Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Key

Language is key. Over the past few years I’ve written a few times about how words can open doors. “Finding My Way” explored the vocabulary of the streets of Johannesburg. “BULA!” shared my thoughts from Fiji about how every culture seems to have a magic word that means everything and nothing at the same time. I’m still not exactly sure what that magic word is here in Barranquilla, but one possibility might be “listo.” Technically, “listo” can mean “ready” or “prepared” (estar listo) or “smart” (ser listo). But here in Colombia, “listo” seems to be a word that gets thrown around in so many different situations that it is near-impossible to define it. By my count, it can mean “great,” “OK,” “word is bond,” and a few more things for starters.

Admittedly, “listo” has not seeped into my vocabulary, so the jury is still out on how magical this word actually is. Instead, another word has captured my imagination in the last few weeks. As a child of the Bay Area, I've always appreciated the beauty of slang,—the good, the bad, and the outlandish—and in my mind there are a thousand ways to call a friend a friend. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve compiled a short list to give you a taste...

A - Amigo, Ace
B - Boy, blood, Brother / Bro / Brohan / Brah, Bestie, Boo
C - Cousin / Cuz / Cutty
D - Dog / Dawg
E - Ese
F - Family / Fam / Fam-bam
G - Guey
H - Homie, hermano
I - Igloo
J - Jump-Off, Joker
K - Kemo Sabe
L - Loc
M - Main Man, Mate
N - Nupe, Ninja, Nizzle
O - O.G.
P - Potna, peeps
Q - Queen
R - Rellie / Relish, Roll-dog
S - Sister, Son
T - Team
U - Umbrella
V - Vato
W - Weebles, wingman, whodie
X - Xylophone
Y - Youth 
Z - Zebra

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these terms of endearment would fall on deaf ears if I tried to use them here in Colombia. Luckily, I’ve come across a new one for the list—one that just my be my favorite to date. Here, my main man is “mi llave”—my key. Think about it... isn’t that perfect? Plus, since there is no letter “ll” (double-l) in English*, there was an open slot on the list!

I’ve been in Colombia for about six weeks now, and as of today there are two folks who I would (and do) call “mi llave.” The first is Javi, another Peace Corps Response Volunteer who works with Fútbol Con Corazon. So far he has been key—a solid work colleague, soccer and basketball teammate, wingman, and overall P.I.C.** Can I get a chest bump?

“Mi otro llave” is Alberto, my counterpart at Fútbol Con Corazon, the organization where I work. To clarify, every Peace Corps Volunteer is paired up with a counterpart—a host-country national with whom we work side-by-side during our service. Our counterparts are not our bosses or our subordinates, they are our teammates. Our primary responsibility as development workers is capacity-building, and ideally, that process starts with our counterparts. As you can imagine, this is a lot easier said than done. Establishing and managing the counterpart relationship may be the most complex, sensitive and challenging aspect of Peace Corps service—for the volunteer, for the counterpart, for Peace Corps Staff and for the host-country organization. In a word, the counterpart relationship is key. In this sense, I have been blessed.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong workshop on Leadership and Project Management with my counterpart. The workshop was facilitated by the Training Staff from Peace Corps Panama, who flew in from across the border to work with us for the week. I’ve long had an interest in Project Management, so I was happy to attend. While I took some practical nuggets of wisdom away from the experience, what I really appreciated was the opportunity to develop the counterpart relationship.

I won’t bore you with a summary of what we covered. What I will say is that it was obvious that my counterpart was pleased to participate, and that he got a lot out of it. On the second day of the workshop we all designed envelopes for ourselves and posted them on one of the walls of the conference room. Over the course of the next few days, we all wrote short, positive notes to other participants and slipped them into their envelopes. At the end of the week we all took home our envelopes and had the pleasure of reading what people had written to us—sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. Corny? Yes. Effective? Definitely. The idea is that everyone needs some love, even at work. I’ll be the first to admit that I loved reading the notes, even the ones that were downright ridiculous. For example, Javi “thanked” me for not inviting him to hang out with me and three young ladies. Perhaps my favorite note was an anonymous one, with just two words scrawled on it... “Mi llave.” I see you, Alberto.

