On Creativity and Home Improvement

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. I thought that a year in Cameroon would have loosened my pen and that the words would jump onto the page of their own accord. The opposite was true. Living in a developing country for the first time was overwhelming. There was so much to take in, I found that I could barely process all the events myself, much less write about them.

I was searching for the big picture, but I ended up only seeing the minutiae, the details that weave themselves into my subconscious until they no longer stand out. Perhaps the big picture will come after years of experience, or maybe it won’t. Until that point, better to describe the small things, and then—perhaps—we can arrive at the larger whole.

I’m still learning, but a couple of things have changed. I’m in a different central African country, one I think is a better fit for me in a lot of ways. I’ve also had some time and space to process, recovering from the cultural whiplash of living in three countries last year and four this year. Two were repeats (so five countries in two years), but it isn’t something I would recommend.

So now I’m trying a new thing: settling. It’s an odd word to me, perhaps because I haven’t done it in so long, but I’ve moved in to a new place and am learning how to make a house a home.

It’s not always easy. In Cameroon I was spoiled, having a housing department to prepare a furnished apartment with a fridge, stove, electricity and running water. Here, apartments are rarely furnished, and tenets are responsible for figuring out their own water and electricity. Thankfully, I had help from my team in installing a water tank outside to collect rainwater. Although we’ve had one storm since I got here, I am praying for more rain so that my tank can fill up. [Update: it rained all night last night and we got more than 12 inches of rain. My tank is now almost full!] It’s amazing how much water we use every day: washing our dishes, ourselves, cooking, cleaning, drinking, and even flushing the toilet. Here, we learn how to conserve.

Working on a house here requires a good measure of creativity. Like using string in a crisscross pattern to hang a shower curtain, since curtain rods aren’t sold in stores. Or running extension cords from your one outlet by the front door through the wall to your kitchen, so that your fridge can be plugged in until a more permanent electricity solution is found.

Or being Kelly Moore for a day, mixing your own paint colors. Here, paint chips are rare, but white paint and dye are fairly cheap, and you can see a plethora of bright colors on the buildings throughout the city. To paint my house, my friend and I experimented with blue and yellow dye. (Everything I know I learned in kindergarten: Primary Color Paint Mixing 101!) I was looking for a seafoam green for the main room and a sunshiny yellow for the kitchen. For the green, we undertook the process scientifically, measuring drops and determining the perfect ratio for a nice pale green (a 3:1 yellow to blue ratio, in case you’re curious). For the yellow, I just dumped the remaining dye in the paint and hoped for the best. They both turned out great, and I enjoyed the process a lot more than choosing from paint chips and not having it meet expectations.

Bottom line: life is so different here, and some things may even seem unbelievable to people back home. But this constant state of disequilibrium keeps me open, open to new ideas, people, and experiences. In the West we think of creativity as something artistic, to be used in leisure time. Here, creativity helps us all get by in day to day life. A house is formed not only with cement, but with ideas, creating solutions to problems.

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