This is my third installment for the Capital Journal.
I steal attention.
Men tending to grazing animals forget their flock for a few minutes and focus on me as I run by on the main road. Children stop their play to stare, barely blinking, as I walk home from school. Even the boys that work for my host father can’t stop looking at me as I complete daily choirs.
No matter what I am doing there are always eyes on me.
Before coming to Lesotho, I was warned of the fish bowl effect. You will be the main act in town, they said. And privacy is no longer a right, but a gift, that is if you are lucky to catch a few seconds of it. I didn’t realize how much I value anonymity until I no longer had it.
Now, I am not the first volunteer in my village nor am I the only Caucasian currently living here (the previous volunteer ended his service in 2010 and an English man moved to the village 22 years ago and never left) but I am still this creature that villagers love to gaze at and gossip about when they don’t think I understand.
I have no intention on reaching A-list celebrity status in my lifetime, but I like to believe that I kind of know how it feels to be Julia Roberts – strangers knowing my name and curious about my marital status. Marriage proposals, as well as requests to be my traveling companion back to America, come daily and I can’t go anywhere with at least one person, often someone I don’t know, asking me where I am walking to.
When I see eyes are locked on my every move, I wonder what they are thinking, or more, how they are judging me. All of my insecurities flourish doing these moments.
To be honest, my villagers can’t help it. I am the entertainment. Most children don’t have toys and adults don’t carry around smart phones or computers connected to the entire world. Television is reserved for the wealthy (only about 10 families in my village have electricity) and the culture isn’t known for reading. When they see a strange woman, who acts and talks different than them, it’s fascinating.
Being the center of attention does have some powerful benefits. Instead of screaming at the man staring at me I can talk to him about the villages’ water sources. I can ask gawking teenagers about how HIV/AIDS is spread and if they know where they can get tested. In order to inform my villagers about serious issues, I need their attention and I already got it, but it’s what I do with it that will determine my legacy as a member of the community.
That takes a lot of strength, which I am not sure I’ve built up yet. Still, I can try and remember that in two years, when I return to the United States, I will be just another face in the crowd. So, I might as well make the most of my 15 minutes.
Heather Mangan is a Pierre native and Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. You can read more about her service on her blog, heathermangan.com.