Saturday, October 16, 2010

Homecoming and “You are so scarce!”

I’m still camera-less, so bear with photo repeats and things I’ve found on-line. This is a photo of a home near me, and I’ve posted it before, but this photo is over a year old. I love the sense of hope demonstrated in the landscaping: a heart-shaped lawn!

A large part of our pre-service training focused upon how important it is to great people living in rural South Africa. We were drilled, again and again, on proper greetings in Setswana. We were told, as far as speaking the language goes, nothing would ensure our integration into our communities as much as greeting our neighbors in Setswana: Dumelang! Le kae? Re teng! Ke a leboga! Our trainers were correct: to meet and greet in the Setswana language greatly pleases most of the people I live with.

Imagine my surprise, and frustration, then, to learn that I would be most commonly greeted with the phrase, “You are so scarce.”

I don’t like this phrase. It’s accusatory and implies I’m shirking my responsibilities. Also, the tone of delivery is usually as thus, with hands on hips or other displeased body gestures: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?? YOU ARE SO SCARCE!!

Depending on what time of day it is and how spiritually fit I feel, I usually respond as follows: “Hi there! It’s so good to see you! How have you been? I’ve missed seeing you!” If I’m well-rested and spiritually centered, I can reply with this phrase with love and good intention. Often, I’ll go on to add, “You know, you’d NEVER say, ‘you are so scarce’ to someone in my country-- It would be rude.”

If I’m tired, have been repeatedly harassed in one form or another, or short tempered, I use the same phrase, but use a mean-spirited and sarcastic tone. (I know, this isn’t in good form, and I’m duly ashamed of myself.)

I can’t help but feel defensive with this form of greeting because I LIVE HERE. I AM WITH THESE PEOPLE ALL THE TIME. How can I be scarce?

I had something of a heart-to-heart with a fellow teacher, and asked her about it. When I explained my dislike of the “greeting,” she assured me that it wasn’t meant in ill-will. She explained that my presence was important to people and that people miss seeing me and will be sure to point out that they miss seeing me. When I asked her how I should respond, she suggested I reply, “Yes, I am scarce. Please don’t make me feel badly about it.

My situation is complicated by the fact that I work for two different schools, and each school would like nothing better than to have me all to themselves all of the time. Since I divide my time between the schools, neither is ever happy with my availability, hence the common, “YOU ARE SO SCARCE” coming at me from both sides.

Although I try, try, try to feel more comfortable with this form of greeting, and not take it personally, I wince whenever someone says it.

Before leaving for my few weeks in Pretoria, I was shopping at my local market when someone “greeted” me: YOU ARE SO SCARCE! Since I was not at either of my schools and did not recognize this person, I was a bit rattled and nearly came unglued. Who in the world was saying this offensive phrase to me now??

As it turned out, the person in question was a man from a church I had visited early in my Peace Corps service, but one that I haven’t attended regularly. I remember thinking, “Good grief. I can do nothing right in this village.”

I’m the first one to admit that I really needed a break from my schools, my work, and my life in the village, so I was very keen to leave my site for a few weeks for our Mid-Service Training. Although the training was only a week long, medical and dental appointments kept me in Pretoria for almost another full week. I’m more than a bit embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed my time in the first world: Pretoria was absolutely beautiful with the Jacarandas in bloom; I ate out in restaurants at least once a day; I found myself visiting this really nice shopping mall on several occasions (I abhor and avoid shopping malls in the States at all costs—they give me panic attacks!); and, well, blast it, it was really nice BEING AROUND A BUNCH OF AMERICANS for a change! I came away from my time in Pretoria feeling rested, relaxed and recharged. But more importantly, I returned to my village and my site IN A HAPPY FRAME OF MIND. I felt excited about the recent training and my time with a counterpart and felt happy about implementing new projects.

I was even ready to embrace my previously-despised -form -of -greeting ,“You are so scarce,” on my return to the village. Guess what? I haven’t gotten it, not once.

I think there has been a softening in my relationships here, either in me (probably) or in the people I live with. Have they missed me in my two-week absence? Have I missed them?

On my return to my village, there was a man in the taxi rank that was gentle with me: he helped me board a taxi with my many, heavy bags. Although I initially rebuffed him with a rude turning my back on him, he was there to attend me a second time, and again, with a very gentle manner. (In South Africa, in the taxi ranks especially, it is hustle and bustle with lots of grabbing and shoving. The men in the taxi rank often engage me in an intimidating banter, to see if I can “hold my own” with them.) This man’s kindness and use of gentleness was so unexpected that I felt stunned.

When I saw my fellow college educators when I returned to the staff meetings, there was none of the offensive, “You are so scarce.” There was genuine delight—on all of our behalves—at seeing each other. All were kindly curious as of my whereabouts and of my well-being and more than one remarked at how much “fresher” I appeared.

In church on Sunday, was it my imagination, or were more of the hymns in English? (Most of the hymns are sung in Setswana, much to my delight; I feel this helps me learn the language more than any other means.) Was the congregation trying to better accommodate me because I’ve been away?

So, I have yet to encounter the offensive, “YOU ARE SO SCARCE.” Perhaps I won’t. But if I do, perhaps I’ll be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been scarce. Please don’t make me feel badly about it.”


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