Pura Vida,

* In Spanish the double “l” is considered a single letter, and is pronounced like an English “y.” Or, if you’re Argentinian, you would pronounce like an English “y” with a mouth full of peanut butter. So, “mi llave” is pronounce “mee yah-veh.”

** Partner-In-Crime... please do not take this literally, we have been extremely well-behaved.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Occupational Hazards

One of the best parts of serving in the Peace Corps are the benefits. And I’m not talking about the fluffy, sense-of-accomplishment, I-feel-like-I’m-changing-the-world-while-learning-a-new-language kind of benefits. I’m talking about full medical and dental. In recent years, Peace Corps has unfortunately made some headlines due to some of the dangers associated with being a volunteer. Fortunately, I still haven’t been mugged, assaulted, or anything of the sort. BUT, there are times when I find myself thanking my lucky stars that I’m more or less covered should something ever go down. Case in point...

Midway through last week I overheard my coworkers saying something about what we were going to be doing on Saturday. Wait up... hold the phone... I think I heard a “Saturday” in there somewhere in a conversation about work. 

“Ohhhh, nobody told you? We’re doing a group clean-up on Saturday morning from 8am until noon!”

Yay, right? Well, I wasted no time reviewing my contract, and believe-it-or-not, there is no I-don’t-work-on-Saturdays clause in it. No surprise... par for the course when you work with kids... especially in the wonderful world of youth soccer. Besides, this would hardly be the first clean-up campaign that I’ve been a part of, and  The last time I got my hands dirty like that was with the University of Johannesburg as part of our Mandela Day initiative. This would certainly be another worthy cause, as the soccer fields in my barrio have been crying out for some love and attention.

So, when saturday morning rolled around, I stumbled out of bed, scarfed down an arepa, and headed out the door, ready to tackle some trash. But, on my way out, my host-mom stopped me with an unexpected question. “Don’t you need a machete?” In my infinite naïveté, I looked at here like she was a little nuts.

“No, no, don’t worry.” After all, I was planning on picking up some bits of trash, not hacking it into even smaller bits. So I strolled over to the field, feeling ready to do my part. The first person I saw when I arrived was my co-worker, Danilo, hunched over a stone, grinding his machete in preparation for battle. All of the sudden, I had a flashback to Cape Verde. In any standard portuguese dictionary, the definition of the word “limpar” is “to clean.” BUT... in Cape Verdean Creole, “limpar” often refers to the annual arduous process of clearing your land of all vegetation in preparation for planting a new crop... as in "Nos ten ki limpar lugar."* It’s kind of like weeding, except you do it with a panga and it takes a lot longer. So, I connected the dots, albeit a little late. When they said “limpiar / clean-up,” they weren’t just talking about the trash. Instead, we were all scheduled for a date with the bushes surrounding the two soccer fields (one big and one small). So, I tucked in my lower lip, walked back home, and took my host-mom up on her previous offer.

As I headed out the door, my host-mom offered a casual warning... “Watch out for the snakes.” I flinched, but only on the inside. On the outside I smiled and replied, “It’s better they bite me than the kids.” You see, this “clean-up” wasn’t just about aesthetics... this was about workplace safety... Every time a ball goes of the field, one of the kids has to chase it down. Obviously, we'd rather not have them dodging snakes along the way. Which brings me back to the topic of full medical. There’s nothing to make you thank your lucky insurance plan like a few hours of weed-wacking through snake-infested super-grass.** Honestly, the thing that scared me the most was not the prospect of a snake bite. In face, by the time one kid shouted out, "Hey look, snake eggs," I was already in the zone. What really had me on edge was working in close proximity to a bunch of machete-wielding preteens. It reminded me of something i used to say back home when kids would do really stupid things with themselves while under my care... "Hey, their parents signed the waiver."

The sad truth is that these kids were much, much more effective and experienced in the ways of the machete than me... as their snickering constantly reminded me. So, after about an hour of hacking away at the grass, I surrendered my machete to an eight-year-old, donned the rubber gloves from my Peace Corps-issue medical kit, and went in search of some loose trash to pick up. Last week I showed my counterpart how to use some essential functions in Excel, but when it comes to machete-work, there was no capacity-building to be done.

