Be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shall not escape calumny.
“I went to my school/garden/health clinic today.”
“My village is amazing/terrible!”
“My host mom can/can’t cook!”
said every Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) ever.
Is there anything wrong with such an utterance? Are there any problems with using the possessive? Are we edging on neocolonialism? Is it overly conscientious that such a use of the possessive makes me squirm?
Pretty much every PCV that I know refers to the village where they are staying for the duration of their service as “my village”. I’ve done it before, and I’m sure I’ll do it again. Is there anything wrong with it? Am I simply doing it for semantic ease? Or does it indicate an underlying malevolent inkling of ownership of the village, which has been gracious enough to host you for two years?
One of my main concerns surrounding this issue is one of consistency. If I had recently moved to a small American town I am not sure that I would refer to it as “my town”. I don’t think that the mere fact of living somewhere qualifies me to be as bold as to integrate myself to that extent. I know I would never refer to New York City as “my city” even after living there for two years. I figure that only New Yorkers can authentically use the possessive without inducing cringes from me. I would have no hesitation calling London “my city” because it is mine. I was born there, I speak its language, I know it’s nuances, I own it, and I have no shame in saying that. I clearly can’t say that about the small Gambian village of Ker Sait Maram that I am currently living in. Maybe this hang-up is cultural thing. Americans have seemed to me to be a much more mobile population within their country than the British, especially Londoners. I feel an American moving from Boston to Portland would find it much easier to treat their new place of residence as their home and thus refer to it with a possessive than, say, a Londoner moving to Manchester.
I have been living in Ker Sait Maram for over a year and I still know so little about village life here, and my Wolof is still atrocious. Yet I do feel a part of the village, I feel included, I feel welcomed, I feel accepted. I also feel less like an entertaining novelty to the locals than I did before, people are much more used to me, I feel much more like a useful cog in the compound and village system than the intrusive spanner in the works that I used to feel like. I guess I am writing all this to justify my use of the possessive and I feel it is a credible justification. Something still grates about “my” though. In Wolof you don’t say “my village” you say “sunu dekka” meaning “our village”. You would only refer to the village as “my village” if you were the Alkalo/village chief. The same thing applies with a compound, you would never say “suma ker” (my compound) unless you were the compound head (borom ker), you always refer to it as “sunu ker”(our compound). Why don’t I use the “our” possessive pronoun in English as well? It’s more accurate and it’s not as problematic.
It does annoy me, and I know it is hypocritical, when new volunteers – people who have been staying in a village for a tiny amount of time – get very first person possessive pronoun over everything. It is all “my village this…my teacher that…my bitik this…my road that” and I get it, it’s part of a coping strategy, a way to feel more included in this new and strange country, to help yourself feel part of a community. But I sometimes sense an undercurrent of the power relations involved, as if the PCV is saying, “It’s my village. I own it. I can do what I want with it. I know best. I am here to lead my village out of the darkness and into the light.”
I’m probably overthinking this point, an easy thing to do right now as it is the end of term examinations at our school (see what I did there) this week and there is not a lot for me to do. I do know that if you asked pretty much anybody in Ker Sait Maram if they took offense at me ever using the word ‘my’ in conjunction with village, school, compound etc. they would laugh and completely dismiss the worry. So perhaps I shouldn’t worry and just get over myself and all this calumny I have for newer volunteers.
And stop trying to use words like calumny.
It’s not big and it’s not clever.