The Perks of Going Native

Ok, so maybe I haven’t completely gone native, and my colleagues might roll their eyes at me because I’m not exactly working in the middle of a village where women don’t wear bras and I live in a hut. However, I like to think that I’ve assimilated well enough since I now say “fearing” instead of “afraid,” I’ve learned most of the common hand gestures and can now tell on which day of the week people were born based on their names.  I’m not all the way there yet, but I know basic (very basic) greetings in Kakwa/Bari, Dinka, Zande, Kiswahili, Luganda and of course, I’m getting somewhere with my simple Arabic. I love to see people’s faces break into a smile when they realize I’m butchering their mother tongue.

I also recently received what I perceive to be compliment when someone saw me sitting outside at a local (but not TOO local, as they say) bar and said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a white person here before!”  Check.  Unchartered territory.  I should have given them an American flag.

So if I’m to pretend that I’ve so far gone native (in a good way) then I’ll list some of the perks below:

  • I know where to buy the good roasted goat in town
  • Going to the immigration office is barrels of fun instead of an awkward tense situation (although I’m disappointed that they aren’t corruptible enough anymore to give me a longer term visa)
  • Knowing more random people= knowing more people who can help me drive away drunk people who wander the streets and find me interesting
  • People in the market think you’re hilarious instead of weird or trying to make fun of you.  For example, women always ask me where my husband is, to which my default response in Arabic is “I’m still a small girl.”  A woman held up her 1 year old son and asked what I thought (implying that he could be a suitor if I’m so young).  So I gave her a weird eye and explained to her the obvious reason why we couldn’t be together.  It was a good thing I learned the word for breast feeding like the week before.
  • I can hardly just walk to the town now without seeing someone I know who can give me a lift…
  • …on a related note, boda drivers don’t try to rip me off (as much)
  • my hangover from the Christmas holiday was considerably brightened when, on my first day coming back to Yei, several different people I barely know in the town told me that I was “missing” in the previous weeks, which made me feel loved.

On a more serious note, I’m constantly questioning my reason for being here since I’m acutely aware of the colonial legacy on this continent.  The fact that the philanthropic urges of someone donating money or coming to Africa now are maybe not so different from those over a hundred years ago (imperialism had it’s humanitarian eras) is something that disturbs me and challenges my rationale for wanting to “help” Africans.

Being treated differently because of my race compounds my discomfort, especially since we are treated as “big people” where ever we go and there’s apparently this perception here that kawajahs know everything.  This certainly has something to do with the fact that most people coming here from the US, Europe or elsewhere are wealthier and also coming for “capacity building” or have had the opportunities for higher education. However, just because my English is better and I can solve your very simple computer problem doesn’t mean that I know what is best for your community or your country.  This is especially a problem when foreigners come here and don’t first try to get to know the people and the context before imposing solutions.  Because of this, I feel like “going native” not only has its perks, but it’s necessary if one is genuine about aiding a suffering society to grow in a positive way.  How can you understand how to help someone if you don’t first understand them?   Besides, we Westerners shouldn’t be so proud; I often feel that my own society at home is also in dire need of some sort of help

I love the following quote which I actually read this evening in a Christmas card I just received (it’s February, but I will still continue to receive them even in April).  I think I will keep it and it will help me maintain perspective when I don’t feel like I’m “making a difference.”  It encourages me to try harder to connect with people instead of losing focus on something else that is ultimately less important:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.  — Maya Angelou 

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