small talk

I stare into space, speechless and stunned. “Are you okay?” another volunteer asks me. 

Yea. I say and fake a smile. I’m just not used to so many…Americans. I have officially run out of thinks to say. I spent Easter with a number of other PCV’s, an event full of American food, swimming and even an Easter egg hunt. But I found myself wanting to hide. Having spent months with Ghanaians, I forgot how to carry on a normal English conversation. I can spend an afternoon with someone, and not say more than a few words. Even when I write this blog, I have naturally Americanized Ghanaian conversation so it would be easier to understand. I have decided to give you a feel of a very normal conversation I have on a day-to-day basis. This is today, waiting for the yam chips lady to return from God-knows-where. I am sitting with about four men my age, a woman plaiting another’s hair, and my good friend Shahad. He is translating - everyone else present speaks little to no English. So with everything I write as one saying, it is actually Shahad saying, “He is saying that…”

“You never came to the home,” says the man sitting right next to me. I look confused, so he adds, “I am the one with Guinea Worm.” Oh! A yulie Seidu? (your name is Seidu?)

“Uh haaaaah.”

Seidu is our first Guinea Worm case of the year. We have had two others, but they had moved here from Junction, where the Guinea Worm havoc lies.

Oi! I didn’t come because Sakara knows. You were at the market yesterday, I remember. 

How could I forget, the man runs up to me and all he can say in English is “I, the one, Guinea Worm (and a bunch of Dagbani. All that I understood was that he did not want to go to Tamale).” And sure enough, there is his worm, hanging right in the dirt. Why aren’t you bandaged! I cry. He doesn’t understand what I am saying. I throw up my hands and go to the market.

“He likes to be called Commander, not Seidu,” Shahad says to me. “He says in Yapei, they bring soap to the ones with Guinea Worm.” I will not bring you soap. Why should I reward you for drinking unfiltered water and getting Guinea Worm? No. I will not bring you or anyone soap with Guinea Worm. He has nothing to reply, there is chance he might even be embarrassed.

Commander, why was your foot not bandaged. And why will you not go to Tamale? A jay Tamale? (you don’t like Tamale?)

“I don’t want to go.”

Well, stay away from the water sources. Or you will bring Guinea Worm to all of Sankpala.

“There is no one to fetch my water,” Commander says. My heart beats a little faster as I search his eyes for truth, if he is just testing me or if he actually dares to go to the dam with Guinea Worm hanging from his foot. “If you marry me, then you can fetch my water.” Here we go.

If we were married, I would not fetch your water. So you should just go to Tamale where they will take care of you.

“Oi! You will not marry me because I am a black man. If I was a white man you would fetch my water.” Our audience is growing and they are all rolling with laughter.

No. I would not fetch my white husband water either. If he is having Guinea Worm, I would send him to Tamale.

“I luff you,” he stutters in English. And with a crooked grin he adds, “Come to me bay-bee.” I can’t help but laugh myself. Eh! Is this the only English you know? Mmalie yidana! (I have a husband), I inform him. It is a lie I keep telling the men who ask me to marry them on a very regular basis. Commander pretends to be distraught. “Amale yidana? (you have a husband?) Oi! I will beat him. When he comes, I will beat him!” He is very strong, I warn. “You won’t take two husbands?” No, I only want one.

An elderly man starts giving his two-piece to the crowd. “He says he has been praying for Guninea Worm for many years so that he can go to Tamale. But it won’t come,” Shahad translates. I am mortified. Commander, tell this man how much Guinea Worm pains your foot! He rattles off Dagbani for a while and Shahad is laughing so hard he can hardly catch his breath to translate. “He says he also would like to go to Tamale. They have many things. They have nice beds, plenty food, even TV. But, they are lacking one thing, the ladies.” I shake my head.

So, if I send ladies to Tamale, you will go? Commander nods his head in agreement. Then I will send them.

“Oi! This boy is bad,” Shahad informs me. “He goes to the dam to fetch. I know it.” Is it true? I ask sternly. He nods between laughs. I am again hoping he is just kidding. Are you serious! You will bring Guinea Worm to all of Sankpala! You know that Junction has plenty, plenty Guinea Worm. It started with one person like you. And now there are over a hundred cases! He doesn’t seem to be taking me serious. The chief will charge you if you go! Still, nothing. If Guinea Worm comes to Sankpala, we will know it is from you, because you are the first case here. It is very serious! He continues to laugh. All the work I do here as a Guinea Worm volunteer, and you will ruin it all by going to the water source with Guinea Worm! All my work for nothing! If I see you go to the dam once, just once, I am going back to America! The laughing ceases, and everyone looks up at me.

“No,” another man pleads. “We love you here.”

“OK, I won’t go to the dam side,” Commander promises. “You are very serious about Guinea Worm. It isn’t serious.” It is serious, I say. Do you want your children to have Guinea Worm? “No.” All you have to do is stay away from the water sources, and soon there will be no Guinea Worm in Sankpala. But you are a stubborn man and you want the Guinea Worm to stay.

“Amale yidana…,” he whispers, shaking his head. I laugh. This conversation is futile, I’m sure he doesn’t actually go to the dam. “Can he really bring all the Guinea Worm to Sankpala, Mariam,” Shahad asks quietly. Yes, if he fetches water at the dam side. “What should we do? Lock him away until his Guinea Worm is finished?” Mmhm. We can lock him in that freezer until it is finished, I say as I stand and make my way to the yam chips lady who has finally come back. Teto bealla (literally ‘small time’, or I will see you again soon).

Their laughter trails behind me as I make my way to a long awaited lunch.


Andrew said…
Maria, you are amazing. What a job you have taken on . . . not just preventing and treating guinea worm, but convincing the people of Sankpala what a threat it is! I suppose it is true, education is one of the best weapons. I know that for myself, educated owners lead to treated animals.

We are proud, love, and miss you in New York,
dustykaster said…
don't tell them I am your husband, because most of them can probably beat me up.

Your husband,

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