My brother and I used to tease our mom about being the “mean” neighborhood lady. She would get really annoyed about things that seemed so petty to Roy and I, like our neighbors’ friends parking in front of our house or the neighbors flicking their cigarette butts into the overgrown wilderness behind the house. She simply couldn’t explain to our satisfaction why it mattered where our neighbor’s dog pooped.
Mom, I owe you an apology. I understand now.
I’ve written before about my frustrations with Shirati townspeople violating the sanctity of our home environment, but lately I’ve become convinced that people here are determined to drive me out of town. In the past two weeks (two weeks only), all of these things have happened:
– People pasturing their cows, goats and chickens in our yard
– Neighbor kids stealing our garbage
– A mentally ill man stole out of our garbage
– Local grade schoolers and neighbor kids sneaking into our backyard to steal fruit, breaking limbs off the trees to get to it. The neighbor kids know they’re not supposed to take fruit off the trees, and their grandmother knows we don’t want them taking fruit, but when Fred went over to reiterate with her after chasing the kids off for the umpteenth time, he found her eating our fruit.
– Two little girls snuck away from a church program to use our trees as a toilet
– A man used the bushes between our house and the road as a toilet
– A woman brought her small child to use our back yard as a toilet (sensing any themes?)
– An old man, who has been warned seven or eight times, returned to steal more wood from our fence. Every time he gets caught, he says “forgive me, forgive me” while he continues to pull posts out of the ground or break boards.
– Eight high schoolers used the gap in our fence to come through to where I was sitting on the back porch with the baby, and they proceeded to make fun of the baby, thinking I couldn’t understand them.
– Actually, every time I go outside, foot traffic on the road slows as every child walking by shouts “mzungu” hoping to get my attention. (Seriously? I’ve lived here for more than a year. Get over it!)
Now this week, the straw that breaks the camel’s back…
The local church, which is across the road from our house, is having a women’s conference this week. They’re having it under tarps in the field, and they started the week by cutting down every dead or semi-dead or “expendable” tree in the compound, including at our house. (This has been done several times over the years without replanting at all, so a compound that was one full of lovely mature fruit trees is now relatively barren.) Yesterday the conference opened, and it suddenly occurred to the pastor that the kitchen staff would need a place to sleep if they were to stay for night prayers and have tea ready in the morning, so he asked Fred if all the kitchen staff could stay at our house. Aside from the inconvience of housing and expense of providing bath water to a bunch of women we don’t know, bringing a whole bunch more women around to advise me on how to care for my son was not an appealing prospect. Then the conference kicked off last evening with “night prayers” which started around 7pm and lasted until after 10pm. As with most of the African church services I’ve attended, they crank the sound system to maximum volume. There are no noise pollution laws, so the pastors take that as the Lord’s invitation into as many homes and businesses as subwoofers can reach. Since ours is the second-closest house, we are getting the full effect of the services resonating through our house, including the extensive prayer times. (For all the Swahili speakers out there: “TOKA katika JINA la JESU!!! MOTO, MOTO, MOTO!!!”)
Even worse, though, was that these night prayers are an excuse for every adolescent with nothing better to do (aka all of them) to gather. Around 9:30pm last night I was in our bedroom trying to get the baby to sleep when I heard a big group pass by on the road. Our room is about a dozen feet from the road, so I distinctly heard another kid run through under our window and jump out to scare the group on the road. Then they set off some kind of firecracker or something, which caused me to jump and the baby to cry. Fred went out the front door, but didn’t see anyone. Then I saw a couple of young men in the back yard, so Fred went around to the back and chased them away. The whole encounter was brief, but unsettling for me, especially since the conference is lasting until Sunday and Fred is leaving on a trip tomorrow.
In every single one of these events, when we have confronted someone to stop their behavior (or theft) they look at us completely unperturbed. The general attitude seems to be that we are the unreasonable ones for not wanting animal and human feces in our yard. We are un-African for having a fence and not wanting strangers to steal it for firewood. We are ungenerous for not allowing random strangers to break limbs off of the trees for the unripe fruit at the top or to rummage in our garbage. We are inhospitable for not opening our doors to a group of strangers on two hours’ notice. (Okay, I’ll give them that one.) People have told Fred that we are considered “mean.” I haven’t been the “mean girl” since I ostracized Stacey Springstead for no good reason in 6th grade. (I still feel bad about that, Stacey!) This all makes me feel like a bad person and a bad Christian and a bad “missionary” (although I’m not really a missionary).
Part of the difference in perception is cultural, but I’ve run some of these things past Africans and long-term white people, and they agree that we’re not totally unreasonable. These events all coming together at once have made me really, really ready for a visit to the States. Thank you to those who have already pledged or contributed for our airfare fund! Now, I’m off to change an extremely pungent diaper before that problem starts to spread.