Sunday, November 15, 2009
And so this is it, we’ve reached the edge of the world. As Brendan and I approach the village in the sky, the road drops away on either side into steep terraced mountain faces that dive into the far-off, vague expanse of dry valley floor. Hazy, blurry the distance is mystically omitted from our view. It is just me and him and this quaint village teetering on the last precipice of the earth.
And it’s a beautiful yet eerie physical manifestation of the feelings I’ve had so many times during this Africa Life. We’ve been hiking through the Usambara Mountains for three days, 60 kilometers, now, weaving in and out of lush terraced farmland tucked in between rocky mountain peaks and hidden forests of old growth. It’s been a long, hard, astonishingly gorgeous and culturally different (really, one country, one Swahili language, but very distinctly cut up along much more ancient tribal lines) trek and now we’re here, wondering how we got here, how do we absorb the moment to its fullest, how do we learn to appreciate our place in it and what is that place exactly?
Two volunteers, gone through this ‘figuring out’ two separate times, in collectively three different countries, 20-odd months in, we don’t have to speak to share, to know, what the other person is thinking. This is never where we expected to see ourselves, sipping a beer on the edge of the world (well, maybe the beer was always there), but it’s breathtaking and it’s surreal and it’s the only place I want to be right now. And whatever lies beyond that drop will be there when I’m ready for it.
Sometime in December
It’s two in the afternoon. After not a particularly taxing day of clothes washing, bread baking and house sweeping, I’m pretty ready for a nap. By this point, I’ve decided to fully embrace the obligation-free, peaceful, easy-going nature of life here and I’m perfectly contend curling up my couch for a afternoon snooze… I mean when else will I have this lazy freedom again in my life? And just then, I hear a knock and a small voice requesting entry. I welcome Muku in under the agreement that its naptime. Muku, my about to be four-year neighbor and best friend, wanders in his too-small overalls, overalls worn, and worn hard, by so many kids before him that the butt no longer exists, but his underlayer of shorts and puffy winter coat save him from any embarrassment. He reaches into his pocket to show he his immensely treasured, daily-found piece of trash, or great toy, depending on how you look at. Today it’s an old film canister with a couple broken nut and bolt pieces. I admire his riches before we pull up a blanket and lie down on my couch. Muku’s almost four, but more the size of a two-three year old, so he fits well next to me and this isn’t the first time we’ve dozed off together. His mom often comes over in the evenings to chat or look at my magazines and Muku’s passed out between us on more than one occasion. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Muku struggling to be still, willing his eyes to shut, but it’s not going to happen. The sleepless silence is broken by our giggles and I am deeply aware of how much I love him.
They say the first three months of our Peace Corps service should be devoted to becoming integrated into your community. And after doing this two separate times, I can tell you that is a load of bull. Or at least they have a different definition of integration than I’d always imagined… that is, before trying to live it.
Yep I’m integrated, some might even say, really well integrated. But it has become clear to me that I am not integrated as a villager, but I’m integrated as the white American living in this African village. And I may do it well – everyone knows my name, they’ve met my mom, a handful of my best friends and boy are they always ready for a conversation. I know a lot of their names, I know the family relationships, who’s kid is who’s, who does what in the village, how to greet in three of the six local languages. But even if the color of my skin didn’t shout out our differences, the way I think, the means by which I do things, my American habits, my freedom to say whatever I want and it be excusable, would all point to the inevitable truth at I am truly different from them, ‘un-integratably’ differently. Our humanity is no different, but there are, whether true or not, assumed ‘facts’ about me as a white American (and I’m sure assumed ‘facts’ on Africans on my part just as well). And these assumptions about me and where I come from will always color the lenses through which my neighbors, friends and villagers here see me with. (More on these assumptions, the idea of money, what is development, and so forth in upcoming posts.) And the moment I pull a camera out; or the conversation turns to home; or we talk about schools here versus home; or we debate the access to/lack of water in town; or the big one, money, comes up, my ‘integratived-ness’ is seen for what it is – in most cases superficial. Is this what Peace Corps had in mind? Is this what I had in mind?
But, there are a handful of people here, Mama and Baba Mdogo, Mama Hawa, Mama Sele, Mama Saidi, Mama Husseni, that see me not just as an American come to live in their village, but as a neighbor (imagine this word having exceedingly more weight here than it does in America) and as a friend, even endearingly different daughter of sorts. And although I understand true integration isn’t a possibility, the Peace Corps ‘Goal Number Two’ cultural exchange is there. I know that I have become an integral part of this community in my own way. And to some people in particular, our relationship transcends our differences, and I am family. Holding Muku’s hand as we giggle over nothing, I embrace and cherish my place in it all. I’ve found a home and people to love in it and maybe that’s what ‘integration’ is really supposed to mean.