Six days into volunteerhood, I am in the most daunting part of the Peace Corps experience – integration.
If there was a book on how to integrate without looking like a complete moron, could someone please hop on to Amazon and order it for me? However, I suppose part of the integration process is allowing oneself to be viewed as a complete fool.
Because I left Niger after three months at site, my whole Peace Corps service is mainly based off the integration period. Walking from house to house, stumbling in the local language and being laughed at by my villagers. They don’t mean harm by it; it’s just funny to see a white person try to do the basic things you’ve done since you could walk.
This Peace Corps stint will be different than my last because I have an actual job. There is a place I need to be from 7 till 4 each day and more structure than I had in Niger. However, school doesn’t start until mid-January and I have to find a way to fill my days.
The first day was reserved for unpacking and the second I toured the village with my introductory liaison, a person appointed by my employer (the school) to make sure I have a smooth transition. The third day, though, I was left alone.
I spent the morning watching South African soap operas with my new ‘m’e. I considered it quality bonding time. However, eventually, I needed to leave the compound.
It’s not easy to just roam the village and try to act like you are a part of it. In Niger, I could find a group of men drinking tea and join them or merely walk into someone’s house and consider my presence a gift. In Lesotho, though, I don’t feel as comfortable and settled on greeting as many people on the street as I can.
So, that I did. I set out, “Lumela”ing each person I saw. In both cultures, greetings are the heart of socializing and I can at least do that much in Sesotho. I explained who I was, what I was doing in the village and asked for their names. I would take out my notebook and demand that they write it because “Ke bua Sesotho hanaya” or “I speak a bit of Sesotho.”
I came to one house with an older woman, sweeping. She immediately told me she was poor and had no money for food or soap. I had no idea what to say. Part of the fine line with this job is that yes I am there to help them but I am not there to give out money. It’s a very hard and humiliating thing to explain. I told her that I didn’t have money but that I worked at the school and wanted to see the village. She accepted the answer and I decided it was time to go. However, before I left, I went to look at some fruits in a tree and slipped in mud, covering my entire ankle, foot and shoe in dark brown gunk. On the walk home, my newly acquired scent indicated to me that what I had stepped in was not mud. You may use your imagination to guess what it was.
The lady apologized while I laughed. Cleanliness is huge to the Basotho and she did not find my new manure boot funny. I said it was OK and then excused myself home.
Despite that my Old Navy skirt and shirt were less money that most Americans spend on a single trip to the gas station, it was more than she probably sees in a month. Yet, when I slipped into the muck I lost a piece of my American superiority. Those mishaps and mistakes remove the image that I am a white person with lots of money and no respect for the culture. Covered in you-know-what, I am a little more human.
Like jumping off the high dive, walking outside is scary every time. Yes, I make look like a fool but that is OK. Vulnerability is integration, putting yourself at the exact same level although you never actually felt like you were above it.
However, in the weeks to come, I hope there is less shit.