The search for authenticity


Greta's visit continued until last Wednesday. During the time that she was here, we also hosted a PCV who was in town on her way to Paris for vacation, as well as her friend visiting from the United States.

The American friend, Jigar (rhymes with "bigger"), was the same guy who stayed with me for one night when he arrived earlier in December. In the interim, he stayed about two weeks in Kankossa, his friend's village.

Jigar is the one who brought me tofu a few weeks ago - a most welcome gift. He caused a considerable stir in Kankossa. First of all, he is a vegetarian, something that Mauritanians have a hard time understanding. For me, by now I have gotten beyond the need to have people understand my being a vegetarian. I don't want to be rude about it, but compliance is more important than understanding.

This is one facet of the topic about which I wrote the essay that closes this post. After all, one of the Peace Corps goals is for us to share our culture with local people. While being vegetarian is not everyone's culture in the United States, it is part of the American scene. I can't share that part of myself if I try to hide that it exists, can I?

That was only one thing that Jigar had to deal with. Another was that since his parents are originally from India, people do not understand that he is an American because he doesn't "look like an American," which is to say that he is not a caucasian, which is their picture of what an American is supposed to look like.

This is something that many of our non-caucasian Volunteers face, not only here, but in other Peace Corps countries.

It was time to get my teeth cleaned, and I was surprised to learn that even though the Peace Corps is supposed to be taking care of our medical needs, they only pay for one cleaning a year, not the standard two. Any "extra" cleanings have to be paid for out of our own pockets.

The dentist was very friendly and gentle. His life reflects the nomadic existence that is so common to people in this part of the world: he is a Palestinian, born in Qatar, and had his dental training in Belgium. As the son of the Palestinian ambassador, his up-to-date office is on the grounds of the Palestinian embassy.

My invitation to serve in the Peace Corps arrived seven months before I left for Mauritania. I received not only a detailed description of the job I would do, but its location; my work with the national Ministry of Education necessitated being placed in Nouakchott, the capital, with its population that includes a fair number of aid organizations and embassies, including their expatriate employees and diplomats. Calling it "cosmopolitan" would be a stretch, but it is certainly the most diverse city in the country.

In contrast, my fellow Trainees arrived with no idea where they would be stationed - nor would they find out until training was more than half over. Many of them could count on living in villages with no electricity or running water. During our first week in-country, one of them, in the Agfo (Agriculture-forestry) program, assured of living in a remote region because of his work, informed me that he was "going to be out in the bush with the real Volunteers."

This was the first time that I had heard such a comparison - that some of the Volunteers would be any more "real" than any others. There was something, at least in the mind of this Trainee, that told him that his experience in Mauritania would be more difficult, less comfortable, and, therefore, more "real," more "authentic" than that of us who would be living "the easy life" in the capital.

I have come to think of this as "the search for authenticity." Deprivation, and the suffering that ensues, are the hallmark of those Volunteers in this quest. Those who are the most deprived, those who suffer the most, are, therefore, the "real" Volunteers.

Never mind that our Macho Man who made this statement - he being a former soldier and police officer - didn't manage to make it through one week of training in the desert heat before he packed it in and went home to his mother.

From what part of the American psyche comes that "real Volunteers" judgment? We are all "in the same boat," having left our families, friends, and comforts in the United States, yet somebody needs to one-up an equal with this terminology.

With some thought, I have what may not be the answer, but it is one that helps to frame this for me. It lies in the omnipresent competition in which most Americans are compelled to participate. Take a look at every segment of American society - especially sports and the entertainment industry - and you see not only a national obsession with winning and losing, but a world view that is based on it. Every athletic competition is part of a ritual that ultimately leads to a championship. Every form of entertainment is eligible for some sort of "Best" award. Ultimately, all participants are reduced to being either winners or losers.

