Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on language and living as a "celebrity"

South Africa is so multilingual that the national anthem is written in four languages: Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. We sung both America's and South Africa's national anthems at the Swearing In Ceremony. (Yes, we had "cheat sheets" for both.)

I, as are most internationals, was given an African name upon arrival: Molebogang. Lebogang is the Tswana word for "go give thanks" and with the addition of the prefix "Mo," my name is loosely translated as "to give thanks to God."

I used to love my African name, but lately, it has been a source of irritation. There are apparently four shorter, "nickname" versions of my African name and they are as follows:

MOO lay
MOE lay
LAY boo
LAY boe

As I've been called "Karen" all of my life and am not used to "Molebogang," let alone any of its variations, I find myself head-jerking in the direction of any of these variations as someone may be calling for me... To make matters worse, "Lebogang" is a very popular name among boys, girls, women, and men, so at any point of time someone is being called a version of this name. As I said, I used to like my African name. :-)

Just an interesting note: when the new Peace Corps trainees were first brought home to the families in the village, it rained. It was an odd time for it to rain in that part of Africa (the winter months when it is usually dry) so many of the trainees were renamed in honor of the rain... Something along the line of "one who brings rain..."

And I know, my folks in Louisville are sick of rain, but we're longing for it here and beginning to see a bit of it...

Speaking of Louisville and language... I love telling the story of my trip to Alaska. Although I was there to talk to visitors about the Alaskan park, inevitably (and probably because of my accent), I would be asked where I was from. Of course, I replied, "Louisville, Kentucky." But they heard, "LOO uh vul" and had no idea what I was talking about. When they finally realized I was trying to say, "LOOEYville," they felt much better and patted me on the back because they had helped me figure out how to pronounce my city's name.

So, here in Africa, when I'm asked, "Where are you from?," I reply, "From the United States of America." (I used to only say, "the United States," when it was pointed out to me that there are other countries of united states... As in "the United States of Brazil--I think).

Usually, they press further: "From what part of the United States?" To which I reply: Kentucky. I used to reply, "Louisville, KY," but quickly learned that Louisville is completely unidentifiable to native South Africans. Not only is Louisville unrecognizable, Kentucky is. In the beginning, I would make a point to make a connection: "You know, like Kentucky Fried Chicken?" To this they would smile and laugh, so I don't do it anymore (and am grateful the company years ago launched a campaign to move the name closer to "KFC" in order to avoid the word "fried"). I personally find it embarrassing to be identified with a food item, a fried, dead food item at that.

So no, no one has heard of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky bourbon, or of our college basketball teams. They only want to hear of New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago (probably because of the election of our new president--the Nobel Peace Prize winner!). They quickly lose interest in my state.

So I'm spared the "Louisville" pronunciation problem, but am saddened that no one knows of my glorious state--and city!!

My personal emails home have contained a whiney note (I hope it hasn't shown up here) and my sister recently called me out on it: "Why are you having such a hard time?"

So, am I having a hard time? Well, yes, and I will try to explain why. Please note that these feelings/sensations are very new to me, as I've not experienced them before, and I'm not sure I can adequately describe them. (Thanks Kim, btw, for helping me to "snap me out of it.")

For all practical purposes, I'm the only white person here. (I know, I know, the race issue again.) But not only am I the only white person here, I DON'T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THOSE I'M LIVING WITH. Why the emphasis? Well, I've never lived anywhere before that a) I'm the only person of my race and b) I don't have a clue what everyone around me is saying--EVER.

Now, the Peace Corps warned me (and others) that the emotional state that evolves out of such a living arrangement is very, very difficult. And they're right: it is very, very difficult.

On many levels I've learned that it was one thing, living in the States, to think, "Oh sure, I can do that" and quite another, to be in Africa, trying to do it.

So again, why is it so difficult? And, here again, I'm not sure. I can only describe what it feels like and the observations I've made.

At first, I thought it must be similar, on a much smaller scale, to what celebrities experience: you're a single being surrounded by tens, hundreds, thousands of people who ALL KNOW WHO YOU ARE but you have NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE. It is unnerving to walk down the street and have person after person call you by name and not having a clue as to who these people are.

Not only does everyone know who you are, they know who you are, WHERE YOU ARE, ALL THE TIME. There is literally no escape. There is nowhere to go to "hide." People in towns 40 minutes away know who I am (and can call me by name).

It truly is an unnerving experience and it's ongoing: 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I'm known where ever I go: school, church, shopping, trips to town, and hiking out of town. (I've decided to try beginning my hikes a 5:30 am, to escape notice--hopefully everyone will still be asleep!!)

And even if I'm not known, I'm known because I'm so different. I'm a white person. Many young children have never seen a white person. I've made at least one small child cry and run for his mother. Dogs bark at me because I'm so strange in appearance. Everywhere I walk, all heads turn and you can hear the glimmer of conversations erupting (in my honor).

What I find most unsettling about it is, that I've noticed a striking decrease in my confidence and self-esteem. In the States, I walk tall and strong, I hold my head high, I feel comfortable and confident about WHO I AM. Here, I've noticed myself walking slumped down, with my head lowered, and not making eye contact. I HATE IT. I hate that I feel this way and that I'm behaving this way, but am unsure as to how to deal with it.

Again, these feelings and sensations are so unsettling because, I think, I've never experienced them before.

I'm told that these feelings are normal and that all Peace Corps volunteers experience them. I'm told too, that they pass. Sadly for me, is that it often takes SIX months for them to pass, and I'm only three months in!

Yikes, I hope this post hasn't been a downer and there aren't even any pretty pictures to post... But writing about it has probably helped me move through some of it, and maybe a kind soul out there who relates can offer up, "Yes, I know how that feels and here's what helped me cope..."

So I'll sign off for now and practice walking tall, proud, straight, with my head held high!

Soon, Karen
PS Peace Corps is in no way connected to this post.


  1. Okay, my "gift from God", I understand that you are feeling badly about your situation. Remember why you are there, and that all the people there know why you are there. They are thinking kindly and appreciative of you and you need to be aware of that. You are very special and doing something very special. All who know you or who know me are praying for you. Just think of all the sisters at the convent offering prayers for you!!

    Also be proud of our country, State and city. Sounds like your people are proud of obama and the peace prize. Everyone here is downing it and saying he did nothing to deserve it. I think we have lost all respect and honor. This is OUR country and OUR president. We used to be proud. All politics aside, what an honor this is for our country.

    Am I preaching?

    You have every reason to stand tall and look everyone in the eye. I'm sure they are very thankful for all the volunteers, and glad you are there for them. Be a celebrity!!

    I love you so much!!

  2. I hope Josette is checking her email! It's tough, but you are tougher. You drove a semitruck through Harlem. Remember?

  3. Deanna, I thought you did all the driving in NYC! :-)

    Thanks everyone for helping to "shore me up." I feel much more shored! People have been sending me wonderful emails and voicemails... I'm very lucky to be so loved. More soon! k