Family lore has it that I could only ever have been named ‘Anna.’ Even if I had been a boy, I would have been given the closest male alternative – ‘Andrew.’ This stems from the birth of my older sister. Previously undecided on a name, my parents saw her and knew her name was Meredith. Not Anna – the name of my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother was not pleased with my parents’ apparent naming failure and told them in no uncertain terms that their second child would be Anna. So years before I was ever dreamed up, I had a name.
Names hold great significance. They are the seeds of our identity. In the US, we use names to honor the past. Children are named for relatives. They are named for historical or biblical figures. Names connect them to a heritage, help to root them in something larger, or describe a characteristic to exemplify. Occasionally names imbue the child with hopes of the future. In Tswana culture, names are descriptive. Children are named for their parent’s experiences or states of mind. Names are used to express something or to tell a story, and occasionally imbues the child with hopes of the future. (We’re not entirely dissimilar.)
Peace Corps Volunteers are given a second name. We are named by our host community to help us create a new version of ourselves. These names take on incredible import during our two years of service.
Malebogo is my alter ego.
It’s not as cool as it sounds, having an alter ego. Nothing as cool as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. I don’t transform into a superhero. I don’t get nifty gadgets or fancy cars. But Malebogo is my suit of armor. I wrap myself in her when I walk out my front door in the morning and shrug her off again when I lock it at night. She comes on stage when I enter a room with open curtains or answer an unknown number on my phone. The metamorphosis is not a switch. It’s more subtle: a slide or a sidestep into a different me.
Malebogo is the embodiment of the Core Expectations. She has the patter of Peace Corps down pat. She engages her community in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning and respect. She is committed to improving the quality of life of the people she lives and works with. She is a representative of the people, cultures, values and traditions of the United States of America. Her every decision is weighed against these expectations. She acts purposefully and deliberately, always.
Cultural exchange is Malebogo’s modus operandi. She greets her neighbors as she walks past and pulls full Setswana sentences out of thin air. When children call her unfriendly names, she politely corrects them. Requests for money or sweets are met with even-tempered responses, humor even. She closes the windows on the bus so the other passengers don’t “catch flu.” She finds opportunities to engage and share, creating teaching moments everyday. She carries confidence in her step.
Malebogo does plenty of wonderful things. In many ways she is a better person than I am. But what she does makes her smaller. She gives away pieces of herself in the name of cultural sensitivity. When men catcall her, she keeps her eyes down. When they persist, she shrinks away. When people laugh at her or make fun of her, she smiles and brushes it off. When she goes to get on the bus, she doesn’t push her way to the front. She worries about insulting someone accidentally, so she keeps her thoughts to herself. She doesn’t get frustrated, but she doesn’t stand up for herself either. Her expectations are miles lower than my own. She doesn’t get hurt. She doesn’t cry. She is the perfect mask that lets me be the 24/7 Volunteer. Or in reality the 12-hour or 8-hour a day Volunteer.
There is a distance between me and Peace Corps me, and this distance is calculated. The space between us protects us both.
Once I’m behind my burglar bars or in the private company of other Volunteers, all of it falls away. When I’m not being Malebogo, I live my emotions. I’m terrified, despondent, anxious, and elated with equal measure. I cry with passion, just as I laugh with passion. I speak my frustrations. I have opinions. I am impulsive and spontaneous. I demand respect. I reclaim that which I am entitled to as a person. I struggle.
There is a balance between the shiny outward Malebogo-me and the inward, turbulent me. They bleed into each other, leaning on the strengths of the other. Malebogo doesn’t shout down the man who calls her ‘baby’ because she knows I shouldn’t. Malebogo doesn’t cry because she knows at the end of the day there is a sappy rom-com waiting (or better yet a movie with lots of explosions). Malebogo gives away pieces and makes herself smaller just so that I won’t have to. She does a lot more than protect me. She gives me permission to feel what I need to. She helps define me, helps me define myself.
She gives me the opportunity to make myself better. Malebogo embodies more than the Peace Corps, she embodies the guilt of my privilege. She turns that guilt into the positive energy that feeds her. It becomes her motivation. By doing so, she lets me appreciate my privilege, and my guilt. It gives me the emotional space I need to examine my preconceived notions. I can more clearly see my assumptions and conclusions and reevaluate my long-held truths. Just as she is purposeful in decisions, I can be purposeful in my growth.
“Years of your life should shape and change you.” These are the wise words of my sister. When I first tried to explain this notion of distance in alter egos, she was a bit dubious. It’s impossible to be two people at once, and trying can be quite dangerous for the mind and for the soul. That’s precisely why Malebogo is essential. She allows me to name the parts of me Peace Corps created. She allows me to safeguard the parts of me that Peace Corps might have destroyed. With her, I know that when my Service finally comes to an end, it will be Anna walking away. Anna is who I have been since before I was born, and who I will continue to be long after my 27 months are over. Malebogo will make sure of it.