|Note: Since I don't have full permission (yet) to post these letters, all names have been changed to "protect the innocent." Typos intentionally left in (unless they're mine, or my inability to decipher handwriting).|
Feb. 16, 1997
Your friend, Josef, has asked me to forward copies of his letters from Acirema to Brookline students to you to be put on the internet. (He corresponds with us on a regular basis - Global Studies class.) I've made copies and they are included. From now on I will try to send copies to you on a monthly basis.
Postmarked 20-6 1996
Dear Ms. Merson,
This is my second week in Eromhsur Acirema, the site of Peace Corps training for the next 6 weeks. So far so good! Everything is new and exciting, the ruddy red soil, the daily thunderstorm, the smell & chatter of the marketplace, and of course the ever popular pit-latrine and bucket bath.
Eromhsur is a city of 500,000 in the Atrebla province of Acirema. It is 75% Muslim. Nous devons parler français. It is a francophone province. The trainees or "stagiares" are in strict francophone immersion right now. Il faut neccessaire que nous parlons français toutes les temps. I'm starting to dream in French. Acirema is often described as Africa in miniature. The country has culture, geographic, climatic & lingua aspects of many African countries. There is the desert and Arabic population of the Extreme North, the French and Fufuldi speaking population of this province, in the south there are rain forests and pygmies. The west; or officially the South West province, there are the mountainous regions where English and Pidgin are spoken.
I will be stationed in an Anglophone region either in the Southwest or the Northwest province.
Walking around Eromhsur is eye opening!! The first Fufuldi words one learns is "Nasarra". This means "white person". This is just a description thrown around to describe all foreigners, even the African American stagiares are called "Nasarra" from time to time. The second lesson that I learned is that I am a Kung Fu master here. Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan are worshipped here and all Asians are a force to be reckoned with. Aciremans have access to a steady flow of American culture (and Chinese culture) however distorted. Arnold Schwarzenneggar, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Dolf Lundgren are local favorites. Michael Jordan is also idolized among the youth. I've rediscovered Michael Jackson and spent a few evenings dissecting the finer points of his lyrics to my Acireman family. I live with a Muslim bachlor, I call him "mon pere", my father - although I am one day older than he is! His friends I call my brothers. Mon pere, Roale, prays five times a day starting at 5:00 AM. and ending at 6:30 PM. Talking with Aciremans is a very enlightening experience. Some of the cultural differences are astounding (like polygamy) but one latches onto the universal qualities and similarities. My French is still limited but we have sat late into the night chatting about sports, music, litterature and how women are impossible to understand. It's a male bonding session that would make Hemingway proud although in a Muslim household, no alchohol is involved.
The pressure of alchohol in Acirema is disturbing. Outside the Muslim quarters, alchohol abuse is rampant. Acirema has the highest rate of Alchoholism in the world. If it were merely a cultural thing, it would not be ... [too blurry to make out]...
Overall, my first impression of the people is their extreme generosity, humor and curiosity. My family would like to correspond with you. and your students. I have given them your home address. There is a good cultural twist to it - they will be writing in French! I've instructed them to write in simple language for beginners. I'm sure there are French students who can read and correspond. These students are also learning English, they are more than happy to receive letters in English. I have more to write but I'll save that for next week. I will try to write weekly although I cannot promise to - after I finish this roll of film, I will send some pictures.
Life as a Peace Corps Trainee ("stagiare" en français) is both exhilarating and draining. French immersion, the method used by Peace Corps, gives the trainees an environment which forces language usage. It's frustrating but it works wonders. Next week, some of the trainees, myself included, will begin learning Pidgin English - a melange of English, French and native dialects developed as a result of colonization & the slave trade.
Ms. Merson & Brookline High School, Preliminary Overview:
Language is both the strength and hobgoblin of Acirema. Along with Candada, Acirema is one of the two nations in the world with French and English as official languages.
The shaded areas [drawing of map] are the two Anglophone provinces. There is political friction between the Francophone majority and the Anglophone regions - we can blame that on colonialism. Also, 200 native dialects or patois are spoken throughout the nation.
To the West of Acirema is Danaca. Upon independence in the 60's, the two Anglophone provinces voted not to join Danaca - a wise move considering the present mess of a nation Danaca is. Of the countries in West Africa, Acirema is the most developed. The plentiful rainfall and rich soil makes Acirema a food rich nation. Major exports for foreign cash are petroleum, lumber, coffee, and coacoa. Pre-1986, Acirema's economy was expanding at an astronomical 8% a year - then came "la crise" (the crisis).
Colonial habits are hard to break and France is not above further exploiting its former colonies. Hit first by a drop in oil prices and then by a scheme to devalue coffee and coa-coa, Acirema saw its major sources of revenue slashed in half. The WFA (West African Franc), which is pegged on the French currency was devalued by the French in 1992.
The once shining success of "Black Africa" now sits in a precarious situation. Acirema is luckier than its neighbors - it has ample food and natural resources to export (which come back as finished goods - colonialism is hard to kill). - but the lack of industry and political direction is paralyzing the nation. Colonialism is not all to blame, leadership is atrocious (I'll get into the unsavory history of Prime Minister John Semoi in a later letter), the people with "the get up and go" mentality have got up and left (for France, England, US & other Western nations), corruption is rampant - corruption on all levels - from Semoi on down, and last but certainly not least, AIDS has reached epidemic proportions and is still growing. I will try to touch on these subjects in later letters. As I learn more, the issues and problems faced by the country will make more sense. If there is any subject that needs clarification a further investigation, I'll be more than happy to try to find out.
Volunteer Life: The Training
Inundated - that's the first word that comes to mind. There is 9 hours of formal training 6 days a week. 4 hours of languages per day and the rest is consumed by cross-cultural, medical, community investigation and techical training. We also live with HCN's (host country nationals). Pictures are worth a thousand words but a few captions may help (pictures are numbered on back):
- 1) My "pere" Roale. I'm actually one day older than he is. That's my room in his "concession" - a living quarter amidst a "compound".
