Our professors had taken us to Amboseli National Park for a field trip, and had decided to send us through a cultural manyatta, a tourist attraction meant to direct some of the money that pours into Kenya every year from the vacation budgets of Europeans and Americans to the local people; to let them benefit, however indirectly, from the wildlife that simultaneously attracts the foreigners and devastates local farms and herds. It was meant to be an opportunity for us to get a tourist’s-eye view of the local culture, a different kind of educational experience than we ordinarily got as students.
So far, though, it had just been confusing. Earlier that day we’d also been arranged in a circle, this time outside, around a group of Maasai who were trying to start a fire by rubbing a stick against a piece of wood. They tried for about ten minutes before giving up and moving on to a demonstration of medicinal plants. If they had matches, why weren’t they using them? Any other Maasai that we’d met would never have bothered with the sticks in the first place, and if he’d been out of matches, he’d have called a friend in town on his cell phone and asked him to pick some up. Why was it so different here? And why was it making us so uncomfortable?
The original manyatta idea had involved a setup like Old Sturbridge Village or Epcot, a life-sized diorama where Maasai could work as performers and educators during the day before returning home to their real bomas at night. But when you travel on foot in blazing heat, often accompanied by your entire life’s savings in slow-moving cows, any commute at all becomes undesirable. And if you’re a member of a culture that is in the process of transitioning out of a nomadic lifestyle (a lifestyle which has traditionally included scrapping your whole neighborhood as soon as the pasture runs out), keeping up two sets of buildings seems less than sensible.
So the Maasai moved into the dioramas. They built schools near them, and switched to a form of stationary pastoralism within the parks where most of the manyattas were based. They made tit-for-tat arrangements with tour drivers – “you bring your tourists to our manyatta, we’ll give you a cut of the proceeds” – and suddenly their livelihoods depended on how much tourists liked what they saw. If there was something those tourists might not like, under the bed it went.
We had to learn all of this from our professors, and from papers – I wish I could say our host had corroborated it, but when we tried to ask him how he felt about all of it, his previously good English deteriorated instantly. It was the same with the man who explained to us that the Maasai drink cow’s blood, and cure all diseases with native plants despite the presence of a nearby hospital, and are polygamists. Any attempt at asking how these practices were changing was met with a rapid change of subject, or silence, or a reiteration (“Maasai men drink blood and take many wives!”) followed by a pause, as though we were supposed to be impressed, or repelled, or both. As though, having played the part of the strange native, they were waiting for us to play ours – to be the Westerners, willing to pay money to be both disgusted and titillated by people different than us.
My empathy has been worn raw. Even living amidst a tangle of organizations that work to help people, I have been flooded with stories of physical abuse, children succumbing to sickness, and lost educational opportunities. I cringe now when I hear of new start-up NGOs taking root in town, immediately questioning their audacity and level of experience; I don’t flinch when students I am interviewing tell me about the way their parents were killed or raped; the sight of beggars in town—even the one with a thick stump for a leg who carries around his miserable plastic bag of mixed food scraps—stirs up not feelings of pity within me, but surges of frustration and anger; sometimes when kids see me and immediately ask me for money or pens (echoing the met demands they’ve made to other foreigners in the past), I stop in my tracks and, thinking out loud, ask, “Why? Why should I give anything to you?”
The trees lining the road by Kaunda Grounds trap the clouds of dust kicked up by passing cars and trucks. After a few rain-less weeks, the road is perpetually cloaked in a thick, reddish haze. Walking home on this stretch of road at the end of the day, as I was doing, is a gritty, eye-squinting ordeal.
A motorcycle emerged from the haze and screeched to a stop by my side. Both bike and driver fit the profile of one of Gulu’s hundreds of boda bodas, motorcycle taxis that take people around town.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked.
“Near Holy Cross Church, across from the prison,” I said.
“OK, let’s go,” he said, nodding toward the back of his bike. I hopped on and he sped away.
As we were driving, my hand raised to shield my eyes from the dust, I thought about a conversation I had had with a boda driver a few weeks before. The driver had asked me for money to help buy school uniforms for his kids. As I had done before in similar situations, I apologized and explained I couldn’t help him. The irony of the situation, however, was glaring: here was a person canvassing on his own behalf, asking for support in-person, and I was refusing to engage. Yet years before, someone on the street in NYC was able to get me to support a person in India I had never even met. I thought about how Gulu had numbed me, anesthetized me to the stories of brokenness that once surprised and saddened me. It took more now to convince me of someone’s misery.
When we reached my house, I pulled out my wallet and, before I could find a thousand shilling note for the driver, he smacked at the wallet in my hands. Startled, I backed away from the man.
“No, no. You don’t need to pay me,” he said, laughing.
I was confused. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Why not?”
“Because I’m not a boda driver,” he said. “I’m just driving home. You don’t need to pay me.”