Thankfully, I made it through the morning without getting accidentally shanked. The only health-related consequences were the blisters on my first-world hands and the extreme water loss suffered as a result literally sweating buckets. I headed home, ate lunch, and scratched my body incessantly until the water came back on in the house.*** Thankfully, I was able to squeeze in a quick shower before heading out for my weekly game of soccer in the city. Which brings me back again to the theme of coverage.

Eleven years ago, while playing pickup basketball in Washington, D.C., I took a forearm to the kisser, which broke my front tooth in half. After a root canal and a porcelain crown, I went on with my life without further incident... until last weekend. Just a few minutes into our soccer game, a(nother) flying elbow caught me square in the grill. Seconds later, I was spitting out the back half of “my” tooth**** and nursing a swollen lip. I was understandably pissed off, but by the end of the game I was just thankful that I didn’t knock the whole thing out. After all, I remember what it was like to walk about for a week with a missing front tooth... talk about prejudice. It’s hard enough to catch a cab as it is.

Being no stranger to soccer-related injuries, I bounced back in time to go out dancing later that night. Because of my swollen lip, I volunteered to be Javi’s wingman for the night, and assumed responsibility for making him look like the more attractive option. As of tonight, my tooth still hasn’t completely fallen out, and hopefully I can visit the dentist next week before it does. Like I said, I’m just glad I’m covered.

Pura Vida,

*Translation: "We have to clear/prepare the field."

** Yes, I am embellishing for added effect.

*** It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then the water “disappears” from our barrio. It’s kind of like a rolling blackout, but with water, and since I’ve been here, it’s never lasted for more than a few hours.

**** If your mama can call that hair and those nails "hers," then I can call my porcelain crown "my tooth." I paid for it, so it's mine!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's My Name?

There’s so much in a name, and over the years I’ve had so many. My first name, given to me by my older brothers, was "Apple." I still have few cousins that call me that more than anything else. Thankfully, my parents decided that Apple wouldn’t fly on my birth certificate, so my government name ended up being Andrew Foster Williams. I love having my mom’s maiden name as my middle name—it’s not exactly sexy, but it makes me feel connected that half of my family, both dead and alive. For example, when my Colombian and Cape Verdean host families look at me like I’m crazy for dumping hot sauce all over my food, I can blame it on my Southern blood.

I once got called "Andy," but I shot that fool in the kneecap and it hasn't happened again since. My only other nickname as a child was Gizmo... I was the cute one, but legend has it that if you get me wet or feed me after midnight I will spawn two larger, uglier version known as Barry (Gremlin #1) and Jaime (Gremlin #2).*

Fore some reason, the only person that ever got away with calling me Drew as a youngster was my Godfather, Maurice. And then high school happened. Among many bad habits, teenagers are obsessed with calling their friends by anything but their real names. So one day I looked up, and I was Drew, just like that. Around the same time I started deejaying, but I was more focused on honing my craft than coming up with a cool name. My brother's friend, Dwight, had taken to calling me "Ref," which was short for refugee.** Being a fan of self-deprecation, I decided to adopt the moniker as my DJ name, so my first semi-crappy mix-tapes and parties were brought to you by DJ Ref.

As a freshman in college I crossed the burning sands and became a Nupe. The name I was given by my Kappa Chi brothers—the name that I earned—was Sokrates. I thought that was a significant upgrade from refugee status, so I became DJ Sokrates in 2001. I've always been a proud Virgo, so I began recording music under the name "Sokrates The Virgo" after my mom—also a Virgo—passed away later that year. It looked kinda cool when I wrote it out, but it sounded a little ridiculous/pretentious when you said it out loud—as in, "Hi, my rap name is MC I'msuperprodoundandspiritual"—and that just wasn't the look that I was going for. Besides, everyone in the music community had already started calling Soks or Sok, so I decided to roll with it—and so I became Sok The Virgo.***

Then one I woke up one day in 2007 and realized that the music business was a horrible and awful lifestyle that was sucking my life-force dry. Actually, that’s a little extreme. Really, I fell out of love with the business over the course of a year or so, and eventually decided that I had enough cool stories to tell my future grandchildren. What I really wanted to do was coach and play soccer, so I threw myself into it, and became Coach Drew.

