Sunday, June 5, 2011

On being a celebrity…


Ok, folks… I’ve participated in the Mother Bear Project for my last time and here are some last shots of the little lovelies and their bears and yes—they are adorable! These children are from the Ikameng Early Childcare Center in my village. I’ve worked with Mother Bear Project three times in my two years in Africa and must say that the organization is exceptional to work with. Distributing the hand-made teddy bears to the vulnerable children of Africa affected by HIV/AIDS has simply brought happiness and delight into my communities that nothing else really did. I enjoyed the kids, I enjoyed taking the photos, and I enjoyed how the parents and educators seemed to enjoy the delight of it all. Mother Bear days were very happy days. So, here are a few of the last photos of my last time with Mother Bear. Remember, if you’re a knitter or have a few extra pennies, contributing to this great organization is a great way to spread a little love all over the world and how can you resist that?: www.motherbearproject.org.

Am giving you a bit of a warning here: In this blog, I’m mixing a bit of the good (Mother Bear) with a bit of the bad (unwanted attention received in my community). So, you will encounter unpleasantness in this blog. I will speak of racism here and I will speak in generalities: what I’m discussing doesn’t apply to every single South African I meet. Also, I’d like to point out that every Peace Corps volunteer’s experience in South Africa is very, very different and many—and most--of my PC colleagues are astounded when I tell them these stories and are appalled and strongly claim to experience nothing like this at all in South Africa. What I am speaking to is my experience and my experience only.

Also, I have since learned, two years too late, that because I live near a “location,” something like a big town where people are more politically active, etc., these kinds of hostilities—that I will describe--are more likely to be encountered. Two years ago, I should have asked to change my site. Two years ago, I thought I was the one that needed to change, and to keep trying. I kept trying, but to no betterment. Lesson learned!

Just a bit of background on me before we begin. One of the nicest things I’ve learned in my journey in this life is that I’m “just another Bozo on the bus”: I am no better or worse than any other human being. I seek a relationship of equality in everyone I meet: be it a child, an adolescent, an adult or a CEO of a company. Perhaps this value is the one that has been the most challenged during my Peace Corps service, and as a dear, fellow Peace Corps volunteer friend has tried to convince me: Just the fact that we are Americans will always displace us out of an equal relationship with our host-country nationals. I’ve fought for this my whole two years in Peace Corps: to not be treated as special, better than, or a VIP within my community. It is a lost battle.

One of the things I’ve gained in my Peace Corps experience—and completely unexpected—is the feeling, even if on a very small scale, of what it must be like to be a celebrity.

How many times have I rolled my eyes at hearing movie stars or super models whining on TV about how wretched their lives are because they are constantly hounded by the press, the paparazzi, and, well, everyone?


 
I have a whole new respect for what it must be like to be Oprah Winfrey or Tom Cruise. In fact, I am much more sympathetic to Tom Cruise’s meltdown a few years back, at jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch proclaiming to the world his love for Katie Holmes. I sympathize with his breakdown because he’s been living the life of a celebrity for most of his life; I have lived the life of a “celebrity” for only two years. Having the attention of everyone on the planet is tolerable for about three days, and after three days, your life as a celebrity becomes a nightmare.


I’ve come to the conclusion that my friend is correct: because I’m an American, no one in my community will ever approach me or relate to me as an equal, and this makes me sad.

Peace Corps warns us early to expect “unwanted attention” and how stressful it can be “living in a fishbowl.” But really, I had no idea what it would be like and I can tell you this clearly: I don’t like anything about it and one of the things I most long for on returning home, is the ability to “become anonymous and invisible” in my own world again. And I feel much, much more empathy for very famous celebrities that can never do this. (Well, OK! They do have millions of dollars to flee to exotic locations… but still!)

So, why exactly am I a “celebrity” in my rural existence in the Republic of South Africa? Is it because I’m a Peace Corps volunteer? Well, no. Sadly, and although I introduce myself as a Peace Corps volunteer and try to explain what Peace Corps is and what Peace Corps does, most people in my community have no idea about Peace Corps and could really care less.

