Since the beginning of August I have been contemplating my involvement with solitude and how it affects my life during my Peace Corps Service. If the writing of the the previous post reflects a scattered and disillusioned person, I don't deny that those periods happen. As coincidence dictates, I later recieved two packages from the homeland, care of a PC vehicle that was traveling upcountry. Retrieving the hand written notes, familiar fitting clothes, and good candy from the two boxes completely reversed my day. In this job there are poor hours and there are good hours.
In the nighttime I now sit to write, welcoming solitude to help me concentrate my thoughts to attempt to reveal a truth, however small. I am not currently in a monastic aloneness for I am kept company by a dozing, snoring cat and the musics of the bands that drift through my mp3 player. Tonight a drizzling rain is strong enough to drive people and animals under cover. I sit in a freshly dusted and swept house with a full belly and a clean skin that hasn't yet been spoiled by nighttime sweating. The achings and complaints of the body are satisfied enough to let me mull over the state of the universe. This kind of detachedness from living is a familiar kind. I've spent most of my past life able to withdraw into this body-comfortable separateness, whether for recreation or school work.
..........with the first edit I cut out everything else I wrote that night. The universe is a complex place and truths are hard to find.
August 13, 2011
Three days ago I traveled to the Basse area to visit volunteers here, explore the eastern end of this country, and take a vacation from my own site. I have already spent two nights at the home of my friend, Remy Long. We two and also Remy's counterpart, Alajie, have worked hard to build nine beehives from three sheets of 8' x 4' plywood (as an aside, I love how plywood uses imperial measurements. It is the only thing that I have found in country that still does). The first day we sawed the boards by hand and on the second we glued and nailed the boxes together. It felt like woodshop. When Remy goes home, Alajie will be the owner of these beehives, so we are training him from the beginning--right down to how to properly use a saw to cut a straight line. The cuts were straight and well made boxes followed. Remy and I were in disbelief that we accomplished an American standard of quality (not American owned and fabricated overseas) in this country. I am satisfied with this project, and so far, with bee keeping in general. Building, cooking, exercising, and discussing with Remy continues building a friendship.
I am of roughly 100 PCVs in the Gambia who have come from many different states and arrived in different batches. Quite bluntly, these people do not know me, or I, them. It's all ok though, that is just the situation over here. I find volunteers friendly and have no reason to be exclusive of some within our community. In fact I need my fellow country men and women to help me affirm my nationality from time to time. As Remy stated during this visit, "I find myself a lot less selective about the types of people [among volunteers] that I am friends with here." For my own part, I agree with him. Openness and the relinquishing of control is required to survive here, relationships included. If I were at home, both the ability and the incentive to seek out and befriend my own kind is possible.
So I've written a long winded passage when I could have easily wrote some bullet points. oops
- There is solitude present in the inter-volunteer relationships, both at parties/large workshops, and during more intimate stays at village.
- There is solitude in being away from home soil.
3. There is solitude as being instantly VISUALLY recognized as The Outsider. Peoples faces show varied emotions when they see me, from anger to welcome, happiness to a desire to harass.
4. The two way solitude as the only American (and Westerner) in my village.
5. The solitude of being apart from the vast majority of Gambians on an intellectual level.
So what do these mean to me? What work do they do for me? Before I answer let me unpack numbers 4 and 5.
Gambians and Americans are hugely differentiated by their access to information, including information about the outside world and of different peoples. For children, parents, and grandparents, I am often the first non African that they have had interactions with. They don't know my customs and preferences (which is totally fine and understandable), but the lack of exposure makes them unaware as to how and why I may be offended at their personal and cultural behaviors towards me. Examples include condescending questions about my lack of marraige, excessive pushing to be at the front of a bank teller's line, assumed deference of women to men and of younger to the old, and lack of the idea of privacy, especially with regard to a person's desire of privacy (Imagine walking down the street and 20 random people shout the word 'Toubab' as either a statement or a greeting. This word means "light skinned foreigner". It can be said both with curiousity and anger. At least my village knows to say Bubacarr, but the same thing happens there too.).
This is true also, but to a lesser extent among Gambians who can speak more than broken English. I have become exasperated trying to explain that I wear a tengade, a large circular woven hat ( like a sombrero) because it is a good idea for white bread like me and not because I am going to herd cattle. In fact (their eyes now show disbelief) I don't even want to herd cattle.
So what do the solitudes do for me?
Whether they make me withdrawn, or more or less neurotic, they do give me a lot of time to think about what I'd like to do with my time in this body here on Earth. Hah, that's not really groundbreaking at all.
Since aloneness is the opposite of connection, solitudes are humbling me. I'm still in a young, fit, body at 23, but gosh do I think differently than I did at 19. Having only experienced poverty in the USA through writing, I now witness it daily in the extended bellies of my host family's children. At 19 I was absorbed in myself and with ideas. Ideas were more interesting than other people. So were endorphins. Now, drawing faces on my younger siblings' hands and talking in funny puppet voices teaches a different-but-equally-valid lesson than reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Endorphins are still important but I can get them also now from relaxing after a hard day of making beehives, weeding, or other work with my hands. My family's hospitality during Ramadan has amazed me. Despite being famished from a hard day's work without food or water, my host brother Salifu will never accept the first piece of bread and cup of tea to be passed during the evening breakfast. He tells me to have it. Many of my fellow volunteers are writing excellent blogs about cross cultural experiences. I encourage any readers I have to check them out. They've written extensively about Ramadan and Toubabs and they capture the living of this place. Through constant reinvention, I know who I am enough to admit what I am not or not yet. I now know what I want when I get back to the States. The how-to-get-it is yet to be decided.