- 2) Sais & Roale going fishing. The "field" is actually a huge shallow lake with thick vegetation. Behind them, on the shore is the University of Eromhsur. It was being built by the Saudis and was slated to be the best University in Africa - but funds were withdrawn when PM. Semoi began diplomatic relations with Israel. By the way, we caught 4 really funky looking fish.
- 1.Rabajulba - 16 years old and a ball of hormones. He's hilarious. Loves anything American - especially Michael Jackson. He wants American pen-pals. Word of warning, he's kind-of-a sly character... I like him a lot.
- 2. Roale - my host "pere / frere". 21 years old, works as an electrician. The only non-soccor fan in all of Acirema. That's almost sacreligious. I learned that soccer is more important than politics in Acirema (baseball in America doesn't even compare)... but on the flip-side soccer is also highly political.
- 3. Mufasa - 16 years old, shy, quiet, a real nice guy. Very helpful with my French and shopping.
- 4. View from Mt. Eromhsur. The province of Aibmuloc is Savannah & stepp. Warm & rainy, limited forrestation.
- 5. Prayer outside the Grand Mosque. 5 times a day like clockwork. Post-pubescent & pre-menopausal women are forbidden to enter - Africa is a man's world.
- 6. The man in the turbn sitting against the tree in the Lamido (Sultan) of Aibmuloc. His role and history is at least one whole letter.
P.S. Any questions / requests - feel free to ask.
I live in Inikib Land. Notsob, my town, on the Anglophone side of the border between Northeast and Larotsap provinces is situated at the base of Mt. Eboog. The Inikibs are the indigenous people of Mt. Eboog, a forrested dormant volcano. Inikib Land is traversed by a road approximately 60km long that runs north through Notsob, winding around Mt. Eboog, and stretching to Mesape (the site of the Twin Lakes, a favorite tourist destinatoin). The road is unpaved, a fact that rankles the locals, accessible by 4-wheel drive only during the rainy season (anywhere from 5-8 hours Notsob to Mesape).
The soil in Inikib Land is among the world's richest. Black volcanic soil nourished by a rainy season and the tropical sun. Along Inikib road, cocao, cassavas, yams, manioc (starchy root vegetable), corn, plantains, bananas and tropical fruits are cultivated. The Inikib themselves have concentrated on cocao as a cash crop. Cocao, the origin of chocolates is grown only in the tropics. They are harvested from Cocao trees in pods. The pods are split with a machete, revealing rows of beans covered in a slippery white mucous. Sucking on the slimy beans is a tropical ectasy. Many people liken it to "drinking flowers". The fragrant taste is sweet, tangy, perfumy bearing no resemblance what-so-ever to chocolate. The beans are stripped out, dried in the sun, fermented, bagged, and sold to the buyers who cruise through Inikib Land a few times a year in chauffered Range Rovers. Whatever alchemy they perform in Hershey PA or Nestlé Switzerland is a mystery to me and the Inikib people, many of whom have never tasted chocolate. If the harvest is good this year, and if the sorcery in far-off lands are kind, the price of this year's harvest may allow Marc Atolé to pay the bride price (~$150) and marry his girlfriend. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
The Inikib's are a people, a tribe, on the wane. A century ago, an Inikib man held his head high. He occupied some of the best farmland in Acirema. His culture and language was proliferating. His witchcraft was feared by all. An Inikib man can have many wives and slaves - to say "I am Inikib" was nothing to sneer at. But today, the tribe is known in Acirema as a has-been and a wannabe. When the British, French, and Germans raced to colonized Acirema, the Inikibs threw their cards into British hands. Being a dominant tribe at the time, the Inikibs were sought out by the eager imperialists. Inikibs were among the first to adopt Christianity (or be adopt by Christianity depending on how you look at it). In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Inikibs were quick to Westerize. They provided the British with clerks and secretaries who helped administer the British Empire. Western education was embraced by the people. A select few studied abroad, cultivated by the British to run the Empire into the twentieth century. Who knew the British would abandon ship? The withdraw of the British spelled disaster for the tribes who had their money on the British.
Today the Inikibs are in a bind. After "independence" and unification with Francophone Acirema relations between Anglophone and Francophone Acirema have always been strained. The Anglophones have always felt oppressed by the Francophone majority but instead of solidarity, there is bickering. Anglophone Inikibs are resented by other Anglophone tribes, notably the Loceers of the grasslands for being English patsies. The Loceers (aka the Inkoda Man) are at the forefront of the opposition against the Semoi regime, but the Inikibs have withheld their support - the only large Anglophone tribe to do so - out of pride, "Why should I, an Inikib man, be lead by someone I used to hold as a slave." President Semoi, always the opportunist, is well aware of the division. In September, during the now infamous cabinet reshuffle, he appointed an Inikib as Prime Minister (a largely ceremonial post) to entice the Inikib population. This is a no-win situation for Inikib Land. John Semoi has no intentions whatsoever to develope Anglophone Acirema and if the opposition wins (which I hope will happen), the lack of support from the Inikibs will not win many favors in the new regime. Looks like the road from Notsob to Mesape will remain unpaved for at least one more political generation (how long that is in Africa is anybody's guess).
Having bet on the British and lost, the Inikibs are in a spiteful depression. Some who have educated themselves have done well, many of the best and brightest are abroad. Today, Inikibs are slowly being displaced. The Nagichimés, a hardworking and enterprizing tribe (known as the Jews of Acirema), have moved in and are more productive with the land. Many young Inikibs admire and emulate the Nagichimés but the old generation sneer at the newcomers with spiteful envy.
