Back home, my stepfather was recently in a community theater production of Man of La Mancha. It’s the first time he’s been in a production in more than 20 years, following his glory days in high school and college as the lead in practically everything, from ‘The Music Man’ to ‘Hair.’ Obviously, I wasn’t able to see the show, as much as I’d have liked to, but one of the tradeoffs of living overseas is that you get to see things you’d never experience back home, but the experiences back home are often the ones you’d most like to be a part of.
I at least get an emailed version of the program from the show, however, which is fun to read. Something catches my eye as I scan through the biography though.
‘Ken also has two grown step-sons, Nathaniel "the African," and Alex "the Singing Chef" Tishman.’
The whole ‘Singing Chef’ thing is a long story- one better left to my brother’s blog. But ‘the African,’ I guess that must be me.
Really? Have I become African?
In some ways, maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe I’ve picked up some of the positive qualities from the places I’ve worked and lived on this continent. There’s a lot of good to be had here; the resilience of the Chadians who became my friends and colleagues in Gounou-Gaya, the welcoming hospitality of many of the Congolese I’ve come to know over the past few months, the artistic talent of the silversmiths and leatherworkers in Niger from whom I bought jewelry and sandals, or an appreciation for the athletic wizardry of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon on the soccer field. Obviously, I’m not saying that I’ve picked up all of these skills, of course, but being exposed to them has at least shown me parts of Africa that I would never have known about before this whole job/career/adventure/experience started.
Looking at it from the other side of the coin, however, many of the patterns and traits I see here are things that I’m glad that I haven’t learned or adapted. Too often, it feels like creative thinking is an impossible task, that fatalism saps any sort of progress, and that the ultimate ambition is to end up with a Mercedes-Benz, a potbelly, and a houseful of servants to order around. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve developed too many of these ‘qualities,’ as far as I can tell.
But what does being ‘African’ mean, exactly? That’s like saying I’m ‘North American,’ implying that by being born in Alaska and raised in Florida and California, I somehow have the same outlook and mentality as someone from rural Mexico- they’re North American too, after all. On a continent of 1.3 billion people broken into almost 55 separate nations, there are certainly plenty of commonalities, but the average Moroccan is likely to have at least a slightly different outlook on the world that a Mozambican would, considering they live as far from each other as England and Kazakhstan.
When you hear about ‘killer bees’ in the US, they often talk about them as being ‘Africanized,’ a breed of more aggressive insect. Has the Africanized me become more aggressive too? Maybe. I’ve noticed that the longer I seem to work in places like Chad, Cameroon, Congo, or anywhere else, I have less and less tolerance for what seem to me to be poor decisions, lack of foresight, or simply acceptance of a non-functional status quo. If something doesn’t work, rather than simply living with the problem or claiming that the French/Belgians/British/Portuguese or (insert other colonial power here) caused the problem, I wish I saw more people making an effort to solve the problem, and when I don’t see it, it can drive me crazy.
Maybe that’s overly aggressive, maybe it’s a lack of cultural sensitivity, or maybe it’s simply an inability to adapt, but I think it’s something else- simply a realization that no matter how long I spend here, I’ll never be ‘African,’ even if that was something I wanted. My outlook on the world is always going to be different than people I meet in Goma, Juba, or anywhere else, and the clash of perspectives comes to a head at times, pissing me off.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, one of the most important things to focus on was on ‘integration,’ becoming part of your adopted community. In that sense, the idea was to ‘become African’ in a way, if that meant taking an adopted name, bargaining at the market over the same dried fish parts and millet, and traveling in the same bush taxis and cargo trucks with everyone else. It was a critical part of your ability to succeed; working at such a micro-level, often with a small village or a few close colleagues, there had to be a sense that people in the community understood you could relate to their experiences, even if you still lived a life apart simply by virtue of having the magic blue booklet stamped ‘PASSPORT’ with an eagle on the front.
As I’ve continued to work in Africa though, I’ve come to realize that the higher up you move in the field, the less it’s possible to integrate. As a foreigner working in the NGO world, my life is a world away from the average person I see in Goma; I buy things without being overly concerned about price, I travel when and where I feel like it, and my housemate and I have cleaners, gardeners, and 24-hour guards at home. I live a life of ridiculous wealth on a salary that’s solidly average by Western standards. The reality of this is a distance that didn’t exist when I was teaching 11th graders in Gounou-Gaya.
Some people try to integrate a bit too much, I think, the clichéd idea of ‘going native.’ To me, this just seems stupid. It doesn’t prove anything, except that you can endure Giardia on a regular basis, and that you’ve sublimated everything about who you are to make a point that seems lost on the majority of people in the adopted community; they know you’re not one of them, and barring extraordinary and impossible adaptation, you never will be, at least not all the way. I remember a colleague as a Peace Corps volunteer who tried this, seemingly drinking the dirtiest water available, walking alone through N’Djamena in the evening, and basically doing everything possible to be as Chadian as possible. One time this person asked me, ‘Why are you really here?,’ disdain dripping from every word. Clearly, I wasn’t ‘African’ enough for this person’s taste. Maybe it was something that I realized even then, that you can live within a community, but that still leaves you a long way from being completely part of that community. It’s one thing to be culturally sensitive, but sensitivity doesn’t mean a complete abandonment of everything that makes you a Westerner, just because you’re not living in the West, at least to me.
None of this is to say you can’t have close friends and colleagues in an adopted home in the developing world, but the differences grow greater as you move higher, and trying to pretend they don’t exist serves no one, in my mind. If you have a decent job with a good salary, attempting to integrate by living like a broke volunteer is simply patronizing to your local friends and co-workers; they know perfectly well you can afford to live a comfortable life. But again, a nice house and financial freedom doesn’t mean you can’t have local friends and make an effort to learn as much as possible of the language, culture, history and traditions of a place.
When I first started doing this work, now more than 5 (!) years ago in Chad, I felt like it was critical to integrate as much as possible, to become a part of the community as much as you possibly could. I still think this is a noble idea, but as time has gone on, I’ve come around to thinking that maybe a healthy degree of respect while still maintaining some sort of distance might be more appropriate. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. Rather than try to be something I’m not, I’d rather pick and choose where I can, combining the cultures I’ve lived in as some sort of mixture that’s better than the sum of its parts. I’m happy to try to live a life here that combines the education, values and beliefs that have been instilled in me from childhood as an American, hopefully coupled with some of the positive traits I’ve come to admire over the years in each of the places on this continent I’ve had the privilege to live in or visit.
In the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote spends his time ‘tilting at windmills,’ living a fantasy form of adventure that doesn’t really fool anyone else. To me, the idea of trying to ‘be African’ in a place like this is a similarly fantastical quest. It’s not that you can’t appreciate and acquire some of what you see in a place like this, but attempting to reinvent yourself as Congolese, Chadian, Cameroonian or anything else is as transparent and as doomed to failure as Quixote’s attempt to joust a set of whirling blades. Becoming ‘African’ is something that perhaps a small part of you can transform, but its impossible to adapt completely; I, for one, would rather be happy with who I am- a little African, a bit Floridian, mostly Californian with a hint of Colorado and Massachusetts, but in the end, still me, and better off for the good qualities here that do exist.
In my stepfather’s program, I’m ‘the African;’ maybe that does play a role in who I am, but if it does, it’s not the lead. In the play of my life, there’s an African understudy, but the lead is definitely American.