Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sao Tome

This is the story of two Germans, a Spaniard, a Dutchman, a Luxembourger, and an American traveling around the small Portuguese-speaking African island of Sao Tome.

The largest "Roca" on the island.

Tour of the Roca grounds/plantation.

Had to stop for gas. Diesel from a bottle? Sure, sounds safe.

Market in Sao Tome city.


Beach on our road trip north the first day on the island.

Village of Santa Catarina

On top of the world.

Baobabs in the distance.

View from out campsite/where we took baths in the morning.

Campsite #1

Travelers' breakfast the next morning
Another Roca/coffee plantation.

Coffee beans!

Drove along a tiny road up the mountain to find this beauty.

Coffee plantation Nova Moca

Coffee up close and personal

Came upon this view along the road

And this bizarre HIV/AIDS PSA

Had a little problem with the four-wheel drive

Another gorgeous beach (next 5 pictures are all from the same beach)

Campsite #2

View we woke up to the next morning.

These are just the highlights. I couldn't post all of the 600ish pictures we took between the 6 of us.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

La Blanche

I have never been more aware of the fact that I am white and female. Certainly in an African country I am bound to be a minority, but besides Haiti, I’ve never been in a place where my minority status carries so much weight.

Roughly 10 times a day I’m am called “La Blanche,” meaning white girl (“blanche” is feminine, otherwise it would be “blanc”). It’s less frequent at HAS because people either know my name or are used to having White visitors around. When I go running though, it’s a different story (yes it’s safe to go running here, and I usually go with people anyway).

On one of my first runs here, I ran by a primary school and the children were outside having the equivalent of gym class. As I ran by the teacher said “regard la blanche et comment elle court!” (look at the white girl and how she runs!). I’m not sure if it was awe or jest, but either way I was quite a sight to behold.

Recently I tried to run on a particularly hot and humid day. It was the sort of weather where you feel as though your body has to fight its way through the thick air, or you might just choke on the feverish gulps of humidity entering your lungs. So y’know, just a typical day in Africa. I got to a point in the route and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Down for the count. As I started to walk I heard “Ah regard, elle est gazĂ©e la blanche!” (“ah look at the white girl, she is gased!”). Here I am thinking the African humidity is about ready to finish me off and now I have an audience. You never feel particularly good about yourself when you have to start walking, so it’s pretty awesome when someone can point out the fact that you look like you’re going to pass out.

Most of the time it’s children who call me la blanche. The end of my running route is along the main road and as I pass kids washing clothes in the river or playing outside their houses they yell and wave “LA BLANCHE!” I smile and wave back, and it doesn’t bother me all that much.

However, when adults employ this vernacular, I am less amused. It’s obviously not okay for me to use the same identifiers for people here, and that seems like something adults should know and respect. Men in the market yell la blanche and make kissing noises, and taxi drivers say, “bon soir les blanches.” Men will call me la blanche and ask for my phone number, and I want to ask them what exactly they are going to put as the contact name. One time at a football game (soccer) an entire section of the stadium, all males of course, starting yelling la blanche and telling me to come sit with them. It’s then that my status as La Blanche makes me uncomfortable. There is literally no hope of blending in. Something as innocuous as watching a football game becomes an event. It’s an odd feeling to have people constantly pointing out parts of your identity that you can do nothing about.

I figured this was a personal perturbation, or at least one that only bothered my fellow blaches and me. But last week on PMI the nurses and I got out of the car to buy pomplemousse (=grapefruit. One of my favorite French words!) and a guy probably around my age starting yelling la blanche and motioning for me to come over to him. The head nurse whipped around and told him he was too old and too educated to be using that word. She told him I was not the white girl, but that I had a name and if he wanted me to come over there he had better ask my name first. I was so thankful for her at that moment. It was a strange mix of female solidarity and transnational understanding that race and gender are not appropriate labels for human beings, no matter where they might find themselves.

I have a feeling this will be a point of reverse culture shock when I come back to the States.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Project Update

 I have now completed a second observation day, 2 days of survey distribution, and one day of focus groups. Moving right along!

