Every morning I wake to the sound of goats screaming at each other on the compound. The sound resembles a strange mix between a baby’s wail and a tennis player’s grunt, and it is sometimes accompanied by a melodically-timed goat fart. There are around eight or nine goats in the compound where we stay and two sheep. A lot of the time, I feel like those two sheep.
When you’re working in fairly remote villages in Africa, it’s easy to feel like you’re an outsider, and I did not come here with any notion that I would not be an outsider. I clearly look very different from the locals, I do not speak Swahili, and I cannot begin to imagine what their daily lives entail. I am very clearly a sheep in a herd of goats. I quickly became accustomed to the greeting, “Mzungu, how are you?” that followed me every time I came across a child (mzungu being their term for westerners), and embraced the fact that I was somewhat of a novelty.
As we began our mass drug administrations, our interactions with the communities surrounding us increased. This allowed us to learn more about the population, but it also opened us up to scrutiny. I do not mean scrutiny in the sense that people were wary of the work we were doing, but rather, scrutiny in the sense that I felt like a zoo animal. At the sites, children would stroke my arms as I was trying to take weight measurements or stand behind me and play with my hair as I was handing out drugs. The children would stand around our little station all day and just stare at us – something that was unsettling and odd since we had no relationship with the children. The four of us were clearly outnumbered and outliers. We were the little herd of sheep that stuck together and got stared at by the goats on the compound because we did not belong.
It became frustrating and annoying very quickly. I hit my limit after a man grabbed my hand and asked me to marry him the same day that a child wrapped his arms around me and started kissing my thigh as I was trying to do my job at a mass drug administration site. I had never felt so much like an animal in my life. I felt incredibly violated, and even children staring at me made me mad. It took me a long time to get over the frustration that overtook me in those days, but when I finally did, I began to understand why we were such a novelty.
For the children, we were new. We looked far different from what the people they were used to seeing, so their curiosities drew them to us. Their ability to stand in front of us for hours and stare stemmed from their draw to something so different from what they were used to. The marriage proposals came from the lure of having an American wife and going to America, not from actually wanting to marry. Their actions were the result of human nature. The experience forced me to consider the situation from the perspective of a local, and once I managed to do that, I realized that goats are not that different from sheep.