So last time I talked about rumors, and believe you me there are lots of rumors here. What I didn’t really touch on though are the rumors that pertain to me. Don’t get excited yet, I won’t be revealing any dark secrets today. I’m talking about rumors of who I am and what I’m doing here. There is an American narrative of what we think Peace Corps is and does, and just like other narratives it is somewhat… well… fake… Chris Hedrick don’t fire me yet, this is going somewhere I promise. Fake isn’t necessarily bad; in many ways we do things a lot better than would be expected of a volunteer organization, and in some ways we’re worse. It’s complicated. That I believe is where the misconception lies. Life, work, and personal identity here are so much more complicated than anyone realizes. I talk with friends back home and the first thing they say is invariably, “What you’re doing is so amazing” or “You’re really making a difference in the world” or “You must be having such an amazing time”. The list goes on. This I suppose is the essence of the Garrison Harward Peace Corps Narrative. It’s a rumor and well… its kind of false. I have saved zero babies since arriving, most of my demos have either failed or fell on deaf ears, and in the long run my projects probably won’t be the tipping point of success and prosperity for my village. On top of this, as much as I love my family and Senegalese culture… there have been times where I wanted to burn my village to the ground. No not literally but you get the point. This is a rather cynical view of my role here, but lets face it denial isn’t healthy either. I am under no pretense that I am saving anyone by being here. It’s just not true.
Now before I get a thousand comments boosting my ego and telling me my cynical views aren’t true, I will give myself some credit. Yes this experience is hard and I’m proud that I’m getting through it and I understand why people identify with and support me. The disconnect between the support and my own perceptions of my work here are just a little hard to reconcile.
There’s actually a lot that’s hard to reconcile in terms of personal identity here. I feel like a juggler, or maybe a master of disguises, or a con artist… In any case I wear a lot of different hats in Senegal and to a certain extent I’m not sure which one is the real me. In village I’m Lamine Seydi: Peace Corps Volunteer, bringer of strange water pumps, tree sacs, and seed varieties, who kind of speaks Serere, but not quite as well as Adama Junko (the previous volunteer), and who doesn’t really like to sit around and talk, but who works pretty hard and wants to bring us latrines, which is generous, but they could be a lot better, which is just like most of his generousity which is a little stingy. At least this is how I perceive their perceptions of me… Lamine Seydi is surely a part of my persona but he’s a pretty simplistic version. I suppose this is why it so nice to be around other Americans. It isn’t just about being able to speak English or eat American food, its about being able to just be without constantly thinking about forming your identity. That being said though the Garrison with Peace Corps friends is different than the one around Peace Corps admin, which is different then the one around family etc… Who am I?
Rumors boil down a lot of complex social dynamics into a sort of average truth. I said that in the last post and I guess it holds true to me as well. The rumors about me are true, but they’re simplistic and when so much of my life in Senegal is led with only the most basic transactional understanding of my identity on the part of those around me, its hard to really know who I am. I believe in the theory of relativity: we (human beings, souls, bunches of molecules, whatever) are constantly changing in reaction to outside forces. Yes there is a certain essence, which dictates some of how we interact, but essentially we are nothing in and of ourselves without the other. Call it what you will: religion, philosophy, acting theory, natural law of the universe, the results are the same; being in a very different cultural setting where no one here or at home fully understands me is making me feel a little crazy. Not that I’m going insane or anything… but my Myers Briggs scores are…
So last week I decided to take the test again, mostly because I was bored and a bunch of people were doing it at the house. I was surprised to see that my scores had changed quite a bit. I posted this on facebook and got a myriad of responses from some who have had this happen and others who feel that the core you doesn’t really change and the test may just be the wrong version or reflecting my reactions to stress here. I don’t know what I believe about nature vs. nurture, or astrology or even Myers Briggs, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m just not convinced that people stay the same over time. We create the narrative of our lives, I believe much more deliberately than we realize. We tell ourselves who we are, what’s important, what we want to be, what’s right and wrong. Think of it like a building of personal identity with the foundation firmly rooted in our assumptions of culture, family, god etc… Take away the foundation though (by going to Senegal for example) and build on a couple of strange guest room additions for new personas and the overall structure looks a lot less certain and sturdy than it did before. I found myself during the test being completely unsure of who I am and what I actually prefer. So many of those preferences seem situational and completely different out of the context of the United States.
As a species I am utterly convinced that we are fantastic liars, at least to ourselves. We end up saying “this is who I am” and believing it when things are probably not so concrete. Surely Myers Briggs has value, surely there is intrinsic personal identity, but more important, at least for me right now, is the transactional and situational realities of identity. Who am I with, when, if, etc…
I don’t remember why we were talking about this. Maybe the overall idea here is once again that the world is really complex and we need to be aware of those complexities rather than putting everything is neat little labeled boxes.
So time to wrap up this post and put a bow on it… We all wear different hats, each revealing various facets of our being with varying levels of truth. Youthful crises of identity are plentiful, but perhaps more so in Peace Corps where our foundations are shaken daily by cultural differences, hallucinogenic malaria drugs, and the most shocking thing of all, the naked truth of who we really are at our core. Lies are quite a bit easier to swallow than that.
P.S. I’ve been assured that in the future I do not have to list Lamine Seydi, as a former name. The split personality syndrome will come to an end! :-P