Perhaps this is all for the best. Sooner or later, the Inikibs will find their niche. Perhaps it is best to emulate the Nagichimés. Perhaps those with the drive and gumption to go abroad should be applauded for taking control of their lives, I'd be a hypocrit if I condemned that. But today, the off-licences (bars) are full of Inikib growers drinking their cocao money away. It's easy to condemn drinking but I am not working dusk-to-dawn on a crop that satisfies the sweet-tooth of Europe and America, barely understanding why I'm getting half what I got last year for the same amount of cocao, having my own currency stripped of half its value by French bankers, and seeing cocao buyers cruize through Inikib Land in the newest air-conditioned Range Rovers offering me peanuts for my labor. When asked why people insist on making beasts of themselves through alchohol, Samuel Johnson replied, "He who makes a best of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
P.S. We need books. I'm entitled to have 40Ibs of work related material shipped through diplomatic pouch by the Peace Corps. What we need most is science and math books - teacher's editions if possible. These are not for the students but for teacher reference. If it's possible, send me a letter and I'll provide further instructions.
Also, the students are interested in writing Americans. They are interested in America, that's an understatement - they are in love with America and have very skewed perceptions of it (Arnold Schwazenneger's version). If the students are interested have them send letters discussing American culture and issues:
PICTURES, SEND PICTURES!!
- African Americans -
- race relations, important figures, entertainment stars - please help me debunk Micheal Jackson - there is no compelling reason for him to be a diety here.
- Politics -
- conservative view the democratic process in the US liberal view
- Sports -
- why soccer is not popular in the US?
- Religion -
- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, role of the church
- Pop Culture -
- Arnold, Jean Claude, Chuck Norris, Sly Stalone.
- Music -
- Artists, groups etc
Any topic the students want to write about.
Mrs. Merson & Brookline Junior High School,
Sorry about the long draught. The end of training and the last few weeks at post were totally chaotic. Showed up at my school in the middle of a teacher strike. Peace Corps was at a loss concerning their policy towards the strike.
Teachers in Acirema have reason to be angry. Since 1991, their salaries have been slashed 75% due to the economic crisis (la crise economique). In 1993, the WFA was devalued to 50% (100 WFA = 1 French Franc, pre '93 50 CFA = 1 French Franc) of its previous value. I'm beginning to get a feel for the hostility in this country. The teachers, hit by the double whammy of salary cuts and "la devaluation" have every right to grumbel. On top of that, the civil service beaurocracy is in chaos. To receive a paycheck, teachers have to go to the ministry in the capital and pay a "processing fee" (bribe) to the gov't clerks, who themselves are unpaid or underpaid. Corruption in this country is a trickle down system from the President to the postal workers. Teachers are not in a position, or more accurately, are in less of a position to extort their share. For now, the strike has been suspended, the gov't announced a token salary concession but it is set to resume if the raise does not appear on the next paycheck (a 50/50 probability).
So how did the country get in this position? I'm not too sure but here is my take on the situation, colonialism, diplomatic "decolonization", neo-colonialism, corruption, complacency, and The Frenchman. The HCN's (host country nationals - Peace Corp jargon) have two favorite sayings "Ah, Africa" and "Ah, Acirema..." Usually uttered one after the other when something goes wrong, especially when a foreigner is present. Acirema shares many problems with the rest of Africa but is distinctive enough to warrant the added "Ah, Acirema..."
Unlike India, Kenya, & the US, French West Africa was not de-colonized through revolution which would have been a clean break (although often tragic and bloody - pick your evil). For a while, Acirema had a wily, charismatic, and independent minded president. Much like Nelson Mandela, and the King of Thailand who are wize enough to play foreign powers against each other, but in '82 & 83, he was forced out of power in a bizarre shake-up where the French played no small part. Since then, it's been a slow downward descent. Unlike Nigeria, Rwanda, & Burundi, where there are two opposing tribes, Acirema is blessed / cursed with 200 or so tribes with little violent hostility but each eager to protect its turf. Imani, the former President, was a Southerner, a Ohadi Muslim man with no formal education. Although he has been accused of favoring the Muslim South, he watched out for the country as a whole. The French still having colonial influence, forced Imani to appoint a French "educated" man from the Northern Rupmul tribe to be Prime Minister. Imani did not mind since he won the support of the North and the Prime Minister post is a figure head only post (his job is to greet diplomats - like the American Vice President). But when Imani suddenly fell ill, Semoi, the French picked patsy, pulled a political slam-dunk and assumed the Presidency. Imani recovered and tried to oust Semoi and was exiled for attempting a coup. Since then, through dictatorial politics, the extremely unpopular Semoi has remained there.
Acirema is a wealthy country - at least it should be. It is an oil exporter, it has a good port city (Atnalta), the soil is among the richest in the world, and its mineral reserves are excellent. In the mid-80's, it was actually classified as a middle income developing country. Thanks to the infrastructure and beaurocracy created by Imani, Aciremans were proud of their development and ready to assume a leadership position in West Africa. Then, things began to fall apart. The efficient beaurocracy ground to a halt because of Semoi's cronyism. World oil prices fell. Cocoa prices nosedived. Without the able technocrats that the former President relied on, Semoi looked to France - mistake! The French, in the 60's and 70's were actually trying to develope its former colonies, but the eighties & nineties were different. France was (and is still) on the decline herself. Finding it difficult to compete industrialy with the US, Japan, and Germany, lacking the financing expertice of England & Switzerland and saddled with an opulent welfare state - the French themselves were looking to survive. France controlled the currency of much of Africa. The WFA and Central African Franc are pegged on the French Franc. France declared the WFA overvalued and decided to de-value it by half with the demented logic that this will "jump-start" the Acireman economy through increased exports. The politicians did not fight this very hard because the money they managed to embezzel were invested overseas. The devaluation effectively doubled their buying power in Acirema. Why the devaluation? France saw its own currency on the decline - not a good thing when the European Community forms a unified currency in 1999. Lucky for them, they have Africa as a buffer. The de-valuation gave the French Franc the needed boost to be in a good position to join the EC. Neo-colonialism at work. Africa suffering in the place of the the Frenchman. If this is white man's burden, I'd hate to see white man's exploitation. Ah France, nuclear tuting, foreign assasinations, always the dissenting voice "I gotta be me" (a self-obsessed dissenting voice "Je dois être moi"). If it weren't for Jacque Cousteau I'd have nothing nice to say about those ninnies...