So, why am I a celebrity? I’m a celebrity because I’m a white American woman living within a black community. There ya go…

Ok, ok. I feel your feathers ruffling. I understand… In my discussion, I’m speaking from the realm of “racism” and in my country, the USA, we don’t like racism and we don’t like racists. However, I’ve experienced a whole new reality in my temporary life in South Africa: because of South Africa’s history (which is, interestingly, very, very similar to the history of the United States), what “race” you belong to is very much a part of your “identity.” Identifying yourself as black South African, white South African, Afrikaner, Colored, Xhosa, Zulu, Indian, etc. is very important here and is the rule rather than the exception. South Africans consider their “color” and their classification in a group of people as a source of pride. This attitude is very much in contrast with the American attitude of “people are people, so why can’t we all just get along?”

(And yes, I’m speaking in generalities here.)

So, for Americans especially, I sense your discomfort at my “racist” discussion. I sense it and I appreciate it.

To live as a white, American woman inside a black community in rural South Africa is simply not done: She can live far away from it, and be separate from it, but she cannot live in it and participate with it. It’s simply not done. It is more than a bit out of the ordinary.




 
When I was very, very new in my service, I was on a taxi with several fellow PC volunteers riding through a town. A small group of young black South African girls saw us and became very excited. They pointed and shouted and ran with the taxi as it passed calling, “Magoa! Magoa!” The young women were excited at seeing a taxi full of “white” people riding through their town. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I was being introduced to the way my life would be for all of my two years living and working in rural South Africa.


So, what does it feel like to be a celebrity in this circumstance? It feels very uncomfortable at best and intolerable at worst; some days are better than others; but the constant strain of it every single day is trying… And thus, I can understand and appreciate Tom Cruise’s public “meltdown”—I often feel, especially at this late date, that I’m on the verge of one of my own.

I have lived and worked in my community for nearly two years. The people I work closely with of course are used to me and are loving and kind with me, etc. However, because my community is so large, I’m constantly encountering people every single day who do not know who I am or why I am here, simply in my walking from one place to another. I must first endure their surprise, which I’ve already encountered thousands and thousands of times, and which may be friendly and delightful, but often, because of the racial tensions that still poison my community, often are hostile and angry. Encountering hostility and anger, every single day, in some form is very trying… If I let it, it can shut me down and force me to withdraw: I have encountered hostility so many times and so regularly, it makes me not want to be friendly with strangers. To withdraw in this manner is harmful in many ways: in one way, I’m much more likely to miss the happy exchanges and in another, I seem like a hateful, American white woman—very much what Peace Corps doesn’t want me to present to the world!

So this aspect of “celebrity” is very trying.

One way I’m a celebrity is that I’m a white woman. I’m not really sure how the romantic realm operates between the men and women of my community, but I can tell you, when they’re trying to be romantic with me, it is more than a bit unpleasant. I was warned, at some point, that it would be a good idea to come to South Africa as a married woman and even if not, to pretend I was. I adopted this strategy and bought myself some “wedding rings” before arriving, but it rarely spares me the discomfort of the “unwanted” attention I regularly receive from men. It’s worse however, for my younger female PC colleagues. In Peace Corps it is called “unwanted attention”; in the USA, it is called “sexual harassment” and legal defenses and protections can be sought. In rural South Africa, we’re on our own. I won’t go into detail about what I’ve witnessed and heard with the younger, female Peace Corps volunteers, but I will say, I wouldn’t want my 20-something year old daughter serving Peace Corps South Africa.

I find unwanted attentions from men in my community extremely inappropriate, rude, and creepy. I have never gotten used to the sexual advances from strange men in my community and still react with shock and outrage, a shock and outrage these men seem completely unaware of and unbothered by, as if of course I would, after “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” agree to have sex with them later in the day, “Say, around 4:00?” No thank you, I don’t think so. The faux wedding rings have never deflected these advances. There is also a vulgar gesture I’ve encountered with strange men when I’ve gone to shake their hands in introduction; younger female volunteers also know—and are repulsed by—this gesture. I’ve experienced it while shaking hands at church—yes, at church!--and by the police captain when I was introducing myself as someone who might rely on his protection. Needless to say, I felt more than a bit dismayed at the thought of this man coming to my aid in the case of an emergency. Once, at 7:00 in the morning, while attending a funeral, I was meeting a strange man my principal, my South African supervisor, was introducing me to. After everyone had a nice chuckle all the way around, I enquired as to what was so funny. Oh, the strange man was asking if he could kiss “the legoa.” Legoa is the Setswana word for “white” woman. Nice! I’m at a funeral, and it’s 7:00 in the morning, and I have a strange man making a joke about kissing me. Grr. I could go on with more instances describing this kind of “unwanted attention,” but I think you get the idea.







