Monday, January 30, 2012

Observations of a Girl: On Being an Inspiration

Anyone who talks to me knows that while I constantly observe and appreciate my life's relative coolness, I consider it to be pretty normal. I know; I know it sounds contradictory, but it's true. My 'Holy crap I'm in Africa' moments exist within a constant state of actually living in Africa. It is for this reason that my blogs grow scarce (and my pictures rank lower in total number than my dad's did in a 10 day trip); I generally feel I haven't got much to say because this life has become my 'mean.'

Sometimes, though, I'm given the chance to see my life through someone else's eyes (something usually accompanied by compliments and praise, the likes of which make me blush like a rose in the spring) and it dawns on me that, like other Peace Corps volunteers were for me, I'm a kind of role model now.

I had the opportunity about two weeks ago to dine with some awesome, inspiring people; people making a living doing everything I'm interested in (One Campaign employees, political advisors, political lobbyists and campaign runners, etc.). I mean, I listened to these men and women talk about doing campaign work for people like Reagan and Gore, about their 'leg-up' positions as the personal assistants to famous Senators, about their involvement in very historical moments in Washington. It was fascinating; I could have listened to them talk all night. What I found mind-boggling was that they seemed to feel the same way about me.

As I casually discussed my projects, my daily existence, and my every-day working life, I realized that it was absolutely out of the ordinary for them. They considered it as inspiring and important as I considered their experiences (and let me tell ya: that's a kick in the teeth).

In truth, this happens a lot; I forget that (though coming to Africa was my choice and, therefor, doesn't seem very extraordinary to me) my job, my experiences, and the life I lead aren't considered normal  to most people. I'm living 'a life inspired;' a life inspiring.

I couldn't tell you exactly how this feels; like any lightbulb moment, it brightens my surroundings like a sonic boom and then it's gone. I could never claim to be inspiring, either - this whole experience has been one full of gratitude and child-like niavity from the from the start. I'm humbled by my work every day, and am often surprised at my luck in doing exactly what I came here to do. Opening an office or building a borehole is as equally awe-inspiring for me because I recognize the people around me who have created that success. Everything here is like a shot in the dark - one in every six attempts errupts into a sparkle of light, but most of the time I've no idea what I'm doing.

I guess it's because we get dropped here - into jobs we've never experienced, a culture we've never explored, a language we don't know - and everything becomes trial and error; we spend two years of our lives in a perpetual state of free-fall until we're plopped back down into the lives we used to know. It's why this job is so unique, anyone who tells you different isn't telling you the whole truth. It's a part of the appeal and it's a part of the struggle.

To wake up one day and decide to be inspiring is backwards - that's never the order anything in life happens. All I can do is lead a life I'm proud of and, so far, I consider myself pretty lucky in that regard. Maybe I inspire someone to apply for the Peace Corps, maybe I help get someone involved in an NGO or research about certain social and political climates - all of these things are wonderful and humbling, but all I've really done is pass the torch and continued living.

It's a fleeting, beautiful thing, you see; captured in blinding, fuzzy moments that stop time, but it's also a cycle. We each keep on living, doing the things we each find amazing; it's the great thing about life: potential - the power of doing. Maybe I've inspired, but that's not really the point, is it? The point becomes, what will you do with it?


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Celebrity of Being a Volunteer

Narration of an escape:
They swarmed like bees; giggling bees with opposable thumbs; shouting and jostling for a place to grab, they ran alongside her frantic escape-pedaling. For the first time in Ghana, the volunteer truly feared ... for her bike.

I don't know if I mentioned this, but I'm kind of a big deal. A star, in fact. The bright, shiny kind - exploding from light years away and directing your attention, always, to its existence in the sky.

Take it how you want (a metaphor for my whiteness, perhaps?) but the above description is exactly how I feel all the time. A bright spot attracting attention; an electronic sandwich board welded to my chest: "OUTSIDER," it blinks. "DOES NOT HARK FROM THIS LAND!" (Naturally, my sign board only speaks in Old English.) The battery never runs down, it's novelty never wears off, and for the life of me I can't pry it away. I'd be no less ostentatious if I stole the chief's horse, glued a uni-horn to it's head, and taught it to shoot laser-beams from it's eyeballs (and that's just when I'm minding my own business).
... Of course, If I managed to do all that I'd probably deserve the attention, but it's an overwhelming thought, no?

Unfortunately, I don't have the skill-set to bestow laser-beam eyes (YET), but I am foreign and, usually, that's enough. More important than being 'foreign,' however, is the fact that I'm white. Where I live this is not only obvious, but blindingly significant. After a lifetime of chasing uniqueness and going against the grain, I have the daily urge to sink into the loving embrace of blissful anonymity. It's an urge that comes with the realization that a parade of children wherever I go will kind of always be ... conspicuous, you know?

On Whiteness:
Sometimes it's embarrassing (when everyone watching and greeting sees me trip over air and fall on my ass); sometimes it's awkward (when I try to pretend I don't notice the stranger next to me taking my picture on his/her phone); sometimes it's humbling (when I'm escorted to a location because the person I asked directions from wants to ensure my safety); sometimes it's the exact experience one would expect when being reduced to a color (when I'm talked about in a language it's assumed I don't understand as if I am invisible  - even though I do, and I'm not; when I'm pointed and laughed at like a circus attraction for no obvious reason; when I'm targeted as nothing more than a bank account, a marriage visa, or a status object).

