Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Nature of a Name

My Setswana name is Kitso, which means knowledge, and I like it a lot (for obvious ego boosting reasons!). We are encouraged to use our new names as a way to get better acclimated into the community and for some it works really great. In reflecting on how I relate to others in this country and how I view myself, I realized that I am now experiencing the cultural/identity ambiguities that many foreigners feel when they are trying to fit into a new country/culture. 
Being Black and using my Setswana name has meant that I can walk down the street and for the most part go unnoticed. Or I can get into a combi and not be hassled or gawked at, because even though I might not be recognized at Motswana I can still be considered one of the numerous other African immigrants in the country. It is a double-edged sword though, because even though I can bypass a lot of the negatives of being an American here, I also have to deal with very high expectations and less freedom of individual expression than others. There is a small minority that would like me to speak more or better Setswana, and I have had to endure more than a few impromptu language tests (where I found that laughing along does not really help). I have also been reprimanded for not following cultural norms that I am supposed to have known. Just because of who I am I also find myself not talking to people or being more shy, because there is an expectation from both sides that I should try to communicate in Setswana as much as possible. Many people say that Peace Corps provides an opportunity to reinvent yourself or try out different aspects of who you are with no fear that your past history will cloud peoples’ judgements. Also, the likelihood of meeting many of the people you encounter during service is very small (for the majority of people) so the fear of reprisal or future embarrassment can also tempt you into acting in a manner who might not have if you were back home. 
The main point I wanted to make is that I used to feel bad that people from different backgrounds would come to America, and have to change their names or behaviors in order to fit in (my perception). Having dealt with acceptance issues about my culture and skin, I was very adamant that it was wrong to not try and learn the “correct” name and pronunciation of a person, and I would try to find out what was the “real” name of the individual (and try to pronounce it correctly). Now I am on the other end of the stick and I have a whole different perspective of what it means to try and live somewhere foreign. I have people ask me what my real name is and I usually balk at the question; how dare they try to call me a fraud or figure out a piece of me I am not comfortable in sharing. I usually laugh it off and say I don’t have one or that in Botswana my name is Kitso, that’s it. It retrospect it is a very interesting reaction. I am using the name Kitso, I like the name Kitso, but I am still me, I am still Octavius, so what is the problem. I can finally understand that taking a new name does not have to mean that a person is forced to disregard their past history and heritage. It really is not that big of a deal for the most part. The more I live, the more I see how I have held onto superficial perceptions of identity as I means of anchoring myself in this world. From clothes, to behavior patterns and even names we are malleable enough to put on or take off these things without fear of changing the core of our spirit. I still oppose the notion of external pressures forcing a sense of conformity and censorship, but when the action is voluntary who are we to criticize it. We do not begrudge water for changing states, nor do we disregard the fact that its elemental nature stays the same. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dreaming of all those bus rides!

