Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Very Starry Night

We're having electrical issues. Apparently, our resident handyman is not the most skilled electrician. He didn't realize, for instance, that it's generally well advised to shut the power off before you begin fiddling with wires. And the day I arrived here in Wunrok he succeeded in frying a bunch of fuses and our main electrical switch. Conveniently, a high-up guy from the logistics department in Nairobi was visiting, and he managed a quick patch job, but he warned us that it would only be temporary, and today the system conked.

I'm truly sorry for the loss of power, only because I had a long-awaited Skype chat this evening. But at the same time being without electricity has really changed the social dynamics here. Untethered to the internet, my colleagues and I have enjoyed quite a few leisurely conversations--about working in Sudan and Palestine, long-distance relationships and European countries' varied approaches to foreign language learning.

And in the absence of technological distraction, I made some progress bonding with our female cleaning and cooking crew. Someone explained to them on my behalf that I was trying to learn Dinka, and so they helpfully started providing me with some useful vocab, everything from "sandals" to "tomato paste" to "watermelon." Abstract concepts are harder territory to navigate, but it's a good start nonetheless.

Then I made my first solo trip anywhere in Sudan, to the Wunrok market to buy some "warr," or flip flops, that actually fit me (the ones that were provided for me are designed for Sudanese feet, that is, long and narrow). A bit of gawking, lots of laughter, cries of "Kawaja!" all around, but nothing threatening whatsoever. Having the freedom to move, to explore, feels fantastic, even if it's a pretty limited freedom.

Finally, this evening, after a couple of hours trying unsuccessfully to rig up a back-up generator, I sat down with the night watchman and company. Word of my interest in "Muan jang" (Dinka language) must have gotten around, because they immediately started rattling off vocab. Their pedagogy could use some work (one of them began listing the numbers from 1-100 at breakneck speed), but I much appreciated their intentions. No soccer game on the TV to distract us, just a night full of bright stars and the sounds of our own voices and the croaking of a million frogs.

To cap it all, the driver who had acted so sullen on the way home two days ago greeted me by name and revealed that he used to teach Dinka language in Khartoum. He seems like an intelligent, precise kind of guy with a somewhat analytical approach to language, which is what I need. Much as I'd like to, I don't learn well simply by listening--I need to understand concepts, patterns, logic. And I may well need many more trips to the market, chapati-making sessions in the kitchen and leisurely, starry nights.

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