(For the sake of this essay, I am taking a neutral position on the phenomenon of competition itself. Rather than praise it as necessary or condemn it as useless, I am simply acknowledging its existence. At the same time, I say unequivocably that I am wholly disinterested in competitive endeavors such as sports, either as a participant or as an observer. I respect those of you who opine that competition has its place in our society, or even that people are "naturally competitive," as I have heard many people claim. I am sure that this is as true for those who say it, as it is untrue for me.)

In any event, the American spirit of competition is as potent and prevalent as it is portable. It is understandable that Volunteers have, therefore, brought it with them to Mauritania, and they are using it to make comparisons of their sites to those of the other Volunteers. The competition is for the badge of "authenticity," with its resulting decision that some have "won," while others have "lost" this distinction.

The competition is being waged on three fronts: (1) on the national scale, it is between every site and Nouakchott; (2) within the capital, it is from one quartier to another; (3) on the international level, Volunteers who complete their service in the RIM pride themselves as having survived in a country with among the highest dropout rate of all Peace Corps countries.

In considering how I could get my mind wrapped around this matter, I decided to begin by taking a look at the goals of the Peace Corps. This has helped me not only to focus on my work here, but also to see how I fit into the "search for authenticity." As stated in Peace Corps literature, its mission is centered around three goals:

(1) To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained men and women;

(2) To help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served;

(3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.

As I peruse these statements, I notice that there is no mention of suffering, pain, hardship, or deprivation in the execution of these goals. In that respect, it bears a striking similarity to our lives before, after, with, or without the Peace Corps: suffering is optional.

We Volunteers are left to our own devices not only with the implementation of the goals, but also in the choices that we make in determining what constitutes an "authentic" experience. Because inviting countries ask for people to be placed in rural as well as city settings, and since the Peace Corps agrees to match Invitees' skills to the tasks that have to be done, there has to be a wide range of sites and people in order to meet the needs for training the men and women who live in the countries served.

Integrating into the host society is a large theme in Peace Corps life. Any number of cross-cultural sessions during PST reflect the need of the Volunteers' awareness of issues regarding local customs. "Fitting in," though, becomes a delicate balance, and there are many ways in which to do it. After all, since one of the goals is to help Host Country Nationals (HCNs) to understand American people, how do we do that if we drop all of our Americanisms and adopt only the HCNs' ways of doing things?

During training, several Trainees purchased fabric and engaged tailors to make clothing that reflect local design. There were also Trainees who continued to dress only in the garments that they brought from home.

We have to decide for ourselves what apparel feels appropriate and what does not; there is neither a "right" or a "wrong" choice. Personally, I have purchased and comfortably wear a few complets and a kaftan; in doing so, I feel natural as I walk the streets of Nouakchott and visit the homes of Mauritanian friends. At the same time, there is something that stops me from wearing a boubou.

During Ramadan, several of our Volunteers fasted during daylight hours, as is the stricture from the Koran. They said that they wanted to experience what it was like for the people with whom they are living and working. This is a totally valid perspective on their part, in that it is not possible to understand an experience until a person has it.

It is equally valid for any of us to say, "I am not a Muslim. Ramadan is not part of my religious tradition. I am not going to fast."

One principle by which PCVs are supposed to ascribe is that we live at the economic level of the people whom we serve. This is an especially thorny issue, first of all, because we Volunteers receive a living allowance that is greater than the salaries of many highly educated Mauritanian professionals!

To live at the level of the HCNs, should we send home our Walkman CD players, digital cameras, and laptops? Do we give up e-mail for two years because most HCNs don't have it? Do we ask our family and friends not to send us packages because they contain items that HCNs cannot afford to purchase? Do we stop taking vacations in Europe and the United States because HCNs can't do that?

Even if we did give up all these trappings, there is no denying that each one of us, by virtue of being college-educated American citizens, has the promise of a rewarding future with material wealth and comforts that most of our Mauritanian friends will experience only as observers. Any one of us could go right ahead and eat that couscous and goat meat every day for two years, feeling as "authentic" as we want, and still know that the experience is as limited as our stay here. Whether we finish our two years, extend to three, or decide to leave tomorrow, we will fly away from it all with a free ticket to a home that offers more opportunities than most HCNs ever will dream of.