It took some time before I understood what was happening. Halfway between sleep and consciousness, I was disoriented as the bed scurried across the floor and the apartment walls around me swayed like laundry in a strong breeze. My wife Kathryn and I locked eyes as our bodies were literally bounced into the air.
“Earthquake,” I said quietly, fascinated to be using the word for the first time in its actual context.
“Earthquake!” she repeated, louder, as if she needed to say the word with more force to make it real.
Then my senses caught up with my surroundings and the panic set in. I jumped out of bed thinking instinctively that we needed to be outside, away from all concrete and brick, preferably with a long rope in case the ground beneath us caved in and sucked Oaxaca into the dark. I ran outside to look at the city, expecting to see buildings in heaps, lampposts on fire, and cars belly-up.
But as soon as I reached the door, the tremors vanished. In an instant, the city was back to its normal self, yawning in the early morning haze. The breakfast smoke of street vendors drifted past the rooftops, and the honking and revving of morning traffic resumed, as if on cue.
Until that day, my experience with earthquakes had been limited to disaster films––the kind where tremors rattle piano top ornaments just before the earth opens up and devours all forms of life. Then there was the Los Angeles quake of 1994, which I remember distinctly because it interrupted my favorite television show. Now, just two weeks into my semester in Oaxaca, I had survived an actual quake.
I left for my morning trek to Spanish class and noticed that no one seemed too shaken by the morning’s disturbance. The same women stood at their fruit stalls, hacking at pineapples with machetes. The old beggars found their normal shady spots, pressed their backs against the cold colonial walls, and extended their hands for change. The locals walked determinedly to their jobs, and the tourists snapped the city into their cameras. Oaxaca was perfectly intact.
I fell into the rhythm and used my walk to practice the phrase I would ask my teacher and fellow students: “¿Sintieron el temblor?” “Did you feel the earthquake?”
In class 364, where I teach English to Chinese high school students, one of the first things my students must do is choose an English name. Most select something ordinary like Anna or Jeff, but occasionally students get more creative: This year we have God’s Father, Fashion Tiger, Tom Greed, and in what’s either a peculiar conspiracy or a very unlikely coincidence, two separate students who go by the name Black Pig. Then there is perhaps my all-time favorite: Run Basketball.
“I like to run and I like to play basketball,” Run Basketball told me on the first day of class. “Now do you understand my name?”
Run is a tall, handsome 16-year old with the look of a future athlete. His arms and shoulders have not yet developed, and his full-sized head sits uneasily atop his pubescent frame. But despite his lanky physique, his forearm muscles are solid, and they evidence a certain measure of adolescent strength.
In the classroom, Run is a bundle of nerves. When I call him to speak, he goes into a stuttering panic as he struggles to form an appropriate English response. Outside of class, however, he is considerably more confident. Near the beginning of the semester, he approaches me to ask for extra help with spoken English.
“I need more teaching,” he says.
He asks me to meet with him for an hour each week, which is more than I am usually willing to sacrifice for a single student. But Run Basketball interests me so I agree.
For our first meeting, we convene at a concrete picnic table that happens to overlook the school’s basketball courts. The courts are in dismal shape—the squares on the backboards have faded to mere shadows; the pavement shows a sprawling pattern of cracks; the netless rims are visibly tilted from the force of arcing basketballs. Despite these less-than-optimal conditions, the courts are packed with players. All 12 goals are bustling with pickup games, and crowds of hopeful substitutes gather on the sidelines.
“Basketball is very important,” Run says, looking out at the courts. “It is good for your body, good for your health.”
For a few minutes, we read a dialogue from an English lesson entitled, “I can still be a productive member of society”— about the lives of disabled people. Clearly, however, this is not a subject that interests Run. As we read, he periodically looks away from the book to glance at the basketball games below. When I see that I’m losing him, I close the book.
“Maybe we should just talk about basketball,” I say. “Do you play every day?”
Instantly I have his attention.
“Yes, every day,” he says. Twice a day, in fact: after lunch and before dinner. Between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.—the typical length of a Chinese school day—these are his only windows of free time, and he always spends them on the basketball courts.
“Sometimes I play here,” he says, pointing down at the courts. “Sometimes I play inside the gym.”
“I’ll come find you sometime. Then we can play together.” The fact that I play basketball excites Run, and the thought that he might get to play with or against me, his English teacher, practically sends him into a tizzy.
“Good! Very good!” he says. Then, suddenly, his excitement fades.
“My parents think I play too much basketball,” he says, quietly. Run’s eyes get wide and serious as he tells me about his family. His parents are farmers who grow rice outside Hengshan, a neighboring town. They have farmed rice their entire lives, just as their parents did. Life in the countryside is easier today than it was 20 or 30 years ago; nevertheless, his parents still face hardship. His sister works in a factory, and Run is the first in his family to have firm prospects of attending university.
“We are poor,” he says. “I must succeed in school so that my family can have a better life. Some day, I hope to become a businessman.”
“You’re on track,” I say. “Your English is excellent.”
“No, no,” he says, smiling and looking away. “I don’t speak well.”
