This week in the Peace Corps: The Trodden Twins (Part 2)
Identical twins Zane and Alex H. tell their stories of volunteering with the Peace Corps. Read Part 1 of this two-part series here.
We pick up the series with Alex’s entry from Ghana.
Kwabena Atta Sherrif Alexis: Until my Peace Corps service, I never acknowledged my “unsolitary” life-view.
Almost everything I had done up until this point involved, or actively avoided involving, my identical twin brother, Zane.
On the day this essay was drafted, it had been exactly one year since I had last seen my brother, and this post is probably our most significant collaboration since our departures. That being said, I still find myself slipping into baseless second-person pronouns from time to time. Zane and I have always walked similar paths, subjected to none of the shocks in nature or nurture that make for interesting psychological twin studies. So it is no surprise that we now share similar worldly goals: to do our best to not only improve our little corner of the world, but someone else’s, too.
In this corner of the world, I represent a global influence in a small village in the middle of Ghana. Though Zane and I may share similar goals, our corners of the world — and our personalities — are giving our experiences very different shapes. For the most part, I can only comment on the shape of my own experience.
Most Ghanaians’ first impression of me is that I am lost. Here, I have the appearance of being chronically out of place. In terms of orientation, I am rarely astray — it is hard to be lost when you stick to cardinal directions — but I sometimes find myself professionally adrift.
Being a Peace Corps Agriculture Volunteer entails finding your own path, and I often have trouble finding direction in my work.
Instead of providing direct supervision, Peace Corps offers the resources and skills needed to make a difference; it is up to you to decide what that difference is. You must couple the knowledge Peace Corps imparts with your own grit and idealism to blaze your trail. That trail can be enlightening — during the moments you find it. But one can also spend a lot of time beating around the bush, lost.
When I am on route, I actively engage in development projects that affect my community, or Ghana as a whole. I have helped implement programs incorporating government agents, international organizations and the Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative, a sub-working group of Peace Corps Ghana of which I am the president.
The programs we focus on revolve around providing local farmers with access to information and improved technology, and on developing the emerging cashew market in Ghana. My work engages me in farm mapping and consultation, infrastructure development (at the moment, we are building a public toilet in the community), and income-generating projects (such as the creation of agribusiness including mushroom propagation and beekeeping). I spearhead these projects with support from community members. Many projects take weeks to establish because they must coincide with the local work and cultural schedules. It is during these times of delay that I find myself lost and astray.
In those mislaid moments, I engage my new world in other ways. I undertake personal projects: a garden for local and foreign crops, musical and visual creation, physical and mental inculcation, my blog. These projects fill my solitary time, and I also engage in village life. I have established myself as an acceptable farmer by accompanying local villagers to farm. Some days, I am just there to consult; other times I spend hours planting, harvesting or weeding. Always, I make sure to bring my cutlass — the specialized machete that is the fundamental tool of the Ghanaian farmer.
Around the village, I join the local festivals and celebrations that accompany weddings and funerals; I am almost always the first to be called on to dance. I also spend a lot of time hanging out, shooting the Ghanaian breeze under voluminous mango trees or over a shared bowl of fufu and light soup.
As a cosmically displaced sojourner, I am forced into an almost constant state of exploration. Part of this is purposeful; I hope to peruse the new sights and sounds of unfamiliar lands until the day I die. Many alien practices seemed perplexing at first, and their logic is only found through cultural immersion and examination.
I imagine Zane is experiencing similar cycles of displacement, but I can never truly answer when people ask me what his service is like. How should I know? I have never been there, and his experience is shaped differently than mine.
This is the emergence of a new type of twin question, one whose answer I cannot even pretend to know. All I know about his experience is what he tells me over the phone. Still, even though we are displaced by thousands of miles, the same question emerges when acquaintances learn I had a womb mate. It is apparently a universal question: How do I tell you and your brother apart?
This question always seemed a little strange to me, since you are asking one of the two people in this world who cannot give you an objective answer. Regardless of which twin you ask, you almost definitely get the same response: I’m the good-looking one.
I don’t think we look so similar that people need to rely on a specific tell to distinguish us. I can only think of one cosmetic difference that objectively distinguishes us: our scars. These are not only accumulations of aesthetic differences, but also dividing lines in decisive life events; often we were both involved in the moment of their creation, but from different perspectives. And we have no shortage of them.
My most substantial scars are on my right wrist and my left knee, the product of a game of cops and robbers that led me to a run-in with a sliding-glass door — I was the robber. Zane’s most evident is probably his facial scar, which was awarded to him after he broke a wipeout on a longboard with his face. I was the one who convinced him he would not need a helmet. These are the differences I notice, because I see the events that created them, and I know they are not just there by chance alone. I also tend to believe that they are more interesting and telling than the placements of certain moles.
Another question I have gotten in Ghana: Why did you and your brother both decide to join the Peace Corps? I can’t speak for the both of us, but anyone who knows our family is not surprised we both decided to follow this path. It has nothing to do with the choice of the other, or the phenomenon of being twins; in truth we were just born into a family of ramblers.
My siblings and I were born on the island of Guam, the product of a 15-year honeymoon. We were the second generation of my family born on the island; my uncle was born there during the perambulations of my grandparents and lives there to this day. Even moving stateside could not keep my family from spreading around the world. Dad was constantly working abroad in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Mom only helped spread our wings. After graduation, it was not so much of a question of what we would do, but where we would go.
The answers to these questions partially describe my experience of being a twin, and the dialogue before them partially describes my experience of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Together, I hope it gives those who know me, and those who want to, a window into my life in Ghana.
The passing of a year apart has invited the opportunity for reflection. I mull over how Zane and I have grown as individuals in our own separate corners of the globe. I reflect on the similarities and differences apparent in our services, the challenges we face and how our upbringing has conditioned us to confront them.
All our lives, we have veered against the traditional, attached-at-the-hip perception of twins. But despite our contest, being constantly surrounded by similar influences and the sharing of valuable life experiences has left us with many similarities, many of which have just surfaced during this shared, but disconnected, Peace Corps experience.
Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is difficult. Every Volunteer experiences challenges unique to his or her particular situation, and everyone copes with them differently. But a seemingly universally shared Peace Corps toil is how one uses his or her time. Undefined schedules and fickle project partners often leave volunteers with ample freedom. This is where our shared ideology takes over. Zane and I have both seemingly subscribed to the fact that no time is free (we’re classic economics majors) and have rigorously set about engaging our communities and ourselves in newfangled ways.
Peace Corps has always been regarded as a different approach to development, but this goes much further. This can pertain to personal, relational, physical, professional, spiritual and psychological development — if you have the mentality to apply it as such. This has produced one of my proudest of our many “twin moments.”
Across the globe, we are not only striving to impact our communities in a positive manner, but ourselves as well.
At the end of the day, your Peace Corps experience is what you make it. No one is helicoptering over your shoulder, no one is grading you, and no one is pushing you to get out of bed in the morning. This inspiration must come from within, and it takes many forms: from spending a personal moment with community members, to actively working to build positive, new habits.
The Peace Corps experience is what you make it, and after a year apart, I am happy to say that, in our own respective manners, we are making the most of it.
The Peace Corps photo series in The Tico Times Costa Rica Changemakers section is sponsored by the Costa Rica USA Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA), a proud financial supporter of Peace Corps Volunteer projects nationwide. Learn more here. To donate to support the Peace Corps Costa Rica, visit the official donation page. Volunteers’ last names and community names are withheld from these publications, per Peace Corps policy.
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