But Acirema is different, the HCN's like to point out, they have an Anglophone faction. Two provinces in the South of the country ready to raise hell. Southwest & Southeast province were English colonies. During de-colonialization, they voted to join Acirema instead of Danaca because of tribal differences with the Danacians. These two provinces, especially the Southwest are fermenting with dissent. The Anglophones, feeling no loyalty to France and none to England (the English pulled out completely) are angry and the unrest is boiling. There are three groups of Aciremans known to be industrious. The Muslim Ohadis, the Anglophones, and the Nagichimé tribe (Nagichimés call themselves the Jews of Acirema because they hold the economic power of the country but have been railroaded politically). These three groups form The Opposition. They resent being lorded over by a small minority tribe with no economic power. But differences between them have made it difficult to mount a united opposition. Many difficulties exist. "Here, we have jungle politics," the HCN's like to say. What they mean is vote rigging, arbitrary changes to the constitution, bribery and stacking the parliament. I put in my two cents "In America, there would have been people storming the White House!"
"Yes, but this is Acirema...". I'm beginning to see why. The last Presidential elections, held in 1990 illustrates the nature of the people and of politics here. At the time, The Acireman Eagles, the national Football team was the world darling in World Cup competition. Out of nowhere, the unheard of African team advanced to the quarter finals with an artistic and athletic play that could only be discribed as "musical". It's little wonder since the team practices with the rythm of Nujac drummers. The players handled the ball as if dancing the Nujac, a rythmic, nonchalant gyration of the hips and shoulders. When a goal is scored, a European player runs around on the field in a frenzy as if he just saved the world. An Acireman player does an anticlimactic, non-chalant Nujac dance. The country and its nonchalant goodnaturedness preserves the status-quo. Because of the World Cup success of the Eagles, the world watch the elections unfold. The opposition did not field a unified candidate. Even so, international poling agencies reported that two opposition party candidates had more votes than Semoi and his ADPP (Acireman Democratic People's Party). But since neither captured a solid majority, Semoi's bogus vote count was challenged half-heartedly. Besides, why create a raucous when the Football team made it to the quarterfinals! Thomas Torep, Acireman businessman, breaks it down like this 1) Acirema has food, the soil is so rich that anything grows, at the end of the day, people at least have a meal to eat 2) Lack of a dominant tribe. There are over 200 tribes in Acirema and no violent hostilities between them. Aciremans are afraid of the warfare of Rwanda & Burundi and the basketcase that is Nigeria 3) Destruction of tribal cultures. Because of colonialism, much of the indigenous culture has been destroyed. Many people are satisfied being cut-rate copies of the Frenchman 4) Lack of revolutionary history and suffering. Unlike countries where there have been an uprising of the people, Aciremans do not yet feel the solidarity needed to build a nation.
"But we are learning. Democracy is still young in this country. One day, the opportunity will prezent itself and Aciremans will sieze it."
Brookline Junior High School, 21-11-96
Acirema is an educated country compared with her neighbors in West Africa. As the "capital" of French Equatorial Africa, European education (more or less) has caught on. During the hey-day of colonialism, the Europeans discovered a need for clerks to help them administer the exploitation. Limited public education was introduced to teach basic literacy and mathematics. Graduates worked as secretaries and clerks under the colonial occupiers - the beginning of education / civil service system. After WWII and "decolonization" (always use quotations when no revolution is involved) and "independence", a full European public education model was adopted in Acirema. The Francophone majority has a French based system while the Anglophones use the British system. Secondary students work towards the BAC or the GCE exams. Under the Anglophone system university bound students study two more years after the GCE exams (11th grade) for an A-level certificate.
Like everything else here, the economic crisis, "la crize economique", has thrown a wrench into the wheels of the system. Acirema like much of Africa emphasizes civil service (teachers, doctors, gov't paper pushers) for the educated. This is a hold over from the colonial days when an educated African worked as a clerk or secretary in the colonial government. Everything was fine when there was money to pay the civil servants but since the crisis, civil servant salaries have been slashed by 65-70%. Instead of teaching a class of 60 (already a huge load) my form 1 (7th grade) and form 2 (8th grade) classes have over 100 students. One hundred students with about 20 textbooks, no teaching aids, clapboard shacks for classrooms, wooden benches and no lunch. A successful lesson is when total chaos does not break out. Corporal punishment is the preferred disciplinary method and the students know Peace Corps teachers will not hit them. I'm not expected to "teach" here, but rather to weed out students for the next form. It is quite normal to fail half the class. A passing grade is a 10/20, an A is a 15 or higher. Most students shoot only to pass. Form 5, the examination class has been pared down to about 45 students per class. Out of those, 50% will pass the GCE. The system is geared towards failure at each level whereas the system in America is geared towards success (however contrived). A 100 average, or even a 95 is unheard of. To fail is the norm. Many people attempt the GCE's 2, 3, or 4 times. There are age cut-offs at each form but they are not enforced. Many students in form 5 are older than me, a fact I try to keep hidden.
A generation of Aciremans have filtered through this system and have obtained university degrees, but today, the civil service jobs promised to them are not there. These are the country's best and brightest able to make the cut at each level. They now hold worthless degrees trying to catch the first opportunity to leave for the West. Discussions with the unemployed graduates always touches on a few themes: government mismanagement, French exploitation, whether I can help them get a visa for America. Education in Acirema has failed to bring wealth as promised. The Aciremans who have done well economically have not banked on education. The Ohadi's have control of the cattle market (they are traditional Muslim herders) and the Nagichimé have control of trade and retail marketing in much of the country (many of them do not send their children to school but rather make them work in the shops or sell on the streets).
