It just got dark. The village all around me is alive with the sounds of children playing and laughing, women calling across to one another, men returning from their fields, bicycles rattling by on the path outside my hut, chickens clucking, long-legged crickets chirping. The sounds of rural Africa.
I had thought I would be alone in my village for two years. I had read that being in the Peace Corps would be mentally and emotionally isolating, and so I tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for isolation. But how wrong I was. I’m the farthest thing from being alone in my village. Every other person in the village is here too.
Yes, I am the only American for a 6-kilometer radius. I’m starting to realize though that this is an arbitrary distinction based more on the set of criteria that I use to identify myself than on any inherent characteristics that I have. It’s this assumption, this inherent belief that my differences and not my similarities are what define me, that I’m trying to change in myself. That the Peace Corps as an institution is trying to change, I think, in both America and in countries across the world, one village at a time. It is a simple lesson but a resounding one: we are more alike than we can at first imagine.
There’s a phrase in Bemba, cimo cine, which means the same, or the same thing. I use it surprisingly often considering that I live in a place where I am the most different person my neighbors have ever encountered for longer than the time it takes a car to zoom past the village, in a culture where men readily hold hands in public even though husbands and wives never touch each other during the day and I haven’t seen a bare thigh since Labor Day of last year.
It actually comes out a lot in conversation with people when I’m trying to describe myself and have already said I’m not married and do not have children. Okay, so I don’t cook nshima and my Bemba stumbles along like an elderly man with a bum knee. (We both eventually get to where we want to go, but it takes much longer than it should and there’s a lot of gesturing involved.) But rather than noting my different skin tone, different hair texture and length, different eye shape, look instead at our similarities! I want to cry out, unsure whether it’s them or me who I really am trying to convince.
Look as I walk along the same bush paths that you take to get to your fields, cook at the same time as your wife and sister and mother, on the same brazier they use, with the same charcoal. Observe that I draw water from the same well, buy the same tomatoes and the same cabbage from the roadside. Watch as we laugh at the same things, greet each other in the same manner, shield our eyes from the same sun, complain good-naturedly about the same heat, and then gripe about the same morning chill the next day.
And begin to see, slowly, but certainly, that the product of our similarities is greater than the sum of our differences. To know that I am not alone here. To realize that we are cimo cine. We are, in the ways that matter most, the same.
The principal of the nearby school stopped by to visit yesterday and asked how I was settling into village life. When I said that things were going great and I was adjusting well, he asked with concern, “But isn’t it difficult living all by yourself, being here alone?”
I looked down at the children crowded around our feet, glanced over at the men laying bricks for the foundation of the new house next door, looked past them at the women drawing water from the well. My well. Our well.
I smiled. “I’m the farthest thing from being alone.”