Zanzibar has been an unforgiving experience when it comes to how I view myself. As my Kiswahili increasingly rusts in my brain and slows on my tongue it begins to feel as though I am losing a part of myself. It seems this trip is stripping me of the pride and strength I have cultivated from ten months of life here.
This place is packed with tourists, as it should be. The mechanisms are all in place to provide an experience that contrasts and comforts; one that challenges just enough to gratify, but not enough to draw any deep or profound questions. And though Rachel and I harp about authenticity - about real cultural experiences - what are we but culturally focused tourists? Elevating one variable of the experience above other equally imagined inputs to a fictionally ‘true’ whole. What’s ‘natural’ and what’s ‘normal’ is mostly a matter of picking a point in the progression and contrasting it with the present, the average or your preference. We search for essence and end up only shuttling between points of view.
The biggest blow to my sense of being special – of belonging in Africa– is how much I’ve enjoyed being here, camouflaged in a sea of white faces. How relieved I am to have my mistakes forgiven, to finally have the endless hawking and aggressive salesmanship actually apply to me. I can cease fighting the way I am viewed. I match, at last, the expectations daily foisted upon me.
Still, I can’t help feeling as though I have lost something, We share the streets with their overzealous tanning and corn-rowed auburn hair over pasty dry scalps. There’s the same ‘exotic’ African print cut into handbags and trousers, tank-tops and scarves. Cameras are slung over every arm and neck like guns. Every shop and duka echoes with the same argument and rotely memorized phrasebook exchanges. Rachel and I talk about them, snipe at their hair or dress as they come down the alley. We abuse them for reminding us of ourselves.
Most of my existence in Africa has been based around not being a tourist. I’ve struggled to validate my presence in tiny villages and back road bars through depth of commitment - by emphasizing the length of my stay. “I’m not a tourist. I live here.” Being special has become a burden. It started as a congratulation. As feeling better and more and different than those against whom I compared yourself. ‘Special’ ends as a violent and futile protest against a gathering sense of commonality. One that hollows you out and leaves an echo in the space you think you are supposed to fill. In truth, Rachel and I have been in a pissing contest since the day we stopped being volunteers and started being tourists - a word we shrink from using.
It dies hard because this whole thing started in a spirit of exceptionalism. We chose this trial; we elected this time to do something uncommon and unusual. Whether from a youthful temperament or some mix of deeply imbedded iconoclasm and historically posited guilt, we came to do and be something different. (Though it’s important to remember that we came to Africa to do it, a place where generations of white faces have arrived with similar sentiments of their own uniqueness.)
I feel sad to watch it slip away. Different or not, I felt different before. I had an honest pride in my choice to be here and my reasons for doing so. Now, the same thing I used to hold with a quiet confidence at the back of my hand has become an emblem I’m desperate to display. Instead of feeling special, I strive to prove that I am and it fills my interactions with calculated inferences and over-confident authority. My need to tell someone how it really is deepens in concert with a growing fear that I don’t really know. True or not, as I increasingly elevate the ‘authentic’ experience I can’t help but see how absurd my own lingering claim of uniqueness is becoming and, perhaps, how absurd it was to begin with.
The loss is less about my permanent self than about how I viewed myself here. And it’s not a loss. A year ago I would have seen it as so, but however I have grown tells me that it’s just a change; it’s a part of growing. I’m coming home not with a feeling that I’ve failed to authentically be here, but rather the knowledge that being anywhere has less to do with what you know or how long you’ve stayed as it does with feeling like you belong. As always, the only one who can truly validate your presence, your purpose, your intentions, is you.
The gradual relinquishing of my exceptional status is like a slow release of pressure as I come ascend from the depths, back towards the easy and familiar life I knew. To lose a part of something, it must begin with the kind of completeness that can never describe a life. I am not losing a part of myself, merely leaving it behind on the road to something new. I only hope that tomorrow finds me as optimistic and excited for the future as today.