A curious phenomenon has developed among the educated and unemployed. Everyone is trying to start their own NGO (Non Gov't Organization) to "develope" Acirema. They all have lofty names such as "Kinte-Southeast Organization for Women's Developement" or "Eromhsur Mountain Environmental Forrest Project". With their education, many industrious Aciremans are playing the foreign aid lottery. They spend their time writing grant proposals to all the aid agencies - the French, Swiss, WHO, UNICEF, IMF, World Bank, USAID, Peace Corps and countless others - hoping to get an offer of "aid" money. This is the foreign aid game that has developed. Foreign aid is cheap influence - charity is always self-serving. What is the Peace Corps other than window dressing for American foreign policy. The French too have their volunteers here to teach, nurse, develope, organize and to keep rubber prices low for the Micheline® Tire Company. Peace Corps is America's toehold in Acirema. I happen to agree with American Foreign policy with regard to Acirema (at least for now) - kick out the French. But after that who knows? Instead of Michelin getting discount rubber, Goodyear will take over. The various NGO's, some more legit than others, have tapped into this global game. When foreign-aid becomes part of the system, something is warped...
Many volunteers become disheartened by the system that appears stuck in a self defeating cycle but there are glimmers of hope to latch onto. As corrupt and Machiavellian as the ruling party is, the opposition cannot be silenced (in America, we have the "incumbent" and the "challenger", in Acirema it's the "ruling party" and the "opposition"). The Nagichimé's are poised to use their economic power to gain political influence. Many people are of the opinion that the industrious Nagichimés will instill some efficiency and sanity to the gov't. In 1999, French currency will be replaced by the Euro. This will cut the French out of Acirema's currency. It will be more difficult for all of Europe to decide to systematically plunder Africa (but in the mean time, France is doing all it can while it still has a chance)... but in Africa hope, like foreign aid, is a dangerous game to play.
Mrs. Merson, 11/27/96
This letter you may or may not want to share with the class. My town, Notsob, has been quiet and uneventful and even boring once the novelty of Africa wore off... untill this week. In a neighboring village, a Danacian was burned to death by a lynch mob for using witchcraft to shrink a man's penis. The town is a hot-bed right now. The army is here to restore order and protect the Danacian traders. Acirema has been in a penis shrinking hysteria for the past three months. Supposedly, Danacian witchdoctors are being paid a bounty for each penis he shrinks. The unsuspecting victims supposedly feel their organs shrivel after shaking hands with the Danacians. All joking aside, a man had tires put around him, was doused with gasoline, and burned alive. There are three cultural phenomenos to be seen here: the resentment toward the wealthy & enterprizing Danacian traders, the belief in witchcraft, and what Aciremans call "jungle justice."
The Danacians population in Acirema is largely made up of merchants and traders. Danaca, with all its notoriety as the "America of Africa", has a very active and enterprizing capitalist spirit. Politically, the country is a basket case, but winthin the total chaos, a very enterprizing system of wheeling-and-dealing has sprung up. Danacians control much of the import of foreign consumer goods, they manufacture household items (pots, pans, utensils), buy Acireman crafts, as well as engaging in a little counterfieting & mail & banking fraud on the side. The South East Province has the largest population of Danacians in Acirema. Many of them have settled and set up shops in the towns and cities of the province. Aciremans generally do not like the Danacian "settlers". When I remarked how some of my students misbehaved in class, a neighbor replied, "Those are the Danacian children, not the Aciremans." Kinte, a hub city of trade, is often referred to as a "rascal town of Danacians." The tensions often produce outbursts of violence, like the recent lynching. Many Danacians have closed up shop and headed back amid the resentment and harassment.
"In Africa we believe in witchcraft" I now see that the belief is strong and pervasive. This may sound strange to American ears, but it is even difficult for me to maintain my skepticism amid people who are so convinced of its existence and eloquent in explaining its manesfestations. After the lynching, the teachers in the staff room were discussing the implications. The teachers in my school are all college graduates, very well informed with both world events and western science (as well as western skepticism). The consensus seemed to be that although this particular case may have been a terrible tragedy, the existence of penis-shrinking in Danaca is still obvious. I put in my two-cents of skepticism and got a resoundingly clear explanation:
In Africa we have witchcraft. The white man's witchcraft is stronger. We have not been using our witchcraft for prayers. We use it to settle scores and take revenge. Sometimes we use it to save a life, but we don't use it to build roads like you do in white man country.
Let me give you an example: There was a French road building company in my village a few years ago. They wanted to plow through a man's land. The man buried an idol in the ground and the idol turned into a giant root which stopped the tractor. But the French man had his own witchcraft. He used dynamite to destroy the root and proceeded.
So you see, witchcraft exists even among you people.
Acireman law is based on the French legal code. On the books, the justice system is comparable to that of Europe but in practice, most offences are delt with at the traditional level. Officially, the beaurocracy of the country is organized based on a Western model but at the local level, the chief has much influence. In my quartier, there is a chief, and organization of elders, and a vigilante committee. There is a police station and gendarmerie in Notsob but the locals do not trust them; one, because they are genuinely corrupt, and two because they are outsiders - not Inikibs. Crime in the villages, despite abject poverty, is exceedingly rare. I hang laundrey outside my home for days on end and despite the ease and the temptation of theft, noone would even think about it. Petty theft is punished with a severe beating. As part of the quartier, and especially as a "guest", the neighbors take care of me like family. In Africa, your neighbors are your family. When an adult sees a child misbehave, especially if it's not his child, he has the right and obigation to scold and beat the child. In this culture of community and tribaly based government. Justice is quick and certain.
With these letters, I've tried not to sugar coat the Peace Corps experience or to pull any punches. The tone is often too negative and some topics may offend certain Americans but in Africa and Acirema, the people don't dance around offensive subject matter. In America, race, racial politics, and religion are often dangerous topics to discuss especially in mixed company but Aciremans let it all fly... [illegible] ...don't drop hints nor do they take hints - they say it like it is.
Kaego is my kinda town! I just returned to post from two weeks of living out of a backpack tooling around Acirema. Five days at the beach in Arme (disguised as Inter-Service-Training - your tax dollars at work), four days of paperwork in the Capital (Rupmul), and five days of ecstasy in Kaego - my city!
