There is really no way to know quite what to expect in advance when you’ve entered a new culture. Even operating in English, signals are uninterpretable, people hard to read, and I sometimes feel that all the prior preparation was just a roundup of possibilities, like spreading a batch of unidentified mixed seeds. One of the delights and trials of the project so far is watching what actually sprouts. And every time something does, I think Mikel or I visibly breathe a sigh of relief, half expecting that here on the other side of the world seeds require something other than water to grow.
Take the pot of lentils. We bought what seemed to be ordinary yellow lentils (labeled dahl) at the grocery store, along with an Indian spice mix. After following the directions on the spice package to the letter, we waited for the lentils to cook. And cook they did, for 30 minutes, one hour, and more, but they remained stubbornly like little stones, completely inedible. Finally, hungry and irritated, we had to make alternate dinner plans. We soaked them overnight and tried again the next day. After that failed, I kept them for two more days in water before finally admitting defeat. And it’s not as though I haven’t cooked dahl – what, thirty times? fifty times? The mystery of the stone lentils remains unsolved. You see –though you’ve always known B to follow A, there’s still a good chance it won’t.
Which is probably why, Saturday morning, we were a bit reluctant heading off to the Carolina for Kibera offices to interview our final few candidates for the mapping trainee slots. Would they actually be there at 10 a.m. on a Saturday? Lacking a confirmation SMS from the office, we were a little unsure. It turns out we should have had more faith – in fact, three young men had patiently waited since arriving early, at 9 a.m. And now (this is probably burying the lead) we’ve made our final selection and have 13 great participants from every village of Kibera ready to start training tomorrow.
There is a general sense of cross-your-fingers and hope things turn out. Part of this is because we Americans are so used to having electronic confirmation – email, text message — of every transaction that it is almost like we’re letting everyone off the hook. It’s no longer enough to give your word, so we don’t feel the need to keep ours. If you say on Monday that you’ll meet on Thursday at 5, better check in once or twice to confirm that. It doesn’t seem to work that way here, where technologies are newer and differently used. In fact, only face time seems to really count – and email is just an add-on, something extra.
Not to say a spoken plan is gold, but it does seem that when one thing falls through, something else comes up in its place, which makes this a pretty thrilling place to work. The training that will start this week won’t be like we expected, but there are sure to be more unexpected sproutings.