Paulino and Gildo's field, to help with a training session for community volunteers.

I left Lamego at 6am on Monday morning with Rachel for Tcheadea. We stopped along the way, in Tica, to stock up on food because Tcheadea simply does not have any. I was carrying an impossible load on my head from the market to the bus stop, with things in both hands, and my backpack on my back. We then waited for several hours for our next bus to get us to Tcheadea. While we were waiting, the school administrator asked if we wanted to have some gin with him. It was 8 am. We politely refused and he bought us some cokes. We spent about 2 hours on the back of an open truck cruising, well, sort of, along a bumpy sandy, dirt road. All the while we were sucking on sugar cane!

When we got to Tcheadea, Gildo and Paulino warmly greeted us at their house. Tcheadea has a population of about 31,000 people, but I never would have guessed a population of more than 20 people. From Gildo and Paulino's house, you can turn 360 degrees and not see anyone or anything. The village sprawls over miles and miles of land, though, and most people live fairly isolated lives.

The Chief of Tcheadea was quite pleased to have us visiting and arranged with Gildo and Paulino to go on a bike ride throughout the community. Gildo pulled me aside and whispered to me that the Chief wanted me to ride on the back of his bike. I politely complied. We had 4 bikes and 8 people, though. We managed to pass most of the sites in Tcheadea: the school, the market, the chief's house, and the site of Gildo and Paulino's moneymaking scheme.

The chief only could tell me that there were a LOT of students at the primary school. Paulino lamented the fact that Tcheadea was such a remote community that to continue with their studies students had to live at a boarding school and, thus, suffer the greater financial burden.

At the market, I saw the proof of the rumors of the severe lack of food in Tcheadea. The market sold dried, salted fish and melembi (A fruit? A nut? A vegetable? No one really knows. But it is an African snack) on one small table. That was it.

The chief showed us his house and introduced us to his three wives and eight children. One of his wives suffered a landmine explosion and lost both of her legs at the hips. Much of the land still has active land mines, as it was an active fighting ground for many years during the civil war. What seems to always bother me is that even though the war ended 13 years ago, people are still suffering from its consequences. The chief's wives were kind enough to offer Rachel and me a live chicken as thanks for our visit.

Gildo and Paulino are among the many in Tcheadea who are making charcoal out of the biggest trees in Tcheadea. When they showed us the site of their work, with all the tree stubs, I couldn't help but ask Gildo about their re-planting efforts too. Gildo just looked at me and confidently told me that the trees would grow from the stumps. I guess my look of shock was enough to let him know that he was misinformed. He promised me (probably an empty promise) that he would start replanting. Of course nothing is as simple as making and selling charcoal. Tcheadea is one of the biggest producers of charcoal in the province. Charcoal is an important commodity in many areas (including Lamego) where there are not many trees that can be used as firewood for cooking fires. The truck drivers, in response to the growing transport of charcoal, jacked up the price for all baggage. The cost for transportation for a person only is reasonable. However, when any sort of baggage is added, the price skyrockets. What would have seemed like an easy solution to the scarcity of food (selling the charcoal and buying food in Tica) becomes financially infeasible when transportation is included.

When we got back from our bike ride, we started preparing dinner over our own open fire. We sipped lemon grass tea to warm ourselves while we waited for our freshly killed (by Rachel) chicken to fully cook. Before dinner, Gildo hopped on his bike again to get us water for our baths. Despite all of the lush greenery and trees, Tcheadea has very little water. Wells just dry up. I thanked Gildo as he set out for getting the water. He just said that someday, when he comes to the United States, that I would go to fetch water for him, too. I assured him I would. It is hard to imagine that running water is a fairly foreign concept to, surely, the majority of the people in Tcheadea and people around the world.

I took my bucket shower in the moonlight inside of a little grass enclosure. In the distance, I could see the bush burning, I could smell our dinner cooking over the fire, I could hear the crackly battery powered radio coming from their house. When I was done with my shower and we were done eating, we all quickly turned in for bed. There is not much to do without electricity and with nothing and no one in sight. I have to admit that I did not sleep well on my straw mat inside of the mud-walled, dirt-floored hut. My body is still sore, in fact! But, I felt like I was in AFRICA.

The day after our arrival, Gildo and Paulino, TCE Field Officers, held a meeting for their community volunteers to educate them about HIV/AIDS and about what their role as community members is. The questions were fascinating for me, but logical given the cultural environment. Their questions were about plural marriages and what to do when one of the spouses wants to have relationships in addition to the relationships within the family. Obviously simple messages of abstinence and fidelity don't strictly apply here. One of the sayings here is that people have to keep AIDS outside of their family meaning that condom use is obligatory in extra-marital sexual relationships. Part of the condom demonstration included warnings against buying condoms from stands that are not covered from the sun's damaging, condom destroying rays.

I planned on leaving after lunch at some point. When we were eating lunch, though, Paulino shouted out to me that I had to go because THE bus for the afternoon was in sight. I scrambled to get my things and hop on the bus that took me to Tica.

To end my truly African 2 days, I hitchhiked from Tica to Lamego.

Many people think of Africa and Africans as being tough somehow. That certainly is not the Africa I know. I was again pleased and surprised to be invited to Ilidio's house. Ilidio is the vice principle of EAO. His words of greeting were "My house might be small, but our welcome is big". I was honored to join Ilidio and his family for a meal in their house. I was even more honored when Ilidio coaxed his young son into liking me by telling him that not only was I his friend but also his aunt. Even though it is not the Africa I imagined, it, of course, is the Africa that I have grown to love.

PS: My friend Helga has just returned to her homeland, Sweden, after adventuresome travels in India. She encouraged me to not only soak up the memory making moments here, but to find them in my normal life. I shouldn't feel like I have to "take off" to find the wonder in life. Something to keep in mind...