We are all guilty of knowing and assuming a single story about a group of people, their homeland, and their culture and traditions.
Before coming to Swaziland, I knew very little about this tiny country in southern Africa. I knew Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and that the king is resisting any changes from that status. That information is true, and Swazis like to ask me how I feel about that, which the PCVs in Swaziland have been told to not discuss.
Of course, Swazis like to ask me many questions about my life, my marital status, my religion, how I voted in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, how my country could elect someone like Trump, and if I could take them to the U.S. when I leave Swaziland to be my garden boy or cook, or perhaps to study at an American university.
I usually answer everyone’s questions, time and patience permitting, about everything. One of Peace Corps’ goals is to share knowledge about America with the people of the country where we serve, and I thoroughly enjoy showcasing America in a different light than most people are used to.
Swazis know a single story about Americans. They expect us to be wealthy white people with lots of money to share and knowledge to bring to do “things” to improve their community. This is what white people have been doing for a century in Swaziland and they expect me to be just like the development workers they have encountered and just like the people they see on TV.
Sure, I am a white person come to Swaziland to do development work–better called capacity building–with the Peace Corps. But after that, my story changes.
I like to tell people about the amount of debt I have accrued to receive a master’s degree. I was not in debt after my bachelor’s degree thanks to working hard to receive lots of scholarship money and because my parents saved for my education. I decided to return to school and study for a Master of Public Health degree and my finances instantly changed.
I worked more than full time during those two years over three jobs. I worked on campus for two professors that helped reduce my tuition bill, I worked as a pharmacy technician at Target, and I taught curling on Saturday nights. All of that just paid the bills, so I still took out a lot of money in loans, particularly to pay for two study abroad programs in Ghana.
Most Swazis have no idea that higher education is not affordable to Americans. When Swazis say they want to study in America, I steer them towards Europe instead, where university programs are often free and still taught in English.
When men ask to marry me, I first tell them how many cows my babe wants for me (140, and the usual price for a college-educated female is 15), how many elephants I want (two), and how much money they would have to pay to the U.S. to pay off my student loans ($40,000 or E560,000 in the local currency). Men sometimes say they could acquire 140 cows paid in installments over many years. Most men brush off the request for elephants. No one knows what to say about the large amount of money I need to pay off my student loans, though.
I bring up that amount of money again when people ask me to pay for their or their children’s educations. I explain that I am a volunteer and am earning no money while working in Swaziland and that I am still paying for my education, so there is no way I could pay for yours. Sometimes they follow up with asking if my parents could provide them the money, and I have discovered the best answer is that my parents are not employed, which is true and which Swazis understand and then stop asking for money.
Swazis also sometimes ask for me to take them to the U.S. when I finish my work here. They offer to work in my garden, cook my food, or wash my laundry. Sometimes I tell them that I do not want to return to the U.S., which is usually incomprehensible because they believe the U.S. to be such a great and wonderful place where all your dreams come true and money grows on trees and jobs are available everywhere.
Other times I say that I do not have a house and therefore do not need a garden boy, that I like preparing my own food, and I use a washing machine to clean my clothes. Often I am stopped at the point when I say that I do not have a house. This is, again, unbelievable. In a country of so much wealth, how could I not even have a one-room house I built myself on the property of my parents?
The perception is that even with whatever America is expected to be by Swazis, they also expect us to still live like Swazis do: on the homestead of our parents with many generations living together and that we all have a small farm with cows and chickens.
Part of my responsibility as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to share what America is like to me and to reduce the view that there is a single story about the U.S. I enjoy this role. I have had this conversation about me and my views of the U.S. so many times in the seven months that I have lived in Swaziland, and I know it will continue to be a topic for conversation.
I also know if I was sent back to the U.S. today, that I have changed some people’s expectations of America and Americans. I have succeeded in broadening their views of a broad and complicated and diverse place, a place where two people can have entirely opposite opinions about what is right and wrong with its state of affairs and continue to live together. It is a place where I have learned to see many of its problems and mistakes during its short history, but it is also a place that I still find beautiful.
Don’t you think it is beautiful too?
And all of these thoughts are important to destroying the single story of America, one conversation about my student loan debt at a time.
This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story. This prompt is based on a TED talk by author Chimamanda Adiche. Coincidentally, I was shown this video during PST because of the powerful message it shares.