Thursday, February 2, 2012
When I was sixteen, I worked at a grocery store in New Hampshire. One day, this customer came in and looked at my name tag. I was used to getting all kinds of “Hey, Ryan? Isn’t that a boy’s name?” type comments and so when he repeated my name I expected something like that. But he looked at me strangely and said in a slow voice, “Ryan the Lion.” It made me smile at the time and my fellow cashiers took on the casual nickname as a joke. I didn’t mind, my favorite movie my entire childhood had been the Lion King and I still love it to this day. A decade later, I am here living in Africa. My adorable neighbors, Galgallo, Nuria, and Abusu (who I call the three musketeers because of the amount of trouble, and drool, they foment) were the first in Kenya to call me “Lion” due to their lack of front teeth, in Galgallo’s case, and general inability to pronounce R’s. When I come home from school, if the three musketeers are within a mile of the area, they will chant my name loudly and rally to be the first to run up to me and for a hug and a chance to wreak havoc in my house. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was visiting a neighbor when I came home and he heard the chants. Ever since then, he has called me Lion at school, leading some of the other teachers to follow suit. Then, yesterday, I was walking home from class when I was surprised by a group of six primary school boys who were waiting in the shadow of a tree for me to walk by. As soon as they saw me, the oldest and therefore ringleader of the group jumped up to great me. He yelled, “hey Ryan! The Lion King! How are you?!” It made me laugh. I can’t imagine that movie is popular here, its not even popular in America any more. And the chances of the primary school students seeing it are slim. None of my teachers have seen it and only a couple have even heard of it. But it makes me smile. I think that more people know my nickname in the village than my actual name. It is to the point where I am only ever called “Lion” or “Mwalimu” (teacher). In the future, I think that few will even remember my real name. They will say, “remember that mzungu who lived here? She was called the Lion.” It is the hot, dry season, as I’m sure I’ve already complained about. The tall grass that towered over my head during the rainy season is still tall, but now it is brown instead of green. The wind and dust of last year is still present but lessened by the grass which absorbs the dustornados into the waving fields. There are still thousands of giant moths, green and blue grasshoppers, tiny gold butterflies, a strange green bug that looks like a shield, and countless termites. The abundance of insect life has, in turn, brought flocks of birds. There are my favorites, the Jet Fighters, bright green on top and yellow on their breasts with pointed wings and long sharp beaks. They swoop like, well, jet fighters, catching bugs using acrobatics. There are the Sailor Birds who are a clean white color over most of their bodies but with a cap of black on their heads and black on the wings making them look like they are wearing uniforms and sailor hats. They also have sharp orange beaks and long orange legs. They run around on the ground like pipers eating bugs from the ground. There are the Iridescent Robins; they have bright red breasts just like robins in America but they have head, throat and shoulders covered in shiny blue and green feathers like a magician’s cape. Of course, the hornbills, anyone who’s seen the Lion King knows what they look like. Except they are not blue, they are black and white with orange beaks. And the most prolific of the birds, the sparrows, plain in appearance but amazing in their numbers. They swirl around the school compound in the thousands. The small, black birds move in a giant wave and when they alight on a power line they sit wing to wing causing the wires to dip and still not allowing enough space for all to fit. It is amazing to see them all take off at some invisible signal to swarm over the grasses in a completely crazy yet somehow perfectly synchronized dance only to veer off at once when they’ve had their fill of the insects. I am only describing all this to remind myself that it is still beautiful here. See, I forget often because it is SO HOT. It is hard to focus on anything else. Every day I wake up and, when deciding what to wear, think “I’ll wear a short sleeve shirt and my knee length breeziest skirt because I am tired of showing up to school dripping with sweat.” Then I remember that every shirt I own is so worn that it is practically see through so I have to wear a second shirt underneath. And I can’t go outside wearing only a skirt that goes to my knees, I’ll get stared at, so I put on a pair of capris. So before I even step outside I am sweating in multiple layers of cloth. I walk to school with the equatorial sun beaming down on me and I plod, trying to decide whether it’s better to walk fast and get out of the sun quicker, or walk slow and try to sweat less. Either way, I get to the staffroom and someone will make the comment, “Ryan, you are sweating!” and I respond with as little sarcasm as I can, “yeah, I’ve been walking for an hour, its HOT out.” I had one guy actually come up to me to complain about how he was so exhausted after walking to and from Dirib (where I live) once. I just glared at him. I tasted camel’s milk for the first time today. It was…not bad. I have been told by many people that it is extremely healthy for you and can cure a million different illnesses. One of the Borana women brought it to the school at the request of one of the teachers. After milking, the women store the milk in a (sorta) clean container, usually an empty jug that originally contained cooking oil. I saw this jug sitting on the desk and opened it to see what it was. First, I saw the blackish crust around the edge. I peered down into the milk and noticed there were three mysterious black lumps floating in it. The secretary saw me looking and asked if I had tried camel’s milk before. When I said no, she proceeded to pour me a small amount into the cap of the filthy bottle while telling me just how very sweet the milk tasted. I had really no choice, and I was pretty curious, so I drank it (after checking that none of the black lumps had made it into the cap). It tasted strange. I think some of the taste must have come from the filthy container it was in. It tasted smoky, like the black around the rim of the bottle was maybe ash from a cooking fire. After I got past that taste, the milk was creamy but had almost less flavor than cow’s milk. The liquid was warm, like all liquids that sit around in the 90 degree sun, and thick (like a thin milkshake). The worst part was the aftertaste, which I did not enjoy. I can’t even describe what it tasted like; it wasn’t terrible, just strange. It tasted a little like Elmer’s glue smells. And the taste sticks with you. Even after chewing my very last piece of Dentene Ice gum, I can still taste the milk, but now the flavor is mixed with mint.