Sometimes I feel that every man in my community wants this kind of “shot” at me.  Is it because I’m perceived as a celebrity?  And in this way, I cannot feel equal with my “fellow man.”

In a similar way, but in a different fashion, I encounter these rude moment by young men of my community. These encounters are more likely endured from a distance: young men will shout to me “Marry me” or taunt and tease me, “I love you, I love you!” After becoming used to these kinds of attentions, they become laughable. However, the young men of my community are much more likely to respond to my greetings in passing with a hostile smirk and/or by purposely ignoring me. Of course, this is just “kids being kids” and I should be more tolerant of it and I do try to be. It’s the constant wear of such encounters every day, day after day, that feels demoralizing.

And in this way, I’m a “celebrity”—albeit and infamous one--and denied the opportunity to be equal community member.

Another way I’m perceived as a celebrity, that does not entail my “femaleness,” is the fact that I’m an American and as everyone knows: all Americans are rich.

I acknowledge the fact that I live in first-world country, have achieved a higher education, and am more likely employable than any in my community. In this way, indeed, I am very rich. However, I haven’t any money to give and Peace Corps doesn’t provide us with any money to give. In this way, I am very poor—cash poor.

Also early in my service, in my host-family’s village, there was a shop where we bought bread and such. The young children loitering about, and without fail, would demand: Give me five rands. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I would be hearing this phrase and be approached this way for every single day of all of my two years in Africa. Not only am I asked for money from children, but also from educators and other community members—and most depressingly, from my South African friends. I’m asked to get jobs for South Africans in the USA; I’m asked for trips to the USA “just to visit for a couple of weeks and then return to Africa”; and I’m asked to find people homes in the USA. I try to tell people that a) I will need to find my own job in the USA once I return; and b) currently, I have no home and will have to stay with friends when I return; and c) I have no money for travel or to pay for friends to travel and the only reason I’m in South Africa is because I joined Peace Corps.

These explanations don’t make any sense to the people here, because they simply cannot fathom the idea that not all Americans are rich. The South Africans of my community are convinced that our streets are running with milk and honey and that everyone that lives in America is rich—no exceptions! There is no dispelling this myth—as hard as I’ve tried. I blame this belief solely on American-made TV and films.

So yes, being a celebrity and approached for money constantly from strangers is draining. I can’t imagine how Bill Gates must feel.







In a similar way, but in a different fashion, I encounter these rude moment by young men of my community.  These encounters are more likely endured from a distance: young men will shout to me “Marry me” or taunt and tease me, “I love you, I love you!”  After becoming used to these kinds of attentions, they become laughable.  However, the young men of my community are much more likely to respond to my greetings in passing with a hostile smirk and/or by purposely ignoring me.  Of course, this is just “kids being kids” and I should be more tolerant of  it and I do try to be.  It’s the constant wear of such encounters every day, day after day, that feels demoralizing.

And in this way, I’m a “celebrity”—albeit and infamous one--and denied the opportunity to be equal community member.

Another way I’m perceived as a celebrity, that does not entail my “femaleness,” is the fact that I’m an American and as everyone knows: all Americans are rich.

I acknowledge the fact that I live in first-world country, have achieved a higher education, and am more likely employable than any in my community. In this way, indeed, I am very rich. However, I haven’t any money to give and Peace Corps doesn’t provide us with any money to give. In this way, I am very poor—cash poor.