The second observation day started out being equally as awkward because once again the Censeur lead me to a classroom sans professor. However, the kids were older this time around and therefore more confidant. After roughly 12 minutes of nail painting, sleeping, last minute homework finishing, and singing Adele, one of the kids finally asked what I was doing there. Good question sir, I’m beginning to wonder that myself. The following are tidbits from my spontaneous discussion with the class:
  • “What’s your project?”
  • “Why adolescent sexual health?”
  •  “Do you think you’re meeting your goal if you say you want to observe a class but there is no professor present?” (To which I wanted to respond, “you’re a shit starter, but you have a point.” Just one of many reasons why working with adolescents keeps you on your toes.)
  •  “We want to talk to our parents about sex, and some of us do, but most of the time our parents don’t want to talk about it.”
  •  “I think sex is natural. Kids need to discover things for themselves. They get to an age where they want to be liked and loved.”
  •  “We see American series where the kids bring their boyfriends or girlfriends over to the house and the parents don’t care. Doesn’t that encourage sex? We couldn’t do that, our parents would freak out. I got in huge trouble when my boyfriend came over to my house.”

And then they took pictures of me.

The Censeur came in to check on me and I asked if I could stay for History class. He looked puzzled but said that would be fine. Later I went to a biology class. Most of the time was spent on a quiz, so I didn’t get to see teacher-pupil interaction, but the quiz covered the menstrual cycle, phases of embryotic development, and STI symptoms/modes of transmission. Not bad!

After the quiz the prof gave the kids time to ask me questions, which included the following:
  • Are you married?
  • How old are you? (The class erupted in excitement. There is enormous age variation in classes, and it’s very possible that some students are my age or older).
  • What were your studies in Boston and why did you decide to come to Gabon?
  •  Why adolescent health?
  • Do you work with the United Nations?
  • Are you just working with our school? Why?
  • Will you speak English for us?

Overall I was pretty impressed with their questions and interest level. Both classes seemed to think an adolescent sexual health project was really important, and they were very open to talking about sexual health. Some people commented on how “sex is taboo,” but honestly, compared to the U.S. everyone is very open to the topic. I haven’t encountered any resistance from the school director or staff. Everyone seems to think this is important and worth doing, which is incredibly encouraging.

With that said, I did encounter a roadblock this past week: the religion teacher. This chapter should be entitled “how I found myself in Africa confronting my frustration with the Catholic Church.” It wasn’t pretty.

So here I am going to distribute my survey to a class that I assumed would be sans professor per usual. However, not only did a professor show up, but he was also a priest. Delightful. He asked to see my survey and I’m thinking “oh dear he’s going to send me to confession,” but to my amazement he was very interested and decided on the spot that today’s class would be about the relationship between sexuality, reproduction, and religion. My immediate reaction was “please don’t! you’re going to screw up my results!” Let’s just say the ideal survey sample for sexual health is NOT a group that has just received a lecture on how condoms are part of the profane world (yes that is a direct quote, although I think he was trying to get at secular rather than profane. Or maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better).

Then I took off my researcher hat. There I was listening to my own religion’s take on sexuality and reproduction with anger and dismay. It’s the part I try my hardest to forget, but rears its ugly head from time to time. It hit me harder though because it wasn’t theoretical anymore; it wasn’t just the part of the homily I could tune out. This was a classroom full of kids trying to figure out what the hell to do with themselves in this awkward time we conveniently call adolescence and someone just told them condoms lead to infidelity and diseases.

At the same time, this staunch Catholic presence was baffling given the incredibly comprehensive sexual and reproductive health curriculum the school uses in biology class. What’s a kid to think when the biology teacher says, “masturbation is a normal part of sexual development” and “there are many different ways to express sexuality, including homosexuality” and then the religion teacher calls both of them a sin?

We’ll see what the survey results bring, but something tells me there’s not a whole lot of abstinence going on around here.

Ma vie en photos

The Fete du Travail (Labor Day--5/1/2012). Everyone from Schweitzer got the same fabric to make an outfit, but as a "student," I was not allowed fabric. Thankfully, my friend gave me some of his extra. Voila the evolution of my outfit for the day!

The parade!
URM-ers celebrate le fete

After the parade, we returned to HAS and the ladies had a full-on outdoor kitchen set up. They cooked for ~100 people!
Couldn't get this picture situated correctly, but this is the last version of my outfit.
Preparing bananas

Aerial view of "kitchen"

Doctor Molly prepping for a C-section. Check out how big that lamp is in relation to the bed!

Pre-cesearen happiness.

Dr. Jonathan.

Check out my sweet operating shoes.

Nutella wall at Mbolo grocery store in Libreville. You can find just about anything there.

New skirt!