This is the average day in my life; surreal interactions ranging from innocent (children yelling, sometimes from miles away, "SOLAMIA!! SOLAMIIII-YA!!!! BAH-BAYEEEEEEE!") to intrusive (random man stops my on my bicycle to insist I take him as a lover because he's always wanted to "take a white for a wife"). In fact, my skin color is so exulted (I wish this weren't the correct adjective, trust me, but it is) that not only am I sought after, but constantly on display. I couldn't blend in if I tried.

It's slightly jarring (sometimes amusing) and has forced my understanding of what Peace Corps called a 24/7/365 kind of job. I now empathize with celebrities; I regularly feel like Bono (though I'm pretty sure this is the only place someone like Bono feels 'normal' for the same reasons I don't). And it's probably the difference between visiting a place and living there. As life regains a sense of normalcy for me, I remain an object of curiosity for everyone else. What used to be endearing when the job was new is now a constant reminder that I'm still seen as an outsider in a country I now call home: I figure they should be bored by now; they figure white people are always from somewhere else, somewhere better. Ghana could never be my 'home' - it's where black people live (several people have explained this to me), which is why my novelty actually makes sense. Someone, laughing at the child parade, once said, "If you lived here one hundred years, you'd still be different because you'd still be white, Emma," and I can't really argue with his logic.

This doesn't mean that I don't have friends or that they don't want me to stay, it just means that no matter how long I stay, I will always be the focus of most interactions. (It is a strange, alternate reality to fall into; coming from a land that sees pointing out differences as politically incorrect - you can imagine most of us react negatively to the connotation of 'being white.' It's truth notwithstanding, it's considered insulting.) My skin is both a curse and a blessing; the catalyst for many experiences, to be sure. To have one's race pointed out constantly (as in, "White girl, come here," or "Hey! White!") isn't something our generation is used to. We see it as demeaning and find it difficult to come to terms with. I swear it's the 'cure-all' to racial slurs and stereotypes. It would do wonders for the average racist, finally understanding what it's like to be the 'blunt end,' so to speak. Perhaps we could eradicate all hatred through simple experience (I told you I'd save the world when I joined the Peace Corps).

In the very least, I've got some great stories (and a new perspective). When I finally get to tell my grandchildren that I was famous one day, it won't be due to senility or jest. It'll be because, "Damn it, I taught the chief's horse to shoot lasers from it's eyeballs! I did! I'm not lying!"


Friday, January 20, 2012

More Things to Know ... In Ghana

1. Flies are like vampires. They never come in unless invited (upon the tops of childrens' heads).
 2. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT succumb to the temptation of looking into your latrine; you will rue the day. Better to treat it like the worst sexual experience you've ever had: ignore it completely.
 3. In regards to the above - tell your father you've no idea what I'm talking about. "Sex? Never heard of it ... must be something french ..."
 4. No matter how long you've lived in Africa, waking up in the middle of the night to Jumanji-like drumming vibrating through the floor will always be creepy. (No one is hunting you; zombies do not exist.)
 5. I do not recommend zombie-themed books, shows, movies or jokes. As soon as the thought is entertained, mefloquin-induced dreams will occur. (See number 4)
6. Reading by candle light: terrbily romantic; terrible for your eyes. Decide your fate: blind romantic, complete with adorable seeing-eye pet, or otherwise normal human being deprived of lots of self-love.
7. In regards to the above, standard answer should be: "Of course I don't know what 'self-love' means, dad. Who's JILL? She fell down the hill, right?" *walks backwards from the room*
8. Sewing, knitting, crocheting are all now pasttimes. Call me Aunt Mildred because, apparently, I'm 76 years old.
9. Read enough novels and you will start to talk like one. People like that don't have friends; people like that talk in iambic pentameter to their three-legged cats. Get ready for a long winter ...
10. America, even in thought, is completely overwhelming. Period.
11. Teo years is hardly long enough, trust me.
12. Looking forward to the task of handwashing two or more loads of laundrey is what we call 'Hitting the Pathetic Precipice." Now go fetch your water, loser (said the three-legged cat).
13. Harmattan (translation): biking against the wind both to and from the house; African terrain (translation): up hill both ways; Hot Season (translation): simultaneous heat rash and heat stroke. I am officially an Old Wive's Tale for whiney school children ...
14. A rain shower in Ghana is not a 'rain shower,' it is the Apocalypse - torrential downpours of tsunamic proportions. There will come a day (sometime in April) that all volunteers will pray for one lasting at least 1000 days.
15. Only in Africa will you wish upon a shooting star for the Apocalypse. But you will - Hot Season is upon us ... thank God it's 2012?
16. (Speaking of Hot Season) Beware of the Harmattan snot-rocket. It often comes, unannounced and with astounding aim, from around two seats up. Window seats always run a high risk, but snot-rockets hold a special place in squirm-worthy, Harmattan Hell.
17. Three separate cell phones (positioned at either side and behind you) playing three different songs simultaneously without headphones is totally acceptable; you've been misinformed. NOW ENJOY THE MUSIC.
18. Toffees are completely legitmate currency.
19. The more weirded out you are by the white people you see will directly correlate to your reverse culture-shock upon returning to America. You should probably get out more.
20. Stop!!! Stop, stop. Just stop .... you're still white.