Also early in my service, in my host-family’s village, there was a shop where we bought bread and such. The young children loitering about, and without fail, would demand: Give me five rands. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I would be hearing this phrase and be approached this way for every single day of all of my two years in Africa. Not only am I asked for money from children, but also from educators and other community members—and most depressingly, from my South African friends. I’m asked to get jobs for South Africans in the USA; I’m asked for trips to the USA “just to visit for a couple of weeks and then return to Africa”; and I’m asked to find people homes in the USA. I try to tell people that a) I will need to find my own job in the USA once I return; and b) currently, I have no home and will have to stay with friends when I return; and c) I have no money for travel or to pay for friends to travel and the only reason I’m in South Africa is because I joined Peace Corps.

These explanations don’t make any sense to the people here, because they simply cannot fathom the idea that not all Americans are rich. The South Africans of my community are convinced that our streets are running with milk and honey and that everyone that lives in America is rich—no exceptions! There is no dispelling this myth—as hard as I’ve tried. I blame this belief solely on American-made TV and films.

So yes, being a celebrity and approached for money constantly from strangers is draining. I can’t imagine how Bill Gates must feel.

Along this line, as an American, I’m expected to “know everything.” In the classroom, at the grocery, on the taxi, in the streets… I’m simply expected to be a walking font of knowledge that can produce business plans, solve complex calculus problems, teach fourth grade natural science with three minutes notice, and pontificate smartly on why we Americans, simply carry on without mercy in killing the likes of Osama bin Laden. (By the way, Peace Corps strongly discourages our discussing American politics—or any politics-- while serving in-country.)




Along these lines, in every “gathering” type of event, where many in my community come together for meetings, weddings and the like, I’m often treated as a special guest, or a VIP if you will.  When I’m invited to attend churches new to me, I will either be asked directly to speak or—as what usually happens—the service will be an interrupted so I can speak.  (Yes, I want to die when this happens.)  At social gatherings where food is served, I’m usually ushered to the front of the line.  On this weekend past, a fellow PCV and I were attending a district meeting of our areas Department of Education.  There were 600 principals in attendance, yet my friend and I were asked to step over to a special room where a special meal was prepared for the “very important people.” Gratefully, my friend declined for the both of us.  I would have died being ushered off to be treated differently than my principal!  This trend in my community is the one I’m most uncomfortable with: to be treated as special or different.

And then lastly, this experience has been most unnerving: people go through my trash. I’ve read of celebrities complaining of people going through their trash and how invasive it feels. It does! You would think that since you are throwing something away, that who cares who sees it or knows about it? But think about it: what you throw away can say a great deal about who you are and I find it very troubling to have people go through my trash. I sometimes do a silly little thing and write my prayers on slips of paper and place them in a “God box.” Well, these things are sometimes cleared out to make way for new prayers, and while there is something delightful about walking about on campus to encounter my prayers flitting about in the wind, there are other things I throw away that aren’t so delightful! I’ve made it a habit to carry my most sensitive trash into my shopping town to dispose of it in large, public trash receptacles. In this way, even if someone goes through my trash, at least my identity will be protected.

So, yeah, I think I kind of know what it’s like now, to be a celebrity: to be hounded wherever you go; to be the spectacle and the spotlight of everyone’s attention; and to encounter constant requests for favors and money. It’s exhausting, it’s unnerving, and it’s grating. Not everyone is made for the spotlight and not everyone is able to live in a fishbowl: I am one of these. I can’t wait to crawl out of my fishbowl and return to being another “Bozo on the bus.” And yes, I will be much more sympathetic to the Tom Cruises and Oprah Winfreys of the world!

Shh, don’t tell anyone, especially the mothers in my family, but there was a time in my Peace Corps service—a very short time--that I felt loved, and wanted, and, well, yes, an equal within my community. I had hopes of working more closely with the elderly and the orphans in my community and visited my area’s police department. I met this wonderful, vibrant strong black South African woman: she was the Lieutenant Colonel of the division. She spoke impeccable English and she had some great understandings of her community and was keen in seeing ways I could better help. We worked together and talked about several different ways I could become involved with the community and extend my time in Africa. I was so excited to find someone, someone I felt equal with, someone I felt I could forge an effective professional partnership with. I felt happy and fulfilled in Africa—FINALLY! And then she said the one thing that I fear to hear, the one thing I dread to hear, and the one thing that I always hear: Will you take me to America?

