(Wrote this at work today - wanted to practice writing, and had six hours or so to kill. It needs improvement but I figured I'd post anyway)
It is easy to concentrate on all the negative aspects of African life, and in fact our newspapers portray Africa as nothing but a quagmire of war, disease, poverty and death. Unfortunately, very few Americans are wise enough to know that the reality on the ground is quite different. Yes, there is tremendous pain and suffering in Africa, but there is also an unfiltered, authentic quality to life there. The absence of strong central authority is probably odious to some, but instead of complete anarchy, a system arises which may be referred to as “ordered chaos,” and while this system is a source of both frustration and amusement for those of us that come from a well-ordered society, it becomes ultimately liberating because it requires nothing more than interdependence and mutual trust to keep it afloat. African society doesn’t ever function in a way that makes sense to you and I, but for a place so backwards, everything always seems to work out. Africans are also unexposed to a mass media and entertainment industry, ignorant of the world around them, and have therefore not yet traded their sense of community for our obsession with conformity, a liberation unto itself.
You can still witness all this in Africa today during an impromptu chorus that knocks your socks off, or in the sheer unabashedness with which African teenagers will throw themselves into dramatic performances, having never seen a professional actor to compare themselves to. Quirky cultural practices still abound, from women hefting everything on the top of their heads, to men considering the most erotic part of a woman’s anatomy to be not her breasts, but her knees. One Malawian friend refused to believe that our government issues a birth certificate to every citizen in order to better keep track of them.
When my parents came over to visit me in my Malawian village, after a year and a half of letters and stories describing my African life, my mother turned to me and said: “I never understood what it was like until I got here!” If there were two people whom I could have expected to understand, it would be my parents, if only because I had been writing weekly, sending pictures, and recounting innumerable stories. That statement stuck out in my mind because it surprised me so much. It’s not like I can blame my mother; I sometimes had trouble rectifying the fact that Pennsylvania and Malawi are on the same planet, the difference being so radical.
Yesterday, we had an extended B.S. session at work - me, 3 other temps, and one of the trainers. We were kidding around about how I don’t like driving so far to come in, and therefore should pitch a tent or park an RV in the parking lot. It soon devolved into jokes about bringing my houseboy over and hunting the deer in the woods surrounding the facility. I can see the humor in the situation, and I don’t take things like that personally, but I find it somewhat irksome that people consider Peace Corps service somehow analogous to outright savagery.
It is for this reason, and some others, that I decided a few months ago that I wouldn’t discuss my Peace Corps service with people in this country unless I knew they were somehow sympathetic. Americans are generally supportive of Peace Corps service, and when they first hear of it, say things like “That’s awesome!” (Americans love to say that) After the general facts are out of the way – I lived for 2 years in a village with no electricity or running water, etc. – heads start spinning. It seems that if you challenge their worldview in any way, something just shuts off.
Instead of not talking about my African experiences (which would never work anyway), I thought it would be useful to develop something like talking points, and not to cross those lines. For example, providing a few simple facts:
1) I lived for two years without running water or electricity
2) I taught Math in a high school
3) Malawi is a small country in south-east Africa
The problem with this approach is twofold – How do you distill two years’ worth of vibrant experiences into soundbites that Americans can understand? And how do I in turn avoid thinking about my experience in those simple, unspectacular terms? The process of readjustment and forgetting are probably going to happen eventually, but there are many things that I have learned and taken with me that I don’t want to lose. Part of the challenge of readjustment is deciding which values and attitudes you can carry forward, and which ones won’t work here in the States. I happen to be a stubborn bastard (I think most people who manage to complete their service are) and I’m willing to be something of a pariah if it means not compromising myself and what I believe. It’s not only co-workers that miss the point, but also friends and loved ones from before you left. Another challenge in readjustment is finding people that share or at least tolerate your newfound worldview.
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is set in Gaborone, Botswana and follows the adventures of a woman who starts the first private investigator business in Botswana that is run by a woman. Although Mr. Smith is of European descent, he does a very good job of capturing the African mystique. The main character, Precious Ramotswe, relates:
“They would grow melons on the lands and might even buy a small shop in the village; and every morning she could sit in front of her house and sniff at the wood-smoke and look forward to spending the day talking with her friends. How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, who were always dashing around worrying about things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eat grass? None, in her view; none at all, and yet they did not know it. Every so often you met a white person who understood, who realized how things really were; but these people were few and far between and the other white people often treated them with suspicion.”
Sometimes I feel like that guy. And I like America, but sometimes I miss my other planet. I'll try and relate some more stories in the coming weeks and months.