Searching for connection in Africa
By Sarah McQueen
Part of our mission as Peace Corps volunteers is to help promote a better understanding of Americans in our host countries. That doesn’t mean just showing up and showing them how we do things “American style.” Sorry America, I’m not in Comoros to spend two years bragging about how great we are.
Being an ambassador means finding a way to build a connection, a way to help people see past our many cultural barriers to the humanity we share. Accomplishing that requires letting down a few walls and allowing people to actually see my own humanity. If I’m doing my job right, the end result will be people on both ends coming out with a little more understanding of another part of the world.
Being the only American in a small African village means you get a lot of attention. People are constantly curious about what you’re doing, where you’re going, even what you’re eating. Privacy does not exist here. Filling my buckets and hauling water shouldn’t be any more of a spectacle than when any other woman in the village does so. Washing clothes shouldn’t be a side show complete with commentary on technique and suggestions on where to hang everything to dry. Yet all my neighbors and friends take a keen interest in every little thing I do.
At first, this came across as judgmental and drove me nuts. It still does. But now I understand most of the time they are not coming from a place of judgment. They are looking for a place to connect. Our differences are many and glaringly obvious at times. I don’t dress the same, I don’t speak the same language, I don’t have the same religion, I don’t look the same. So if my neighbor can find something we do the same, like hauling water or what food we buy at the market, it’s a way for her to say, “Oh yes, that American may be weird but she eats beans just like I do.”
It’s the little things that bring us all down to the same level, and every time my Comorian neighbors see me struggling with the same things they do it reduces me from the “weird foreigner” status and brings me a step closer to just “neighbor.” Life is infinitely more comfortable when you can shed the foreigner label and just be another member of the village. If my village needs to see me cleaning my pit latrine, washing clothes in the river and hauling my own water to see me as a normal person, I’m all in.
I won’t ever shed that label all together though. I am American, and I love my homeland and have no desire to give up that part of my identity. Thankfully, no one here would ask me to. As the only American in my region it falls to me to represent my home country in a big way and people often come to me to talk about things they hear about America.
Many people in Comoros keep up with American news. Lately the questions my friends and neighbors have been coming to me with about what they see in the news are difficult to answer. As a 98-percent Muslim nation, Comorians tend to take an interest when news involves other Muslim countries, or the treatment of Muslims in the U.S. borders. They want to know how they would be treated as a foreigner in a different country.
Our actions as a country do send a message to the rest of the world, intentionally or not. The decisions our elected leaders make, the news we choose to publish, the discussions we decide to have, all tally up. And people are paying attention.
The message Comoros has received is they would never be able to be anything but a suspicious foreigner in my homeland. Sadly, many of my friends in village have asked me about “Americans’ dislike for Muslims.” One of my dearest friends in village asked me if it was true Americans wanted Muslims to die. It was one of my sadder moments in Peace Corps.
A different man had been planning to visit his daughter who lives in the U.S. She’s lived there for 10 years and he was going to visit her for the first time, but he recently decided it wasn’t safe for him as a Muslim and cancelled his trip.
Another volunteer told me of a local friend who had been planning to send their children to America for higher education. This is a rare opportunity far out of reach for most Comorians. To be able to go to America for education means having a chance to make much more of your life than you’d be able to in Comoros. But that parent changed their mind, deciding America was unsafe, opting instead to send their children to Uganda, the safer of the two countries for young Muslims.
My job of helping these cultures understand each other is made much larger due to the discussions happening at home right now. I want to be able to tell my friends and neighbors that they will be accepted and seen for their humanity if they visit America, just as they have done for me. I want to tell them they won’t be stopped at customs for their hijabs or their religion. I want to tell them people will look past the differences and see the person.
I am just one voice in my village, made louder by the fact that I am here in person, a known and hopefully trusted source. But the voices of our elected officials are also loud, as are the voices of our news cycle, and the discussions we hold on social media. And they are sending a message that says any effort for understanding is one-sided.
A while back I was sitting with a good friend who is also the local Imam when we began to discuss prayer. He told me about the Muslim prayers and then asked me if I pray. I told him I do, but it’s different than Muslim prayers. He asked me to show him. He was looking for that connection.
Sure, we have different religions. We believe in different gods. We pray differently. But at a very basic level, we are just two humans who draw peace and comfort from our faith. Through finding a way to connect we understand each other a little better now. We don’t fear each other’s differences because we have seen how similar we can be. Somewhere along the line we stopped being foreign to each other and just became friends.