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Monday, March 8, 2021

Under African Skies: First Impressions

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Town Square Delaware has been following Mary Barrosse-Antle’s journey in Africa, and we welcomed the opportunity to share a bit of her amazing and inspiring story here on TSD. You can read the first installment here.

IMG_0561The day after I arrived in Aru, Enzo led me on a tour of the town on which I learned almost everything I’d need to know here.

Lesson 1: You say hello to everyone.

Coming from Rome, which is slightly less friendly than NYC, this habit was something between life affirming and disconcerting. I’d been looking forward to the small-town feel – the elimination of smart phones and headphones and the invisible barrier of privacy that can make life in a city feel so anonymous. I didn’t realize, however, how much I was secretly in love with the privacy I was fleeing. It only took a few hundred meters of “Bonjour! Bonjour! Ca va bien. Bonjour!” for me to get tired of people I didn’t know forcing their existences upon my own. It was Stockholm syndrome, and until I got over it I would be faced with the contradiction that, no matter how much I think I like people, I like my privacy with whom I’ve become so comfortable just a little bit more.

Lesson 2: You are a mundele.

It is the self-appointed responsibility of every child in Congo to remind me that I am white. It is a responsibility they take seriously. The almost-friendly chant of “Mundele! Mundele! Mundele!” as I walk down the street serves the dual purpose of alerting other children to come look and greeting me, but greeting me as someone who will forever be an outsider. Eight months later the only thing that has changed is my response. When I feel moved, I simply point at the children and say “mundele” right back, which I like to think inspires a healthy existential confusion. Or I say “Mundele? Wapi?!” [“White person? Where?!] and pretend to search desperately for the weirdo white intruder they are indicating. Or I just chase them with my arms out like a monster, which usually gets a good laugh/cry out of them.

Lesson 3: You do not know the language.

You know French? Great. You know Lingala? Even better. You know Lugbara? Nice try. You don’t know Lugbara, which is both the native language of the majority of the population in Aru and nearly impossible to learn. Lugbara is a slippery tonal language full of long, rolled r’s that is simply fun to listen to because you feel zero pressure to try to understand it – you couldn’t even pick out where one word ends and the other begins if you tried. In our house we have the only book on Lugbara I’ve ever seen, a 65-page “Lugbara-English Dictionary” which cavalierly admits its own futility within the first three pages (if it’s dubious size hadn’t already given it away) when it cautions that most words have several meanings, and basically good luck figuring out which is which. For example, “ti” can mean cow, month, hang, produce, mouth, in vain, smarten, or thatch. Sometimes I still wish I could understand the language, like when I’m walking behind a group of mamans who are clearly dissecting some incredibly juicy gossip as they carry their vegetables to market, or when little children are chatting away over their porridge about some matter of great yet mysterious little-person import. But I also have come to love the steady background noise of conversations that are nothing to me but sounds, musical rises and falls of emotion that are understood only by each other and that are utterly and unaffectedly oblivious to me.

Lesson 4: You do not, under any circumstances, take yourself seriously.

You will die here without a sense of humor. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, but it may be the most important. Walking down the street after my arrival I would have thought I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe, except that I’d peed in a hole earlier that day with nothing but leaves to assist me and the experience was still haunting me. Part of it is that people here have a healthy love of laughing. Part of it is that my very existence is apparently hilarious. And how can I deny that? Here I am, a woman clearly maladapted to the tropical sun who hasn’t worked in the field a day of her life, whose porridge you can tell by just looking at her would be lumpy and undercooked and who walks around with all her stuff on her back rather than on her head, which would be far more efficient if she could manage to balance it there. Is it any wonder that she isn’t married yet? OK, maybe I’m reading too much into it on that last one, but the point is that sometimes it is hard not to join in laughing with them. And I’ve found that as soon as I do, people are that much happier to have you in on the joke with them.

Born and raised in Delaware, Mary Barrosse-Antle is a graduate of the Charter School of Wilmington and Yale University. She is currently working as a volunteer in Aru, Ituri Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo where she assists in the treatment of malnourished children. In her spare time Mary enjoys going to market, inventing new uses for cassava, riding giraffes, and washing her feet.

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