“I can understand you perfectly!”
A wild pass flies off court and onto the adjacent soccer field, and we watch as a sweat-drenched student chases it down.
Part of me is angry with Modester.
She sits opposite me in the dim one-room house she shares with her husband and infant daughter. AIDS campaign posters plaster the hand-hewn brick walls, and a floral curtain has been tied back to reveal a small kitchen area. A radio, operated by a car battery—no electricity here—plays Malawian songs and Modester hums along. As she waits for the interpreter to translate my question, she deftly frees a breast from her halter-top and nurses Debra. Her nipples are charcoal dark and as large and round as tea saucers. She is compact and muscular, with arms made strong by years of hauling water from the well. She gazes at her daughter, who makes tiny slurping noises. I look down and rub my bare feet against the threadbare brown felt covering the floor. I am twenty-two, four years older than Modester, and yet I suddenly feel very, very young.
William, Modester’s husband, spreads a fresh layer of concrete on the porch. He looks at me and flashes an open smile.
“He is a builder,” Modester says through Martha, a young university student who is acting as an interpreter. He is ten years older, she says.
“How did you meet?” I ask.
Modester shrugs. “I don’t remember.”
But she does recall her family’s protests. Sixteen was too young to marry, her parents said, and they wanted her to continue her education. They wanted her to finish secondary school and get a job. But she never wavered—she knew what she wanted, and that was to leave school and marry William.
“Do you miss school?” I ask.
“I do,” she says. She adds that she once entertained hopes of becoming a teacher.
“Would you ever consider returning?”
She answers with a breezy yes.
And yet I don’t believe her. I want to believe that this poised, well-liked, young woman would continue her education, would help break the cycle of young motherhood and poverty that exists in this part of Malawi. But I find myself questioning her conviction. Maybe it’s the baby at her breast. Or maybe it’s the statistics: one-fifth of Malawian girls do not attend primary school; of those who do, two-thirds attend irregularly; 10.5 percent of girls drop out every year.
The woman who is being paid to flirt with me is very good.
She’s sitting in front of me, batting her eyelashes and playing with the translucent boa that hangs around her neck. She wears a form-fitting, purplish-red dress that looks like a prom outfit from a sultry alternate reality. Her eyelashes reach up and out, exaggerating her blinks and laughs. Those eyelashes can’t be real.
“You’re very handsome,” she says, leaning slightly toward me. I’m not inclined to argue. At that exact moment in time, I certainly feel very handsome.
But there are complications.
“This is Saleem,” a girl at my table says, introducing me. “And this girl sitting next to him is his girlfriend.”
“Oh, my,” says the professional flirt-ress. “That’s too bad.”
I am in the International Show Pub Asiana, in downtown Kumamoto, Japan, one of the many evening clubs where wealthy men pay a premium to enjoy the company of beautiful young women. Hostesses sit at the club’s six tables, providing company to the patrons, who are mostly gray-haired Japanese businessmen. The girls compliment them and laugh at their jokes. There may be some handholding. It may be hard to believe, given that in the most expensive clubs men can easily spend hundreds of dollars in a few hours, but handholding is where it stops.
I am here with my girlfriend (who is Japanese) and a group of her friends, one of whom knows a hostess who has let us in for cheap. Women don’t usually visit these clubs, but my girlfriend and her friends are having a kind of girls’ night out—with me. It’s my first time in a lounge, and I’m here out of courtesy. And, yes, curiosity.
Around me, patrons chat one-on-one with hostesses in cushy booths that could easily seat four. The color-filtered light fixtures cast a kind of muted purple light that, coupled with tons of makeup, make everyone’s skin look flawless. To me, the place feels fake—like it’s been engineered to give men an escape from their everyday lives and to give them the chance to be surrounded by beautiful women who feign interest in them. It’s a lounge of illusion.
I watch the professional flirt-ress chat with my girlfriend. Her conversation keeps turning back to my handsomeness. As she talks, she glances at me and fidgets suggestively with her scarf. I want to tell her, “Hey, it’s cool. You don’t have to flirt with me. I’m in on the joke. You’re not actually in love with me, I get it.” But I also get the impression that she can’t turn off the charm. Maybe it’s a work rule, or maybe it’s the force of habit.
She is very pretty.
The manager of the lounge approaches our table. “There will be a karaoke contest starting soon,” she says. “There will be lots of prizes.” Then, looking directly at me: “Why don’t you join?”
“No, no, that’s OK,” I say. “I’m fine just watching.” But my tablemates are enthusiastic and insist that I sing. I begin flipping through a book of thousands of songs, and choose Little Richard’s 1955 hit, Tutti Frutti.
Glimpse Correspondents spend a minimum of ten weeks abroad in the spring or fall. They develop a portfolio of professionally edited, published work, including one feature narrative and one ethical dilemma essay. To learn more about the Spring 2011 Correspondents Program and apply to be a correspondent, visit Glimpse.org.