I have never met Ntate Ted nor would I recognize him if I saw him at an American coffee shop or bar. Yet, I know that he likes a good beer, plays the guitar, can ride horses, has a science background and is currently pursuing an MD.
Ntate Ted, or Father Ted in Sesotho, is the volunteer who lived in this village and left a year before I came. After my site was announced, the country director told me that Ted was “extremely well integrated,” words that released a slue of worry thoughts into my brain.
In Niger, I did not replace another volunteer. There was one there, but it was at least 10 years prior to me and few villagers remembered anything about her. I did hear stories from other volunteers who expected to fill the last person’s shoes in the exact same manner. Replacing a volunteer is a worldwide struggle. If the last volunteer was a lame duck, than you have great room to exceed the community’s expectations. Yet, if he or she was saint sent from America, then you will constantly feel like your every action will be compared to the previous volunteer.
Although I didn’t have this struggle in my last country, living in someone else’s shadow is not new for me. Growing up, I had a best friend who was given the same name as myself, however, this is Heather was blond, bubbly and moth light to anyone who came in contact with her. She was extremely talented in sports and singing and always had a boy on her tail. During middle school, those faithfully awkward times, I became known as the “other Heather.” When someone said our name, nine times out of 10, it was for her.
She eventually moved and I was the one and only Heather but it took me several years to step out of the shadow and become my own person. It’s been only in the last three or four that I’ve started to define the Heather that I want to be.
In Lesotho, though, I don’t have several years; I have two. Already, I need to remind my villagers that, although I am confident Ted was a great volunteer and a great guy, I am not him. I am Kenneuoe (my Sesotho name.) I may not know how to play the guitar but I am really interested in starting a writing club or working with the local HIV/AIDS support group. My Sesotho may not be as good as his and I may not know everyone yet, but that doesn’t mean I will not be an asset to this community.
Walking throughout my village, I turn up my personality as high as it can go. I laugh and joke with the women, greet the men with a giant smile and teach the children songs and games. I want them to see me, not a replacement.
Eventually, I have faith, the mention of Ted will die down and so will internal expectations to live up to this idea of a person I really know nothing about. I am not the other person, I am me and I am pretty darn great.