Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Marching and Dancing out of the Apocalypse

Apparently, Saint Luke’s is a big holiday around the world (see Jim Sligh’s blog This Analog Life), at least in places where there happen to be copious Catholics. Though I think the ratio of Catholics is lower in Sierra Leone than some other places (this is based on people I’ve met and/or history—since SL was colonized by the Anglican British—and not any real statistics), St. Luke’s day was celebrated by medical professionals around the country, and WAFF collaborated with the staff of Bo Government Hospital for a march, church service, and festivities at the hospital. Below is what I managed to notice while being dragged around and rushing to and from a visit with the First and Second Ladies at the ward.

We were late, as usual. I trudged up to the nurses’ house to get them moving, already sweating a little after a cup of hurried tea. I called the driver and sat out on their porch, as children from the neighborhood shyly (and boldly) approached with expectant faces, hoping for the candies we occasionally give them, only to be disappointed by my hands empty of a telltale black plastic bag. Finally, we were off, dressed in our bright WAFF t-shirts. We rushed to start preparing food at a house near the hospital, as Jackie and another nurse, Victoria, peeled potatoes with dull knives faster than I could have wielded a vegetable peeler. I told them we were late, and we ran for the meeting area for the march to the church, where nurses in their various uniforms (white for the top nurses, blue for the assistants, and blue-edged-white for the nursing students) had already started marching out, leaving us the most dilapidated marching band to follow. Their green and gold uniforms, clean and sharply pressed, were old and shabby, worn by countless decades’ worth of trumpeters and drummers. Some had no uniforms at all and made due with white t-shirts and counterfeit chuck taylors. Their instruments, hand-me-downs dented and patina-ed with age, rang out clear but a little flat, the band rag-tag but soulful. It was an amateur New Orleans funeral, a parade after global catastrophe, a final attempt, post-apocalypse, to reassert some order.
I keep referring to things as apocalyptic—and maybe it is the environment of the nation after the civil war or due to years of crippling poverty and decline of developing infrastructure, but perhaps I am rather sensing a continual insistence on making do, on taking something and reinventing it with the tools at hand. It could be that I imagine that after everything around the world collapses (hey it could happen any day), we’ll all be out marching in parades with our cracked tubas and too-large, frayed band coats, showing that we can’t be beaten down. That’s a striking aspect of the people here in Salone—despite all of the incredibly difficult things that have happened to each and every person here, almost all are still optimistic and active in trying to change the state of the country.
So, we danced-shuffled to the church, held back at one point as self-important soldiers and police cut across our line, the last few marchers. We had to double time it to catch up, though the fast walking was easier than the slow rhythmic dance-walking we were supposed to be timing with the music. We brought Lebanese to their balconies—old Muslim grannies with headscarves, skin pale from life indoors—and people sleeping away Sunday behind their ramshackle shops to the streets. Then, suddenly, we were through a slimy, moss covered gate and into the churchyard. The service had already started.
For a godless heathen, I’ve had decent exposure to Christianity from my time in Episcopal and Catholic school to my brief childhood stint at the Ojai Presbyterian Church. This was nothing like any of that. There was dancing (maybe a bit more booty shaking than some more Puritanical elements would be able to stand, though it was in no way sexual) and singing to a live band based in reggae and other Caribbean sounds. The Offertory was in three stages—very, very long stages. There was no sermon per se, the multitude of selected readings were only 4 or 5 verses, and the service, at 20 activities on the program, was longer than even a High Mass. So long that I passed through varying states of emotion and energy, timing my sleepy period to prayer time, so I could doze and pretend to be praying. But all in all, if church had been that fun (maybe not that long) when I was a kid, I might’ve been swayed a little more to religion…for a while, at least.
Thankfully, we were pulled out early to go meet the First and Second Ladies, a brief and semi-terrifying affair. The entourage of security, soldiers, handlers, hangers-on, hospital staff, and press was overwhelming. Both were in lavender robes, and it took a minute to figure out, based on behavior, which one was First. Everyone was sweating, even the Ladies, and I tried to communicate welcomes and thanks over our patients singing to them. Then, suddenly, it was silent, and everyone was staring at me, which was even worse. But I stumbled through and then, after some words assuring their dedication to our cause and expressing surprise at the cleanliness of the ward, they were gone. After this weekend of meeting Sierra Leonean politicians, I have never been more grateful for my (very brief) experience lobbying for student financial aid in Washington in college—I’ve gotten better at remembering the key points to hit as fast and as clearly as possible.
The women all started dancing to music videos in the ward (including the video for “First Lady,” which was just bizarre), and then we took off again to catch the march around Bo from the church. We picked up the rest of the WAFF crew already marching and sped up to the front of the parade, behind our raggedy band. One of the nurses, Marian, is a wild woman—yelling and whooping at every dance move and getting everyone to join in. Jackie and I led our procession, and I tried to imitate her swaying walk, which brought even more hoots from Marian. Our Head of Facilities, Benjamin, came roaring by in the van with sodas for everyone, and we tore it up on our way to the hospital, abandoned by our band at the last stretch of road as rain threatened us all the way through the gates.
Then, we did some more dancing with the patients and waited for food in the ward. I was so tired by this point that I fell asleep in a chair while the music blasted. No one seems to mind having music at volumes that start to press the eardrums a bit. But still, I managed to sleep. Later, as I stood eating canned green beans and salad with my fingers (we were out of forks and it was infinitely amusing to the nurses to watch me), a group of men with drums in grass skirts and nurses in matching outfits came dancing and yelling into the ward. We jumped around with them and then they were gone as suddenly as they had appeared. I shuffled back to the van to go home, too tired to do anything except dig my room key out of my purse and collapse for a few hours.

1 comment:

  1. We have counterfeit chuck taylors here in Jaén, too - they're called "Happy Feet".

    Keep writing like this.