21 October 2009

freedom hangs like heaven.

I finally read The Poisonwood Bible, and although Kingsolver is much too flowery a writer for my taste, I still couldn't put it down. Perhaps because I'm here, but it turned out to be one of those books that will probably forever stay with me. Part of me wishes the preacher had tripped coming off the plane and sustained a brain injury that would leave him forever mute, but I'm sure anyone else who's read the book could have predicted I'd react in that way. There are passages throughout the novel that I felt like were stolen from my own thoughts. About trying to make sense of your own culture, lifestyle, and beliefs in a world where they're frankly absurd. The daughters' reactions to the lives and behaviors of the villagers. Reconciling yourself to the reality that you must live under every assumption based on everyone who's ever looked like you while knowing full well you'll be lambasted for venturing any assumptions of your own. The child-like fascination with the local food, dress, culture, lifestyle - everything. The odd things you find yourself missing from home. Your tiniest, most mundane action being fascinating, every single day for months on end. Feeling like a regular in an establishment to which you've never actually been. The notion that no amount of time or language ability is enough to allow a white person to truly fit in and be accepted. It's comforting to know that you're never the only
one.

As I come down to my final weeks here, I'm starting to think about what Ethiopia will mean to me - how do I take this experience home with me? How have I changed? The five-person narrator style of the book did a lot to set me reflecting on how people allow Africa to affect them. (This will be one of the few times I willingly refer to "Africa" in the broad sense - culturally, each country is drastically different, but the overall effect on Western mores is similar, and that's the only context in which I'll ever use the term). Some people end up feeling forever guilty for the privilege in which they were raised - I don't want to be that girl. There are aspects of America that I'm sure I'll find overwhelmingly gluttonous - we probably don't need twenty varieties of canned soup, but all I can see is the other side of that equation. With rampant consumerism comes choice, and the belief that all of those choices are equally (or at least marginally) valid. I'd rather have twenty soups I don't have to eat than have to justify my job, love life, children or lack thereof, eating habits, what I do or don't do on Sunday mornings, or anything else to anyone else. I now appreciate those choices more than I ever would have if I'd never lived without them. I'll probably also forever appreciate the tiny details of my privileged life that I've historically taken for granted - running water, electricity, parents who allow me to live my own life, friends who appreciate that I form my own opinions, a government that allows me to publicly disagree with it. I'd like to fall somewhere in the middle, not renouncing my own background to become "African," but not also writing off the entire experience as a closed chapter in my life, never to be revisited.

Less than four weeks left. I just can't believe it's been this long already and I don't even know how I feel about leaving. There are reasons here for which I'd stay, not forever but for a time. But there are also reasons at home for which I'd leave tomorrow. People join the Peace Corps to "find themselves," but after life here, everything seems feasible, so how do I weigh those reasons and figure out how I'll carry Ethiopia with my for the rest of my life?

3 comments:

John Ducey said...

I will miss reading your thoughts on Ehtiopia, Africa and you unique and entertaining manner of expressing your thoughts and views on life and all it has to offer. Love ya and miss ya,
old man.

globalschreibs said...

Hey ya Jess!

I think I'm left to communicate this way with you as the postman seems incessant on breaking into your parcels I guess... buggers.

It sounds like you are going through a lot of end of time reconciliation bits. It's been about 3.5 years since my short time in Uganda and I think there are many bits that have stuck with me; I've certainly become more relaxed about work and spending a lot more time with friends than sitting in front of a computer all the time. I also returned a lot more motivated to do work more directly in the community, rather than thinking everything needed to be done elsewhere.

Social justice and all that good stuff does not go away, but recognising the bribery, greed and corruption in politics seems to stick out more for me now than it did before going.

I was listening to an MP the other day that was speaking at our charity's AGM. he happens to be in charge of the Department for International Development and two things particularly resonated with me:

1) The local is now the global and the global is now the local; our society is too globalised to think that acting locally does not have global implications and acting globally will inevitably lead to local changes.

2) There is no developed world. I thought this more so when I was in Uganda, but I continue to struggle to refer to 'developing countries' in a proper context... 'global south'? 'non-western'? The MP, John Battles, noted it simply. A community centre was created in Leeds in the 1980s by local women. Half way through the project the men got involved and turned it into a pub. with the pub came violence and vandalism and the centre was left decrepit. As part of a rejuvenation the women were given a grant to refurbish based on some 'global south' ideas about community ownership as a co-op. To launch the event they invited some women up from Ghana and they were impressed with the co-op. They then asked how they conducted participatory budgeting in the government... of which of course they did none of.

I guess in short, the thing I have taken away the most, and hold the most dear, is my greater understanding on how I think my society and country ought to be and how that differs from the reality in which it is.

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