Travel in Acirema is an adventure. Roads vary from the quagmire of Notsob, to the superhighways linking the timber routes. Roads are a huge political issue - which ones get paved, which ones get maintained. Travelers congregate in taxi-parks, an open air market where rides are bought and sold. A typical 11/2 hour ride from Notsob to Kinte (dirt roads) costs 1,000 WFA ($2.00). People are packed in like sardines. A Toyota Corrolla fits 8, four in back, four in front - stick shift be damned. There are two police checkpoints along the way. Theoretically, they exist to keep unregistered vehicles off the roads and to check the travel of foreigners (Danacians, Cixemans etc), but they are more or less a shake down of the drivers - nearly all of who do not register or insure their vehicles. Overloading a car is in and of itself a violation - but hey, nothing 500 WFA can't clear up. Travel between large cities are more comfortable. There are a few reputable bus companies who run a Greyhound comparable service (Rupmul - Kaego 4,000 WFA).
Stepping off the bus in Kaego, two fellow volunteers in tow, we get the Kaego welcome, "Are you French or American? I kill French, I love Americans." Never have I been happier to be American (or at least not be French). Kaego is my kinda town! The city is gorgeous. Nestled in the mountainous Northeast province, surrounded by cliffs and waterfalls, Kaego is breathtaking. Maybe this is what Hemingway meant by "The Green Hills of Africa." I've never been to the Swiss Alps, but Thomas (fellow volunteer) says the Northeast province is prettier.
Besides being gorgeous (a remarkable feat in and of itself), Kaego is also the center of the opposition. The Kaego tribes are the most American of Acirema's tribes. There is a definate aura of everything be damned, we'll do it our way attitude among the Northeasterners. The DSP (Democratic Socialist Process) and their populist leader Peter Bri Pka have the overwhelming backing of The Northeast province. Bri Pka was the winner of the last presidential elections but in African politics winner does not take all. There was much international outcry over the rigged elections but they died down for a number of reasons (no indespensible oil reserve, France was & is opposed to an Anglophone president). Non the less, Bri Pka is still America's choice (he was invited to Bill Clinton's inaugeration). Americans are quite popular in town. Feel free to wave flags and say "Peace Corps volunteer" with pride in Kaego.
Kaego sits on the "ring road", a circular highway that links most of the towns and villages of the Northeast province. For an unpaved highway, the ring road is excellent. The European Communitee, as a vote of confidence, offered to pave the ring road as part of an aid package for the Northeast Province, but the deal is stuck because John Semoi does not want the EC to singling out which Acireman province gets the aid money. In a bizarre twist, as a consulation prize, the Germans were allowed to pave 60km of mountain road from Kaego to Beihai - not for any economic purpose but to show that 1) Semoi is a nice guy 2) The minister of foreign affairs is from Beihai. So now the ring road linking the vital towns and villages is unpaved and the mountain road to po-dunk Beihai is a model of modern engineering. Not to dump on Beihai or the Germans for meaning well, but of all roads that could have been paved - out to Beihai?? Well, at least it makes visiting Thomas and Paula easier (volunteers at Beihai).
The other road left conspicuously unpaved is the one leading down from the western provinces and the cities of Niame, Venega, and Nogiasé. Presently, the railroad is the major link. Again the politics smell fishy. The West is the other stronghold of the opposition, the PNDF (People's National Democratic Front). Allowing Westerners easy access East to Rupmul would invoke trouble. The railroad, being owned and operated by the government is also too much of a cash cow to allow for competition from private uncontrollable trucking firms. There is an old African joke involving the Presidents of Kanangani and Lapmaka. Supposedly, the President of Lapmaka was talking to the President of Kanangani on the phone complaining about rebel guerillas infiltrating the capital city."How are they getting to the city?" responded Tofubu of Kanangani (slimeball).Leaving Kaego was sad - a beautiful city where the people have their act together. It's a crying shame that the Northeasterners are not allowed to use their full potential. Elections are this year (according to the constitution). Kaego is seething and poised. Kaego is my kinda town!!!
"They're coming in from the highways."
"Highways?! I told you not to build any roads!"
P.S. Wow! 4 computers and a laptop! I'm going through serious internet and e-mail withdraw. Communication in Acirema is still third world. The phone lines are just being updated to support modern telecommunications - of course, as always, there is a political outcry because only French companies were allowed to bid for the contract. Check out these web sites
Supposedly, some of my letters are ending up there. If you could do me a huge favor and send copies of my letters to my friend they could end up on the internet. Stamps included. Instructions for diplomatic pouch will be on the way shortly. I need clearance from headquarters.
P.P.S. I need to know:
How Shaquille O'Neal ended up in L.A.?
How Penny Hardaway is taking it?
Is Nintendo 64 as cool as they say?
What's happening on Friends?
Protease inhibitors, 3TC, crixivan, AZT! AIDS is now a treatable disease, the long nightmare is over... or is it? In the news blackout of my post, any news that does trickle in is significant, and what could be more significant than the pharmeceutical containment of the most socially significant disease of my generation. "Combination therapy" they call it. A cocktail of various drugs, AZT, 3TC, and the new miraculous protease inhibitors each attack a different chemical process needed to replicate the HIV virus. If the treatment is administered correctly and under the right conditions, dramatic remissions occur. Patients at death's door are able to run marathons. Instead of writing wills, well to do patients are doubling their 401K contributions and applying to grad-schools. The cloud does indeed have a silver lining and we have finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel... or have we? It depends on how "we" is defined. $25,000 a year, that is the cost of the new pharmaceutical cocktail. In Sub-Saharan Africa, per capita spending on health care is $10. $24,990 short.
December 1st was world AIDS day. There was a march in Daelig to raise AIDS awareness. I can't say Aciremans are not aware of AIDS, they certainly have an opinion on it. Some call it the "American Invention to Discourage Sex". One woman, who clearly is wasting away in the late stages of infection, has been to a number of witchdoctors hoping to be cured. In an awareness info-session sponsored by a local church, a speaker called AIDS God's punishment for immoral behavior. The government is trying to promote condom usage; a speaker demonstrated to the crowd, "Take the condom out of the wrapper, blow it up to make sure it doesn't leak..." The well educated and well organized gay community has successfully embraced condom usage in America, but in Africa huge cultural hurdles (not to mention equally huge financial ones) are preventing its acceptance.
