I was sitting on a vacant exam table reading a water sanitation manual at the clinic the other day when one of the patient assistants walked in. As soon as she saw me, she started doing a somewhat spastic arm-flailing hip-shimmy dance while singing to the tune of a Kenyan children’s diddy, “Yes yes yes yes yes, I am MEGAN, you are not!” When I asked her what she was doing, she grinned broadly and responded, “I am doing your traditional dance you brought from America! Traditional American dance to a traditional Kenyan song!”
I was deeply puzzled for a minute, then remembered: a few weeks earlier, I had been stacking pill bottles alone in the pharmacy, listening to my “Music To Get You Through A Really Boring Task” playlist. It’s impossible not to bust a little move to yourself at such a time, especially when you’re not being watched.
Or, at least, assume you’re not being watched.
The Fishbowl Effect – a feeling of or reality wherein every move you make is observed, noted, scrutinized, and filed away to judged against the behavior of all future foreigners – is a huge (and potentially frustrating) part of Peace Corps life. Some people have it worse than I do: I have friends who are the only white people for miles in any direction, friends whose innocent adventures have been transmitted through the village grapevine to other distracts (or up the social hierarchy all the way to the village chief), friends who have had their own reputations tarnished by the obscure memory of a long-departed tourist or aid worker. For me, I live in a rather touristy area, so most people who see me at first assume I’m an Italian or British holidayer staying at one of the fancy resorts for a few weeks. I always behave pretty well anyway, but if I didn’t, a lot of them would probably just roll their eyes and go “HAYA! TOURISTS!”
Still, I live in a neighborhood not usually frequented by other wazungu, so people have gotten to know me. This means my comings and goings are noted with startling detail (“Sister, you have been so long gone! I have not seen you since the Tuesday before last! You were carrying a large box and wearing blue jeans with a black shirt!”) Run my bike into a ditch? Everyone knows. Skive off an afternoon at the clinic to do laundry and sing loudly to my radio? Duly noted. Seen carrying something heavy without someone sending their son/husband to carry it for me? Minor scandal. You get the picture.
To a certain degree it’s comforting (if I’m murdered in my home, someone will at least notice before the rats completely devour my body and despoil all the evidence) but it can also make one a little paranoid. I have nothing to hide by American standards, but what if I want to buy wine at the supermarket, or have a male volunteer colleague platonically crash on my couch for a couple of days while making a trip? I’m not used to getting too hung up on what other people think, but here, it’s part of the job. At least on paper, we’re “at work” 24/7. When we are to lead by example, we have to first establish ourselves as upstanding and trustworthy, which means conforming conspicuously to societal norms. No pouring drunkenly out of a cab after a long night at the discotech. No hanging your most provocative underpants on your outdoor clothesline REGARDLESS of how big a pain it is to string up a mini-clothesline across your bedroom. No blasting your uncensored music at maximum volume a few feet from the window, outside of which groups of impressionable nursery school kids are playing.
Suck it up. Get used to living the life of a goldfish. And hope against hope that only a minimal number of kids pause to tap on the glass.