Blah, I've been feeling a little bit sad the last couple of days.
While I was gone in the U.S. during the month of July, there were a
number of big changes in the cooperative I've been working with. A
couple of the officers were removed in a special election, and others
voted in instead. One of the people who was removed is someone I had
been working with pretty closely, and had stayed in his house in the
campo a number of times, getting to know his family. I had considered
him a friend.
When I heard he had been removed, one of my main ideas was to wonder
how to approach him without embarassing him, and how to approach the
new people who were voted in. But I went to see him this week, and he
greeted me just as normal. We made small talk, and I completely
avoided the topic of the cooperative. Until he brought it up himself.
He started talking about the situation, describing it in great detail,
and all about these other projects he claimed to be doing. The
problem is that I know that he wasn't being entirely truthful with me.
This goes beyond people having different perspectives on things.
Some of it was probably exaggeration, and some of it was him
optimistically describing things as already being the way he plans for
them to be soon. But he came across to me as being totally out of
touch, either with the community or with reality, or a little bit of
both. There is another possibility, which I don't really like to
think about, but it's possible. He may have been deliberately
misrepresenting the situation in order to try to stay interesting to
me. To maintain some influence over me. To reinforce a claim over
I have no illusions that this would be because I'm such a fantastic
person that everybody wants me to be their friends, that I'm the cool
kid in junior high and everyone is wildly jockeying just to be seen
with me. There are a couple of things that I think I represent in
this social context. This man knows perfectly well that I don't have
any connections with any NGOs or any development projects which could
bring material benefits to the community. But as a gringa, my
presence symbolizes access to the world of development aid. If I am
staying in somebody's house, it symbolically associates that family in
the eyes of the community with these powerful sources of assistance.
(And I think that despite effort on my part to deny this, most people
in el campo are still not convinced that I'm not part of a development
project. After all, almost all the other gringos who show up and say
they're doing "studies" are doing them as an evaluation prior to
bringing in development aid.) And second, when I have stayed there
overnight, I have given them a little bit of money. I really hate to
think that the small amount I gave them (about $8.50 per night) has
made a big difference in their economic situation, but I'm afraid that
it might be true.
It terrifies me to think that I may have inadvertently caused people
to depend on me. That they may have been making plans based on the
expectation that I will continue to be a source of income. And I
don't know why I feel so strongly that this is a scary thing. I think
it goes beyond wondering if I have anything personally to be ashamed
of (have I mistakenly misrepresented myself, or said anything which I
should have known was ambiguous??) I think it's about the whole idea
Making commitments is not inherently scary to me. I got married on
the young side, right out of college, and even at the time I wasn't
freaked out thinking about the commitment part of it. I've been lucky
enough to have had in my parents great role models about how to do the
work required to be part of a couple. I feel like it is a beautiful
and natural thing for people to be strongly committed to groups,
whether they are a family or a group of friends.
Maybe what is scary has to do with the fact that I'm only in Nicaragua
for a year. It's not like I'm moving here for the rest of my life.
Any commitments I make will have to be temporary. Or very
long-distance. And this is not a terribly natural state of things.
(Listen to the anthropologist talking about how things are,
"naturally"! I would be laughed out of a graduate seminar.) What I
am scared about is making promises that I won't be able to keep. And
making more than superficial friends, with all the mutual favor-doing
and relying-on-each-other which that involves, feels like making
promises. So am I saying here that I'm scared of making friends?
This entry has gone in a bit of an unexpected direction. I started
off being sad about a friendship which isn't working out, and maybe
wondering if this was part of the nature of doing ethnography far from
home. But I think I've ended up revealing my perfectionist tendencies
a little bit too clearly. If I make friends, we have to be friends
FOREVER! If I have relationships with people, they have to be
PERFECT! And if I can't achieve that, I just won't have any friends
or relationships. Hmph. But this is so silly. Even families under
the best possible circumstances are always changing—people marry in,
other people get born, people die. There are fights and feuds, and
significant others and fictive kin (friends so close that you include
them in the "Dear Family" emails.) So why should I feel like my
friendships should be so pristine? The best we can ever do is just
muddle along, trying to do more good than bad.
Course, all this doesn't necessarily help me figure out what to do
about this man, and especially his family (stop talking to them
altogether? try to be good friends with them still? still stay in
their house? stay in a different house? just never stay overnight in
that community any more?). But it makes me feel a little bit better
about things, anyways.