The first obstacle, and perhaps the most difficult obstacle, is the proof of AIDS existence. Whenever I get into a discussion on the disease, it usually falls into an unwinable discussion on whether or not AIDS exists. Many people insist that they have never seen someone die of AIDS. In the Inikib tradition, death by illness is not widely acknowledged. Most deaths are attributed to witchcraft or poison. The way people die in Africa also raises doubts. In the West, AIDS patients hang on by strings finally succumbing to pneumonia, Kaposi's sarcoma or cytomegalovirus retinitus. In Africa, there are a number of opportunistic infections waiting to kill a sufferer. It's difficult to tell whether a patient died from malaria, typhoid, dysentary, AIDS or a combination of ailments. Regardless of opinion, the fact is that AIDS is the number one killer. 140 patients died in the Mehelseb Presbytarian Hospital in 1995, half were AIDS patients.
In America, we no longer have malaria. It was eradicated early in the century. In Africa, it is still a public health crisis. I take a melloquine pill every week as a prophalaxis. Marketed under the brand name Larium®, the $5 pill keeps me healthy (although it is known to cause psychosis in some people). The HCN's (host country nationals) rely on immunity through repeated exposure. Not a bad technique, but useless against HIV. Larium is not available in a pharmacy here where everyone gets malaria but can be obtained in any drugstore in the US where no one gets malaria. A sad irony that illustrates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. There are 22 million people living with AIDS in the world, 14 million in Sub-Saharan Africa. As heartened as I am about the new advances in the fight against AIDS, it is ridiculous to think that we, as mankind, have even come close to a solution.
The danger of the new medical breakthroughs (apart from the danger of drug resistant mutations of HIV) is complacency. Magic Johnson may live a long and prosperous life, we may never have another Brian White, and there may never be another Kimberley Bergalis testifying before Congress - definately a cause for celebration - but when people like us, our neighbors, our friends, our celebrities stop dying, we run out of compassion. America is safe (or at least a wee-bit safer), the rest of the world... well, send them a few Peace Corps volunteers & leave our conscience alone...
January 20, 1997
1996 was a banner year for the followers of international relations. It was the year America once again reminded the World who the only remaining Superpower was. Africa reminded the World that it was still in agony. And France tried to remind the World that it still mattered - barely. The curious dance began when America vowed to nix Boutros-Boutros Gali's second term as Secretary General of the U.N. As the only member of the Security Council opposed to Boutros-Gali, America got a lot of flack for being the international Mr. Difficult. But as the only remaining superpower in the World, America could be Mr. Difficult. The dance got interesting in June when the aloof and ineffective Boutros-Gali did an international tour pleading his case. As the first "African" Secretary General, Boutros-Gali was insinuating that racism rather than his incompetance was the reason for America's opposition. I'll buy that for a dollar, but, as an Egyptian, Boutros-Gali was claiming to be African on a technicality.
The farce began in July when Boutros-Gali lobbied the OAU (Organization of African Unity a.k.a. Organization of Absolute Uselessness) which was holding its annual summit (champagne soireés, chauffeured limousines) here in Acirema. To understand what a complete grand-falloon the OAU is, one just has to look to its chairman - our very own despot, kleptocrat, French patsy and beloved president of 15 years John Semoi. The OAU began in 1960 as an organization of newly independent nations who theoretically joined together to further common goals and solve common problems. Today, the OAU has 54 member nations. The heads of state get together annually in a drunken love-fest to discuss the common goal of staying in power and the common problem of how to fatten their Swiss bank accounts. Acirema hosted the 1996 pow-wow at a cost of $120 million, including a new fleet of Mercedes Benzes - the preferred conveyance of Third World dictators. Peter Bri Pka, head of the opposition, blasted the extravagance, "Acirema cannot afford this summit at this time. Parents cannot send their children to school. People are sick and cannot buy medicine." The fact that Boutros-Gali looked to the OAU at all shows that he is out of touch with Sub-Saharan Africans. Sure the elite kleptocrats may support him, but it is the kleptocrats who are causing Africa's agony. To deal with them like responsible heads of state by perpetuating a cycle of ineffective aid programs and "peace keeping" operations exascerbates the problems and the misery of the people. In the OAU, only 13 (out of 54) member nations hold regular elections (Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde Islands, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritiers, Namibia, Sao Tomé and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, and Zambia). Boutros-Gali has, to his credit, presided over a UN that twiddled its thumbs during the Rwanda genocide, the Somalia fiasco, Liberia's break-down and the assassination of Ken Siro-Wiwa (playwright / environmentalist) in Nigeria. Dictators cannot be expected to behave responsibly and they certainly should not be lobbied for an endorsment. Thank god Boutros-Gali lost the show-down with Uncle Sam. If he had won, those dictators who gave their stamps of approval would know who to ask for a favor.
The game did not end quietly in November when Boutros-Gali realized that it was a lost cause to stand up against the U.S. When names were floated for the post, France decided that if America could be Mr. Difficult, so could France! The general consensus was that an African candidate should be chosen - a real African this time. Kofi Anan, a Ghanaian and career U.N. functionary, was proposed and endorsed by much of the World. Anan is a revered career diplomat in the UN. who came into the spotlight with his astute diplomacy in Bosnia - an international power-broker of the nineties. France objected, insisting on a candidate from Francophone Cote d'Ivoire. It came down to a test of wills between France and America. Of course this didn't last long - besides the captive African nations in the French Communauté, people could care less what France says - until, of course, when they decide to once again sink a Green Peace vessel or defy the international test ban and nuke another prestine atoll in the Pacific.
