I don’t consider myself a great storyteller, but I want to be. Those who are wise and observant, nonjudgmental and painstakingly descriptive are the great writers with whom I am enraptured. I’ve never understood my impulse to write and paint pages with sound and letters, but, here it is. Often I feel the urge to write because something is boiling inside me, and I can’t find any other way to let out the steam. I consider this urge a weakness; I lack discipline. But what I do have is autonomy; the will to write what I want, however I want to write it. This brings me back to storytelling.
I believe everyone has their own unique, beautiful story—some stories are more often told than others. When one walks down the street, one sees only fragments of a beautiful story: the sides of faces, whisps of smile or furrowed brow, tufts of soft or graying or mussy hair, painted fingernails or steel-toed boots, gaps in smiles, missing teeth. These fragments tell a greater story of a life lived whole.
There are seven and a half billion people on this planet. How many lifetimes would it take to write the story—the complete story—of every single one of us?
Author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gave a remarkable speech that the calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” I invite you to watch it below (and then continue reading!)
So what does any of this have to do with Peace Corps? A lot.
Last week I visited my site—a small, quite village in northern Madagascar where I will be stationed as an English education volunteer for the next two years, starting in September. I was there for ten days, and around day five, I felt just about ready to pull my hair out.
“What do people do all day?” I thought to myself. “Why does everyone feel the need to say things to me that are so obviously apparent…like asking me if I’m walking when I am clearly walking. And why do people invite me to do things and then not show up to them? Why, why, why???”
Ah, but the sky is so big here, and the stars are so bright.
“Yes, but do they realize it?”
Are you aware of all the lines on your own palms? Their curves and features?
I started counting down the days until I could return to the Peace Corps Training Center and complain, in the company of other Americans, in sweet, sweet English, about how ridiculous everything is and how difficult and how nothing made sense, how I felt neglected and ignored and sad and confused, and that, and that, and that…
And then I went for a jog around the school track in the evening, and I saw a mountain in the distance. And I wondered if anyone had ever climbed it, all the way to the top. And then I looked down at Fardo, the ten year old boy jogging happily beside me, teasing me, urging me to run faster, faster, faster.
And I felt so ashamed.
I thought about the promise I had made to myself state-side to come in with no expectations, to not to be self-righteous, and to be a learner. I hadn’t been doing that at all. I’d been afraid—afraid of being laughed at, afraid of being insulted or misunderstood. Most of all I’d been afraid of being wrong and not having any right answer. And then I wondered if my host family, my kind and gracious and eager and excited new host family, neighbors and community members, had been feeling the exact same way.
I had been writing my own story: an uninformed, angry, judgmental story. I had failed to be observant, failed to notice the ways in which people greet or dance or laugh with their whole bodies. I had failed at so many things before I even got started.
This story is not my story. There is another story to tell, and I have the unique, awesome privilege of bearing witness to it, of inclining my ear and writing down words and giving those words away to others to read and understand. Finally, finally, I am taking myself out of the equation.
This is not a single story, either. As Adichie’s video expresses, that would be impossible and incomplete. So, starting now, I present to you a story with many characters, many shapes, many arcs. Sometimes I will be in the story. Sometimes I won’t. I don’t know yet how it will end. I haven’t even begun. But this is the story I’m writing about a small town in northern Madagascar. I don’t know what you’re expecting. I’ll give you what I can.