How you define community starts with how you see your surroundings. Do you see a fence and a tree surrounding a house, or do you see a neighbor’s home with a fence and a beautiful maple tree. The descriptions are of the same area, yet they are vastly different. So how do you see the places you frequent? It defines your community view.
I like to see my surrounding in a poetically beautiful verbage. I see the goats as living beings not noisy pests. I like to see my neighbors as people who have lives outside of what I can see. I like to see the roads as paths to adventure. This way of viewing the world has landed me in one of the most beautiful places in the World. Yet this place I now call home is not built the same way as what I have known. Does my view of community change here? Yes it does, it also changed in Africa and when I moved to California. What I had built my view of community on now had to be adjusted.
Community in Seattle was based on people and a sense of belonging. Community in California, well I still have not established it so well. I have made a few friends and people know who I am, but finding my place has not happened yet. In Liberia my vision of community was based on the host families we lived with and the neighboring homes. Here in Jamaica it is similar, yet different. When you join the Peace Corps you are given a Government issued family. You start with a group of individuals, you likely do not know, and you build relationships with them. It is important to build this community up. There are those days of struggle and having people around who have gone through the same feelings are going to be your support.
Community is not the infrastructure or the buildings that are located in a defined area. Community is the people who are in your life. It could be the mad man who informs you that touching your privates in public is very, very bad, good advice by the way. It could be the shopkeeper who begged you for sex and asked you to have his child, that I suggest you avoid at all costs. It could be the child who simply waves and jabbers at you every single time she sees you. It could be the farmer who slips a bruka (a little more) in your bag when you are not looking. It could be the host family you live with who protects you and sees that you are comfortable and safe. It could be the local man who is your escort when you go out late at night to community events. It could be the vendor who stocks a specific item just for you! These are what makes a community. Not the roads, not the building but the people. The people who impact your life and make it better daily. They could impact you negatively or positively, but they impact you daily. Remember we all have good and bad situations, the key is to make the bad situations less than bad.
In my community I have weird interactions daily. These are only weird to me, because they are not something I am accustomed to. To make it better I use humor, which builds up my community. Everyday I have men psst at me and I have informed them to pass the word that I do not intend to talk to men who sound like snakes. If they want to talk with me they should say hi and ask me how I am doing. If I get pssst at I simply wave my hand and tell them that I have no time for their non-sense. This makes the group laugh and diffuses most situations. Just last week a loader man, the man who guides you to the correct bus or taxi, informed me that he wanted to kiss me on my rings. I informed him, without even looking back at him, that if he did so he would likely get punched in the face. I did not say I would punch him, I simply stated a fact, that accosting a woman with an unwanted physical touch would likely get him in some kind of trouble. You have to say it in a way that is funny to others and lets them know that you might be a little serious. Just enough to defuse the interest. You see in this situation, most of the regular drivers know who I am and they would most likely come to my rescue if needed. The key to community is to put yourself out there. They will come to you. Even if you simply quietly sip a beer watching a netball practice, they eventually find you.
Yesterday when I returned to Ochi, I was trying to locate where the Sunday Taxi to my community is. I was struggling to figure out which taxis were mine, when a community member hollered at me and got out of the front seat and allowed me to take his seat as he took the back seat. This is when you truly know that the community knows you and respects who you are. I still have to defray the requests to join me for dinner by the taxi drivers but mostly I am kept with a level or respect that I appreciate.
In the Peace Corps you will deal with some of the most insane situations. You have to just laugh most of them off, as long as you are in no danger. Getting angry about a cultural misunderstanding is what is wrong in this world. Instead of trying to understand, we simply view it as an assault on our person. A man grabbing your hand in a public space may simply be a gesture to make you see him. It could even be a gesture of moving you to safety. It may not mean that this man wanted to touch a white woman. He may have seen the crate falling from the top of the building or the car nearly running you over. You have no idea what his intention was and as long as he lets you go, there is really no harm.
In my life, I have never been that girl that everyone want to date or be with. So I imagined being the center of attention constantly might be nice. It is not. It is annoying after the first day or so. It gets old and you realize that you are not being seen as a person but as a white woman. I have no idea if men go through this as well, but as a woman it does tend to bruise one’s ego after some time. However, once you get to the point of finding your community all of this unwanted attention is not so significant. It tends to be a mild amusement and as I stated using humor as a way to turn them down, it can be kind of fun. The other men will laugh at him, but silently they respect you standing your ground. I am very good at standing my ground, but I think that knowing who is my community is very helpful. I know the people to turn to if it gets overwhelming. If it gets too bad I can always take an American weekend and go out with my ex-pats or my Peace Corps family. In the end it really is about balance and knowing yourself and your support needs.
So imagine your community, and imagine it with only people. Understand that those people are important to not just you, but really to each other and to the community. There will be those that do not really fit, but they still belong. They will be those challenges you face daily, and that is okay. Challenges are the things that make the world more interesting. It is all about how you see yourself in your world.