Friday, June 5, 2009

Ke Teng – I Am Here

In Chinese the word for “foreigner” directly translates to “outsider”. In Setswana the word simply means “other”. Still, I feel more outside in Africa than I ever did in Asia.

Being Always Outside can be infuriating—especially after living here a year.
- Why do the cars still stop me on the road?
- Why do the children still ask me for money?
- Why do people incessantly touch my hair/skin/clothes?

A new Peace Corps volunteer arrived in Kumakwane today. Twenty-five year old black kid from Georgia. Looks remarkably like my village neighbor. I smile at him and offer to show him around and try to keep the jealousy from creeping into our get-to-know-you banter.

Just once I’d like to be invisible here.

But the outsider label is not always negative. Being invisible has its perks. And one of those perks is that you are, quite simply, Not Real.

At first being Not Real made people feel safe to gossip with me. I know who’s sleeping with whom, why the computer teacher fought with the Setswana teacher and which school administrator is thought to be developing a mental illness. I also know why the village women hate the teacher women (yes, sex—everyone’s favorite cause of chaos) and which students take condoms from the clinic and who was being reprimanded in the Headmaster’s office last Monday.

I could continue. Despite all the loneliness of this life I cannot complain of boredom: I feel like I’m an extra in a soap opera every day.

But, then, of course there is evolution.

It may have been hitting the one year mark. Or perhaps they saw that I was finally comfortable here. But all of a sudden the gossip developed into something far more serious. And far more concerning.

They started confiding in me.

Maybe this kind of pain exists everywhere and I just don’t see it because I’m always a member of the Involved Inside instead of the Neutral Outside. Maybe this country holds an immense ache that goes ignored more times than not. It would take me a long time to explain to you why I have this sense of a deep distrust between Batswana but I feel it intensely. A distance from one another. A guard.

A student once submitted a paper to the question box that read:

“Why do all girls hate each other?”

In an interview with the social worker she told me that, yes, rape cases do happen but mostly go unreported:

“Even when the parents know they usually just ask the perpetrator to pay them money and then everyone forgets about it.”

Everyone knows I was an English major in undergrad and got my Public Health degree in post grad. They know I am not qualified to give them anything. But still, they come. Because there are so few places to go. Because they are overflowing with these things.

- A student lingers outside the office. I call her in and she closes the door. Rubs the back of her neck. Looks out the window. Bites on the end of her pen. She has come to tell me she’s a lesbian. And that she’s afraid. They publicly whip homosexuals here. They believe such behavior is “of the devil". She wants to stop feeling this way but she can’t make it go away.

- In the empty computer lab my colleague’s eyes water as he’s recounting the story: that party where his best friend told him There Was Talk. Gossip about his promiscuity. Concerns about his reputation. He hadn’t had a partner in 2 years. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of it. Or the implications. Or the threat.

- We’re sifting through paperwork and chatting about the weekend when she tells me she’s not sleeping. We discuss diet and stress but it’s neither. Her mother died of a sudden stroke just last year and now she cant stop thinking about her own death. She’s deeply concerned about having her will authorized. She’s 43.

- She stops me in the hall at 5:00. I’m exhausted and running to the store for milk so I can make it home before dark. But two hours later she’s still sobbing on the desk about the discomfort. Discharge and itching. She’s had it for two years now. We go to the clinic the next day and the nurse tells her she must ask her mother to bring her to Thamaga for an appointment with the doctor. And she sobs and sobs.

I am carrying a dozen more stories like these. More as of late. And the sources more shocking: people I rarely talk to coming to find me. Spilling everything.

I research homosexuality and grief counseling and STDs. Stress, insomnia, promiscuity, domestic violence, neglect, bullying… I distribute ridiculous little stacks of highlighted pages from the internet. And I say my prayers every night. And sometimes in the morning. And sometimes between classes.

I am coming to believe that the way a language develops its greetings can reveal immense truths about the corresponding culture and reality.

In America we ask “How are you?” and we answer “I am well.”
In China they ask “Have you eaten?” and they answer “We have.”
In Botswana they ask “Where are you?” and they answer, quite simply,

“I am here.”


Ricky Green said...

Hi! It's so great to read your posts! I stumbled upon your blog while researching Peace Corps opportunities once I complete my undergraduate next year. It's really comforting to know your undergrad wasn't in Public Health. What you're doing right now is exactly what I want to do. If you don't mind and have a bit of time - I'd love to ask you more. My e-mail address is Ke a Leboga...

Jenah said...

I remember hearing someone talk once about how language reflects culture- how in English, one would say "You dropped your pen." Statement of fact. And in some Hispanic languages, you would simply say, "The pen fell." Neutral statement. But in Asian languages, you'd actually say, "The pen has caused itself to fall." (Who would dare to blame you for the pen falling?!?! Let's not shame anyone!)

And I remember feeling like that mini language lesson summed up my entire experience as a foreigner in Taiwan. All frustration that year could be explained by a simple transliteration of what happened between a teacher and a pen in a classroom one day.
I wonder what it feels like, for some of these people who confide in you. I wonder how it feels to live 15, 18, 26 years of life, and then suddenly have someone safe to tell things to, because that person Is from the outside.