At that instant, I knew. I knew strongly, surely, and completely what my friend said to be true: As an American, I will never be perceived as an equal in my South African community. I will always be different, I will always be special, I will always be perceived as better than. At that moment, I knew I would come home.

Looking back over my two years as a celebrity in my community, I must admit some happy times at being the center of attention. It was fun when I initially came to my schools and initially met my coworkers and colleagues. It was fun to be wined and dined, and it was fun to be introduced to large crowds. And, it’s fun that everyone is so happy to see me on Mother Bear Days. But it all goes back to it being fun for about three days—and then the unrelenting grind of it that comes.

I am tired of my celebrity and so looking forward to being just another Bozo on the bus!

Soon,
Karen

P.S.  ALL of the unpleasantness is worth it--the KIDS more than make up for it!  :-)







8 comments:

  1. I know I've shared with you before, but I will share it again on your blog. Living in a very small village, I had somewhat of a different experience than you regarding politics and racism. There were so few people in my community, and no political activists. One small village shop, one bottle store and one school were all we had, and I was warmly received by most. Only a few people ever openly expressed disinterest, it was indirectly, through comments made at the children who were with me. In my village and the other, bigger village where I worked and visited, I was warmly welcomed and greeted daily by everyone I encountered. My school colleagues were positive, and I developed good relationships with most of them, and close friendships with 2-3. I never experienced that disgust from young people, or racial hostility in my "home" villages. The sexual tension was also extremely minimal in my village. However, I did experience some really unsavory things you write about anytime I left my villages.

    Going to Kuruman, to buy groceries, check the mail, internet, or errands in general meant gearing up for battle. I've never felt more vunerable in my life, nor felt so fearful. As a single young woman, even dressing as frumpy as possible, I could not go anywhere without getting cat-called, touched, or proffered for sex or marriage. You start to figure out where to never go, where to only go if accompanied by a friend, and where you will be harassed the least.

    Most of the time, I did ok with being the celebrity, but there were days I could not, would not, leave the house. Dealing with it was all too much. Not to mention the stress of expectation that even your dearest, most well-intentioned colleagues press on you at school or your ngo of choice. You work faster and harder, and they ask for more. Most days were good days, but the days that weren't were sometimes debilitating.

    Lastly, I was really grateful for the experience of living in the village after my time of being a volunteer had passed. That experience wiped away any of the romantic glow that was lingering from my thoughts of rural SA, and I was able to see the situation for what it was. People didn't really treat me very differently, but I wasn't the center of attention anymore. No longer was I attending functions, being shuffled to the front of the line, or being a VIP. I guess you could say I was "in." People started stealing things from my yard. Kids who didn't ask me for money or sweets anymore started doing that, too. If I never hear, "mmpa madi" [give money, in Setswana] again in my life, I'll be happy.

    I tried to chalk it all up to "what it was." I was a white volunteer in a black community. I was a "rich American" living among poverty stricken South Africans. I was a single woman in a culture that sees single women as sexual objects and playthings. I was living with the legacy of oppressor among historically oppressed people. Of course I was going to stick out like a throbbing thumb! I never wanted to be black. I never wanted to be South Africa. I never wanted to be married to a Motswana. I didn't want to be spoken to daily in Afrikaans. But the reality was, we knew our jobs weren't going to be easy- we just didn't know how hard it would be for us to deal with all the changes, the subtleties, and the unexpected challenges.

    I hope you can take away some positive from the difficult experience. I hope you can say this experience has challenged you and made you grow, and not traumatized you. It has made me ultimately thankful for bathtubs, education and clean water, among many other things.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well said, Jenneffer! Thanks for the wonderful contribution to the blog.

    I hope you won’t find my remark off-putting, near to becoming a new mother and all, but I’ve often wondered if my PC experience will be comparable to my experiences of childbirth: that I will forget the unpleasantness and only remember the joy! Let’s hope so!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yeah, I keep telling myself that 9 months is only a very short time. I will let you know...;)

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