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Monday, March 9, 2015

A year in: still a manchild.

As I’m here longer and longer and I “integrate” more and more, there are nuances of being a foreigner in a village that are just starting to come to the surface.  I do consider myself a member of the community here.  I live with a family, I eat their food, I sleep in their compound, I play with their kids, and I am usually treated like one of the gang.  Sometimes, however, there are rude little reminders that inform me I’m really not one of the group at all…and the longer I’m here, the more I start to feel comfortably at home, the more painful and surprising it is for me to feel those reminders, like springs poking my skin when I settle into a favorite old recliner.

I've blogged about this before, saying that I felt like a "manchild" here - I'm a child because I can't speak or understand well and I make silly cultural mistakes, but I'm a man because I'm still seen as a patron, still expected to give people goods and knowledge, to save them from poverty.  Now I'm year in, and though many things have changed, I'm still a manchild.

The other day I didn’t have anything planned for the afternoon, so I just hung out with my sister and brother in my family’s compound.  Both of them are in their early 20s, left school early, and don’t have a whole lot going for them in life, besides eventually finding spouses.  My language is good enough now that we were able to rib on each other, just like siblings are supposed to do.  I was having fun – the dogs were playing, we were laughing, we were drinking tea with mint, and there was a cool breeze ruffling through the leaves of the mango trees.  I was feeling at home, at ease, content, wishing I had longer than a year left here, already dreading saying goodbye to this place and these people I love so much.  Then a visitor from another village (who had just arrived for a dennabo the following day) walked into the compound, did a double take when he saw me, and zeroed in. 

“Your name.”
“Oh! You know Pulaar!”
“A little.”
“Where is your husband?”
“I don’t have a husband.”
“I am your husband.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Take me to America.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Haha!  You know Pulaar!”
“A little.”
“Are you having fun?”
“A little.”
“Haha!  You eat money!  You only have fun!  You don’t work!”
*awkward laugh*
“America is nice.  Take me to America.  I am your husband.”
*awkward laugh*
“You agree, my wife!  You will take me to America”….and so on, and so on.

Asu and Oussaman didn’t say anything to come to my defense…why would they?  I’m not really their sister.  I’m just a random white person that’s living with them for a while. They wouldn’t risk offending this middle aged man, someone whose opinion actually matters, by telling him he was making me uncomfortable. My “siblings” might like me more than other toubacos they’ve known, but I’m still just a toubaco, not a real person. I can understand much more here than I used to, but for everything I understand, there are a hundred things I don’t. 

I’m here because I had a vague intention of helping people, but even after a year of living with the family, I understand only a tiny percentage of what goes on around me.  Like a toddler, I can understand when people want me to understand, but normal adult conversations are over my head.  Normal Pulaar needs to be translated into Kadiatou Pulaar, slower and more carefully enunciated, before I can make sense of it.  Like a child, I’m a source of entertainment on slow days.  When I leave my family’s compound, people scream my name for no other reason than that it’s funny watching me respond to it.  When I’m sitting with a family and they don’t have anything else to talk about, talk inevitably turns to me – what I’m wearing, how my body looks different from theirs, what I said or did in the days previous.  I’m a fair subject because I’m not a person.  I’m a toubaco.

I’ve been helping my ASC (community health worker) dispense vitamin A and de-worming medications to the several tiny villages that are served by my village’s health hut.  This involves lots of biking on beautiful windy bush paths to villages that are far from the road, villages who rarely see foreigners.  The majority of children have burst out crying and tried to run away when they saw me, which is not great for my self-esteem, but even worse is hearing and, finally, understanding what the mothers say to their kids.  “If you don’t stop crying, the toubaco will cook you for dinner.”  “Behave or the toubaco will take you on her bike.” I came here to volunteer two years of my life to try to help people, and I’m being treated like a witch in a Disney story.  It doesn’t matter if it hurts my feelings.  I don’t have feelings.  I’m not a real person.  I’m a toubaco.

A representative from the district hospital came to my village the other day to ask my ASC about how things are going at his health hut.  Apparently the hospital rep didn’t know there was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village, because he was confused by my being there and started speaking to me in French.  I told him I didn’t understand French, but he could talk to me in Pulaar.  He then tried to talk to me in Wolof.  I said I didn’t understand Wolof, either.  Then he spoke to me in rapid, fluent, confusing Pulaar, so turned to my ASC so he could translate the fluent Pulaar into the baby Pulaar I’m capable of understanding.  The hospital man was disgusted.  Through my ASC, I got the gist of what he was saying: “You can’t French, you can’t Pulaar, how do you work?  Where are your notebooks describing your work activities? What do you do here?  How many radio shows have you done?  How many causeries have you led? Why are you here? What kind of work are you doing?”  I didn’t know what to say.  I’m at peace, now, with doing very little, but it’s hard defending it to people that are clearly disappointed by my lack of productivity.

There was a random group of five Spanish people visiting a nearby village (Koulinto) last month. They all spoke French and some English, and they were doing a shadow-box theater sketch in several villages, with plans to make a documentary about their time here after they returned home to Spain.  No matter how many times I explained that I had never seen these people before, that we didn’t speak the same language, that I had never been to Spain, everyone kept asking me about how my relatives in Koulinto were doing.  Italy, Spain, France, USA…it’s all the same place to a person who’s never left her village, and my skin color means that THAT place is my home.  Not this place.  No matter how much I want to fit in here in village, no matter how comfortable I start to feel here, I don’t and won’t truly belong.

My friends and family from back home, the ones who speak the same language as me and know my culture through and through, who understand all the weird things I do…I have no idea what they’re up to. I left all of them to come here and hang out in a mud hut in 120 degree heat. 
Most days, I’m happy I’m here, and if I were to go back in time to 2012, I’d still fill out that Peace Corps application. I love my community here and I’m happy with my job, but the inevitable downer days are getting harder and harder to deal with.  When I didn’t understand what was happening around me when I was brand new at site, I told myself that this was temporary, that I’d pick up the language quickly and be able to converse with ease.  A year in, that hasn’t happened, and I’m starting to doubt that it ever will; baby Pulaar might be as good as it gets for me.  Plenty of people in my community are friendly, kind, and patient, but now that I can understand more of what people are saying, I’m picking up that not everyone is as positive and welcoming as I’d hoped they’d be.  Hopefully this struggle will resolve itself soon.


  1. You are amazingly patient with your community - be patient with yourself too and hang in there :) Love your blog!

  2. Well, it's a little disheartening to know that cat calling is universal. BUT, I have to say you probably picked up the Pulaar faster than most people would ... I don't even remember how to say eleven in Spanish.

    It seems to be human nature is kind of like the movie "Mean Girls" - while the ideal ending is that there are no tribes and everyone mixes with everyone else and get along, it's more like the beginning cafetera scene where every clique has their own table. That can dissipate, but it takes time and energy. I have faith you'll eventually get to straddle between both the Plastics and the Unfriendly Black Hotties tables :)

  3. Brian that is the best analogy ever <3