So, what am I trying to say? As I've evolved through a few different stages of life, and moved through a few different time zones, my name has always been an important reflection of what my mission is. I can be as simple as the difference between André (portuguese) and Andrés (spanish). Or it can be as huge as the difference between Sok the Virgo and just plain Drew. I still answer to any of these names, but I cherish the difference between them all. When someone calls my name, the name they choose to call me speaks volumes about the relationship that we have. Did we meet backstage or at the studio? Have we known each other since the diaper days? Did you pawn your kids off on me every Saturday morning for a few years?


Since we never stop growing, it’s only appropriate that I now have another new name—"Profe" (pronounced "proh-fay"). Profe is short for Profesor, which in spanish just means teacher. Ironically, I hated it when my Cape Verdean students would call me “Teacher." But “Profe” has a classy ring to it, and “coach” sounds funny when you say it with a Colombian accent. Every day I wake up and walk to work, and in just a few short blocks I hear little voices yelling “Profe, Profe” from inside houses and behind bushes. A little boy looks up from a game of marbles to greet me with a beaming smile... “Profe!” An old woman in a rocking chair gives me a nod while rolling out a handful of bollo... "Profe!"

It's not just a name, it's my responsibility and my place in the community. Our center serves over 400 kids, age 5-15—a good size for any program.**** Now consider that our community only has about 8500 people living in it, and you can imagine the impact of the program. Being Profe puts me at the center of it all, and it is the most rewarding thing that I can imagine. For the last few weeks I've had the challenge of working with a young boy who needs a lot more than a little extra attention. Just to be clear, I've never met a 6 year old that didn't have "special needs," but this boy makes me rethink my skepticism about drugging kids with attention deficit disorder. Today was a particularly challenging day. I spent most of the two-hour session in negotiations with my little buddy—being ignored, punched, kicked, bitten, spit on, and occasionally hugged. I'm not gonna lie—at one point I looked at him an thought to myself, "If you were my son, I'd spank the sh*t outta you."

I'm not proud to admit it, but I had given up, and was secretly praying that his family would just decide it wasn't working and would keep him home from the next class. It really got me wondering what kind of discipline, if any, this boy receives at home. Last week his mom was so late coming to pick him up that I walked him halfway home before meeting her in the street. Today I told him that we were going to have a nice, long talk with his mother and grandmother about his behavior. As we walked home hand-in-hand, he started to drag his feet, and his eyes teared up. "Profe, please don't tell them," he pleaded.

"Why shouldn't I?" I asked.

"Because they will beat me," he sobbed. Well, what do you say to that? Obviously, it stopped me dead in my tracks, literally and metaphorically. For the next few seconds, my head swirled with thoughts about my responsibilities as Profe. Wasn't I the one who was silently advocating a swift kick in the ass just a few minutes before? But really, it was a no-brainer—of course I wouldn't rat him out. Instead, we made a pact. He promised me he could and would do better, and I promised him that as long as he did, I wouldn't be knocking on his mama's door. We walked on for a few minutes until we came to a house with an open front door. "This is it! Ciao, Profe!" He was clearly anxious to see me on my way.

"Hola?" I called in to the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of an adult—no luck. We slapped high fives a few times, then I started to walk away. After a few steps I turned back to check him out. After checking to make sure that I wasn't looking, the little man scurried a little further down the black and slipped in the front door of a little white house—the one he actually lives in.

Pura Vida,

*At age 14 I was about 4’11”, 98 lbs (1.50m, 44kg)—do the math.

** My older brothers still deny that there is any truth behind this legend... but have you noticed how you never see them and the gremlins in the same room at the same time? I’m just sayin’.

*** I still deejay under the name DJ Sokrates. 

**** Fútbol Con Corazon serves 2,000 kids in the Barranquilla area, and is part of the Fútbol por la Paz network that serves 25,000 kids throughout Colombia.