Distant Neighbors: When titles just aren't enough

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2007

Opening my invitation to serve as a volunteer in Ghana, I recall being struck by a string of titles and phrases which, jumping off the page, illuminated an array of possible futures. "Agro-forestry technician," "alternative livelihood facilitator," "sustainable development." The words felt comfortable in my mouth - they rolled easily off my tongue and I enjoyed the definition they afforded to my rather inchoate sense of self.

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Without hesitation, I accepted my Peace Corps assignment and began to allow these neatly formulated expressions to succinctly give shape to the next two years of my life. How easy it is to hide behind words and define ourselves through titles. So easy in fact, that we allow ourselves to ignore the real challenge which is not simply to summarize our existence with bulleted points (however satisfying that might be), but to ascend beyond the subterfuge and in the process truly discover ourselves. Little did I realize, this was the experience upon which I was about to embark as I mailed in my enthusiastic "yes."

Arriving in Ghana and moving to Wamfie, the village I will call home throughout my tenure with Peace Corps, I quickly realized the shortcomings of the once promising definitions and titles. Wamfie was eager to know my "mission" but terms such as "alternative income generation" and "community based conservation initiatives" offered little clarity. As a last resort I tried simply introducing myself as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was met with empty stares. One ambitious gentleman hopefully repeated, "Pea's Court Volleyball?" You don't have to tell me how ridiculous it sounded.

Stripped of my protective title and without a conveyable purpose, I felt suddenly inadequate, fraudish and floundering. Even simple questions like the, "where are you going?" anytime I so much as stood up began to unnerve me. "None of your business!" I wanted to scream. But the real issue was how to put to rest the questions mounting in my own mind. I find myself asking, "Where am I going? What am I doing? Why am I here?" I find myself still asking these questions, the answers are evolving. I am becoming more comfortable with simple answers. Where am I going? "I am going to town to buy yams." "I am going to farm." "I am going to the town meeting." And, not so surprisingly, as I become comfortable in these practical responses more ambitious roles present themselves as more and more feasible. I am now able to say, "We are in the process of building a community/youth center." "We are attempting to nurse some Moranga seedlings." "We are organizing a mushroom farmer's co-op." "We are looking into solar energy as an option to power our homes."

So now to reach some form of a conclusion: Perhaps sometimes it's better not to have a fixed answer or expect a fixed experience. When we remain open to questions, our roles evolve in ways we may not initially comprehend and in ways that connect us to the communities in which we work. Above all else, it is more than enough to forget the titles and be, quite simply, ourselves. "To be alive, to hear this song ... that is a victory" (Traditional West African Proverb).

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at scpolasky@gmail.com.

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