Friday, November 25, 2011

Personal Identity: Who am I, what and I doing here, and do I have to list Lamine Seydi on Government forms under “names I’ve used”?

Hello everyone.  I’m trying to get back into the blogging regularly habit so here’s another post!  This actually ties into what I talked about last time, but a little more me focused… because my blog usually isn’t all about me… Humility really is my best quality… humor me!

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. 

Garrison Harward

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  

Friday, November 11, 2011


Where do you get your information?  Is it fact, hearsay, rumor, blasphemy, primary sources, secondary sources, apparitions from biblical burning shrubbery, and do you even really know the difference?  Dismount!   Thank you I'll take that, here's your tag.  That was all of us getting off our high horses, and checking our assumptions at the door to really think about this.  Don't worry you can ride off into the sunset with any manner of ideological superiority complex you want once we're done.  Now onwards and upwards. 

Living in a small African village with hardly any regular primary sources of information has taught me the power of rumors in a pretty profound way.  Information often passes through many mouths before it reaches Dassilame Serere and as such its pretty hard to determine fact from personal opinion.  As in any other society in the world though this is no hindrance whatsoever to my village's ability to be absolutely certain of what it knows... and this can lead to problems...  For example my host brother Omar recently tried to convince me that Osama Bin Ladin is in fact not dead and is a great learned person... let's digest this a little bit.  On first hearing this I was pretty shocked and more than a little uncharacteristically nationalistic.  We argued back and forth for a while and I ended up getting somewhat frustrated so I stopped the conversation.  Surprisingly what was frustrating wasn't my brothers views.  It was his certainty.   All his arguments were wrong but it essentially boiled down to the fact that someone he trusted told him this so it was true.  In the history of human story telling this is perfectly normal and understandable, but in our modern context of complex world politics its down right scary.  The final straw that ended the conversation was when I asked my brother if he wants Americans to die, because Bin Ladin killed Americans.  He flipped this right back at me though and asked if I want Muslims to die, because George Bush killed lots of Muslims.  Touche Omar, Touche...

As much as I want to say Omar is dumb and I'm smart he's got a point, and maybe here is a positive aspect of rumors;  while they can perpetuate a lot of untruths, they also help to boil down a lot of complex information into a sort of average truth.  Omar's information about Osama Bin Ladin is factually wrong, but its part of a complex social narrative that gets at a lot of the truth of American/ Muslim political and social interactions.  It shows the mistrust many Muslims have for western governments, and their bitterness at what can often seem like a hatred on our part for their faith.  Think of rumors as a kind of social barometer for international/ interfaith/ inter-anything relations.  Listen to the rumors and you can probably tease out the nature of the relationship.  So what do we do about this?  I said earlier that this kind of a rumor is scary and it is.  It shows the true importance of our image as a nation and illustrates just how much of the moral high ground we've lost in this "War on Terror".   Now more than ever we need that moral high ground if we ever hope to rid the world of ignorance and hate.  Those little compromises we make, sacrificing human rights for strategic reasons, or not being as generous as a nation in our situation should be, aren't really little at all; they add to the ongoing narrative that the world creates about us and that narrative is far more pervasive then any "facts" we try to spread .  It's in my little village so there probably aren't many places it isn't. 

This is why Peace Corps is so successful.  I wish I could say that our greatest gift is the work we do, but it isn't.  Our gift to the American people (notice not the countries we serve) is a positive image of the caring, hard-working America that whether true or not is part of our national narrative that we value and want to perpetuate.  I say true or not because once you start thinking in  these terms its really hard to tell where to draw the line.  As a species we tell stories, we speak in metaphor and simile, and regardless of our actual knowledge level we create a certain certainty of the world around us.  It's just not in human nature to humbly step aside and say we don't know; when we don't know we make it up.  Yes how we see the world is story, not fact, and I argue that it probably isn't any more truthful then the stories told in my village.  

Whoooaaahh there buddy, no jumping back up on that high horse yet.   I know this is pretty cynical but its a much healthier view then claiming absolute certainty of the righteousness and moral superiority of our actions.  We simply can't afford to be that nation.  We need to be better than that.  Of course everything in the real world falls in between and things are far too complex to be speaking in these terms. On the other hand look at the political discourse in America and tell me if its more based on fact or narrative.  Most of the time the overall political landscape is far too complex for the average person to take the time to digest and understand, so our news networks tell stories.  They paint the characters as hero's or villains, and create conflicts, climaxes and catharses enough to keep us watching when the true arc of the story is much larger and harder to understand.  The world is complex.  I guess that is the moral of the story.   Many of my blog posts come to that conclusion so it must be true.  We need to be skeptical of the views we hold and the things we call "facts" because in the end most everything is just a rumor to a greater or lesser degree.   But don't take my word for it.  Remember too that I'm telling you a story.  We started out with my brother perpetuating something untrue and I extrapolated that we don't necessarily know any more then him.  Tell a different story and my conclusions could sound like total BS.  Just food for thought.  


P.S. Did you guys here that Obama is planning on mining for gold on the moon to solve the economic crisis and the Republicans are against it because it will attract the martian labor unions and their socialist influence!  Just saying :-)