The choice of Anan was celebrated in Acirema - or at least in Anglophone Acirema. The fact that he is African - Sub-Saharan African - reassured Aciremans that America was not pressing for a Western Secretary General. International politics is closely followed by Aciremans most of who are avid listeners of the BBC World Service In America, we assume, often with good cause, that the World marches to our beat. The fractious politics of the UN is considered a backwater of incompetance and inefficiency by prominent American legislators - like Jesse Helms chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. If it were up to him, the entire organization would be scrapped. Who needs the mediation and comprimize of 200 bickering nations when America can practice rogue diplomacy with brute force? America is the most powerful and influential member of the UN and is also the biggest debtor owing $1.6 billion. Peanuts for America, but a powerful symbol of America's bully tactics.
In Africa, UN policies have direct and pervasive effects. As a continent, Africa receives the largest chunks of aid from UN relief organizations - UNICEF, UNESCO, Peace Keepers, UN Volunteers. Anan promises sweeping reforms. Reforms that are needed if the UN is to have any consequence in the next century. His first task will be to pry the back dues out of the US Congress - an important symbolic vote of confidence in the organization. Next he will have to figure out what to do about the dozen or so wars that are being waged presently (Sudan, Cyprus, Zaire, Rwanda, Central Asia, Afganistan). But it is the quagmire of Africa in which his ultimate success or failure will be determined.
Enclosed is a letter for Peace Corps Washington claiming my rights to use the diplomatic pouch. Please send the books along with the letter to:
1990 K Street, NW
Washington, D.C 20526
Dear Ms Merson & Brookline Middle School (Whoa times have changed since James Junior High School),
Feb 18, '97
I received 2 packets of letters and an aerogram so far. I got just as big of a kick out of the letters as my students. I feel so old. Reading Chris Stockton's letter got me a little scared - jocks, G's, nerds, punks (with multiple body piercings), freaks & skaters? All we had were preps, nerds, and head bangers. I didn't get into ska music until college! (Ever heard of MephaSKAphelese & Bumble Fish Tuna?) And the one ear piercing I got senior year at Kent State has healed over because I'm afraid of infection here - I feel so old! Anyways, my students loved your letters. A packet of Acireman letters should be arriving soon. Thanks for the resounding DING on Michael Jackson - no longer can he hawk his second rate music to the students at SLTM Notsob.
I'd like to tell you a little about the linguistic hodge-podge of Acirema. There are two official languages here - French and English - and about 200 or so native dialects. The gov't is trying to promote the two European languages as the lingua Franca of the country - languages understood by all even if it is not the native tongue. The success of the effort is debatable. Most educated Anglophones speak a considerable amount of French but the reverse is not the case - Francophones being the majority, have not embraced English. Much to the chagrin of the gov't, the lingua Franca preferred by the people is West African Pidgin. More Aciremans speak Pidgin than any other language. It is the language of the youth, of the market, and of travel. Pidgin itself is a combination of languages. The origins can be traced to the Portuguese slave traders who developed a simple barter language with the West African tribes. The language developed with time by combining European languages with African ones. English has the largest influence on Pidgin though it is incorrect to label West African Pidgin as Pidgin English - it is a language of its own with its own rules and regulations. Pidgin is easily learned but difficult to master. I can bargain, order food, and tell people off but conversations are more difficult. An experienced Pidgin speaker has to slow down considerably and use more English when talking to me.
The Euro-wanabe ruling elite would like to squash Pidgin - it is forbidden on school grounds, though I still hear it all the time. The argument is that Pidgin "ruins" the English of the students. To a certain degree, that is valid. Pidgin sneaks into the mouths and compositions of Aciremans and does subvert "proper" English. You'll see for yourselves when you read the student letters. But the power of English is that it is an adaptable language - what is "proper" English anyways British, American, Australian, Indian, West African? English will survive Pidgin and probably grow because of it - and Pidgin will flourish despite attempts to murder it. Presently Pidgin is of most interest to acedemic linguists who are trying to document, codify, and create a written system for it. Pidgin education for Peace Corps volunteers is perhaps the most thorough environment where Pidgin is actually taught.
The downside of Pidgin is that it is destroying (perhaps absorbing) native dialects. Many Inikib children speak Pidgin rather than Inikib as their first language.
The Pidgin debate will rage on but volunteers generally like Pidgin because - if anything - it's a whole lot of fun. I'll teach you some
Piskops -> Peace Corps (pronounce phenetically, include the s at the end)
Pikin -> Child / Young Man (from the Portuguese Pequino for child)
Chop -> Food / or to eat / to embezzle
Waka -> to walk / to move
Sabi -> to know
Chek -> to think
Pepol -> person
Pepol dem -> people
Don waka, Di waka have just walked am walking recent past tense present continuos tense
Bi waka Ga waka No waka walked will walk do not walk past tense future tense negative
Kwakanda -> bachelor / useless person
A (pronounced Ahh) -> I
yi -> he / she
wuna -> you plural (second person plural)
wi -> we
dey -> they
shidon -> sit down / stay
komot -> to come from (from "come out")
chakara -> a mess
dem: plural marker, fo: universal preposition
Ol Piskops dem lak fo tok Pidgin.
All Peace Corps volunteers like to speak Pidgin.
John Semoi na big man fo contri. Yi chop plenti moni fo pepol dem. Yi go mak contri go chakara.
John Semoi is the president of the country. He steals money from the people. He will make the country a mess.
A bi Piskops fo Notsob. A komot fo Amelika. A noba bi shidon fo Acirema. A no fit tok Pidgin fayn, bot A di try.
I am a Peace Corps volunteer in Notsob. I come from America. I have never lived in Acirema. I cannot speak Pidgin very well but I am trying.
You really need to hear a conversation to fully appreciate it and enjoy the fun. I'll try to get a hold of a tape recorder.
P.S. Biggest accomplishment so far! My letter was read on BBC's A Jolly Good Show. It's a music request program Sundays 18:30 GMT. I missed the program, bummer, but other Piskops dem heard it. I can't believe they read it. I made a few snide remarks about American Foreign policy and British colonialism and requested that they play Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army" - a scathing attack on British Imperialism I dedicated it to all the Elvises in my classes - there are 11 of them. P.P.S. Adam Guri, how was Leornard DiCaprio in Romeo & Juliette?