Wednesday, September 4, 2013

July 24 & 25: Onalina

Not written in my journal in-country; this entry is filling in the 5 W's, post-travel. I met for two different class periods, both days after the English class, with Onalina - the general secretary of the school.

Because "executive assistant" is a first world job title, when people ask what I do here, I tell them, "I'm the secretary to a man who runs a company." That satisfies their curiosity; no one has asked what that company might do.

Edward told us that people in his country do not believe, cannot believe, that Americans ever sweat. Meaning: we never have to work hard. We are all secure. And I assume that when they hear "company" they assume a successful, thriving, easy-street company where nothing ever goes wrong, no one has get their hands dirty with labor, and we sell all the widgets our hearts desire. And while I work at a successful and growing company, I also work with people who physically build and configure lots of different computers and servers every day, and our sales goals are assuredly NOT a guarantee each quarter. Explaining any sort of first-world stress though, is an impossibility and I wouldn't even attempt it. So here, I'm a secretary, and that's a nice, soft work that's easy to understand.

I assume this is why Edward assigns me to meet for two days with Onalina, the secondary school's only secretary.

Her little office is outside the headmaster's office; she literally keep the keys to his. She keeps the school calendar, the students' permanent records and teachers' applications, diplomas and pay schedules. There is a fat folder housing permanent records, and it is labeled "Pregnant Students".

She has a cell phone - a certain sign of reliable income and wealth - and lives about five houses down from the school grounds. The first day we meet, neither of us are sure what we're going to do. She has to hand me a stool to sit on through the window of her office; the door can't open all the way because the stuffed and dusty cabinet is too big, it blocks the door. She shows me how to file a piece of paper. There does not appear to be ongoing work; just little piecemeal assignments and in between those she texts, she goes for a walk to visit the librarian, she rests. She'd like computer lessons, but it has not been sunny enough for the solar power to be fully charged, so I can't assist her there - the lab is down.

She processes a petty cash request - gasoline for a trip to Iringa to purchase school sundries (rice is on the list), and she does a beautiful set of three bureaucratic Tanzanian steps to get it approved (we walk from one building the next, getting various signatures and stamps from people who don't even look at the piece of paper, and then take it back to the door right next to hers, School Treasury, where the applicant can return to pick up the cash; we take the paperwork back with us and add it to a stack comically high and disorganized).

Over the two days we meet, for about 90 minutes each time, we speak a bit about our lives - she has two boys, which is the ultimate achievement and she is so happy when I congratulate her, hugging me into her bosom. She is confused that I am married but have no babies. "But to be a happy wife, you must have babies in the house," she says, and I don't say out loud that I think to be a happy mother you must have babies, but to be a happy wife you probably need other things.

We speak a bit about our jobs - she tells me that sometimes the headmaster is available when someone comes to see him. But if she can tell they are hot, and upset, she will say he is not available yet - and she will invite them to speak a little first to her, to get them cool, before she will allow them in. I tell her it's 100% exactly the same as a secretary in America, and she laughs and laughs. She leans in to hold my hands, squeeze them, and half-hugs me again as she laughs. Connecting with someone in Tanzania is not just an intellectual or emotional experience; it's a full-body one.

The second day, she takes me to see where the mandazi is cooked for teacher 10 AM teatime. I was not comfortable taking photos, or asking to take photos, of either Onalina or of the woman who makes the daily mandazi. So these Google Image photos are approximations...

Picture a blackened and battered pan, similar to below, but about three times bigger. Filled with a couple gallons of cooking oil, brought to a boil over thick, long logs on fire, and then the triangles of mandazi are dropped in. Inside the hut near this cooking fire, I see the hundred or so triangles laid out on a dirty wood table, ash drifting in and settling, bugs granted full access, waiting to be fried. But I know that perceived dirt is not a problem - the boiling oil will kill anything. So when I am offered a mandazi by the older, toothless chef (who smiles proudly when I tell her how beautiful they are, and how beautifully she cooks them to a perfect, consistent golden brown) I take one.

Onalina and I walk back to her office, each holding a hot mandazi in a scrap of newsprint. We sit to eat them, and I finish mine first, mimicking the way she eats hers - ripping off a small piece to blow on and then consume.

It is incredibly tasty. I mean, how can it not be? It's Indian fry bread, it's puff puff, it's vada, it's sopaipilla, it's beignet, it's elephant ear! It's the delicious, hot, oily doughnut-like food you find all over the world when flour, fat, sugar and salt are the only shelf-stable and affordable foods. 

Onalina offers me her last chunk. Knowing that this is all some people get to eat between waking and supper, I wave it away, "Oh no, that is yours, you have it, you enjoy it." She is somber and says, "It's OK." She mimes pulling it apart. "You can have. I only touch with my hands, not my mouth." As if I was saying no because I was afraid of her germs, of her saliva. Rushing to apologize, I take it gratefully, smile as I finish it, and mmmm over its goodness.n

After our first meeting, I tell Edward, when he asks how it went, "Oh, fine, I guess. We didn't do anything, though. I'm not really sure what we can teach each other about our jobs. We just visited and spoke in English and talked about our lives a little." He lit up.

"Yes! That is exactly what I wanted. She is a leader here, but she does not know that always. She has not been much out of the village. I want her to be exposed to the world, to have your world shared to her. That is why I send you."

Ah! Understanding that visiting WAS the purpose lets me go back happily the second day. I can enjoy my time with her. I don't have to DO anything. I don't have to check off a box or train anyone or keep notes. Talking is the assignment, and if I can do anything after watching a bunch of kids get the shit kicked out of them, it's talk slowly - kindly - calmly - to a woman exuding maternal warmth.

I tell her what happened in class and she just nods, "Yes, it is normal here. Not for you?" I tell her no, in America, we (almost) never hit schoolchildren - and many, many parents never hit their kids at all. It is growing out of our culture in many places. She looks like she hears my words, but I must be mistaken in what I say. Couldn't be.

The recommended packing list for Pommern included "photos from home to show the local people". I brought nine random photos, now embarrassedly stuffed into the bottom of my suitcase. But today I was grateful to bring them to Onalina so I could show her my John, Oregon, our wedding, my mother and aunt, my brother and his fiance.

"So green!" she says of all the Oregon photos, even ones I don't think of as very lush. "So handsome!" about John.

She is confused by the photo of Bradley and Kimi; "Your brother. Yes, handsome man. Tall. But who is this?"

"His wife." I see the gears turning, as she studies the picture, regarding an interracial relationship. Amazing. "And babies?"

"Ah, no, no babies yet."

Then, "Very young - and very smart?" she says about my mother. I think she says smart because my mother wears glasses. And that she looks young because people in their 40s here look like they are in their 60s at home. My mother must look like a model to her, and Onalina cannot believe her age when I tell her.  "She's beautiful, isn't she?" I say. She nods her head and she laughs, so impossibly young looking. She grabs my hands and leans in, touching foreheads.

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