I maintain that if we are to continue our "search for authenticity," that it be within the parameters of the Peace Corps goals - especially the second one, in which we "promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served." In doing so, our greatest responsibility with regard to our living and working with HCNs is to be as authentically ourselves as we can be. Not only will we better serve our Mauritanian friends and co-workers that way, but we have a better chance to circumvent the inevitable stress that results when we pretend not to be who we really are, whether we are a "typical American" or different, and whether that difference is subtle or blatant.

Any one of us could live here for the rest of our lives and never be considered a Mauritanian, regardless of religious conversion, perfection of language skills, clothing that we wear, or the food that we eat. There is a gift in knowing and accepting this to be the truth, and that gift is the comfort that comes with allowing ourselves to relax into being exactly who we are. How does that play out for you? For me, there are a few unavoidable aspects of my life that have continually come to the fore. I share them here with you:

(1) As a vegetarian, I don't force my views on Mauritanians, but I explain to them that this is a healthy way of eating that has been working well for me since 1971. Why not have them meet an American who does not eat hamburgers and drink Coca Cola?

(2) I enjoy reading much more than watching television. My Kaédi host family had their television on most of the day. There were five children in that household. Just because the TV was on didn't mean that I wanted to watch it. Why not show them, by my example, that reading books is a pleasurable activity? When we talk about it, I also let them know that at home, in the USA, I don't own a television.

(3) I have also had the occasion to introduce my "authentic" self to fellow Volunteers. Being a naturally early riser, I feel my best when I get to sleep by ten o'clock in the evening. I'm going to be awake by 6:30 AM whether I go to bed early or late, so I may as well be rested. As a result, I don't attend the parties that my fellow Volunteers enjoy - not because I don't appreciate their company, but because my body is working on a different rhythm.

(4) I accept that I am hopelessly "out of the loop" on many occasions. Mob scene party and sporting events don't appeal to me, which is why I have avoided the ones that most fellow PCVs enjoy. Most of the popular culture names, events, and music that the PCVs talk about are alien to me.

(5) I am most comfortable - both with myself and in relationships - when I am honest about who I am. That is what contributes to my personal sense of authenticity. In this regard, I felt compelled to share with my fellow Trainees and Volunteers that I am gay and Jewish, which puts me in the minority in even more ways than the ones I have already described. I am saddened by the advice from Peace Corps that I not disclose this information to HCNs. At the same time, I feel that I will probably take the opportunity to do this before I close service.

As I observe behavior of those around me, I can't help but notice the movement that we as Volunteers and the Mauritanians around us are making toward each other. On our part, we have been making many changes in our daily lives: drinking the tea, eating the food, speaking the languages, wearing the clothing, showing up late to meetings - in all, taking upon ourselves the aspects of everyday Mauritanian life.

While we are engaged in adapting to local practices, Mauritanians are leaving the desert in favor of cities, trading in their camels for cars, and expanding their networks of water, electricity, and cell phones. With greater numbers of people watching television, they are increasingly being exposed to images of the "good life," generally proferred by movies and shows eminating from France, Brazil, South Africa, and Senegal.

Stop for a second. Take a breath and a good hard look. Do you see what is happening? We are trying to become more like them, while they are putting their energies into being more like us! In the exchange, each group is taking on characteristics and behaviors of the other. Who is remaining not only "authentic," but "authentically" what?

Ultimately, the matter of our being "real" Volunteers must depend exclusively on our individual implementation of the goals as set forth by the Peace Corps: (1) the quality of the work that we do in transferring our skills; (2) the authentic sharing of ourselves with the people we meet here; and (3) an accurate portrayal of our lives to family and friends at home.

This is an issue that deserves our individual and collective consideration. Living our lives with awareness leads to living them with intention. It is through our intention that we create the opportunity to make a difference in a world that needs as much help as we can offer it.