I am making cinnamon rolls tomorrow. I am very excited, my first time doing homemade ones but I will have the assistance of a friend so I shouldn’t mess it up too much. I will definitely take pictures!! Food is an important part of my Peace Corps service!!
So I have not left the country yet, and that is a little bit of a bummer but the true is when you travel the novelty of going to a new place kind of wears off. Now I want to travel and also have a meaningful experience or memory from the place. So here is the plan of where and what I would like to do:
Namibia: I have to go skydiving and quad biking. The seafood is also an obvious must have when going to a coastal country. I would like to see the seals, but the stories of the smell are somewhat off putting. Though, I might be able to get some good pictures. 
Zambia: I have to raft the river, since I got to do it in Jinja, Uganda. I also want to make a return to the Devil’s Pool so I can get a better jumping picture since I am sure I won’t fall of the ledge and die this time.
South Africa: There are a couple of festivals, plays and events I would like to attend. A poetry slam would be great. I also am eyeing dance and film festivals that are happening in the coming months. I would absolutely love to go to a TED conference, but getting the correct info and contacts seems to be just a little more difficult than back home. (The TED event in Tanzania for now will have to be added to the bucket list, when money is not so elusive). I also have to go to Durban and eat bunny chow and actually get in the waters (I am sorry but Cape Town is too cold, though I love those beautiful sun-bathing rocks...good for pics). I am debating whether I should just go to the aquarium in Durban or see what SeaWorld is like in Africa and venture to the water park as well; the close proximity of the facilities could just win me over. I also need to treat myself to one outfit from one of the high end stores, but I might opt for a hat and shoe combo since they might last longer/be used for more!
Mozambique: I want to get my scuba diving certification, and the opportunity to do so in the presence of manta rays is almost too much to even dream of right now. Since I was a kid I have loved and been fascinated by the ocean and the many creatures that she holds, and manta rays (with their genial nature) have always appealed to me. I might have to eat rice and beans for half a year, but I am willing to do almost anything to make sure I don’t pass up this opportunity before I leave here. Again seafood is a forgone conclusion. I am also praying they have some excellent dance clubs!
Kenya: So there is a travel restriction on Kenya, but I want to go back. I didn’t think I would want to, but being here makes me miss Kenya a lot. The coast still holds my heart. The Old Man and the Sea in Malindi, the chocolatey concoction on the way to Lamu and having my samosas and omelette treat (I forgot the name of the street food I loved that you could only get after dark in Mombasa). I have my “nimesota” ready and waiting to be used. 
And for after my service I am still being drawn to Asia. I need to go. I am considering doing one of those english teaching programs, mme re tla bona. Ajuaye ni Mungu!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

One Year Anniversary!

So just two thoughts:
  1. I almost didn’t believe in the mythical one year mark and how PC service would just pick up and things would just start to click. I was becoming cynical about the prospect of ever getting some meaningful projects done, but for some reason this week has seen the breaking of the glass ceiling and I can’t be more happy. It is true there are still challenges, but the way I approach and think about them has changed, which has really affected how I view my service. Now I honestly give the new group coming in words of encouragement, that if you can stick it out during the rough patches there will be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Like most people, I find my projects will center around children and for me creative expression is paramount if we want to see behavior change in our communities. As the projects materialize I will explain more about them and how others can get involved as well. 
  2. I have always been comfortable around older people, but I find myself flirting with older women here more and it was just a funny notion to me. This is probably due to two factors: proximity and the forced equality of PC. In America, due to the fact that I was in college and did more academic activities I was usually around people within my own age group and older individuals usually had a leadership or mentoring role in my life. Also, older women in the US are usually more established in terms of their lifestyle (car, house/apartment/nice job/etc) and I always felt like I could not compete with other men, who had settled more into their lives. But being here, we are all restricted to public transportation and in general we all share a similar budget so it is easier to socialize and befriend individuals who are older than I am. I also find that it is easier to build friendships with older local women as well. In certain areas I do feel like I have an “old soul” that best relates to older people, which I probably got from my parents. 
I am making cinnamon rolls tomorrow. I am very excited, my first time doing homemade ones but I will have the assistance of a friend so I shouldn’t mess it up too much. I will definitely take pictures!! Food is an important part of my Peace Corps service!!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Mama Why Am I Black"

This is a lot of rambling, but that's okay sometimes.

So I have been thinking about this for a minute, but due to a lot of issues (that are constantly reoccurring unfortunately) surrounding race I am both sad and frustrated. I have tried to be more reflective and careful about my statements concerning race, because it still proves to be a hot-button topic, but that rationale seems to just be amplifying the voices of the ignorant. 
Hearing about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, and now the racist comments surrounding the Hunger Games makes me so sad. I was recently TOLD (not asked) that I am a coloured, it was obvious to this person that I had white relatives within my immediate family. WTH! The irony is that I was always called dark by other family members and never being considered “light-skinned” in America; now being in Africa it is obvious to this person that I am part white. So I put my arm up to hers to see if there could be some truth to her statement, and the answer was, No! But she still persisted, “I can see you have white mixed in your skin. It’s lighter.” Really. 
Also some people here like the word Nigger (and sometimes if they have a good ear, Nigga). So yes, all those people from older generations who said the young are perpetuating ignorance by using the word, and I used to think where fussing over nothing, have now been proven right. If I walk a certain way or if I wear clothes similar to those worn by “urban youth”, I am told I look like a Nigger....yes I know how to spell....that is what they say. I can’t even listen to rap or R&B around certain people here, because if they hear the word then they get excited and want to use it prolifically. It reminds me of kids who start using cuss words for the first time; the glee in their voices tinted with ignorance for the meaning behind what they are saying. This is not the first time I have been called this, but the complete ignorance in which they say the word, denotes the complete lack of knowledge about the history or present day connotation of the word. It is not said with the familiarity and commonality that marked my childhood, nor is it said with the vitriol and hate that I experienced later in life. In both situations, I have been desensitized to the use of the word. I don’t reprimand people who use it as a regular noun in their lexicon, and I don’t allow myself to be riled or upset by those who would try and use the word to hurt me. 
I thought I could handle the usage of the word in this new context as well, but for some reason it is getting on my nerves. I tried to explain to one person, who expressed his desire to come back to America with me, that it would be better if he not use that word because people could tell that he had no idea what he was talking about and it could put him in harms way (very PC language). And instead of heeding my words or at least reflecting on them, he completely dismissed me and started repeating the word continuously. I was literally dumbfounded. I didn’t understand. That situation was a metaphor for many of my experiences here. People constantly approach me about coming to America, how to find work in the US, how is the US, and when I tell them the truth about the economy or race relationships (especially the difficulties faced by foreigners/immigrants) they completely tune me out. They choose to hold onto their false notions and dreams of the America of movies and tv, which is the same problem I face when I talk with Americans about my travels and work in Africa. People won’t believe that there are cities here (with clothed people), that a Cape Town exist on the continent or that I have been in homes and neighborhoods where “Black” people live on the higher rungs of the socio-economic ladder. 
I used movies, books and media to dispel the myths about America and Africa. Granted I actively sought out material that would give me a true representation of places and people outside the limited prism of my immediate surroundings. But this level of ignorance is atrocious on all levels in all societies and I am tired of it. 
In America, I was asked more than once by international students, why were a disproportionate number of the poor/beggars Black people? Why are there Black people without a high school diploma, when education was free? Why do African students make up the majority of the “Black” demographic in graduate school statistics? I was also asked by Black professors and academics, why do I dress the way I do? Why would I want to come to Africa? Why would I ever consider downgrading and going to a HBCU for graduate school? Why would I do African studies? When I was younger, being smart meant I was put in the classes “without” Black people, and was told I didn’t need to act like “those” people; I had a future despite my skin color.
 I have been told by other volunteers that I am as Black as Carlton. I have been told by white expats here in Botswana that they feel comfortable talking to me, because they feel that I would not immediately jump to conclusions and judge them; so they would just like to know don’t I agree that integration in America was done the wrong way. Didn’t my grand-parents and parents talk to me about how it was wrong to force White communities to accept Black people as equal citizens during that time period? I have also had expats and volunteers call me a racist and say that I hate White people. I also had to justify to family and community members that just because I was in segregated classes I had not forgotten where I come from. A major portion of my life I have been defending, justifying, apologizing and in one way of the other worrying about what skin color I am and what that means not just to me but every relationship I have with everyone else.  
So if from this post you are asking who am I and what do I believe, you are in the same position I have been in for a long time. Racial issues are sensitive, but they have been a constant companion throughout my life and there seems to be no geographical, educational, spiritual or intellectual barrier that allows me to leave it behind as I try to fulfill the dreams of my life. 
I should edit this but I won’t, I am not the spider in this web, I am the fly.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Year of Hibernation!

So what have I been doing this whole time, I really don't know. I told myself I would be posting constantly, giving out pearls of wisdom and great stories about my adventures in Botswana. But I have done nothing and have been quite stagnant in a lot of areas. 

I am feeling good today though; it might be the fact that the one year mark is creeping up on me and I am in desperate need to validate my service here, but regardless of the reason I will just run with it. 

I am just smiling right now. I like when I have hope in the things I do. I'm trying to upload a youtube video so let me free up some bandwidth or it will take forever.